The Maenads, Mad, Frenzied Priestesses of Dionysus
The Maenads are often written off simply as ‘mad women’ by historians. However, although the name Maenad literally translates as the ‘raving ones’, these women were much more than that. The Maenads were actually sacred worshippers and holy priestesses of Dionysus - the god of wine and vegetation, festivity, madness and frenzy. Every aspect of the Maenads’ appearance echoed the god they worshipped. They carried the thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel covered with ivy vines also carried by Dionysus, and adorned the skin of a panther, one of Dionysus’s sacred animals as he was often depicted riding on the back of a panther or driving a chariot drawn by a pair of the beasts. The Maenads also wore snakes on their hair, as Zeus crowned his son with snakes when he let him emerge from his thigh, thus designating the snake as another one of Dionysus’ sacred animals.
Dionysus riding a panther, mosaic floor in the 'House of Dionysus' at Pella. (late fourth century BC) Pella Archaeological Museum ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Since Dionysus had conquered the East before he came to Greece, he recruited many of his sacred entourage among those so-called ‘barbarians’ or, perhaps more specifically, people who were not Greeks. The Maenads worshipped Dionysus with hymns, rites and dedicating their souls to the Bacchic revels by living a pure day-to-day life, dancing with inspired frenzy while accompanying themselves with drumbeats and performing holy purifications.
As the cult of Dionysus was traditionally associated with miracles, under the god’s influence, the Maenads were able to perform miracles such as striking the ground with their thysus to call forth a stream of wine and scratching the earth with their fingers to obtain streams of milk. However, Dionysus also represented the dual nature of joy and suffering, as well as life and death. Therefore, Dionysus’ possession of his sacred women also had a dark side. Although under his influence the Maenads were strong enough to carry heavy objects on their shoulders and indestructible enough to carry fire on their hair without being burned, they were also known for their cruel acts against any enemies of Dionysus.
Possessed by the strength roused by their divine frenzy, the Maenads could tear apart their enemies limb from limb.
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Top Image : Orpheus and the Bacchantes by Gregorio Lazzarini (1710) ( Public Domain )