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Gli oggetti

sulla scena teatrale ateniese

Funzione, rappresentazione, comunicazione

Giornate internazionali di studio

Università degli Studi di Padova
1-2 dicembre 2015

a cura di
Alessandra Coppola
Caterina Barone Monica Salvadori
Volume realizzato con il contributo del PRAT 2013, Università di Padova, Gli
oggetti sulla scena teatrale ateniese: funzione, rappresentazione, comunicazione
(responsabile scientifico prof. A. Coppola)

Redazione a cura di Giulia Tozzi

Prima edizione: novembre 2016

ISBN 978 88 6787 672 3

© 2016 Cleup sc
“Coop. Libraria Editrice Università di Padova”
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Tutti i diritti di traduzione, riproduzione e adattamento,

totale o parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo (comprese
le copie fotostatiche e i microfilm) sono riservati.
Indice 5


introDuzione 7
Alessandra Coppola, Caterina Barone, Monica Salvadori

anna Beltrametti (Pavia)

Alcesti non aveva il velo. L’oggetto assente che genera
i suoi sostituti 13

Caterina Barone (Padova)

Stage Props and the Extrascenic Dimension: the Casket
in Trachiniae and the Urn in Sophocles’ Electra 35

saBina Castellaneta (Bari)

«Un tintinnio di sonagli»: gli “strumenti” della nutrice
nell’Ipsipile di Euripide 45

melissa mueller (Amherst, Mass.)

Dressing for Dionysus: Statues and Material Mimesis
in Euripides’ Bacchae 57

FranCesCo puCCio (Padova)

Oggetti in scena: uso scenico e funzioni letterarie
nelle Baccanti di Euripide 71

Giulia tozzi (Padova)

Euripide e l’architettura: fregi, triglifi e cornicioni
come oggetti sulla scena teatrale 91

alessanDra Coppola (Padova)

Le porpore, i sandali, la spada: l’Oreste fra Greci e Persiani 115
6 Indice

olimpia imperio (Bari)

Vanità femminile e oggetti di scena: tragicomico disordine
nelle vite di uomini e poeti 129

oliver taplin (Oxford)

Aeschylus, “Father of Stage-objects” 155

moniCa BaGGio (Padova)

Tra testo e immagine: il sistema degli oggetti nella Medea
di Euripide 165

luiGi toDisCo (Bari)

Egisto, i coreghi, Pirria e la cesta rovesciata 185

Giuseppina GaDaleta (Bari)

L’anguilla di Diceopoli ed altri pesci nel teatro attico
e nella documentazione archeologica 211

alexa piqueux (Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense – UMR 7041)

Le manteau imaginaire de Philocléon (Vesp. 1122-1173).
Vêtements masculins et identité du personnage comique 237

moniCa salvaDori, alessanDra marChetto (Padova)

Vasi magno-greci e sicelioti a soggetto fliacico: riflessioni
sulla resa dello spazio scenico 261


FranCesCo puCCio
Gli oggetti nelle tragedie superstiti 305

moniCa BaGGio
Gli oggetti tra testo, teatro e immagini. Identità, ruoli, statuti 393

saBina Castellaneta, anna lisa maFFione

Gli oggetti nelle commedie di Aristofane 447

BiBlioGraFia 551
Dressing for Dionysus 57

melissa mueller

Dressing for Dionysus: Statues and Material

Mimesis in Euripides’ Bacchae

As the patron god of the theater, Dionysus was no stranger to mi-

mesis. The Lenaea and City Dionysia advertised to populous audi-
ences Dionysus’ stake in mimetic acts of all kinds. But imitation, play,
and assimilation – facets of mimesis that we take for granted when it
comes to the dramatic arts – also characterize Dionysus in other media.
Iconography devoted to Dionysus as leader of a thiasos emphasizes
the visual parallels between the god and his circle of human maenads:
male god and female maenads wear their hair long and are similarly
clothed in long dresses topped with fawn skins and ivy tendrils1. In
certain scenes, the god is indistinguishable from his mortal followers.
The reveler on one vase – an Attic red figure by the Altamura painter
(second quarter of 5th c. B.C.E.) – has been identified as Dionysus
solely on the basis of a «curious overgarment» of non-Greek prove-
nience, which Beazley terms an ependutês2. To the casual observer,
this Dionysus would appear to be just another maenad. Such pointed
visual overlap between the god and his mortal devotees suggests that
mimesis was at the core of the Dionysiac experience in cult as well as
in theater.

For images of Dionysus and his worshipers, C. Gasparri, in LIMC 3, 1986, s. v.
Dionysos, pp. 414-514; e. simon, Early classical Vase-Painting, in Greek Art. Archaic
into Classical. A Symposium Held at the University of Cincinnati, April 2-3, 1982,
Edited by C. G. Boulter, Leiden 1985, pp. 66-82; T. H. Carpenter, Dionysian Imagery
in Archaic Greek Art: Its Development in Black-Figure Vase Painting, Oxford 1986;
iD., On the Beardless Dionysus, in Masks of Dionysus, Edited by Thomas H. Carpenter
and Christopher A. Faraone, Ithaca – London 1993, pp. 185-206; C. isler-KerénYi,
Dionysos in Classical Athens: An Understanding through Images, Translated by Anna
Beerens, Leiden 2015.
Carpenter, On the Beardless Dionysus cit., pp. 187-200.
58 Melissa Mueller

In Bacchae, Dionysus has adopted the appearance of a young man

upon his arrival in Thebes (vv. 53-54). Readers have assumed that
the god’s anthropomorphic form is a disguise. If we take seriously,
however, that mimesis is at the core of the Dionysian, then the god’s
impersonation of a mortal young man – the Stranger – is no more a
distortion of his divine self than any other “disguise” would be, and
perhaps less of one than many. For over the course of the fifth century
B.C.E., representations of Dionysus become increasingly youthful3. A
bearded adult male at the start of the century, he becomes a beard-
less young man by its end. In Bacchae (405 B.C.E.), Pentheus would
have been recognizable to the audience as a close visual double of this
evolved Dionysus.
In its plot, moreover, the Bacchae enacts a variation on the found-
ing myth of the City Dionysia, with Thebes standing in for Athens
as the Greek city hostile to Dionysus. The preliminary ceremonies
of the City Dionysia included a procession known as the eisagôgê
(«Introduction»)4. As part of this procession, the god’s statue was
taken from the older temple of Dionysus in the theater precinct and
escorted to a temple near the Academy, on the road out to Eleutherae
(on the border between Attica and Boeotia).5 There it received sacrifice
at the «low altar» (i.e., the altar of Dionysus at his Academy temple)
before returning to the theater on the south slope of the Acropolis, a
return journey that can be viewed as re-enacting the original arrival

E.g. Carpenter, Ivi cit.; iD., Dionysian Imagery in Fifth-Century Athens, Oxford
1997; isler-KerénYi, Dionysos in Classical Athens cit., pp. 166-177 on the youthful
Dionysus of the east pediment of the Parthenon whose gaze is turned toward the
A. piCKarD-CamBriDGe, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd Edition Revised by
John Gould and D. M. Lewis, Oxford 1968, p. 60 n. 1 cites IG II2.1006 (122-121 B.C.)
to distinguish the eisagôgê of the statue from the pompê culminating in the sacrifice
of a bull for Dionysus.
piCKarD-CamBriDGe, Ivi, pp. 59-63, with reference to Paus. 1, 29, 2 on the temple
near the Academy, built perhaps for the sole purpose of offering sacrifice to Dionysus
on his way to the theater (
). For a reconstruction of
the route of this procession, see also Ch. sourvinou-inwooD, Tragedy and Athenian
Religion, Lanham – Boulder – New York – Oxford 2003, pp. 89-99, who identifies
the eschara mentioned in IG II2 as the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the Agora; see S.
GolDhill, The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology, in Nothing to Do with Dionysus,
Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin Editors,
Princeton 1990, pp. 97-129 on the City Dionysia more generally.
Dressing for Dionysus 59

of Dionysus in Athens6. Once back in the theater, the Dionysus statue

was installed in one of the front-row seats, a perch from which the
god had an unimpeded view of the spectacles being performed in his
honor7. In this essay I consider the unusual agency that costumes and
props acquire in their enactment of Dionysus’ mimesis-based pun-
ishment of Pentheus, and how these conditions enable Dionysus in
statue form to blur the boundaries between ritual and drama, reality
and illusion, producing a limit case for the study of theatrical mimesis.
The Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae arrives not from Eleutherae
but from Lydia; the city resisting his influence is Thebes8. But the
structure of the play is the same as that of the myth9, and, perhaps not
coincidentally, the play also ends with a procession of sorts that com-
memorates both crime and punishment in just the same way as the
phallic processions at religious festivals for Dionysus. According to
Pausanias, the statue of Dionysus that was originally processed from
Eleutherae to Athens was a xoanon (a wooden image), a detail that
lends credibility to the thesis that this statue was essentially «a wood-
en shaft with a mask attached.»10. Why this is important will become
sourvinou-inwooD, Tragedy and Athenian Religion cit., pp. 101-104, on the City
Dionysia celebrating the introduction of the cult of Dionysus. Schol. Aristoph. Ach.
243a and Paus. 1, 2, 5 and 1, 38, 8 on Pegasos’ introduction of Dionysus Eleuthereus
to the Athenians, who were afflicted with a genital disease as punishment for their
unfriendly reception of the god.
E.g., Aristoph. Knights 538 and Frogs 809 provide ancient evidence of the god’s
presence in the theatron.
H. P. FoleY, The Masque of Dionysus, «TAPA» 110, 1980, pp. 107-133, especially
118 n. 16.
Because of their refusal to welcome Dionysus into their city and honor him as a
god – precisely the standing of the Thebans vis-à-vis Dionysus at the beginning of
the Bacchae – the Athenians were supposedly punished by the god with a severe case
of ithyphallicism. Only when they reverse their attitude are they healed. Honoring
Dionysus with phallic processions, as was done at both the City and Rural Dionysia,
became a way therefore to commemorate at the same time the god’s wrath and its res-
olution. In a sense, the whole slate of religious ceremonies through which Dionysus
was honored, prior to the dramatic performances, are a reenactment and celebration
of these mythical events.
E. Csapo – w. J. slater, The Context of Ancient Drama, Ann Arbor 1995, p. 105.
Writing of the statue’s presence at Eleutherae in his own day, Pausanias explains that
what he saw was a «copy» (mimêsin) of that original one (1, 38, 8): «In this plain is
a temple of Dionysus, from which the old wooden image was carried off to Athens.
The image at Eleutherae at the present day is a copy of the old one».

. It is useful to keep in
mind that, as a term, xoanon «draws attention to the worked nature of the object’s
60 Melissa Mueller

clearer when we consider Agave’s return to the city of Thebes from

the mountainside, near the end of the tragedy.
Dionysus’ statue situated in the theatron reminds us that the god
of theater is both viewer and viewed, actor and audience. Inspired
by the tragedy’s self-referential language and play upon «the conven-
tions of illusion of the theater itself» (p. 239), Charles Segal offers an
extended analysis of the Bacchae as metatragedy11. His definition of
«metatragedy» as the «self-conscious reflection by the dramatist on
the theatricality and illusion-inducing power of his own work» (p. 216)
owes much to the concept of metadrama that was deployed to read
(mostly Shakespearean) drama in the 1970s. Metadrama, according to
literary critic James Calderwood12, is a form of drama in which «the
boundaries between the play as a work of self-contained art and life
are dissolved.»13. Yet, paradoxically, Segal (following Calderwood)
posits that metadrama increases the audience’s awareness of a play’s
artificiality and constructedness. Metadrama when so understood
erects a barrier between the audience and the staged events. Because
they underline for the spectator that this is “only theater” and point
up the means (linguistic and otherwise) through which theatrical illu-
sion is created, metadramatic plays supposedly keep their audience at
an emotional distance.
In his innovative and influential reading of Dionysus as a “stage-
director” who dresses his actors – and Pentheus in particular – for the
roles they are to play, Segal stresses the “aesthetic distance” cultivated
by metatragedy rather than its “dissolution of boundaries.” The latter
line of inquiry, had he pursued it, would have led to a very differ-
ent reading of the Bacchae. For the metatheatrical paradigm as Segal

medium» (V. platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman
Art, Literature and Religion, Cambridge 2011, p. 92); its smooth surface may have
been appropriate for depicting Dionysus’ youthfulness.
Ch. seGal, The Dionysiac Poetics of Euripides’ Bacchae, Princeton 1997, pp. 215-
271. The bibliography here is vast, but discussions that offer a substantially different
focus from or critique of Segal include a. F. h. Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische
Tragödie: Politische und ‘metatheatralische’ Aspekte im Text, Tübingen 1991, pp. 203-
218; G. W. DoBrov, Figures of Play: Greek Drama and Metafictional Poetics, Oxford
2001, pp. 69-85; G. raDKe, Tragik und Metatragik: Euripides’ Bakchen und die
moderne Literaturwissenschaft, Berlin 2003, pp. 278-284; C. thumiGer, Hidden
Paths: Self and Characterization in Greek Tragedy: Euripides’ Bacchae, London
2007, pp. 186-189.
J. l. CalDerwooD, Shakespearean Metadrama, Minneapolis 1971, p. 4.
Cited by seGal, The Dionysiac Poetics of Euripides’ Bacchae cit., p. 216 n. 1.
Dressing for Dionysus 61

deploys it obscures a fundamental feature of the Robing Scene, and

of the role of costume and props in the tragedy as a whole. Actors
as we know them dress to play roles for which they have rehearsed.
In the world of modern theater from which the metatheatrical para-
digm is derived, costume and props merely accessorize the actor’s art.
The actor relies on his costume, as he does on the scenery, lighting,
and stage design, to enhance his acting. But the character’s role and
the actor’s technical expertise do not depend in any essential way on
the agency of material props. The function of costume in the theater
of Dionysus is fundamentally different. Rather than accessorizing al-
ready pre-scripted roles, props and costume on the Greek tragic stage
are represented as integral to the very creation of the plots in which
they perform. One could even say that these objects generate the roles
and participate in the action as carried out and embodied by the hu-
man actors14.
In the Bacchae, props are one of the main means through which
Dionysus exercises his power. Dionysus in fact boasts in his prologue
speech that he has forced the women to wear the garb of his myster-
ies (v. 34: . The word that I
translate here as «garb» is skeuê, the same term used for stage props
in the Poetics15. Through these ritual objects, Dionysus ensures that
they will leave their looms and go, deranged, into the mountains. But
just as prosôpon can mean both «face» and «mask», it is impossible
to determine whether in line 34 refers to the stage version of
the ritual implements or to the real thing16. How is the thyrsus that
Cadmus carries, or the thyrsus that Pentheus himself will later take
up, any different from the thyrsus of an authentic maenad? Stolê, a
fairly ordinary word for garment, is the term Pentheus uses when he
asks Dionysus, «What dress do you say I am to put on?» (v. 830).

On the agency of tragic costume, see r. wYles, Towards Theorising the Place of
Costume in Performance Reception, in Theorising Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural
History and Critical Practice, Edited by Edith Hall and Stephe Harrop, London 2010,
pp. 171-180; eaD., Costume in Greek Tragedy, London 2011; M. mueller, Objects as
Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy, Chicago 2016.
Poetics 1450b 18-20 on the art of the «prop-maker» (skeuopoiou technê) being sepa-
rate from that of the poet.
The metatheatrical coloring of at Bacchae 180 and 915 comes close to comic
uses of the term. See N. slater, Spectator Politics: Metatheatre and Performance in
Aristophanes, Philadelphia 2002, p. 16, noting that at Frogs 108, for example,
is used of Dionysus’ Heracles costume.
62 Melissa Mueller

The Dionysiac objects with which the characters of the Bacchae

outfit themselves to play at being maenads are linguistically no dif-
ferent from clothing worn and objects handled in the world outside
the theater. No special register exists for, say, «costume jewelry» or
properties specially designated for theatrical use. But we are sensi-
tized to the question of authenticity nevertheless by Pentheus’ intense
skepticism and hostility toward the mimetic actions of others in his
city. When is «dressing for Dionysus» an act of religious veneration,
and when (if ever) is it mere play-acting?
When rumor of the women’s relocation to the mountain reaches
Pentheus, he denounces their revelry as «fake» (vv. 215-220):

Although I have been abroad, I hear of the new evils in this city: that
our women have left their homes in fake bacchic revelry and are rushing
around on the thick-shaded mountains honoring the new god Dionysus,
whoever he is, with choral dancing17.

Pentheus assumes that «Bacchic revelry» must be a pretext for il-

licit sex. Ironically, in order to indulge his own voyeuristic impulses,
Pentheus will later on agree to be costumed in precisely the same
manner as the women he here chastises. He does not don the ritual
dress with the intention of participating in the worship of the god.
The inclination to revel is, rather, the unintended consequence of
putting on maenadic clothes. The costume itself instills desire. No
sooner has Pentheus allowed himself to be dressed by the mysterious
stranger than he is also dancing for the god, tossing his head back-
wards and shaking loose his carefully coiffed locks of hair. When he
emerges from the stage building fully dressed as a woman, Pentheus
asks Dionysus if he looks like his mother (vv. 925-927):

I adapt this and other translations from Euripides, Bacchae. With an Introduction,
Translation and Commentary by Richard Seaford, Warminster 1996.
Dressing for Dionysus 63

«How do I look then? Do I not have the same stance as Ino or Agave,
my mother?» (vv. 925-926). Yes, the god confirms, «in seeing you I
seem to be seeing them in person.» (v. 927). The maenad-costume
visually transforms Pentheus into a double of his mother, but it also
implants in him the desire to be mistaken for a woman. The mimesis is
twofold, the outward appearance triggering an inner transformation.
Props instill mimetic desire. They also foreground the question of
authenticity: what is “real” and what is “fake”? The charge of fakery
that Pentheus levels against the Theban women is implicit also in his
scorn for his grandfather, Cadmus, and for the seer Teiresias. These
two old men present a ridiculous spectacle, with their ivy-clad hair
and thyrsoi, but they are undeterred by Pentheus’ mockery. Fools or
not, they will dance for the god, and they have dressed for the occa-
sion. Cadmus claims, after announcing himself as «wearing the god’s
costume» (v. 180: ), that he will never tire of
pounding the thyrsus into the ground (vv. 187-188). The god’s props
have restored his youthful vigor. For Pentheus, there is something so
jarring about these two old men dressed in fawn skins dancing and
shaking the thyrsus that he assumes they have lost their mind (vv. 251-
252: ).
Props, then, induce madness. As soon as Pentheus is properly cos-
tumed, his perceptions change. He strives for ritual authenticity, see-
ing visual and gestural conformity as the means to this end. In asking
the Stranger, «should I hold the thyrsus in my right hand or this one
so I seem to be more like a bacchant?» (vv. 941-942:
) Pentheus
reveals his concern with getting the details just right, so that anyone
seeing him would be fooled. Dionysus instructs him in the proper
protocol: «You must raise the thyrsus in your right hand and lift it
together with your right foot; I praise the fact that you have changed
your mind» (vv. 943-944:
). Dionysus takes Pentheus’s ques-
tion as confirmation of his «altered mind», but
is a very charged, almost punning expression: Pentheus may have
«changed his mind», but it will soon become clear that he also has a
64 Melissa Mueller

«deranged mind»18. As far as the god is concerned, Pentheus’s desire

for mimetic authenticity offers clear proof of his successful initiation.
Dionysus communicates with his followers in the language of mi-
mesis, and their participation in mimetic acts of worship – dressing
up, for example, to look like a maenad – is precisely what produces
their faith in the god’s power. Mimesis instills religious fervor, erasing
doubt and disbelief. During his first conversation with the Stranger,
Pentheus accused Dionysus of «counterfeiting» his tale of the orgia so
as to make them even more alluring (vv. 471-475):

Pentheus: «What form do the rites take?»

Dionysus: «It is forbidden for those of mortals who are uninitiated to
Pentheus: «What is the benefit for those worshipping?»
Dionysus: «It is not allowed for you to hear this, although it is worth
Pentheus: «You have counterfeited that nicely, so that I want to hear.»

Pentheus assumes that the Stranger is taunting him with the for-
biddenness of the rites so that he will be more eager to know about
them. He attributes to his interlocutor a kind of counterfeiting. A few
hundred lines later, however, Pentheus agrees to dress up as what he
is not, so that he can spy on those same rites. One of the most unnerv-
ing paradoxes of the play is that the mimesis that brings Pentheus
closer to the god constitutes the transgression for which he will be
punished. Transgressive mimesis allows Pentheus to see the god and
in turn sets the scene for Dionysus’ revenge, which assumes a mimetic
form as well – for Pentheus will be dismembered and reconstituted as
a double of the god. Both crime and punishment rely strongly on the
language of mimesis, particularly its visual register.
The Chorus begins their fourth stasimon goading the dogs of Lyssa
to rouse the thiasos of Theban women against Pentheus (vv. 977-981):

Thanks to Mario Telò for clarifying this point.
Dressing for Dionysus 65

Go, swift dogs of Lyssa, go to the mountain, where the daughters of

Cadmus have their band, goad them against the man in woman-imitating
dress, the maddened spy of the maenads.

In the choral mention of Lyssa we may be meant to hear an echo

of Aeschylus’ Xantriae, part of a lost Theban tetralogy. But Xantriae
(«Wool-Carders», a name that likely refers to the women of Thebes
who were driven mad by Dionysus’ arrival) presents the mechanics of
Dionysian madness somewhat differently. In one of the few surviving
fragments, Lyssa inspires the Bacchantes with madness (F169 Radt):


From the feet up to the top of the head creeps a sparagmos, the goad of
Lyssa, I mean the sting of a scorpion.

In Xantriae, Lyssa assumes responsibility for the sparagmos. By

contrast, the Dionysus of Bacchae must rely on the maddening ef-
fects of props and costume. His tactics, like his appearance, are more
human than divine. The punishment of Pentheus in the Bacchae is
heavily mediated through clothes and the mimetic impulses sparked
in those who wear them. After the Stranger sends Pentheus into the
palace where he will be costumed, he apostrophizes himself (vv. 849-

Lobeck’s emendation to is printed by Radt.
66 Melissa Mueller

Dionysus, it is now in your hands – for you are not far away. Let us punish
him. First, stand him out of his mind, injecting a light madness, since as
long as he is in his right mind he will be unwilling to don female dress.
But once he is driven out of his senses, he will dress himself.

The first order of business is to afflict Pentheus with a «light mad-

ness» (v. 851: ), without which he will refuse to wear
female clothing. Once his initial resistance is overcome, the props
themselves will perform the rest of the work. But cause and effect are
not so easily separated. The semantic overlap between cognitive and
material states, brought out particularly well by the adjective ,
speaks to the performative nature of the garments themselves20. What,
after all, is a “light” madness? It is, writes Dodds21 «a madness of
inconstancy, a ‘dizzy fantasy’» more so than madness experienced
only in a minor key. Seaford (ad loc.) similarly takes to mean
«light-headed». But even if its primary sphere of reference is cogni-
tive, the term can, I propose, still conjure the transparency and soft
texture of fine fabrics. The costume worn by the maenads, or those
impersonating them, is transformative, as Rosie Wyles22 has argued;
dressing for Dionysus is what allows Pentheus to see the god.23 We
can take this one step further by positing a connection between the
qualitative effects of Pentheus’ mental disorientation – his dizziness
and light-headedness – and the seductive, light qualities of the fabrics
he places on his body. The dress he is coaxed by Dionysus to wear
is made of linen (v. 821: ), just the sort of femi-
nine, fine weave that might be considered “light”. In the true spirit of
Dionysian mimesis, one becomes what one wears: the change happens
from the outside in. Pentheus’ religious skepticism has been swept
aside by the dizzying effects of his “light” dress. Moreover, his ear-
lier criticism of the Theban women for practicing “fake revelry”, just
like his mockery of Cadmus and Teiresias, can now be understood to
reflect his then ritually unadorned status. As soon as he is properly
costumed, his perceptions change.

I owe this observation to Mario Telò. There are similar punning plays on the mean-
ing of habrosunê and truphê at 968-970.
Euripides, Bacchae, Edited with Introduction and Commentary by E. R. Dodds,
Oxford 19602, p. 180.
wYles, Costume in Greek Tragedy cit., pp. 67-69.
See also FoleY, The Masque of Dionysus cit., p. 113 n. 11 and Bierl, Dionysos und
die griechische Tragödie cit., p. 207.
Dressing for Dionysus 67

One might wonder, as Pentheus does at the outset, whether there

are any true believers: do the women of Thebes really see Dionysus?
Perhaps they are just playing at seeing him. As Cadmus points out, it
cannot hurt to have a god in the family. But when Pentheus is torn limb
from limb and put back together by the maenads, there will be no way
to tell whether it is the real or the fake Dionysus who has come back
down from the mountain. Dionysus’s revenge becomes, in this way, a
manifestation of his mimetic powers. What better way for Dionysus to
prove himself divine than by turning Pentheus, the ultimate skeptic,
into an epiphany of the god? The fate that awaits Pentheus on Mt.
Cithaeron is nothing other than the final fulfillment of his mimetic
aspirations. He will become Dionysus, torn limb from limb. Here it
may be relevant that the Orphic theogonies have Dionysus being born
from Zeus’ union with his own daughter Persephone. These “devi-
ant” cosmogonies (in Gantz’s words) relate that when Dionysus was
still a baby, he was dismembered, roasted and eaten by the Titans,
who tempted him with toys24; Athena manages to retrieve the heart
and from this to reconstitute and breathe new life into the child god25.
In his study of the masked performance traditions of Papua New
Guinea anthropologist John Emigh26 describes the mask as an «instru-
ment of revelation». The people of Papua New Guinea revere ances-
tor-masks for their ability to give voice to the dead and to «give form
to the ineffable». David Wiles27 likewise suggests that to mask one-
self was not necessarily to hide, but rather to put oneself «before the
gaze of the other», the literal meaning of . Masked actors,
in dressing for Dionysus, place themselves before his gaze, their pro-
fessional self-transformations a way of honoring the god. Dionysus’
cultic persona (as embodied in his god-mask) is also clearly a compo-
nent of the signifying power of his theatrical mask, as worn both by
Dionysus himself (in the Bacchae) and by all tragic actors28.

m. l. west, The Orphic Poems, Oxford 1983, frr. 34, 35 and 214. Summary given by
T. Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to the Literary and Artistic Sources, Baltimore
1993, p. 743.
west, Ivi, fr. 35.
J. emiGh, Masked Performance: The Play of Self and Other in Ritual and Theatre,
Philadelphia 1996, p. 7.
D. wiles, Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 2007, p. 1.
Studies by, for example, FoleY, The Masque of Dionysus cit., pp. 107-133; J.-
p. vernant, The Masked Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae, in Myth and Tragedy in
Ancient Greece, by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Translated from
French by Janet Llyod, New York 1988, pp. 381-412; seGal, The Dionysiac Poetics
68 Melissa Mueller

The dramatic poignancy of the stage mask lies in its capacity to

evoke ritual contexts, on the one hand, but also self-reflexively to con-
jure awareness of its own theatricality. When masks are simply worn
by actors, they become part of the everyday, unmarked costume of
tragic performance. A mask is only marked – it only draws special at-
tention to itself – when it enters the fictional performance space as an
actor in its own right. The mask of Pentheus certainly achieves this.
Standing in metonymically for Pentheus’ dismembered body, its pres-
ence on stage visually underlines the Messenger’s speech about the
sparagmos. In Agave’s arms during the play’s final scene (more on this
momentarily), the mask also becomes a vehicle for her return to sanity
under the guidance of Cadmus.
A victim of the sparagmos, Pentheus is killed and ritually dismem-
bered by the Theban maenads. But his mother inadvertently recon-
stitutes him as a mimetic double of the cult icon of Dionysus when
she fixes her son’s mask-head on her thyrsus. Holding it, she returns
triumphantly to Thebes in a gruesomely dark parody of the god’s
formal entrance into the theater prior to the dramatic performances.
Fittingly, it is Cadmus’ question about the “mask” that draws both
Agave’s and the audience’s attention to the ritual implications of her
prop29. Trying to get her to see beyond the “lion’s head” she boasts
she is carrying, Cadmus asks Agave:
; (v. 1277). «Whose mask/head are you holding in your arms?»
This is not a question to which Agave can give an immediate answer.
Her hesitation to reply, and her insistence that she still holds the head
of a lion (v. 1278), could be taken as signs of lingering dementia. But
Agave herself has said that she is back in her right mind (v. 1270:
). Perhaps the delay in her recognition is a calculated way of
giving the audience time also to respond to this question30. What are
we supposed to see in Agave’s arms? Can we trust ourselves know to
whom this prosôpon belongs?

of Euripides’ Bacchae cit., and F. Frontisi-DuCroux, Le dieu-masque, Paris – Rome

1991 draw well-warranted attention to the overlap between ritual and theatrical ex-
pressions of the god.
It is clear from vv. 1141-44 that the mask is perched on top of the thyrsus when
Agave appears on the scene at 1200. But by the time Cadmus begins questioning her
she most likely has the mask/head in her arms (vv. 1238 and 1277 both cue such a
See Ch. seGal, Lament and Recognition: A Reconsideration of the Ending of the
Bacchae, «ICS» 24-25, 1999-2000, pp. 273-291, especially 274 on Agave’s return to
sanity as «an obvious step toward closure».
Dressing for Dionysus 69

A group of vases painted in Attica between ca. 490-420 B.C.E.

depicts Dionysus as a masked god – essentially, a wooden pole draped
with clothing, ivy, and a bearded mask31. This iconography would
have been a natural association for spectators of the Bacchae con-
fronting the disembodied head of Pentheus on a thyrsus, especially
if the god in the theater were visually assimilated to known mask and
pillar depictions of Dionysus32. As Colleen Chaston33 puts it, «The
Pentheus head/mask carried into the acting-area by Agave and at-
tached to her thyrsos similarly resonates with the mask-column ico-
nography of Dionysos, tragic inversion though it is». C. M. Kalke has
focused on the «crowning motif» through which Pentheus himself
becomes visually assimilated to the thyrsus, that ultimate symbol of
Dionysus’ power34. As she notes, our attention is drawn, in the Robing

The images of maenads mixing and offering wine to Dionysus on these vases have
been somewhat controversially linked to the Lenaia festival in Athens, as originally
proposed by A. FriCKenhaus, Lenäenvasen, Berlin 1912. See Frontisi-DuCroux, Le
dieu-masque cit., pp. 42-52 on the evolution of the debate between those connecting
the images to the Lenaia and those arguing for an affiliation with the Anthesteria.
Frontisi-DuCroux, Ivi, p. 47 n. 43, citing E. simon, Ein Anthesterien-Skyphos des
Polygnotos, «AK» 6, 1963, p. 18 n. 10; eaD., Die Götter der Griechen, München 1969,
p. 276 and eaD., Ein nordattischer Pan, «AK» 19, 1976, pp. 19-23, especially 21.
D. T. steiner, Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and
Thought, Princeton 2001, p. 84 suggests, on the basis of a fragment of Euripides’
Antiope (F203 Kannicht), that the Eleutherians worshipped Dionysus as a pillar
draped in ivy and «if this image was brought to Athens, then the city would join the
many other communities and individuals who resisted the new deity, deceived by his
unfamiliar and outlandish external appearance». s. Bettinetti, La statua di culto nella
pratica rituale greca, Bari 2001, p. 192 strikes a more cautious note, however, arguing
that the evidence boils down to a single mention of in a fragment of Euripides’
Antiope; she argues, citing I. romano, Early Greek Cult Images, Ph.D. Dissertation
submitted to the University of Pennsylvania, 1980, pp. 75-78, instead that the statue
carried in the procession must have been an anthropomorphic xoanon, small enough
to be transported: «è più ragionevole pensare che si trattasse di una scultura antro-
pomorfica del dio, uno xoanon di piccola taglia che poteva essere trasportato» (193).
On xoana, see also A. A. Donohue, Xoana and the Origins of Greek Sculpture, Atlanta
1988 and platt, Facing the Gods cit., pp. 92-100.
C. Chaston, Tragic Props and Cognitive Function: Aspects of the Function of Images
in Thinking, Leiden 2009, p. 184
C. m. KalKe, The Making of a Thyrsus: The Transformation of Pentheus in Euripides’
Bacchae, «AJP» 106, 1985, pp. 409-426, especially 410: «Euripides creates a Pentheus
who is transformed visually into a symbol of Dionysus. Pentheus becomes the thyrsus
of the god: first he is crowned with long hair and a mitra, then he himself crowns the
tip of a fir tree raised by the maenads on the mountain, and finally he becomes the
literal crown of the thyrsus carried by his mother».
70 Melissa Mueller

Scene, to Pentheus’ hair and his mitra35; just as the fennel rod must
be crowned with ivy in order to become a veritable thyrsus, Pentheus
himself eventually comes to «crown» the fir-tree, becoming a «magni-
fied thyrsus» (p. 415).
Kalke’s interpretation illuminates the redoubling effect between
persons and things in the play. By the end, worshippers have become
their props and the props – the thyrsus in particular – are manifes-
tations of the god. Ultimately, however, I find more compelling the
suggestion, which Chaston develops, that Pentheus’ final form (his
mask-head on Agave’s thyrsus) is meant to recall images of the god
himself as he is depicted, for example, in the Lenaea vases. One weak-
ness of Kalke’s reading is that it reduces the actor’s mask to so much
garlanding: there is a difference between a figurative mask and the ivy
that typically crowns the maenad’s fennel rod. Nevertheless, Kalke is
right to emphasize that the thyrsus is a magical conduit for the god’s
power, itself crossing and unsettling the boundaries between object,
person, and divinity.
It is also worth reiterating that the statue of Dionysus that was
originally processed from Eleutherae to Athens at the start of the festi-
val is referred to by Pausanias as a xoanon, a wooden image. This cre-
ates a kind of brutal symmetry for the punishment Dionysus inflicts
on Pentheus, for in death, Pentheus is forced to become Dionysus.
The Bacchae’s final move of transforming Pentheus into the cult statue
of Dionysus Eleuthereus collapses the metatheatrical triangulation of
the Robing Scene by suggesting that there are no longer three dif-
ferent characters (i.e., Dionysus-on-stage, Pentheus, and Dionysus-
in-the-theater). These three discrete individuals have become one.
Everything and everyone is, by the end, Dionysus. With his head/
mask on a thyrsus pole, Pentheus is an authentically realized version
of the god. Moreover, the Stranger himself steps out of his mortal
disguise to assume (divine) responsibility for everything that has un-
folded under his watch. It is the material transformation of mortal
into god (of Pentheus into a statue), and of god into mortal (Dionysus
into the Stranger), that the play’s material world – its props and cos-
tumes – makes all too visibly real for its spectators. As such, these
tragic objects posit a tantalizing and tangible link between the worlds
of myth, theater, and ritual, as the action climaxes with a shocking but
theatrically stunning epiphany of Dionysus.

KalKe, Ivi, p. 414.