They had many names: Maenad (Mad Woman); Thyiad (Rushing Woman); Phoibad (Inspired Woman); Lyssad (Raging Woman). These women were the followers of the god Dionysos in his many forms. Periodically, woman en masse would go to the hills and howl, hunt down animals and tear them apart with their hands. Ancient Greek women, for the most part, led highly regulated lives, deeply controlled by men. In Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, Phillip, had a very big problem with the future conqueror’s mother, Olympias. Macedonian men hated these orgies whose origins became unknown or obscurely come from Thrace, but they survived in the religious life of that mountainous land. Plutarch reports that one day Phillip found wife OIympias lying next to a snake, the most divine of animals insofar as it is so indeterminate and inscrutable. The snake on the belly was an image to fear. Phillip feared that Olympias was practicing witchcraft against him or someone or, even worse, that the snake itself was a god visiting incognito and having some kind of commune with Olympias. The presence of the snake was, Plutarch writes, because “all the women of that country had been from ancient days under the dominion of Orphic and Dionysaic orgies, and that they were called Klodones and Mimallones because in many respects they imitated the Edonian and Thracian women round about Haemus, from whom the Greek word threskenein seems to come, a word which is applied to excessive and overdone ceremonials. Now Olympias was more zealous than all the rest and carried out the rites of possession and ecstasy in very barbarous fashion and introduced huge tame serpents into the Bacchic assemblies, and these kept creeping out of the ivy and the mystic likna and twining themselves round the thrysoi of the women and their garlands, and frightening the men out of their senses.”
In Athens, the male fear of these orgies was so great that something had to be done. They sent a particularly well-respected religious man to Crete to investigate mystic rites. When he returned, he made reforms in the religious rites which downplayed the orgies and emphasized well-ordered sacrifices. Ecstatic revelation had to be controlled; the women had to be controlled. Even today, every once in a while a woman or a group of women go mad or are possessed by a god somewhere on this planet. Like the ancient men of Athens, modernity has done everything possible to minimize the emotions and impulsive freedom of ecstasy and possession. The excesses of women presented a very difficult problem in the relations of men to the gods. In ancient Athens, women were so controlled that they could not leave their homes except under very strict supervision or at very special holy days.
This control was extended especially to the rites of mourning for the dead soldier. A very rigid system of mourning was made such that the mother of a dead soldier could not cry out against the death of her child. For any mother, a dead son, a son who died in a war she has nothing to do with, the vanity of war is something that she might decry very publicly and very loudly. A mother screaming out against the city that killed her son could not be tolerated, because it might infect all the women of the city and even many men. War requires a steady control over horrible emotions that speak out against it.
Even today, men suspect that women have a realm of experience and sense from which they are prohibited and may not have any access. Unerotic Freud admitted that he really didn’t understand women. That feminine realm, whatever it is, has powers that men cannot have or if they did possess could not control. The best thing to do is to make sure that women lead lives that deny them access to these powers.
It was very hard to do in ancient Greece. In Thrace, for example, the main deity was a goddess and the women were basically witches who captured the Moon once every month. On the night of the full feminine Moon, they would take out pots of water and reflect the Moon on the surface of the water, capturing the light of the Moon. What they did with that water is not very clear. And these woman also went into the nearby mountains every once in a while without any men around and howl and howl and howl.
Robert Graves, the poet of the White Goddess, theorized that the followers of Dionysos might have eaten certain mushrooms that helped the inspiration on. The mushroom, after all, has a very phallic character, and its chemistry could affect the mind. Dionysos is the god of wine and in certain places beer, not to mention some sacred and mysterious mushrooms. Yet, there seems to be no record that the frenzy of the Maenads was induced by either alcohol or mushrooms. No, I think it is more likely that the inspiration from the god came both from inside the woman and worked up more by the company of other women.
Dionysos was not one of the original Olympian gods. He was an immigrant god who came from very odd places, depending on the source, although mostly very mountainous regions where people were cut off from the rest of Greece. The classic and tamer story is that Dionysos was born of Semele after having sex with Zeus in Thebes. But there are other stories. Herodotus tells us that when Xerxes marched through Thrace he commanded the sea tribes to furnish ships and the interior tribes were commanded to follow by land. Only one tribe refused, the Satrae, who would not take any kind of compulsion from anyone, including the most powerful king in the world. In part, the Satrae said that they were the keepers of the oracle of Dionysos which was located very high up in the mountains, whose priestly castes were called the Bessi. Herodotus was not interested in the religion or whether the Dionysos had migrated from one place to another. What is important is that the Satrae had never been conquered. That meant that there was no intermingling of various gods or rituals or mythology with other people. Their Dionysos and their Bessi were homegrown among people who could be considered savages. Strabo tells us that the Bessi of the Satrae is were the brigands of all brigands, wild and untamed, living in huts in an area around Mt. Haemus that no one goes to. There, Dionysos was probably a war god like Ares or kept company with the warrior god as well as being the inspiration for women. The Bessi lasted until the fourth century CE when Christianity, with their version of Dionysos, finally destroyed their way of life, and I assume that the women were no longer allowed to cry in the mountains.
There is something that is wild within all human beings, and perhaps even more so among women or, at least, that is what a lot of men think. In the Bacchae, the great tragedy by Euripides, the city of Thebes’s ruler, a late teen or early twenties boy named Pentheus confronts the divine revelation of Dionysos, who appears with the same effect that like a Hippie did to ordinary Americans in the 1960s. The women of Thebes go wild, and they are deep in the woods around the city tearing apart animals and crying the great cry, “Evoé!” It is the sound that Zeus makes when he has an orgasm. Pentheus is hesitant and incredulous and refuses to recognize Dionysos to be a god. Yet, like all men, he is curious about the women are doing. He asked Dionysos, “How is the worship held, by night or day?”
Dionysos, wanting to teach the lad that one is not to be skeptical about a god when he is standing in front of you, replies, “Most oft by night; ’tis a majestic thing the Darkness.”
Eventually, the curiosity to see what is going on is too much for Pentheus, and he dresses like a Maenad, transforming himself like a transvestite. He goes into the woods, and is discovered by the Maenads, all the women of Thebes, who swarm around him. Finally, Pentheus’s mother rips his head off while in the state of ecstasy. When Dionysos is ready to leave, the women come down from their high, and Agave realizes that the head she is carrying is that of her son. Any disbelievers, the men, have been punished.
One of the things that modernity attempted to do was to curb human emotions, because heightened emotions are dangerous to the state. When we read about the ancients, we find a huge emotional depth that we don’t have, because everything has been done to make sure that we don’t have strong emotions. In fact, the same depth of emotion existed in Medieval times. The makers of modernity feared ecstasy and the wildness that is within man or more so with women. If Thomas Hobbes saw a woman dressed in doe skins, carrying a pair of snakes, he would run away. The moderns have done all they can to suppress the wildness, and with it have suppressed an essential form of divine revelation that possesses women. If there is to be revelation, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews, and the moderns prefer it to be a desert god giving something over to a male prophet or a man god who has no female goddess needed to create the world. Yet, still, let us consider the possibility that there deep in the mountains, the original Satrae and the Bessi discovered a god who grew out of the earth, a god so potent and intoxicating, whether with wine, beer, or divine revelation, that the original Satrae women would inexplicably be possessed by the god, while their warrior, brigand husbands and brothers and fathers worried in the distance, not daring to intervene lest the god take revenge on them. That kind of revelation is far more revealing of the divine than some commandments scratched into stone telling you not to have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife. There are people who are so proud of these commandments that they want to set them stone in our government buildings. These inadequate men are also the men who tell woman what they can and cannot do, the same men content to send mothers’ sons into war to be killed for abstract notions of honor and national interests. They never hear the voices in the dark mountains, but fear those cries nevertheless.