Dionysus and the Dance of Truth

Nearly two decades ago, I heard Elder Dallin H. Oaks commend the search for truth in the great literature of other cultures in a devotional address at BYU. Such sage intellectual advice, offered from the heart of Mormonism, is sometimes easy to overlook in favor of simpler conference-talk nostrums.[1] But, as a young Classics major, I was thrilled that he had brought up the Greeks as a particular example of a people which possessed many unique truths we LDS students could learn from, so his instruction fixed firmly in my mind.

One of the first Greek texts I fell in love with was Euripides’ tragedy, The Bacchants. Written in the author’s sunset years, The Bacchants tells the story of the god Dionysus’ return to his hometown of Thebes, where his mother was persecuted for claiming to have slept with a god. The play possesses a profundity and violence that at once both arrests and disturbs. As an undergraduate in Classics, I was captivated by it and, over the years, I have reread the play many times, always finding new insights therein. Euripides’ play has helped shape my adult mind. It is one of those texts that I find “good to think with.”[2]

Lately I have been thinking about the play again in reference to contemporary conflicts over faith and doubt, particularly as they have impacted members of the LDS community. I will discuss elements of the play in a way that I find applicable to these issues. I offer a meditation on it in conversation with our current situation as LDS people who struggle with issues of faith and identity.

At the center of The Bacchants is a single family that is divided. One scion, Pentheus, is Thebes’ responsible king, who is deeply concerned with political order and social morality. Another, the god Dionysus, Pentheus’ cousin, is returning from a successful tour of the East in which he has collected many exotic followers. Dionysus is the quintessential god of overpowering divine epiphanies. It is his trademark to arrive with a miraculous bang, stir things up into a state of near chaos, and thus hammer his worship into a city. Those who resist him endure harsh punishments or meet their death. His plans for his hometown of Thebes are no different, and he has a particular score to settle, because his family disbelieved his mother, Semele, when she claimed that Zeus was her lover.

As the play opens we find two old men of Thebes, Teiresias and Cadmus, dressed in exotic costume and headed to the mountains to dance for Dionysus. Self-conscious of their unusual appearance, the two men reassure each other by discussing the rejuvenating qualities of the dance and the importance of maintaining ancestral religious traditions. In the midst of their banter, Pentheus arrives, upset by news he has received of a stranger, a religious charlatan, who is stirring up trouble in Thebes. Seeing Teiresias and Cadmus dressed for the dance, he is scandalized to find that these elder authorities he has long revered are participating in the new cult, and he mocks them for their foolishness.

Teiresias does not back down, but instead rebukes Pentheus for his irreligiousness and also offers a rationalizing explanation to defend the respectability of his choice to dance. You might call Teiresias Western literature’s first apologist.[3] In Teiresias’ view, those who make fun of the Dionysiac myth of Zeus sewing baby Dionysus into his thigh don’t realize that this is a garbled account of Zeus showing a fake Dionysus to Hera, so that she could not throw the real child off of Olympus.[4] The familiarity of such apologetics may raise a smile. As we all know, one can only trust those old myths as far as they are translated correctly.

The two men then warn Pentheus of the dire consequences of his resistance to the god. Cadmus says:

“Even if this Dionysus is no god, as you assert, persuade yourself that he is. The fiction is a noble one, for Semele will seem to be the mother of a god, and this confers no small distinction on your family. You saw the dreadful death your cousin Actaeon died when those man-eating hounds he had raised himself savaged him and tore his body limb from limb because he boasted that his prowess in the hunt surpassed the skill of Artemis.[5]

Here we see another familiar trope in the apologetic dialogue of faith and doubt. The doubter is asked to consider the cost of disbelief, which the believer warns may be truly dire. Why not, therefore, just go along with this thing, even if it isn’t “true,” since it may help you out, and fighting it may cost you your life? It may be a crude version of Pascal’s Wager, but it is one still heard today.

Unsurprisingly, these flimsy apologetics and fear tactics do not sway Pentheus. In fact, the lecture only stokes his rage, and soon he is raving against Cadmus and Teiresias, treating them like lepers, and ordering a scouring of the city to round up and punish the worshipers and priest of this strange new cult. Pentheus has become a man possessed. Claiming to have the best interests of city at heart, he attacks the worshipers of Dionysus, imprisons their priest, and voyeuristically seeks to spy on the worship of the god to which the uninitiated are forbidden access. The god uses this voyeuristic desire to lure Pentheus to his death, which comes gruesomely at the hands of his own mother.

The temptation at this point would be to assign certain predictable parties their roles in this ancient parable, and draw a simple moral lesson that shows how the modern “Pentheus” people are wrong, while the good “Teiresias and Cadmus” faction has it right. The parties that I have in mind are defenders and doubters of faith, especially in the LDS community, because this is the discussion with which I have the most experience. What I see, however, is the spirit of Pentheus among both the doubters and the faithful.

What is that spirit? The spirit of Pentheus, as I see it, is a moral clarity and intellectual arrogance that blinds a person to underlying irrational forces that drive him or her to harm others. To the person possessed of this spirit, their moral and intellectual convictions legitimize the effort to quash the disorder and immorality that the Other appears to represent. However, so seductive is the pull of the passions the logic which this moral clarity and intellectual certainty seek to mask that avowedly righteous defenders of the community good may yield to its temptations and incarnate the very destruction they seek to fend off.

Unfortunately, the relative uncertainty apparent in the tentative and provisional answers of Teiresias and Cadmus seems weak and ineffectual in comparison with the apparent strength of Pentheus’ certainty. There is, however, a more quiet strength in the humility that balks at embracing the rigid moral and intellectual certainty of Pentheus. It is a humility that accepts the limitations of humankind to grapple quickly with great forces and almost imponderable questions. This humility affords us important time to fumble around by trial and error as we seek truth, a process that has thus far taken humankind scores of thousands of years.

I like to think of this process as the dance of Dionysus. The followers of Dionysus did not always dance in the same fashion. Sometimes the dance was free form; sometimes it embraced a more regimented cadence. Cadmus and Teiresias did not have strong rational reasons for participating in this dance. It challenged their egos as elderly leaders of the community to put on the fawnskin and take up the thyrsus. But it felt salubrious and rejuvenating, regardless of their inability to explain it rationally. One of the great virtues of the dance of Dionysus is that induces the community to move together, whereas the spirit of Perseus would tear the community apart in its attempt to impose one particular vision upon it.

In the LDS community today, one can observe an ongoing struggle between children of the Restoration who respectively voice faith, doubt, or even outright skepticism. In each group there are assertive voices, which, infatuated with their own sense of moral rightness and intellectual superiority, demand total fealty to their point of view on threat of excommunication from the orthodox or sane. Buoyed up by a strong sense of purpose, they are blind to their own inflexibility and irrationality. As someone who has watched and participated in many of these verbal battles, I find the spirit of Pentheus disconcerting when I see it in others, and even more troubling when I find it in myself.

Although such a spirit may be part of our human make up, I think The Bacchants can teach us to be wary of its consequences. The figures of Tiresias and Cadmus point in a different direction, to a humility that can embrace uncertainty and be patient with the long process that is the search for truth in a diverse community. Skepticism, doubt and faith are the necessary counterpointing steps which create the Dance of Dionysus.

[1] Thanks to Mina Estévez for her helpful edits and suggestions.
[2] Lévi-Strauss coined this phrase in his seminal work, The Savage Mind.
[3] Plato’s famous account of Socrates’ self-defense, The Apology, post-dates The Bacchants.
[4] 287-98. Grene & Lattimore adapt the original Greek wordplay for their translation.
[5] 333-41. Trans. Grene & Lattimore.


Dionysus and the Dance of Truth — 5 Comments

  1. Thanks, Trevor. It’s very interesting to see an ancient treatise employing such familiar reasoning. Pascal’s Wager apparently wasn’t invented by Pascal. I also like your suggestion that we see the spirit of Pentheus on both sides of the critic-apologist debate. It’s so easy to buy into the us-good, them-bad dichotomy, and to gravitate toward stories and interpretations of stories that support that view. To tell stories about our own faults is far more difficult, but also ultimately far, far more fruitful.

  2. Well, Mina, the truth is that Dionysus was present for the dedication celebration of the first LDS temple of the Restoration:

    “I ascended the pulpit, and remarked to the congregation that we had passed through many trials and afflictions since the organization of the Church, and that this is a year of jubilee to us, and a time of rejoicing, and that it was expedient for us to prepare bread and wine sufficient to make our hearts glad, as we should not, probably, leave this house until morning; to this end we should call on the brethren to make a contribution. The stewards passed round and took up a liberal contribution, and messengers were despatched for bread and wine.”

    See http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary?target=JSPPJ1_d1e41551

    Later, of course, he was banished from the temple. Hopefully Dionysus will once again be seated at his proper place in the banquet when Jesus makes his triumphal return. No cena adventicia is complete without Dionysus, just as no wedding feast is complete without him, something Jesus clearly understood.


    Thanks for your comments. I agree that it is difficult to rein in the “spirit of Pentheus” as I define it. It is much easier to see these faults in others. If we keep our eyes open, though, there are many opportunities in discussions of politics and religion to try, at least, to see the other point of view. When we manage to succeed, it is no small achievement.

  3. Excellent post. I will think about this for a long time. But there is one important norm in my moral sentiment that haunts me. Few of us are called to be the catalyst for great change. I’m fine with that. But all of us are presumably called to be the students, and the humble witnesses of the truth. As Va’clav Havel, the Czechoslovakian hero, stated, we must insist “on speaking the truth simply because it [is] the right thing to do, without speculating whether it [will] lead somewhere tomorrow, or the day after, or ever.” I do not know that I have the courage to follow such simple, idealisric adice. I wish I could. I wish it were possible.

  4. Thanks, Mark. I think it is important to be witnesses of the truth. As I see it, the “dance” that I am talking about will not happen unless people are witnesses to the truth as they see it. The tension comes in not seeing it in exactly the same way, but tension is not bad in and of itself. The “dance” only breaks down when people take it upon themselves to dictate to others on threat of ejection, or, worse yet, actively marginalize or eject others.

    The humility I discuss is the ability to allow other voices, other dancers, to continue to participate, even when their truth does not accord completely with our own. So, for example, someone may have quite a different understanding of a doctrinal issue than I do, but I would not use that as the basis for tossing them out of the community. I have lost more in losing that person than I gain in purity of opinion.

    My idealistic side wants to believe that those who do threaten and marginalize other voices tend to isolate themselves in the act of so doing. I want to think that, in the end, tolerance and humanity will win out over tyranny, whether rhetorical, political, or spiritual. It is sometimes difficult to sustain faith in the goodness of others, but I have been surprised in recent times by such goodness, so maybe I am basking in that ray of hope.