Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae is one of the most complex characters of the ancient stage – beautiful, powerful, gentle, yet alarmingly violent – he is a character of contradiction whose impact has shaped the history of literature. But the question remains: how was such a character embodied on the stage in the original performance; what did Dionysus’ “stranger” costume look like, and how did that appearance affect the audience’s understanding of the tragedy?
In this paper, I will examine Pentheus’ description of Dionysus’ disguise: ξανθοῖσι βοστρύχοισιν εὐοσμῶν κόμην (235). Several translators and scholars have focused on the effeminacy in the accusation (e.g. George Theodoridis’ translation, “with blond and scented plaits” or Teevan’s editorializing addition of the line, “too womanish to be a proper man”). However, a consideration of Euripides’ use of the term ξανθός reveals that this representation of Dionysus’ disguise emphasizes his youthfulness, the significance of which is often missed or downplayed through a fixation on effeminacy.
There is a long history of discussion of the role of color in the Greek mind (e.g. Lyons, Sassi, Villard), one that has recently been rejuvenated by new scholarly interest in the embodied experience (e.g. Telò and Mueller). Further examination of the works of Euripides has much to add to this conversation, as he displays profound and sustained attention to visuality (Barlow, Zeitlin, Stieber). An analysis of Euripides’ use of the term ξανθός reveals that he primarily uses it for two reasons. First in connection to Menelaus, echoing the phrase ξανθὸς Μενέλαος, which is used at least twenty times in the Iliad and Odyssey, most commonly as a line ending formula. Otherwise, Euripides uses this as a descriptor for particularly young characters. Frequently, ξανθός describes children, such as those of Herakles (Herakles 993) and those of Medea (Medea 1141). It is also used of young women around marriageable age, such as Phaedra (Hippolytus 134, 220) and Cassandra before the siege of Troy (Iphigenia in Aulis 758). Nor is this description reserved for women and children, but it is also used of young men. For example, it is used to describe Hippolytus (Hippolytus 1343), as well as Herakles at the time of his first labor (Herakles 361-363), and of Parthenopaeus, who was considered, since Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes at least, to be the youngest of Thebes’ attackers (Phoenician Women 1159).
Even in the cases where it is used disparagingly, it falls into one of these categories. What emerges from this analysis is that even when used by a hostile character, the descriptor ξανθός is not a reference to femininity, but to youth. This is the element of Dionysus that has drawn Pentheus’ ire, the rivalry of one young man with another. But while Pentheus fits a type shared by other young male characters on the tragic stage – alternately naïve, arrogant, and pitiful – Dionysus stands apart. His youth is at odds with his otherworldly calm.
Greek Tragedy (2)