The human experience is universal in nature – regardless of era or culture, our physical and spiritual needs and desires overlap in more ways than they do not. This is most notably seen in the creation of myths and religions within different groups across the globe. Although separated from one another by time and distance, similar themes and archetypes reappeared in numerous cultures, such as the concept of resurrection seen in the myth of Dionysus and with Christ in the Bible. This phenomenon has been extrapolated today in the form of the mythical method in an effort to make sense of the seemingly coincidental and meaningful . T.S Eliott first named it while praising Joyce’s Ulysses as being “a step toward making the modern world possible for art” because of the way it provides shape and significance to the “immense panorama futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. In T.S Eliott’s The Wasteland, Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, and Euripides The Bacchae archetypes of antiquity are reconciled in the modern era through the mythical method in order to provide structure to the human experience.
One myth which themes have transcended time is that of Dionysus. Originally conceived of Zeus and his daughter Persephone, Dionysus (then Zagreus) was dismembered, cooked, and eaten by the Titans at the direction of Hera. But Athena was able to save his heart, and he was thus resurrected through Semele, princess of Thebes. However, before he was born, Zeus destroyed Semele’s body with his true form at her ill-advised request, and saved Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh until he could be born – in turn making him a god as opposed to a demi-god if he had been born from Semele. For his protection from Hera’s wrath, he was sent to Mount Nysa to be raised by water nymphs, and as an adult traveled across Asia teaching the techniques of winemaking and accumulating a following before ascending to Mount Olympus. He is represented by several forms – a satyr, a bull, and a beautiful androgynous youth to name a few. Because of the nature of his birth and his travels through foreign lands before his arrival to Mount Olympus, Dionysus was seen as an outsider by the other homeric gods. Subsequently, Dionysus also differed in where he was worshipped – instead of being worshipped in temples, Dionysus was worshipped by his followers, the Maenads, in the woods, where they could lose themselves in a wine-frenzied madness that allowed them to be one with their god and perform superhuman acts, such as killing large animals with their bare hands through sparagmos (dismembering). Thus, the god of fertility and wine, death and rebirth, and later patron of the arts was established and became a centerpiece of Greek culture. One of the most important festivals of the year was the Feast of Dionysus. Held in the spring when the grape vines begin to revive, it marked the rebirth of culture with its focal point primarily being theatre. The Theater of Dionysus, first built in the sixth century B.C.E., is widely regarded as being one of the first Greek theaters and the birthplace of Greek tragedy. New plays were written for and debuted there at the Feast of Dionysus, with the actors and spectators being regarded as sacred servants of Dionysus and expected to perform a dithyramb in his honor, as well as partake in wine and lose themselves in the god.
The Great Dionysia is at the center of Euripides The Bacchae. Already a disbeliever of the homeric gods and generally outcasted by Athenian society, Euripides saw the hypocrisy and deviation from the original purpose of the festival and made The Bacchae a commentary on the dissolving culture of Athens post the Classical Age. Although having won four times at the Great Dionysia, many Athenians were not fans of his plays due to his humanistic approach that focused on the common individual controlling his fate as opposed to the gods, which was seen as unfashionable at a time where playwrights like Sophocles still focused on the impact the gods had on an individual’s fate. Written in the introduction to Professor D.L Page’s edition of Medea, he writes that Euripides had a “great burden of unpopularity which was to oppress the poet throughout his life” which eventually culminated in his voluntary exile from Athens to Macedonia, where he would live out the rest of his life and be posthumously named winner of the Great Dionysia for his play The Bacchae, which although having a god as its central character, still presented him in the form of a common man.
Euripides interpretation of the myth of Dionysus is a reflection of the dissolution of Greek society from its roots. Pentheus, Dionysus’ cousin, reprimands the Maenads from worshipping Dionysus because of the ecstatic frenzy and loss of reason that they enter into and arrests them for going against the legal codes of Theban society and says he will “sell them off or keep them here as slaves, working our looms” (10). Among those arrested for worshipping the god is Dionysus himself, manifesting in the form of a long-haired androgynous youth. After making sexually suggestive remarks about his appearance “It flows across your cheeks. That’s most seductive” (8), Pentheus questions him about the Dionysiac rites, to which Dionysus responds “The rituals are no friend of any man who’s hostile to the gods” (9). After being imprisoned by the petulant Pentheus, Dionysus enacts divine retribution and destroys his palace with an earthquake and lightning. He offers Pentheus a chance to change his heart on the worship of Dionysus, to which he scathingly responds “Should I become a slave to my own slaves?” (15). He puts his pride above that of the gods because he found their worship to be distasteful and shameful, which is a theme Euripides saw beginning to manifest in the people of Athens as they moved away from the irrationality of worshipping chaotically in the woods towards a more ordered society that was reflected by the rigid structure of the Great Dionysia. As Gilbert Murray states,
“For Athenians the Great Dionysia was an occasion to stop work, drink a lot of wine, and witness or participate in the various ceremonials, processions and priestly doings which are part of such holidays the world over. It was also the occasion for tragedy and comedy; but I do not see any way in which the Dionysiac occasion invades or affects the entertainment . . . to put it another way, there is nothing intrinsically Dionysiac about Greek tragedy”.
The Bacchae shows through the story of Pentheus and Thebes the reoccuring archetype of Tennesee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire, was also heavily influenced by the archetype of Dionysus in his writings, making The Bacchae a structural analogue of Streetcar according to Judith Thompson. In “The Meaning of The Rose Tatoo,” Williams commends “the Dionysian element in human life”, which manifested itself in several of his characters, such as Stanely Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the stage directions for his character, Williams writes that Stanley embodies “animal joy,” with “the power and pride of a richly-feathered male bird among hens,” and is “the gaudy seed-bearer”. The very first image we see of Stanley is of him toting a red-stained package, which he tosses to his wife carelessly. In an early draft of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche asks Stella what was in the package, worried that “it was part of some—dismembered body” and in the final version, she exclaims “Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the Stone Age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle!”. These assessments of Stanley’s character coincide with the archaic animal nature of Dionysus, who most often appears in animal forms and participates in sparagmos and omophagia – the dismembering and consumption of raw flesh. Stanley is often referred to as an animal by those around him; Blanche exclaims “There’s something downright bestial—about him! … He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habit! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one!”. Stella, his wife, accuses him of being an animal while he is drinking with his friends on poker night “Drunk—drunk—animal thing, you”, as well as his friend Mitch, likening him akin to a bull, one of Dionysus’ favorite animal forms “You…you….you… Brag….brag…bull…bull…bull!”. Blanche also finds out that Stanley’s astrological sign is a Capricorn which is represented by the goat, another one of Dionysus’ preferred animal forms. Stanley also shares Dionysus’ sexual power. Although he is brutish and cruel, Stella is addicted to his sensuality akin to the maenad’s that followed Dionysus in a trance of ecstasy, with William’s describing her as being in a state of “almost narcotized tranquillity” after a night of lovemaking. Stella also confesses to her sister Blanche that “When he is away for a week I nearly go wild!” even though he habitually abuses her mentally and physically.
Blanche also possesses a measure of sexual power, and follows the archetypal pattern of Pentheus. Like Pentheus scorning Dionysus for his shameful influence on Theban women, Blanche demeans Stanley for his “subhuman” nature. She sees him as degenerate in both senses of the word – a part of the lower class, and possessing ancient qualities that seem to have evolved him away from the qualities she values “Such things as art–as poetry and music–such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!” (74) and warns her sister “Don’t–don’t hang back with the brutes!” (74). Like Pentheus, Blanche cannot see the worth of Stella worshipping Stanley when to her, he is destroying her life and future prospects. Throughout the first half of the play, Blanche begins to slowly win over Stella and Mitch, as well as make some ‘tasteful’ renovations to Stanley’s flat in the shape of a paper light shade “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action” (54). For a time she has the upper hand, but like Pentheus whose palace was destroyed by Dionysus after imprisoning him, Blanche soon loses her footing to Stanley. He begins to stalk her like prey, and uncovers the truth of her arrival into their lives. After confronting her husband of his homosexuality, he commits suicide and leaves Blanche in a shattered world that she no longer knew. Not the coy southern belle that she presented to Mitch, but a broken woman finding fleeting solace in meaningless sexual encounters that robbed her of any hope for the future. She begins experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations as the internal image of herself is torn apart, marked by not being able to look at herself in the mirror and slamming it “with such violence that the glass cracks” (132). Like dismemberment through ritual sparagmos, Blanche’ psyche splits apart in what appears to be a schizophrenic break from her repressed sexuality and animal instincts that she reprimands Stanley for having. In The Bacchae, Pentheus is misled by visions from Dionysus and dresses as a maenad to spy on them worshipping in the woods. This results in him being revealed for the hypocrite that he is and killed through sparagmos and omophagia by his own mother. Mirroring The Bacchae, Blanche gives into the mania Stanley represents, and in a final act of revenge, Stanley rapes Blanche.
In T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, he uses the mythical method to provide structure and symbolic layers to his characters. In the second section titled A Game of Chess, Eliot invokes the archetype of Philomela to mirror the first speaker. Philomela was an Athenian princess and sister to Procne, who was married to a Threcian king named Tereus and brought to live in Thrace. However, Procne began to miss her sister Philomela terribly and requested that her husband travel to Athens and bring her back with him. Tereus agrees and travels to Athens, where he falls deeply in lust for Philomela. Before returning to Thrace, Tereus succumbs to his desires and rapes Philomela. When she threatens to tell the world of his actions, he cuts out her tongue, rapes her again, and leaves her chained in the woods. Unable to speak, Philomela weaves a tapestry detailing her ordeal and is able to send it to Procne, who frees Philomela. To enact revenge against Tereus, Procne kills their son, dismembers his body, and feeds it to her husband. To escape what they’ve done, Procne and Philomela transform into a swallow and nightingale respectively, reminding us with their song of how they have been wronged. From the first stanza of A Game of Chess, it is clear that the speaker is of a high class, with the scene being set at her vanity full of lavish items “The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it/ From satin cases poured in rich profusion”. Above an antique mantle piece rests a carving of the myth of Philomela “As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene/ The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king/ So rudely forced” which changes the context of the scene through the mythical method. Using the archetypal themes from the myth, the reader can impose meaning and gain context on what the writer is attempting to make known. In this case, reading this poem through the lens of the myth of Philomela creates a very different scene. She is like a pretty bird trapped in a cage surrounded by shiny trinkets. In an allusion to Philomena, the speaker orders “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.” but only receives more frantic questions in return. She is sensitive to small noises and seems anxious about who will be coming to her door ““What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” Nothing again nothing.”