January 13, 2023
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Readers of Euripides might suspect that he disliked gods and heroes. For example, The Bacchae makes Dionysus appear like a megalomaniac. Hippolytus presents Aphrodite as a ruthless gamer. And in Heracles, the great hero returns from war only to brutally murder his family. Even many of Euripides’ contemporaries disliked his violence, rhetoric and desire to write about what they considered to be unworthy subjects. Aristophanes, for one, constantly belittled Euripides’ work and subjected Euripides to a lot of abuse.
Authors like Sophocles (who did not write poorly of Euripides), explored subjects meant to instill morals, truth and virtue. Euripides, however, asked awkward questions of an uncomfortable nature. I do not believe that Euripides sought to denigrate gods or embarrass heroes, rather, for me, Euripides explores topics about unresolvable aspects of human nature. The point, of course, is that life is not black and white. For example, often the good guy does not win. In other words, Euripides provided insight into questions that were not being asked.
The Bacchae presents an excellent example. Critics of The Bacchae also claimed (and sometimes still claim) that he hated women because, in the play, the women abandon the city and devote all of their attention to Dionysus. Others assert that his irreverent treatment of Dionysus shows just how much he hates gods. However, I feel that both of these readings would be missing the point. In the play, Dionysus controls the women who become maddened, frenzied, furiously devoting their time to worship. Dionysus has them leave the polis in favor of the freedom of the surrounding wilderness. In this portrayal, Euripides quickly demonstrates that cities without women are unhealthy and unstructured, a subject entirely absent from any of his contemporaries.
Furthermore, Dionysus does maintain an eerie sort of control over everyone and everything in the play, which I take to be a comment on the nature of belief. The fact that these plays would have been staged during a Dionysian festival only increases the irony. Euripides does not hate Dionysus per se, but wonders about the nature of worship. Why would someone worship a conceited god like Dionysus, god of wine, pleasure, and festivity? And why does worship require incredible excess such as human sacrifice? Nonetheless, humans do (still) seek out wine, pleasure and festivals on a regular basis. In bringing the most horrific features of those human realities to the stage, Euripides makes us take a closer look at human behavior. This play does not necessarily focus on the god, but rather on what it means to be human.
The Bacchae presents only one example, though there are others to be mentioned (perhaps for a future blog). Yet, I want to explore another of Euripides’s treasures: The Cyclops. It is the only existing full-length satyr play. Satyr plays were often short, humorous burlesques which would have been staged at the end of a series of tragedies. While we know that all of the playwrights wrote them, “The Cyclops” is our only existing example of one in its entirety.
Just as in his tragedies, The Cyclops investigates the nature of heroes and gods through the dialogue of Odysseus and the cyclops Polyphemus. Set in a cave along the seashore, we learn that the cyclops live without any technology or modern convenience. In fact, food readily grows for them, they do not even work for it. We also meet Silenus, a satyr and Polyphemus’s main slave. The stranded, enslaved satyrs long to return to their previous lives of leisurely, wine-filled days worshiping Dionysus. Therefore, they welcome Odysseus and warn him about Polyphemus’s desire for human flesh.
When Polyphemus meets Odysseus, they have a short boasting match. Odysseus claims to have sacked Troy (slightly forgetting the fact of the gods’ interventions). Polyphemus, in return, believes that he is as strong as Zeus and names his belly as the greatest god. Through wise-cracks and puns, Euripides examines tensions between Odysseus and Polyphemus. For example, Polyphemus is labeled a cannibal. Yet, if we define cannibal (as Merriam-Webster does) as one who eats their own kind, then the cyclops are not cannibalistic. Polyphemus does brutally eat two of Odysseus’ men, which inspires Odysseus’ revenge. Some readers feel that Odysseus’s pride and need for revenge diminish his heroic status, thus aligning him with the tactics of the cyclops. In the end, Odysseus and Polyphemus continue their bickering, discrediting both characters.
The play is filled with sexual undertones, drowned in the liquor which is liberally poured by Odysseus. And in the end, readers must ask whether or not Odysseus acted nobly. Why does he not escape while Polyphemus sleeps in a drunken stupor, for example? Do we admire strength or subtle tactics? If we admire both, are there rules for using them? Finally, since Polyphemus is not familiar with Dionysus, the last of the gods to be added to the pantheon of Greek gods, Euripides also asks how society might begin to understand or incorporate a new god.
The following exchange, while humorous, also implicates us as readers. It simultaneously wrestles with belief and gullibility. Is Odysseus truly acting in Dionysus’ name?
ODYSSEUS: Listen, Cyclops. I’ve spent a lot of time with this drink of Bacchus I gave you.
CYCLOPS: What sort of god is this Bacchus held to be?
ODYSSEUS: Best of all in blessing the lives of men.
CYCLOPS: [Belching.] At least he makes very tasty belching.
ODYSSEUS: That’s the kind of god he is; hurts no one.
CYCLOPS: How can a god bear to live in a flask?
ODYSSEUS: Wherever you put him, he’s quite content.
CYCLOPS: Gods shouldn’t shut themselves up in wineskins.
ODYSSEUS: What matter, if you like him? Does the flask irk you?
CYCLOPS: I loathe the flask. The wine is what I like.
ODYSSEUS: Then you should stay here and enjoy yourself.
CYCLOPS: Shouldn’t I share the wine with my brothers?
ODYSSEUS: Keep it to yourself; you’ll be more esteemed.
CYCLOPS: But I’d be more useful if I shared it.
ODYSSEUS: Yes, but carousing often ends in fights.
CYCLOPS: I’m so drunk nothing could hurt me now.
ODYSSEUS: My dear man, drunkards ought to stay home.
CYCLOPS: But the man’s a fool who drinks by himself.
ODYSSEUS: It’s the wise man who stays home when he’s drunk.
This conversation demonstrates Odysseus’ clever tactics. Odysseus uses both liquor and the god’s identity to keep Polyphemus at home and alone. Is this the nature of Odysseus’ religion, or does it say something about Dionysus’ worshippers, as well as the audience members attending the festival where this play would be staged? Is it acceptable to use religion as a strategy?
Furthermore, who performs the play’s action: Odysseus or Dionysus? The final line of the play leaves this dilemma unresolved. The chorus of satyrs concludes that they will remain enslaved (to Odysseus) but receive orders from Dionysus. They state: “We’ll enlist in the crew of Odysseus. From now on our orders come from Bacchus.”
This enjoyable play brings the reader to the cyclops’ doorstep. It invites us in, and yet, leaves many questions unanswered. Therefore, it is exceedingly worthy of discussion.
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