From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In Greek mythology, Maenads (Greek: Μαινάδες) were the inspired and frenzied female worshippers of Dionysus, the Greek god of mystery, wine, and intoxication, the Roman god Bacchus. Their name literally translates as "raving ones". They were known as wild, insane women who could not be reasoned with. The mysteries of Dionysus inspired the women to ecstatic frenzy; they indulged in copious amounts of violence, bloodletting, sexual activity, self-intoxication, and mutilation. They were usually pictured as crowned with vine leaves, clothed in fawnskins and carrying the thyrsus, and dancing with wild abandon. The Maenads are the most significant members of the Thiasus, the retinue of Dionysus.
The Maenads were entranced women, wandering under the orgiastic spell of Dionysus through the forests and hills. The maddened Hellenic women of real life were mythologized as the mad women who were nurses of Dionysus in Nysa: "he that on a time drave down over the sacred mount of Nysa the nursing mothers of mad Dionysus; and they all let fall to the ground their wands." (Iliad, VI.130ff). They went into the mountains at night and practised strange rites.
In Euripides' play The Bacchae, Theban Maenads murdered King Pentheus after he banned the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus, Pentheus' cousin, himself lured Pentheus to the woods, where the Maenads tore him apart. His corpse was mutilated by his own mother, Agave, who tore off his head, believing it to be that of a lion.
A group of Maenads also killed Orpheus.
In Greek vase-painting, the frolicking of Maenads and Dionysus is often a theme depicted on Greek kraters, used to mix water and wine. These scenes show the Maenads in their frenzy running in the forests, often tearing to pieces any animal they happen to come across.
Nurses and nymphs
The name maenad has come to be associated with a wide variety of women, supernatural, mythological, and historical, associated with the god Dionysus and his worship. In the realm of the supernatural is the category of nymphs who nurse and care for the young Dionysus, and continue in his worship as he comes of age. The god Hermes is said to have carried the young Dionysus to the nymphs of Nysa.
In another myth, when his mother, Semele, is killed, the care of young Dionysus falls into the hands of her sisters, Ino, Agave, and Autonoe, who later are depicted as participating in the rites and taking a leadership role among the other maenads.
Resisters to the new religion
The term 'maenad' is also used to refer to a category of women in the mythology who resist the worship of Dionysus, and are therefore driven mad by him, being forced against their will to participate in often horrific rites. The doubting women of Thebes, the prototypical maenads, or 'mad women', left their homes to live in the wilds of the nearby mountain Cithaeron. When they discover Pentheus spying on them, dressed as a maenad, they tear him limb from limb.
This also occurs with the three daughters of Minyas, who reject Dionysus and remain true to their household duties, becoming startled by invisible drums, flutes, cymbals, and seeing ivy hanging down from their looms. As punishment for their resistance, they become madwomen, choosing the child of one of their number by lot and tearing it to pieces, as the women on the mountain did to young animals. A similar story with a tragic end is told of the daughters of Proetus.
Not all women were inclined to resist the call of Dionysus, however. Maenads, possessed by the spirit of Dionysus, traveled with him from Thrace to mainland Greece in his quest for the recognition of his divinity. Dionysus was said to have danced down from Parnassos accompanied by Delphic virgins, and it is known that even as young girls the women in Boeotia practiced not only the closed rites but also the bearing of the thyrsos and the dances.
The foundation myth is believed to have been reenacted every other year during the Agronia. Here the women of Thebes were organized into three dance groups and rushed off to Mount Cithaeron with ritual cries of "to the mountain!" As "mad women," they pursued and killed, perhaps by dismemberment (sparagmos), the 'king', possibly represented by a goat. The maenads may have eaten the meat of the goat raw (omophagia) or sacrificed it to Dionysus. Eventually the women would be freed from the madness and return to Thebes and their usual lives, but for the time of the festival they would have had an intense ecstatic experience. The Agrionia was celebrated in several Greek cities, but especially in Boeotia. Each Boeotian city had its own distinct foundation myth for it, but the pattern was much the same: the arrival of Dionysus, resistance to him, flight of the women to a mountain, the killing of Dionysus’ persecutor, and eventual reconciliation with the god.
Priestesses of Dionysus
In this category of 'maenad' is found the later references to priestesses of the Dionystic cult. In the third century BC, when an Asia Minor city wanted to create a maenadic cult of Dionysus, the Delphic Oracle bid them to send to Thebes for both instruction and three professional maenads, stating, "Go to the holy plain of Thebe so that you may get maenads who are from the family of Ino, daughter of Cadmus. They will give to you both the rites and good practices, and they will establish dance groups (thiasoi) of Bacchus [ie: Dionysus] in your city."
The names of other associations of women who can be characterized as maenads are the Laphystiai, the Dionysiades, the Leucippides, the Bassarai, the Dysmainai, the Klodones, and the Mimallones. The memory of the Thyiades and of their cymbals, which people thought they heard, was still alive in the vicinity of Mt. Parnassos at the beginning of [the 20th] century. For the peasants the Thyiades had become Neraides, ghost women, of whom folk stood in awe believing that they possessed a power which Dionysus himself possessed.
Cultic rites associated with worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus in Roman mythology), were allegedly characterized by maniacal dancing to the sound of loud music and crashing cymbals, in which the revellers, called Bacchantes, whirled, screamed, became drunk and incited one another to greater and greater ecstasy. The goal was to achieve a state of enthusiasm in which the celebrants’ souls were temporarily freed from their earthly bodies and were able to commune with Bacchus/Dionysus and gain a glimpse of and a preparation for what they would someday experience in eternity. The rite climaxed in a performance of frenzied feats of strength and madness, such as uprooting trees, tearing a bull (the symbol of Dionysus) apart with their bare hands, an act called sparagmos, and eating its flesh raw, an act called omophagia. This latter rite was a sacrament akin to communion in which the participants assumed the strength and character of the god by symbolically eating the raw flesh and drinking the blood of his symbolic incarnation. Having symbolically eaten his body and drunk his blood, the celebrants became possessed by Dionysus.
Dionysus came to his birthplace, Thebes, where neither Pentheus, his cousin who was now king, nor Pentheus’ mother Agave, Dionysus’ aunt (Semele’s sister) acknowledged his divinity. Dionysus punished Agave by driving her insane, and in that condition, she killed her son and tore him to pieces. From Thebes, Dionysus went to Argos where all the women except the daughters of King Proetus joined in his worship. Dionysus punished them by driving them mad, and they killed the infants who were nursing at their breasts. He did the same to the daughters of Minyas, King of Orchomenos in Boetia, and then turned them into bats.
According to Opian, Dionysus delighted, as a child, in tearing kids into pieces and bringing them back to life again. He is characterized as "the raging one", and "the mad one", and the nature of the maenads, from which they get their name, is, therefore, his nature.
Once during a war in the middle of the third century BC, the entranced Thyiades (maenads) lost their way and arrived in Amphissa, a city near Delphi. There they sank down exhausted in the market place and were overpowered by a deep sleep. The women of Amphissa formed a protective ring around them and when they awoke arranged for them to return home unmolested.
On another occasion, the Thyiades were snowed in on Parnassos and it was necessary to send a rescue party. The clothing of the men who took part in the rescue froze solid. It is unlikely that the Thyiades, even if they wore deerskins over their shoulders, were ever dressed more warmly than the men.
Maenads have been depicted in art as erratic and frenzied women enveloped in a drunken rapture. The most obvious example being that of Euripides’ play The Bacchae. His play, however, is not a study of the cult of Dionysus or the effects of this religious hysteria of these women. The maenads have often been misinterpreted in art in this way. To understand the play of Euripides though one must only know about the religious ecstasy called Dionysiac, the most common moment maenads are displayed in art. In Euripides' play and other art forms and works the Dionysiac only needs to be understood as the frenzied dances of the god which are direct manifestations of euphoric possession and that these worshippers, sometimes by eating the flesh of a man or animal who has temporarily incarnated the god, come to partake of his divinity.
In addition to Euripedes' The Bacchae, depictions of maenads are often found on both red and black figure Greek pottery, statues and jewellery. Also, fragments of reliefs of female worshippers of Dionysus have been discovered at Corinth. Mark W. Edwards in his paper "Representation of Maenads on Archaic Red-Figure Vases" traces the evolution of maenad's depictions on Red-Figure vases. Edwards distinguishes between "nymphs" which appear earlier on Greek pottery and "maenads" which are identified by their characteristic fawnskin or "nebris" and often carrying snakes in their hands. However, the actions of the figures on the pottery Edwards does not consider a distinguishing characteristic for differentiation between Maendas and nymphs. Rather, the differences or similarities in actions are more striking between black-figure and red-figure pottery as opposed to maenads and nymphs.
Maenads are the primary symbol of the city of Tetovo depicted prominently of the city's coat of arms. The inclusion of maenad imagery dates to 1932, when a small 6th-century BC statuette of a maenad was found within the city. The "Tetovo Maenad" was also featured on the reverse side of the Macedonian 5000 denars banknote issued in 1996.
In Fables and Reflections, the seventh volume of Neil Gaiman's comic series The Sandman, the maenads feature in the story Orpheus, in which they gruesomely murder the titular character after he refuses to cavort with them (echoing the events of the actual Greek myth of Orpheus).
Many modern feminists look at the maenads as an early example of misandric behavior, through which women of the classical period gradually took a stand against the reigning patriarchal culture of the time.
Charlaine Harris' The Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels and its television adaption, the HBO series True Blood (2nd season, aired in summer 2009), feature maenads in the characters of Callisto and her television representation, Maryann Forrester, respectively. In the show, Maryann wishes to sacrifice a supernatural being, (Sam Merlotte), in hopes of summoning her god, Dionysus.
In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary, maenads are depicted as corrupted human beings in service of the ancient and powerful Greek vampire Kakistos, whose name means in Greek "the worst", the natural superlative of kakos meaning "bad". The maenads rampaged from village to village luring victims back to their vampire master as well as hunting any Slayers in the area.