Monday, August 24, 2009

True Blood: Dionysus, the Maenad

The appearance of a maenad, and the bacchante, in popular culture through the HBO series True Blood has been entertaining me lately, although it also points out to me just how ignorant mainstream America seem to be to mythology, or perhaps how much it has permeated my own thoughts. For instance, I'm always a little shocked when people don't have any clue what a maenad is. (This certainly doesn't apply to many people that I know, who also seem to realize that even if you're not interested in myth for philosophical, religious or occult reasons, they are a necessary knowledge-base if you want to write or really produce art of any kind.)

Though people that read Kerenyi (etc) might accuse True Blood of various historic and conceptual inaccuracies of "the Maenad," I'd flip them the finger for missing the point. Borrowing from myth to serve a story is well and good, but it has to be adapted not only to the narrative necessities of the piece, but also to the time and place of the story. In other words, it has to be modernized. This might be the most attracting factor of this series, that it borrows from a vast array of myths, tosses them into the same world together, and streamlines them for pop-culture consumption. I've been involved in projects with similar intentions myself, though those never managed to gain the benefit of the financial backing necessary to bring them to the market. Such is the fickleness of the media industry.

This also further demonstrates the fact that you needn't be truly original in a work for it to be successful, and a work - a book, an episodic series, a movie - can serve as a gateway to new knowledge even in the process of "watering down" for the sake of the story and the audience. I've gone on rants before about how artists overrate originality, when quality of "traditional" elements like character development and successful blending of existing forms and genres are so much crucial to producing "good work."

I hope the show leads some people to explore more about the Dionysus myth, or the entire pantheon that exists inside of the symbol of this single God. He is full of different aspects, and the show tends to gloss over a key element. Even traditionally the maenads / bacchante tore people apart with their bare hands. In Euripides' The Bacchae, Pentheus' mom slaughtered him and touted his head around on a pike without realizing what she was doing. However, they gloss over what actually unleashes his ire. I've seen little in original sources about the need of a blood sacrifice to sate some urge in and of itself; it is as I said usually vengeance against those who try to uphold an unnatural order - specifically a patriarchal one. Dionysus is an agent of nature, which is traditionally characterized as both female and pure chaos. (Nor is this a connection limited to Greek Mythology. e.g. the Babylonian Tiamat or the many other "devouring mother" forms of the goddess archetype. Dionysus himself is clearly not female, but he is commonly referred to as "bi-valent" or "bi-natured," which aside from the commonly observed overtones of bisexuality applies more to an implication of symbolic hermaphradism. It's also fairly evident that often it is the agents of Dionysus- the bacchante, the maenads- who generally do the "dirty work.")

The patriarchal gods represent the social order, and Dionysus is the son of Zeuss, though his mother changes depending on the origin of the myth. So while they're playing Maryanne as a villain, which works just fine for the purposes of this story, it'd be even more interesting to see these two forces (patriarchy and order, matriarchy and chaos) come into direct conflict, not to mention wiping clean the stigma that chaos is bad, let alone evil. This is more what I tried to focus on in Fallen Nation, though I clearly toned down the blood frenzy because that didn't serve the purposes of that particular story.

Each story brings out different elements of a myth. Addendum: I've commented some in past posts on this blog about Dionysus, but based on the interest this post appears to be getting, I'll look to make another post (or series of posts) about the "horned god."


  1. Love your blog, just found it when I started searching for Dionysus + True Blood. Myths really used to fascinate me when I was little, and now I study aesthetics, and myths are quite central there, so it's nice to learn more and put use to old knowledge.

    I will continue following your work.

  2. They are pretty central to aesthetics. In fact (as I say), IMO any artist or author should be fairly versed in western & eastern philosophy & myth. Even when not used directly, it can inform a lot.

    Check out if you want a kind of core sample of the work I've done. Hope to hear from you again.

  3. myths fascinates me but i am not a firm believer being a student of science i need logic behind every thing. but however i was looking to download True Blood and i found your blog it was interesting and i would like to share a conversation on this with u if u like to

  4. Vern-

    Science and myth aren't at odds, anymore than a protractor and paintbrush are at "odds"- they're both tools that we use to understand our experience, which yield vastly different results. Belief has very little to do with it. This is one of those "so simple it's complicated" issues, especially since human history is riddled with misunderstandings of this. Logic doesn't own the market on reality.

    If you have the time and inclination see

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    if you haven't seen the whole of True Blood's 2nd season, and plan to, I'd strongly advise you not to read my post

    Well actually I think the whole second season is basically two clever twists around the concept of cults and how much free will are you willing to give up to feel a part of something bigger.

    The two cults that are central to the 2nd season's plot are two sides of the same coin : the dangers of letting go of your critical mind for the sake of 'belonging to a family'.

    See yourself as a moral, ethical, god-fearing, vampire-hater? The fellowship of the sun is for you.
    Or rather, you've built up so much tension, not giving into some of your more natural needs, and now you can't face them anymore, so some kind of magical persona uses these pulsions against you, to free you from the brick wall of your morality and use you? You don't mind blacking out and partial amnesia? Maryann Forrester might already be on to you.

    Either cults turn you into something your not. Not because of the Christian God or of Dionysus, but because of the people between the adepts and their god : because of the ORGANIZED RELIGION. Both cults turn to the past as a solution and a reference.

    James, you seem to reproach the producers of the show that these myths hadn't been revived and remodeled on the modern world, but I think that's precisely the whole point of this second season : showing the danger of turning to the past as a radical solution to your present problems, and to build a mainframe to solve your present and future issues inside of it.

    Actually I'd like to ask you a question. I think you mentioned in your article that your sources (original sources) on the Dionysian cult didn't involve sacrifice. From what I've gathered on my part, I've heard the Bacchante were pretty violent and bloodthirsty, and at some point in the Roman Empire people plainly avoided the streets whenever a Bacchic ceremony was involved, for fear of being torn into shreds or strampled upon by drunk and high and dangerously sexually aroused girls! I was wondering if you could share with me what your sources were (transcription of direct, historical observation?)

  7. A-

    First off, I agree with your assessment about the theme of the season.

    >you seem to reproach the producers of the show that these myths hadn't been revived and remodeled on the modern world

    Hm, that wasn't my point or intention at all. I think that they borrowed from what was useful in terms of the story they were trying to create-- which is, imo, as it should be. I was pointing out a couple differences but that isn't a disparagement.

    You also have to realize most of these were dashed off during lunch break (my day job up till friday was web design.) So you're right, I didn't include references etc. However, I didn't say they didn't involve the bloody sacrifice, that's a central part of the Dionysian myth. What I said was "I've seen little in original sources about the need of a blood sacrifice to sate some urge in and of itself;". The 'sources' I was referring to were simply the most common Dionysus myths, (I can come up with a quick list if you like), Euripides' The Bacchae, etc. You don't need to dig too deep for that. My point there is that in True Blood the sacrifice is given "for" Dionysus to make him appear. I've never seen it presented in the myths themselves as a gift for him so much as a result of his presence.

    In any event, I'm very much a supporter in borrowing from older stories, traditions, myths, but reworking or rewriting however matches the intention of the present work. In one way or another that's what I've done with the majority of the work I've done the past decade (novels, albums, etc).

    Hope that answers your questions somewhat?

  8. i love methology myself and i own the first and second season's of true blood so i did some research and came across this website



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