Book review: Bakkhai

by Euripides, translated by Reginald Gibbons


For those who don’t recognize the title, this ancient Greek theater piece is about the god Dionysus, god of wine. It was first performed in Athens, in 405 BC. And for those who still don’t catch the connection to my blog, it’s this: Many of the characteristics of Jesus are shared with this frivolous Greek god, and at least one of Jesus’ miracles—turning water into wine—also seems closely related. In fact, the late Byzantine play, The Passion of Christ, drew heavily on the Bakkhai.

Greek tragedies are a little hard for us to fully enter into two and a half millennia later, particularly as we struggle to understand on just at what level the Greeks believed in their gods, but the commentary of this book does a great job of making something foreign feel familiar. In the play, you’ll see Dionysus’ more unpleasant side … his usual ecstasy and abandon turn into vengeance and bloodlust, aimed toward a young king who seeks to discredit him. True to Greek form, the god wins, with no apparent attempt at a climaxing plot; we understand from the beginning that humans are doomed to subjection before the gods. The punishment for disbelief far exceeds the crime, with no hint of pity or apology, as befits the gods’ disdain for lesser beings.

I found the forty page introduction superb, and the notes following the play a bit less so, though still helpful in illuminating the setting.

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