The Maenads, Mad, Frenzied Priestesses of Dionysus | Ancient Origins Members Site


The Maenads, Mad, Frenzied Priestesses of Dionysus

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Orpheus and the Bacchantes by Gregorio Lazzarini (1710) (Public Domain)

The Maenads, Mad, Frenzied Priestesses of Dionysus

The Maenads are often written off simply as ‘mad women’ by historians. However, although the name Maenad literally translates as the ‘raving ones’, these women were much more than that. The Maenads were actually sacred worshippers and holy priestesses of Dionysus - the god of wine and vegetation, festivity, madness and frenzy. Every aspect of the Maenads’ appearance echoed the god they worshipped. They carried the thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel covered with ivy vines also carried by Dionysus, and adorned the skin of a panther, one of Dionysus’s sacred animals as he was often depicted riding on the back of a panther or driving a chariot drawn by a pair of the beasts. The Maenads also wore snakes on their hair, as Zeus crowned his son with snakes when he let him emerge from his thigh, thus designating the snake as another one of Dionysus’ sacred animals.

Dionysus riding a panther, mosaic floor in the 'House of Dionysus' at Pella. (late fourth century BC) Pella Archaeological Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)

            Dionysus riding a panther, mosaic floor in the 'House of Dionysus' at Pella. (late fourth century BC) Pella Archaeological Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Since Dionysus had conquered the East before he came to Greece, he recruited many of his sacred entourage among those so-called ‘barbarians’ or, perhaps more specifically, people who were not Greeks. The Maenads worshipped Dionysus with hymns, rites and dedicating their souls to the Bacchic revels by living a pure day-to-day life, dancing with inspired frenzy while accompanying themselves with drumbeats and performing holy purifications.


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