Women’s Knowledge (Tiring-esias)

In The Bacchae, women are a mystery to society when constrained by it and become an incomprehensible hazard when released from it. 

In Greek society, the segregation between men and women was believed to allow for women to develop a separate sphere of female knowledge. Ancient Greek women were seen as belonging in domestic contexts, but were viewed as having affinities with wildness and nature, in contrast to men, who were viewed as a more civilized sex. Therefore, when not under the control of these civilized men, they were viewed as having the potential to wreak havoc as did the Bacchants. According to Ross S. Kraemer, “although men may pay homage to Dionysus, it is only the women who are possessed and who, in the state of ecstatic possession, perform the higher rites. Men seek to witness the maenads “snuggling together in the joyous nets of love” (The Bacchae line 956). However, although the men see the Bacchants, and intrude upon their space on multiple occasions, the Bacchants are still protected from these prying eyes. The spying men do not see or gain insight about the rites that are, according to Dionysus, “knowledge worth having” (The Bacchae lines 475-476). These rites are known only to the Theban women, and men are killed for the intrusion. Dionysus and his rites are, therefore, a barrier between the  male and female spheres. The deaths of the male characters are both indicative of the righteousness of those deaths, as they were due to men infringing upon a divine space, but also represent societal worries about female independence, with god-induced frenzy used as a device to indicate how women have the potential to give in to their volatile nature and disrupt the social order.

Frenzy, however, was published in 1997, during the period of “third-wave feminism. Everett wrote Frenzy within a society that permitted women to vote and participate in its governing bodies, as opposed to the Athenian society in which Euripides lived.

The character Agave from Frenzy, however, struggles against a sexist society like her counterpart in The Bacchae, Agaue . Agave illuminates how she is “the mother of that king, the daughter of that king, wife of Echion, the earthborn-not-even-human servant of my father, the something to somebody always, the counted but not the counter” (44),  and that “men of our city blame the crime [of rape] on us,” but that the women, by being Bacchants, will not “be their laying hens” (111). Her society has not given her the chance to be an individual, and is treated as an object for male pleasure and use. Agave’s reasoning in Frenzy runs parallel to the original version of her’s desires in The Bacchae, wherein she is proud of having “left the shuttle by the loom and [rising] to higher thing–hunting beasts with my hands!” (The Bacchae, 1236-1238). Frenzy, therefore, stays true to The Bacchaes message about women wishing to leave their assigned stations and form their own identities. 

Frenzy, however, does not associate female liberation with hidden female knowledge. Frenzy eliminates the idea separate spheres of knowledge, and humanizes female characters by expressing their wills and desires in the same, stream of consciousness format that the thoughts of male characters are expressed with. As opposed to The Bacchae’s assertion that there is a divine barrier between male and female knowledge, Frenzy’s Dionysos “[does] not allow or disallow anyone from participating” (45), indicating that, as opposed to The Bacchae, there is no divine preference for women in the world created by Frenzy, just as there are no tragic realizations about the implications of secret female knowledge, as Agave does not actually murder her son in her frenzy.

Frenzy, however, argues that Agave’s quest to form her own identity is futile, and that she will always, although unjustly, be entangled with men due to social inequality. Even when she escapes to become a Bakkhant, she is one of Tiresias’ “prizes of the day” (119), and Dionysos is apathetic to her complaints about his presence despite the fact that he views her as an accomplishment for himself more than as a person. When Tiresias attempts to be among the Bakkhants and discuss the ways in which society has wronged them despite the Bakkhants being disinterested, she tells him to “shut up” (45). Agave claims that Tiresias has no place in the Bakkhic rites on account of his being a man, and refuses to listen to him or believe that she needs a male perspective. However, she eventually submits to Tiresias (138) and sleeps with him. Although she claims that “[he is] here because I allow it,” Tiresias’ actual purpose is not to take part in a reciprocal affair, but to continue to assert his message about seeing her “on her knees” (47) when she has made it clear that she does not wish to be told Tiresias’ message, which her own foresight renders superfluous. Tiresias’ message uses imagery related to him sexually dominating Agave, which runs parallel with the control he asserts over her. Tiresias, however, falsely predicts facts about Agave’s future, incorrectly claiming that she “will kill your son…This god will make you kill him” (47). Despite providing misinformation, he correctly predicts truth, but only truth as created by Kadmos. Agave, however, believes Kadmos’ falsehoods, which allows him to dictate her truth, and thus, her identity. The irony in Agave’s fate is that her sight is more factually accurate than that of Tiresias, but she becomes convinced that the opposite due to the societal force of male dominion. Men and women are factually both the bearers and the creators of truth and rational thought in Frenzy, but society’s sexism removes women’s agency and individuality without a god to deliver the justice found in The Bacchae. Women are forced to not embody their own desires, but the “truth” of their culpability for crimes committed by men.

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