Hacked Open by the Double Axe
The Play of Dionysiac Wounding and Epiphany in the Human Psyche
by Laura Strudwick
A musky figure wanders through a lush garden, fingering a ripe purple grape, his hip brushing the leaves, wetness dripping onto his leg. He steps through the garden gate into a boneyard littered with remains, a femur here, a bull’s horn there, a human skull. The air is dry and quiet. Dionysos is dual, and I imagine him living in both of these landscapes.
He does not live alone, however, constantly interacting with gods, other beings like satyrs and nymphs, and, of course, humans. The psychologist Rafael Lopez-Pedraza calls Dionysos the “most psychiatric of the gods.” He argues that, “through built-in repression or through many bizarre epiphanies, Dionysos has a strong presence in the psyche” (30). I argue that he acts upon the psyche in a specific way: Dionysos, as a double-sided god, makes twins of his human victims through intimate woundings that reflect his own past sufferings. Dionysiac passion then invades the open wound as an epiphany, leading to the victim’s metamorphosis.
We find extreme examples of these woundings in Greek cultic ritual and mythology; to apply the thesis to the contemporary psyche requires a more subtle, metaphorical view, but not one lacking in passion. The wounds are less visible. The silent pain enclosed inside someone who is bored or addicted or depressed or stuck in what seems a meaningless existence needs to be hacked open by Dionysos. “Today the risk of dying of boredom is less visible than that of dying of a heart attack or cancer, but boredom and suffocating rage under oppressive circumstances are nonetheless killers” (Paris 25). Kate Winslet’s character April Wheeler in the 2008 film Revolutionary Road is the saddest woman I have ever met on screen. She feels trapped in her social roles, Wife and Mother, and her dreams of adventure and purpose slip away with a third, unexpected pregnancy, just as her life slips away when she attempts a home abortion. A terrifying breach with Dionysos may have saved her. Ginette Paris believes that, “Dionysos the Liberator is called whenever there is a revolution, be it collective or personal” (25). But there is no revolution for April Wheeler; the film’s title is ironic. As I explore examples from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, I hope to also convey some of the contemporary parallels and human need for Dionysos today.
As I approach this exploration of Dionysos, I realize that my rational mind must play its part, but I also want to inhabit an irrational terrain. Not only that place in my own mind and psyche, but also, perhaps, the location of Dionysos the god, if I can find him (he plays hide and seek). Albert Henrichs cautions against post-Nietzschian and post-Freudian academia’s tendency to over-abstract and psychologize Dionysos. Henrichs warns,
By locating Dionysus so exclusively either in the external structures of Greek society or in the internal dimensions of the human psyche, we are in danger of growing oblivious to that aspect of him that was foremost in the minds of the Greeks—his divine capacity to appear among mortals when least expected and to make his presence felt by affecting their personalities and changing their lives. (23)
I agree with Henrichs’ concern, though I will, unavoidably, psychologize Dionysos to some degree. I have also, however, “accessed” Dionysos through three active imagination dialogues, and so his “voice” will appear here in direct quotations from my dialogues with the god, and also, hopefully, through the spirit of my writing voice. Active imagination, though itself a psychological technique, is the best that I can do to access Dionysos, with no rites, festivals, or calendar days to observe in 21st century America. The participation mystique of active imagination with a god figure is legitimate, in my opinion. I tried to stay in touch with the god’s parousia, the Greek word for “presence,” throughout the research and writing process.
Dionysos will not stand still. He is multi-faceted, like a hefty jewel with a paradox dancing on each face, reflecting itself in multiple double images. Each face is another of his masks. Foremost, Dionysos rules both life and death. W. K. C. Guthrie, a seminal scholar on the Greek gods, writes that Dionysiac worship “has its joyous and bountiful side and its grim and gruesome side, for the same god is hailed as the giver of all good gifts and feared as the eater of raw flesh and the man-tearer” (146). I imagine Dionysos as inhabiting two terrains: the boneyard and the garden. The boneyard is stark and sterile, with white bone shards poking up from the barren ground, moonlight bouncing off their surfaces. It is a chthonic image. Dionysos is associated with ivy, a plant that thrives on cold, dark environments like the boneyard, a plant that grows rapidly and invasively, winding and choking the life out of its neighbors. The garden is juicy, sweet, green vines oozing wetness, dripping rain from their leaves. Here is the grape and the life force, the blood and the wine. The grape vine grows slowly, needs warmth and care, and produces sweet, edible fruit. Carl Kerényi, in his essential volume on Dionysos, equates both ivy and grape with zoë, the Greek word for life that he repeatedly associates with Dionysos (64). The blood and the wine represent both intoxicant and nourishment (think vampires). Both are spilled in sacrifice and as a sacrament. Both require wounding and opening in order for this sacrifice to occur. “The ecstatic wine comes only if the cluster of grapes is torn apart, trampled, enclosed” (Bly 218).
Dionysos is long associated with the double axe, a symmetrical weapon that mirrors itself, sharp on both sides, a dangerous and effective tool, like Dionysos. This axe was used to ritually sacrifice the bull, Dionysos’ stand in. “The double axe is Dionysos’ weapon, his symbol, and the most commonly used tool for sacrifice to cut the tendons of the neck” (Guépin 33). This weapon is a concrete image of Dionysos as opener. He opens people in many ways and the manifestations of his woundings are various, but the axe serves as a direct symbol for his primary function, that of liberator.
Dionysos’ three major origin myths reflect his dualities. The first origin story comes from the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos and Hesiod’s Theogony. Twice-born, Dionysos was enclosed in Semele’s womb, opened by Zeus’ lightning and removed, then enclosed in Zeus’ opened thigh, and finally opened again by Hermes or Zeus and brought forth into the world. The wound is opened, then sewn closed, only to be cut open again. The rhythm of this cycle is like a heart pumping blood in and out, like a life force rushing forward and receding, like the ocean tide pushing and drawing back, all images associated with Dionysian nature. Secondly, “On Crete, Dionysos was looked upon as the son of Zeus and Persephone, and for that reason he was called ‘Chthonios,’ ‘the subterranean,’ and ‘Zagreus’” (Kerényi 83). Here he lives both under and above ground. He clearly inhabits the boneyard as a chthonic god and the garden as an Olympian.
The third myth, from the Orphics, adds a third death and rebirth cycle, with the infant Dionysos’ dismemberment and consumption by the Titans, who are then reduced to ashes, and Dionysos is once again reborn from inside Zeus, who had swallowed Dionysos’ heart or phallus in order to regenerate him. The Orphic myth is the most dramatic wounding of the god. Although it was added later and reflects rites and myths already in place at its inception, the Orphic myth still expresses a deep meaning about Dionysos’ nature. His infanticide marks an initiation and a profound scarring that may help to explain Dionysos as a psychological being. “The symptom is in the wound and the wound is right next to the Self. And that’s where the initiation is,” Michael Meade explains. The ultimate duality is life and death, and through his birth myths, Dionysos faces death, like a mortal would, but always triumphs over it, as an immortal must.
He is a gender bender, another basic reconciliation of opposites, male and female. He was reared as a girl and often appears as a transvestite, but he is also very macho and enjoys the maenads as the sole male presence. He either carries a detached phallus or sports a huge erection, as his ithyphallic satyrs and Priapos, his son by Aphrodite, always do. “He may be called phales, the phallic one, or pseudanor, the man without true virility; he is referred to as dyalos, the hybrid, and arsenthelys, the man-woman” (Downing, Gods 58). While gender is not a major focus in this discussion, the relation of the wound to sexual opening and penetration will recur below. “Death and Eros are brothers,” Christine Downing writes in her discussion of Freud’s thanatos and eros drives (Gods 64). Dionysos participates heartily in both.
He plays dual roles, the tragic and comic masks, appropriate to the god of the theater. He is inflictor and healer, a wounded healer, like his mother Persephone who triumphs over her fear of death and Hades to become queen of the underworld (Downing, “Wounded Healer” 76). He is named both Baccheios, meaning “frenzy,” and Lysios, meaning “healer” (Detienne 25). According to Pausanias, the second century CE Greek geographer and historian, two identical statues of Dionysos stood in Corinth, each bearing one of these two names (Detienne 25). Here is a concrete historical image of his twinned identity.
The way that Dionysos relates to others reveals a complex relationship between subject and object, which will reappear later in the context of sacrificier and victim. Because he embodies the sacrificial wine, Dionysos “dissolves the boundaries between the other gods and himself, between himself and us” (Downing, Gods 64). He enters into the body through his drink. He joins in on the festivities when people worship him: “Celebrant and celebrated share a single garment, beneath which both are other, that is, both are bacchants, in a state that is a common denominator between the god and the man” (Detienne 23). He participates with and in the human ecstatic experience, binding the people to him while he loosens the boundaries. The Thracian Dionysos offered immortality to humans, whereas the Greeks probably did not accept this doctrine in their relation to the god, instead, according to Guthrie, believing that the enthusiasmos and ekstasis were temporary states (175). Albert Henrichs emphasizes that for the ancient Greeks, “from Homer to Longus,” it was not possible for humans to achieve immortality as gods because Dionysos was “a supernatural being whose existential status was not only superior to that of mortals but also independent of it—he was a god” (15). To completely become one with Dionysos, on a permanent basis, is not possible and to aspire to that goal represents a state of inflationary over-identification.
Identification of the god is a major theme in both Dionysiac ritual and myth. In order to identify Dionysos, one must have eyes to see him. The trouble is, he delights in playing hide and seek. His favorite style of disguise is behind a mask. In this way he is slippery to identify as “a God who loves to play many roles” (Paris 47). Dionysos may wear human features, but he is not really human, so his features appear different, alien, in Kerényi’s words, “lifeless, as though removed from every living thing” (81). The mask “communicated a strangely ambivalent experience of a zoë as uncannily near and at the same time remote” (Kerényi 80). Walter Otto also addresses the Dionysian paradox of near and far, calling Dionysos in the mask “that which is excruciatingly near, [and] that which is completely absent—both in one reality” (91). A mask provides distance between the wearer and the observer, a distance that is necessary and protective when one experiences a god. Dionysos “was known as the god of confrontation. [. . .] the god of the most immediate presence who looks at us so penetratingly from the vase painting [. . .]” (Otto 90). The mask gives form to the god’s energy while simultaneously protecting the observer from being hurt by the force of that energy. But Dionysos seems to want interaction with people, connections that almost always wound, and he seems to punish people for their inability to recognize him, even though he is in disguise. His motives are paradoxical, like his nature.
One of his most common masks is that of the Stranger, referred to as “the Other” by scholars Louis Gernet, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Walter Otto, and Marcel Detienne, among others. The god arrives in a locale, expecting a welcome even though he wears the mask of foreigner. Ironically, since he is the life force, everyone should already know him intimately and recognize him immediately, but his strangeness prevents it. Euripides in The Bacchae describes Dionysos as a foreigner with a mother born in Thebes, so he is a familiar stranger. “For Euripides, therefore, Dionysus is both local and foreign at the same time, and this is often how he appears in dreams: a foreigner who is familiar, a seeming paradox that could make for psychic movement” (Lopez-Pedraza 51). This mystery tantalizes some people and repels others.
Interestingly, the closer Dionysos gets to his hometown, Thebes, the more strange he appears to others. That which is most intimate is also most foreign, but Dionysos’ expectation of recognition from his closest relatives is also greater. “The closer the relation between Dionysos and those who mistake his identity, the more urgent is his need to be recognized and the more violent his epiphany” (Detienne 18). It is in Thebes that his cousin Pentheus cannot recognize him. Perhaps the Stranger’s mask is too close to Pentheus’ face, making him myopic. Pentheus searches for Dionysos in The Bacchae while talking to him face to face: “Where is he? I cannot see him.” Dionysos replies: “With me. Your blasphemies have made you blind” (Euripides 500-501). Pentheus cannot see what is right in front of him; he is too enclosed in his own mind to have open eyes. Only Dionysos can open him, which he does in a brutal epiphany.
It is not until Pentheus is under Dionysos’ spell that he sees a vision of a bull, Tauromorphus, one of Dionysos’ names meaning “bull’s shape.” Dionysos says to Pentheus in his moment of recognition: “You see what you could not when you were blind” (Euripides 924). The metaphor of vision is central to Dionysian recognition: Detienne writes, “[. . .] the experience of a believer in Dionysos involves the reciprocal vision of the Bacchant and his god. ‘He saw me, I saw him; he bestowed upon me his orgia.’ Pentheus, curious about the ceremonies, hears these words spoken of the teletai [ecstatic ritual] brought by the Stranger” (22). Only through reciprocal vision can a truly mutual relationship exist. There must be some understanding and awareness of the Other as existing separately and independently from oneself, just as there must be some recognition of the sameness that the two share. Twins are both identical and separate from each other.
David Raeburn, in his analysis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, discusses the connecting themes in the six stories that circle around the figure of Bacchus in Book 3. “[. . .] in all six we can detect an underlying theme in the idea of ‘intrusion’ or ‘seeing the forbidden holy,’ followed by unhappy, even violent, consequences” (91). Again, vision is central, as well as divine penetration of the mortal. Raeburn alludes to identification and separation in his comment about the Narcissus myth, “Here Ovid is evidently fascinated by the paradox of an identification between subject and object, active and passive” (92). Even though the Narcissus story does not include an explicit reference to Bacchus, Ovid’s placement of this myth of his own creation is no accident. It comes directly before his rendition of the Pentheus story. Pentheus strongly resists identification with the Other, and then he is possessed by the Other, which mortally wounds him, even takes his head off. Narcissus falls in love with what he sees as the Other, which also leads to his mortal demise, but one may argue that he “falls into” ecstasy when he enters the pool. Ovid’s description of Narcissus’ behavior in the afterlife, still gazing adoringly at his reflection, shows the strongest attachment to the divine Other, total identification with what is truly a twinned self. Perhaps it’s foolish, and perhaps it’s bliss.
The Greeks kept more of a distance from Dionysos than the Thracians, perhaps through the mask symbol. Lopez-Pedraza considers that ““[. . .] the secret of Dionysus’s psychology, [is] teaching the audience how to be Dionysiac without identifying with the god” (53). Most psychologists today may caution against complete identification with the Self or divinity, which leads to ego inflation and even megalomania. Ginette Paris believes, “The inflation specific to Dionysos is intensity” (21). Interestingly, however, Dionysos seems to check Pentheus’ ego rather than inflate it, even as he coerces Pentheus into resembling him. With Dionysian Greek myths, it seems that the two, god and human, do not fuse, although they may touch briefly. Instead, the god acts as an agent on the human who is then opened to the epiphany.
But isn’t it natural to avoid such an invasion? Change is difficult, and humans develop many defenses to avoid it. Dionysos forces change on people, and in return people attempt to resist his force. Kerényi describes people as natural enemies of the god, “ready to erupt and murder him,” but then he makes the point that though people try to resist and destroy the god, “all have within them something of the selfsame god, to wit, divine indestructible life” (241). Whether people recognize the god within or not (have eyes to consciously see), the sense of identification may be unconscious and may be the motivation for resistance. The ego wants to stay intact rather than travel too far down Jung’s ego-Self axis and risk being subsumed by the god. It’s scary to feel sucked into the darkness and normal to seek the light.
Resistance is futile. You can tie Dionysos’ hands and feet with vines, or you can put him in a bone cage and lock the door, but don’t turn your back on him because he’ll be free and loose whenever he wants to be. He may humor you for a moment, but at the same time he laughs at your presumption. Pentheus is under the delusion that he is stronger than Dionysos, and so he chains him, while Dionysos highlights Pentheus’ lack of self-awareness: “You do not know the limits of your strength. You do not know what you do. You do not know who you are” (Euripides 503-505). Pentheus is a stranger to himself while Dionysos appears as a stranger to his eyes, playing the threatening xenos in Pentheus’ territory. In a funny way, though, Dionysos is really the owner of that land, Thebes, and master over Pentheus. Ironically, Pentheus’ repression leads him closer to Dionysos, as Rafel Lopez-Pedraza explains: “Psychologically, repression is a built-in dynamic of Dionysus’s own archetypal configuration. [. . .] Paradoxically, an awareness of Dionysus is only possible through repression, for it acts as a ritual that propitiates the god. [. . .] It is through repression that one can connect with and tame Dionysiac forces” (26). Ovid, in Book 3 of The Metamorphoses, paints a picture of Pentheus’ repression and resistance with the beautiful conceit of a dammed river:
Warning merely sharpened his purpose; constraint provoked him to wilder madness and aggravated his fury—as swollen rivers that I have seen, where nothing obtruded to hinder their course, proceeded smoothly with little commotion; but when they were blocked by uprooted trees or rocky boulders, they foamed and they seethed and their rage gathered force in the face of obstruction. (566-571)
The built-up energy here is Pentheus’, but it can just as easily belong to Dionysos. The more you try to block Dionysos, the more he overtakes you by force, like a pent-up bull crashing out of his cage, releasing the confined potential energy in a kinetic frenzy. The cycles of potential and kinetic, repression and release, binding and loosening, dam and flow are all further evidence of Dionysos’ double nature, reflected in the human experience. People cycle through periods of control and moments of surrender. We don’t remember that waging war with an omnipotent, immortal god will be a vain enterprise, and that if it’s Dionysos, he will only play with us and then do his own will. Often, his will is to wound.
Dionysos projects his own wounds onto his human victims. Just as he experienced the underworld, infanticide, dismemberment, mania, exile, and stranger status, so too his human counterparts suffer the same. Otto describes him as a god of ecstasy and “enraptured love,” but also “the persecuted god, the suffering and dying god, and all whom he loved, all who attended him, had to share his tragic fate” (49). In the myths, Dionysos plays the perpetrator who wounds, but the wounding is interactive in that the victim’s psyche responds and may even perpetuate the wounding process. Henrichs differentiates between Dionysos’ style and that of other gods: “Unlike Apollo or Artemis, he does not kill his victims through direct divine intervention but relies on those self-destructive drives within their human nature that cause madness, self-mutilation, or transformation” (19). In active imagination dialogue, in response to my question, “How do you wound people?” Dionysos answered: “I let them wound themselves, really. It’s like they impale themselves on me by banging into me, crashing into me and by trying to hold me back or down.” The wound occurs through the relationship, not only within the human psyche, as Henrichs implies, and not only through the agency of Dionysos.
Pentheus is an apt symbol for a human/divine connection through suffering and vulnerability. The name Pentheus, meaning “full of suffering,” occurs on Crete at Knossos in the late Minoan period, and Kerényi makes the connection between the man Pentheus and the suffering god: “The name ‘Pentheus’ presupposes the myth of a god who suffers for a time but then triumphs over suffering. [. . .] Originally the ‘man of suffering’—Pentheus or Megapenthes—was the god himself” (70). This is a deep relationship between human and god, facilitated by the wound. There is a sense of an original shared identity that later split apart.
The different wounds—dismemberment, infanticide, mania, and exile—are connected in that they all relate to Dionysos the Stranger, forcing the person to touch the Other by way of the open wound. They are all ways of being broken apart. Detienne describes Dionysiac madness or mania as unhinging its victims, drawing a parallel with dismemberment (20). Both mania and dismemberment symbolize a separation from the self, which relates to exile and stranger status—a loss of a sense of home and comfort, a step into the wild, dangerous woods, out of the rational city. Even the word exstasis, ecstasy, relates to “exile,” and means “standing outside oneself.” Lykourgos, the king of the Edonians in Thrace, directly attacks Dionysos; his wounding pattern is a classic example of Dionysian sacrifice. Lykourgos attacks a fleeing Dionysos in Book 6 of The Iliad, and then later Aeschylus, in the Edoni, tells the story of Dionysos’ retribution. Dionysos infects Lykourgos with madness so that he loses touch with reality. Lykourgos then imagines his son is a vine and chops him up with an axe—the vine, the axe, dismemberment of a child—Dionysos uses his symbols and life story to make Lykourgos his twin through the wounding process. Lykourgos’ subjects exile him to Mount Pangaeus after the land turns sterile (the boneyard). At the Dionysian temple (garden) on that mountain, he is tied to four horses who gallop off in the four directions, ripping him apart from his center. Like Acteaon, Lykourgos is cleaved by natural forces, which belong to Dionysos and his double axe.
Sacrificer and victim share an intimacy here as well. Dionysos sacrifices Lykourgos and Pentheus in these examples, but the victims closely resemble the victimizer. In ritual, Dionysos is identified with the bull that is sacrificed to him, as if he dies for his own sake. He dies in order to give himself more life. Guépin writes about the Dionysian bull sacrifice, “This affords an extremely paradoxical combination of victim and sacrificer: the god who partakes of the sacrifice is at the same time the sacramental victim that is slaughtered; a unity even more paradoxical than that between the god and his votary” (31). Similarly, in an active imagination dialogue, Dionysos responds to my question, ““When you allow people to crash into you, maybe it wounds you, too? Does it?” Dionysos:
I get opened, more. I grow that way, that’s how I feed—as a god, I need sacrifices—the people who crash onto me are sacrificing themselves through submission, whether conscious or unconscious. Any kind of interaction with me is good for me—anything! Don’t ignore me. . . I feed on attention—which is human energy directed to me.
Then he makes an inside joke with me and laughs another haha! The opening allows a space for vitality and mystery and play. It is not only the Wounded Healer archetype, but also the Healing Wound, a wordplay similar to James Hillman’s title Healing Fiction. The wound acts as a healer for the psyche and it also heals itself, miraculously knitting together what was opened.
I imagine the Dionysiac wound as a place in the center of the body that has been hacked and then held open, much like a surgeon clamps back the flesh to penetrate deeper with the scalpel. The figure on the right shows a body with such opened wounds. Rather than disgust, however, I find myself fascinated by the inner contents of these wounds. Is that a caduceus? A garden? What treasures hide in the deep psyche, what hidden gold? Ginette Paris cautions against romantic notions about the Dionysiac wound, “Madness that is a punishment of Dionysos has nothing romantic about it; it destroys and it hurts” (20). Yes, but later, the gifts arrive. Pain is married to change.
Dionysos penetrates the opening in a sexual, ecstatic way, as many gods have penetrated humans through beams of light, enraptured bliss, and other sexual imagery. Teresa of Avila and Song of Songs are classic Christian examples. Rembrandt paints Jacob’s dream of wrestling with God’s angel in a erotic scene. Zeus’ sexual exploits are a poignant Greek example. Dionysos’ annual ritual marriage to the King-Archon’s wife symbolizes his intimacy with the people, since the Archon was both the political magistrate and “official religious leader of the city” (Guthrie 177). At the same time, Dionysos is also an open receiver, like a woman or homosexual male. He opens his body by lowering his anus onto a fig wood phallus, an “act of subservience” and gratitude to Prosymnos or Polymnos, the man who had led him to the underworld entrance where he sought his lost mother (Kerényi 311). Prosymnos and Polymnos are both names that represent a cult phallus that was celebrated with songs (Kerényi 311). A phallus figure leads Dionysos to the death world to recover his mother. Sex and death and life, all rolled into one, a psychologist’s dream! Carl Jung’s boyhood vision of the underworld phallus on a throne, described in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, comes to mind.
The sex act’s purpose, along with ecstasy, is reproduction. Two forces come together and instigate a chemical reaction, a change that produces something new. Within the penetration is the god’s parousia. The god’s presence inhabits, infuses, enthuses, and energizes the open place through epiphany. The word epiphany is probably derived from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “appearance, manifestation.” Epiphany can be defined in two ways: a manifestation of a deity; a sudden realization, awareness, insight into the essential meaning of something. This term fits the mystery of the Dionysiac experience: the god arrives and activates the psyche into sudden change, giving birth to a newly initiated version of the self.
In the myths, the Dionysiac wounds appear as punishment and lead to death for most of the characters, but these myths are symbolic. The death of the old, the catharsis, makes way for the epiphany to enter the opening. In approximately half of the world’s cultures that practice shamanism, dis- and re- memberment play a major part in shamanic initiation rites. In Australia, for example, the initiate envisions death and dismemberment as an opening of a wound in the center of the body. Spirit figures come, insert rock crystals, new organs, and/or snakes into the body, and then close the wound. The initiate returns to his people with new powers and gifts, symbolized by the additions into the body (Eliade 48). The wound opens the way for penetration and change.
Describing Dionysos’ nature and function is a challenging, fascinating, confusing, and frustrating task. When I asked him “What is the nature of your nature?” he replied, “I am Life and Death. I activate and murder. I am not passive. I laugh, cry, scream, dance—I am Movement. I gouge. I revel. I am HUGE energy. No containment of that energy is possible by humans. I must contain it—that’s why I cycle from life to death, to balance myself.” The last words belong to him.
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 I reference line numbers rather than page numbers for Euripides’ The Bacchae.
 Line numbers are again cited, rather than page numbers.