A Speech from Euripides’ Bacchae

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Our grazing herds of cattle had just started
climbing to the uplands, and the sun
was sending out its beams to warm the earth—
that’s when I first discerned three choirs of women:
Autonoë led one, your mother Agave
led another, and Ino led the third.
They were at ease, asleep. Some were reclining
on boughs of firs, and others lay their heads
among the oak leaves here and there—all chastely,
not drunk, as you assert, on cups of wine
and flute-song, not pursuing Aphrodite
by slipping off into the groves.
………………………………………………….Your mother
Agave heard our twin-horned cattle lowing,
started up amid the Bacchant women
and whooped to warn them it was time to wake.
They rubbed sleep from their eyes and rose as one—
the wedded women, the unmarried maidens.
Their languid discipline amazed me.
they let their hair flow free onto their shoulders,
then those whose knots had come unfastened tied
their fawnskin garments up again, but not
with straps, no, rather snakes with flicking tongues.
Those women who had newborns back at home
and breasts still swollen cradled fawns and wolf-pups
and gave them suck. They crowned themselves with garlands
woven from ivy, oak and flowering yew.
One struck her fennel wand against a rock,
and glistening water leapt out of the rupture.
Where another struck the ground, the god
sent forth a jet of wine, and those who wanted
white drink rooted with their fingernails
until a milky river started forth.
All on their own, the wands began to drip
honey. If you had been there and perceived
these miracles, you would be worshipping
the god you now are treating with contempt.

All of us herdsmen—cowherds, shepherds—held
a meeting to decide through argument
what strange and shocking things were going on.
One man, a city person skilled in speaking,
said to us, “You who dwell in Mount Cithaeron’s
holy valleys, do you want to chase
the mother of Pentheus from the Bacchic revels
to do the king a favor?” We agreed
with his proposal, hid among some bushes
and lay in ambush. When the time came round,
the Bacchants all began to wave their wands
in celebration, and they cried, in concert,
to Iacchus Zeus’ son, the Roaring God.
The mountain moved along with them, beasts roared
and everything was running with their running.

Agave happened to be leaping near me,
so sneaking from the blind that kept me hidden,
I ran to catch her, but she shouted, “See there,
my hunting dogs, what men are chasing us!
Arm yourselves, arm yourselves with sacred staffs
and follow me.” By running we escaped
a raw-flesh-shredding at the Bacchants’ hands.
Yes, though they held no weapons made of iron,
they still attacked a herd of grazing cattle.
You could see one woman with her bare hands
shredding a roaring fatted calf, while others
were rending heifers limb by limb. Raw ribs
and cloven hooves were readily apparent
as they were tossed this way and that, and bloody
pieces dangled dripping from the pines.

Countless hands of women grabbed and toppled
bulls that had proven difficult to deal with,
the sort that gore a herdsman with their horns.
The Bacchants tore away their rinds of flesh
faster than you could blink your kingly eyelids.
Like birds in flight, they darted through the plain
that bears so bountiful a crop for Thebes
beside the river Asopus. Swooping down
like warriors on Hysiae and Erythrae,
little towns that lie below the rock-line
of Mount Cithaeron, all the women started
making a shambles of them. They were stealing
children from their homes. Whatever armor,
whether bronze or iron, they put on
stayed fastened without any fastenings
and never fell and struck the ground. Their hair
took fire, but the fire never burned them.
The citizens they had been stealing from
angrily took up arms, and what came next,
my lord, was truly terrible to witness:
the sharp spears hit their marks but drew no blood.
The women hurled their fennel wands like spears
in answer, struck the townsfolk, drove them back.
Yes, these were women wounding men—they surely
had the help of some divinity.
Off they went back to where they came from. There
they washed the blood off in the very fountains
the god had started for them. The tongues of serpents
licked the blood-stains off the women’s cheeks.

King, please accept this hitherto unknown
divinity into the city. He
has proven he is great in many ways,
and this is said of him as well, I hear—
that he has given humankind grape-vines
that bring an end to grief. If there were no more
wine, there would be no more Aphrodite
for mortals, no more pleasure in the world.