Dionysus, The Bacchae, and Initiation into the Queer Mysteries

This is my story about what queer spirituality means to me and how I found my identity as a gay man through initiation by Greek tragedy.

During my second year at university I took part in a production of Euripides’ Bacchae, an ancient Greek tragedy that tells the story of a king called Pentheus (played by myself). Pentheus rules the ancient Greek city of Thebes and is alarmed by all the women being taken in by the exotic and scandalous new rites of the god Dionysus. He sets out to put a stop to the god’s activities in his city, but cannot disguise his own fascination with the cult. Eventually Dionysus (taking the form of one of his own priests), is captured and brought before the king. He persuades Pentheus to come with him and go to witness the ceremonies. However, the rites are women only, so Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman and leads him to the ritual. There, Dionysus drives the women mad and in their frenzy they tear Pentheus limb from limb. The most horrifying part however, is that the woman who unknowingly takes the lead role in the bloody murder is Pentheus’ own mother.

Many of you may notice the initiatory themes that seem to run through this play; social transgression, gender swapping, and ritual death. This becomes all the more significant when you note that the Dionysia, the drama festival at which this play would originally have been performed, was a religious festival in honour of Dionysus. However, does the play still have an initiatory impact on those performing it today? Well, it certainly did for me…

Like many before me, I read Pentheus as a repressed man, battling with his own identity and desires, which Dionysus finally makes him face. Unintentionally, life imitated art, I was still trying to figure out my own identity after realising I was gay the year before. I had been developing my relationship with Dionysus since I was a teenager, praying to him and making the occasional offering. With hindsight I now realise that he was preparing me for my own initiation, helping me to  understand my sexuality and break loose from my self-imposed repression.

In many ways the play was like any other student production. There were the usual highs and lows: parties, budget concerns, cast drama, and relationships made and broken. I doubt anyone else in the cast or crew felt there was something spiritual going on, but there was for me. My personal high was a brief fling with another guy in the cast, which then ended. This experience of rejection, compounded by a similar experience from the summer just gone, left me feeling very low. However, I have observed from other initiatory experiences that these moments of darkness often precede the rebirth of initiation. The play itself suffered its own dark night of the soul, as it were, when a storm struck the city. The night of the dress rehearsal, the streets and bridges of Durham turned into rivers and it became dangerous even trying to get to the venue. When I finally arrived I found that the covered courtyard where we were due to perform, had flooded. The rest of that night was spent helping the frantic director drain and clean the venue. It reminded me of the destruction of Pentheus’ palace in the play, which foreshadows his own death at the hands of the Maenads.

If those moments represented the symbolic death, then what was the moment of rebirth? It was the drag scene. I will always remember my first rehearsal in drag. When my best friend and drag mother made me up for the first time, I felt an immediate change. My voice and body language transformed in ways I simply could not replicate without the get up. However, it was not until Dionysus (and/or the actor playing him) led me out under the stage lights on the first night, transformed with thyrsus in hand, that the magic truly struck me. I felt that a side of myself, that I didn’t even know existed, was now being released. (I now suspect that drag could be a powerful tool for use in magical ritual which I intend to explore further.) Performing this play, dressing as a woman, receiving the support and love of my friends, gave me permission to start exploring my identity and personal expression, in a way I had never felt comfortable doing so before. The feeling of freedom and transformation was not unlike that which I experienced in my Gardnerian initiation a year later. I was giddy with it.

The rest of that year was a year of firsts – first boyfriend, first ‘I love you,’ first piercing, and whole new wardrobe makeover. Each of these being a crucial step in me figuring out the kind of gay man that I want to be. Initiations are rites of passage, that allow you to claim a new identity and entry into a community. This play was my initiation and entry into the LGBTQ+ community and gave me permission to claim my queer identity.

Dionysus is the god of theatre. How better then for him to manifest in the life of his devotee than through a production named after him? To live an enchanted life is to see the presence of the gods in the apparently mundane. One might look at the production and see only a student playing a mythological character, leading another student wearing a dress onto the stage. However, the Greeks knew that the gods are that which they rule and represent. To know love is to know Aphrodite, to know oneself as a gay man, is to know Dionysus.

Queer spirituality, for me, is about finding and expressing my true identity, through the love and guidance of those gods whom I worship. When I look back on the initiations the gods have given me so far, I must count this play among them.

Whoever thought student theatre could be so magical?

Published by: Tom McArthur

Tom McArthur is a Classicist, witch and theatre kid. He belongs to a Gardnerian coven, as well as having a highly syncretic (read: eclectic) personal practice. The ancient world has a huge influence on his magical work as he works extensively with the Greek Magical Papyri and has a magical relationship with a number of Greco-Egyptian deities. Otherwise his interests include Wicca and other forms of witchcraft, folk magic, Goetia, entheogens, and mysticism.

One thought on “Dionysus, The Bacchae, and Initiation into the Queer Mysteries

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your initiatory experiences with Dionysos. While I have not had the privilege to perform the Bacchae, I have felt similar transformations happening by merely reading and contemplating the play. Pentheus’s character being read as oppressed is something I also relate to, and as a nonbinary trans masculine individual that believes he is beyond typical gender expression, dressing outside of the gender norm for ritual has always appealed to me and felt the cause for an internal transformation. It has really been reassuring to read this entry, as now I don’t feel like I am reading “too far” into these experiences. Again, thank you.


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