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In the section of his book, Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis devoted to Ancient Greece and Rome, Robin Waterfield briefly discusses one of the major literary masterpieces of Classical Greece. According to Waterfield, the Bacchae of Euripides is a work which is often mentioned in books which deal with the history of hypnosis. Perhaps, then, it merits a little more space than the brief paragraph which Waterfield gives it.

The Bacchae of Euripides is one of the most powerful, compelling and shocking dramas ever created, whether in the Ancient World or anywhere else. In the brief discussion which follows I will avoid giving away the ending.

The play is about the god Dionysus – or Bacchus, to give him his Roman name. He was not a “thoroughbred” god – he was the son of Zeus (the king of the ancient Greek gods) and a mortal woman, Semele. Zeus got Semele pregnant. Semele asked Zeus to reveal his godhead in all its glory. When he did, Semele was blasted by the lightning which always attends Zeus in his full manifestation.

Semele died, but the foetus was unhurt. Zeus took the creature and concealed it in his thigh, to protect Dionysus from the jealously of his wife Hera. In due course, Dionysus was born from the thigh of Zeus and grew to maturity away from Greece and from Thebes, the city of his mother.

When the play begins, Dionysus has decided to return to Greece, but he comes in disguised as a priest. When he enters Thebes, the women of the town are transformed. They run from their homes and dance upon the mountains in a state of wild exhilaration. Several male authority figures in the town suspect that this madness has a divine origin and they try to join the women. But Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is not amused.

To modern readers and audiences, Pentheus comes across as a joyless, authoritarian control-freak who cannot cope with the sudden outbreak of ecstasy and total rejection of everyday, “normal” law, order and custom. The mostly male audience of the late 5th century BC might have been more sympathetic to him. In the Athens of the period the woman’s sphere was the oikos or home. She mainly stayed within the home and within the family. She had little autonomy or freedom of choice. She would be given away in marriage by the male head of the household. If her (adult) son was the only male member of the household then he had that power over her. He was her kurios. The word means “lord” as in kyrie eleison – “lord have mercy”. A play which presented women running amok, totally in the grip of their own feelings and desires and armed with a supernatural strength must have struck a chill in the hearts of a contemporary male audience.

When the chorus of women appear they sing their parodos, or entrance-song, and express the sheer joy and feeling of liberation which they now experience. In the original Greek that chorus conveys the most extraordinary feeling of energy and excitement. Its giddy, whirling rhythm simply cannot be captured by even the most competent translator.

Pentheus tries to reassert authority and captures this new and unwelcome “priest”. He questions and then imprisons him. The disguised Dionysus soon breaks free and appears before the astonished Pentheus. Then a messenger enters with disturbing news. The ecstasy of the women has a darker side. They are confronted by some herdsmen but the men are soon overcome and the women tear the cattle to pieces with their bare hands. They have god-like strength. The feel no pain.

Things are now at a stalemate. Pentheus threatens the “priest” with further punishment. The disguised Dionysus tries to offer one last chance of a happy truce or settlement. Pentheus is having none of it. So Dionysus simply takes control of him. From that moment on – line 810 in the original text – Pentheus is utterly doomed. If you want to know what happens now – read the play!

Clearly this play has little to do with hypnotherapy as we understand it. Whether it somehow deals with the phenomenon of hypnosis will depend upon what sort of definition we employ. Are the women in the play hypnotised? They certainly behave as if they are in some highly abnormal state of consciousness. The insensitivity to pain and the seemingly super-human strength are familiar hypnotic phenomena. But they clearly were not subjected to any kind of formal hypnotic induction as we understand the process. The thought of Dionysus going round to every female inhabitant of Thebes and launching into some induction spiel might be rather amusing to contemplate but it has little to do with Euripides’ play. If this is hypnosis, then it is so in the very broadest sense of the term – meaning an abnormal but temporary state of consciousness in which perceptions of “reality” are processed in a radically different way than usual creating experiences and phenomena which are out of the ordinary.

Is Dionysus a hypnotist? If so, he is very efficient one! All he does is say the word “Ha!” (an alpha with rough breathing in the Greek) and Pentheus in entirely in his power. Is this possession rather than hypnosis? Well, yes, but a lot depends on how you interpret Pentheus’ behaviour immediately following his “entrancement”. It is almost as if the veneer of civilization is immediately stripped away. Suddenly we see what Pentheus really wants. He wants to join in. He, too, wants to taste that freedom, to experience that liberation, a liberation from the very restrictions which he, as king, embodies. If this is hypnosis then it resembles William J Ousby’s model of a means of getting beyond the “censor” in our heads, going beyond reason, no longer thinking of what we ought to do, simply experiencing that which represents our innermost desire.

Does this constitute evidence for hypnosis in Ancient Greece? There is no simple answer to that question. The Bacchae as an ambiguous and powerful masterpiece, capable of supporting any number of modern interpretations. My own provisional view is that it probably does – but maybe it is time we adopted a much broader definition of “hypnosis”.

Dodds, E, R., (1944) The Bacchae of Euripides, OUP.
Waterfield, R., (2002) Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis, Pan Macmillan.

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