Monday, August 24, 2009
True Blood: Dionysus, the Maenad
Posted by James Curcio
The appearance of a maenad, and the bacchante, in popular culture through the HBO series True Blood has been entertaining me lately, although it also points out to me just how ignorant mainstream America seem to be to mythology, or perhaps how much it has permeated my own thoughts. For instance, I'm always a little shocked when people don't have any clue what a maenad is. (This certainly doesn't apply to many people that I know, who also seem to realize that even if you're not interested in myth for philosophical, religious or occult reasons, they are a necessary knowledge-base if you want to write or really produce art of any kind.)
Though people that read Kerenyi (etc) might accuse True Blood of various historic and conceptual inaccuracies of "the Maenad," I'd flip them the finger for missing the point. Borrowing from myth to serve a story is well and good, but it has to be adapted not only to the narrative necessities of the piece, but also to the time and place of the story. In other words, it has to be modernized. This might be the most attracting factor of this series, that it borrows from a vast array of myths, tosses them into the same world together, and streamlines them for pop-culture consumption. I've been involved in projects with similar intentions myself, though those never managed to gain the benefit of the financial backing necessary to bring them to the market. Such is the fickleness of the media industry.
This also further demonstrates the fact that you needn't be truly original in a work for it to be successful, and a work - a book, an episodic series, a movie - can serve as a gateway to new knowledge even in the process of "watering down" for the sake of the story and the audience. I've gone on rants before about how artists overrate originality, when quality of "traditional" elements like character development and successful blending of existing forms and genres are so much crucial to producing "good work."
I hope the show leads some people to explore more about the Dionysus myth, or the entire pantheon that exists inside of the symbol of this single God. He is full of different aspects, and the show tends to gloss over a key element. Even traditionally the maenads / bacchante tore people apart with their bare hands. In Euripides' The Bacchae, Pentheus' mom slaughtered him and touted his head around on a pike without realizing what she was doing. However, they gloss over what actually unleashes his ire. I've seen little in original sources about the need of a blood sacrifice to sate some urge in and of itself; it is as I said usually vengeance against those who try to uphold an unnatural order - specifically a patriarchal one. Dionysus is an agent of nature, which is traditionally characterized as both female and pure chaos. (Nor is this a connection limited to Greek Mythology. e.g. the Babylonian Tiamat or the many other "devouring mother" forms of the goddess archetype. Dionysus himself is clearly not female, but he is commonly referred to as "bi-valent" or "bi-natured," which aside from the commonly observed overtones of bisexuality applies more to an implication of symbolic hermaphradism. It's also fairly evident that often it is the agents of Dionysus- the bacchante, the maenads- who generally do the "dirty work.")
The patriarchal gods represent the social order, and Dionysus is the son of Zeuss, though his mother changes depending on the origin of the myth. So while they're playing Maryanne as a villain, which works just fine for the purposes of this story, it'd be even more interesting to see these two forces (patriarchy and order, matriarchy and chaos) come into direct conflict, not to mention wiping clean the stigma that chaos is bad, let alone evil. This is more what I tried to focus on in Fallen Nation, though I clearly toned down the blood frenzy because that didn't serve the purposes of that particular story.
Each story brings out different elements of a myth. Addendum: I've commented some in past posts on this blog about Dionysus, but based on the interest this post appears to be getting, I'll look to make another post (or series of posts) about the "horned god."