There’s also nymphs, undines, dryads and other similar nature spirits. They were usually pretty passive in mythology unless you cut down their tree like a rude ass.
Then there are the maenads.
Maenads, or the raving ones, were drunken female followers of Dionysus. Often they went into inspired frenzies and ripped apart any animal in their way. They appear almost randomly in myths leaping out of the forests and tearing animals to shreds.
Maenads, or Bacchantes in some Roman texts, represent the threatening natural world beyond human (or male) control. They take part in dancing and joyous singing, but also in eating raw flesh. In their madness, they could even tear apart their own children.
But in comparison to other Greek mythological monsters and half-beasts, the maenads really are just frenzied women. Other than superhuman strength the maenads don’t seem too different from the crowd at a music festival.
Surely most days were spent partying and laying with satyrs in the forests. Unusually for women that weren’t demigods or royal they could basically do what they wished. Although, when they’re on, they’re on.
…The mindless attack mounted, without restraint, and mad fury ruled. All their missiles would have been frustrated by his song, but the huge clamour of the Berecyntian flutes of broken horn, the drums, and the breast-beating and howls of the Bacchantes, drowned the sound of the lyre. Then, finally, the stones grew red, with the blood of the poet, to whom they were deaf.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk XI:1-66
As you can imagine the image of the crazed women became a very popular subject for male artists. Maenads crossed the boundary of the proper feminine sphere and straight into savage subversion.
How to Spot a Maenad in Art
Like with sphinxes, the trajectory maenads go down in art history tends to start somewhat accurate to their mythical origins, then devolves into just a woman. While it’s not as obvious as the Sphinx’s path, it’s a curious phenomenon that may highlight how, one, people wanted to paint women with stuff on their heads, and two, sexy women are scary.
So what’re some common elements in the depiction of maenads?
There’s a woman ripping up animals, or a dude
Perhaps most famously today they killed Orpheus, the famous Thracian poet that could charm all living things (except, apparently, drunken revelrous women). He didn’t want to take part in their orgies or whatever – it wasn’t anything personal, just he had gone off women after he failed to retrieve Eurydice from the Underworld.
Orpheus had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him, or because he had sworn to do so […] Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering, this side of manhood.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk X:1-85
I highly recommend reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses for more on Orpheus.
Classical vases have a lot of this example and other ripping scenes. Some of them are almost comical.
There’s a group of women bashing men with sticks or instruments
Loose fabrics? Background women and satyrs jamming to cymbals? Probably a host of maenads – especially if they look rather fabulous in their murderous spree.
There’s a woman fighting satyrs off with a literal stick
To be fair a lot of women had to deal with satyrs’ bullshit.
But usually, maenads have pine cone tipped staffs, or a thyrus, and look exasperated.
In Classical art, maenads aren’t having any of it.
But in later art maenads start to be a little more… interested. And their clothes come off. Typical 19th century.
There’s an awesome forest party
Leopard skins, check.
Lush forest, check.
All your favorite bitches, oh definitely.
There’s a woman drunkenly enjoying herself
Maenads enjoy their wine and drunkenness openly. No shame.
Extra points if she is about to topple over.
Yet somehow their clothes stay pristinely white.
Or, finally, there’s a lot of women just lounging
Who doesn’t like a nice lie down with ivy, animal skins, and unkempt hair?
That looks pretty damn refreshing.
But good luck identifying these two. In the late 19th century artists seemingly smack the name bacchante onto lovely lounging women with ample bosoms. If they could be bothered they might throw in some grapes.
Have you spotted any maenads recently?