Maenad Madness

Ah, Greek mythology monsters. Beasts and men all mixed together or just a bunch of animals thrown together into a blender. I’m looking at you, the chimera.

Kill me.

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.

Maenad with deer
Wait, hold on…
Painting og Maenads attacking Orpheus
Yeah, there we go

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.

maenad ripping apart animal
Sparagmos Vase
Pentheus torn apart by maenads
Pentheus Torn Apart, 420-425 BCE
pentheus vase
Pentheus, again
Death of Pentheus in the house of Vettii in Pompeii, 60-70 CE

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.

Orpheus and the Bacchantes
Orpheus and the Bacchantes, Gregorio Lazzarini, 1710
Death of Orpheus
Death of Orpheus, Émile Lévy, 1866
Pentheus torn to pieces, 1800s engraving

There’s a woman fighting satyrs off with a literal stick

To be fair a lot of women had to deal with satyrs’ bullshit.

Oh my god go away

But usually, maenads have pine cone tipped staffs, or a thyrus, and look exasperated.

In Classical art, maenads aren’t having any of it.

Maenad and Silenus, Nikosthenic amphora, 525-515 BCE
Satyr and Maenad kylix
Satyr and Maenad Kylix, 490-80 BCE
Satyr and Maenad Kylix
Satyr and Maenad Kylix, 490-80 BCE

But in later art maenads start to be a little more… interested. And their clothes come off.  Typical 19th century.

Satyre and Menade, Henri Gervex, 1874
Satyre and Menade, Henri Gervex, 1874
Sculpture of a satyr and bacchante
Satyr and Bacchante, James Pradier, 1834

There’s an awesome forest party

Leopard skins, check.

oil painting maenads
Maenads, John Collier, 1886

Lush forest, check.

Oil painting of young bacchus
The Youth of Bacchus, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1884

All your favorite bitches, oh definitely.

Dance of the Maenad
Dance of the Maenad, André Corneille Lens, 1765

There’s a woman drunkenly enjoying herself

Maenads enjoy their wine and drunkenness openly. No shame.

oil painting of maenad playing cymbals
Reclining Bacchante Playing the Cymbals, Jean-Simon Berthélemy, 1778

Extra points if she is about to topple over.

Dancing maenad vase
Dancing maenad skyphos, 330-320 BCE

Yet somehow their clothes stay pristinely white.

Bacchante painting
Bacchante, William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1894

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?

Women lying down in square painting
The women of Amphissa, Lawrence Alma-Taden, 1887

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.

oil painting bacchante
Bacchante, Paul Merwart, 1887
Sleeping bacchant
Sleeping Bacchant, Károly Lotz

Have you spotted any maenads recently?

Read More:

Metamorphoses: A New Translation

How to Read Greek Vases (The Metropolitan Museum of Art – How to Read)

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