Maenads and Bacchantes



Statue of a Sleeping Maenad.  Athenian Acropolis (117-138 AD).

The Maenads or Mainades, the ‘raving ones’  of Greek mythology are the female devotees, attendants or followers of the god Dionysus called Bacchus by the Romans. Known as the ‘possessed ones’ or ‘ravers’ they are important members of the god’s following known as the Thiasus.

La Bacchane

Sleeping Bacchante.  Gerard de Lairesse (1640-1711).

In the south of Greece the Maenads are also called Bacchae, the Bassarides, and the Potniades as well as Thyiades. Other descriptions are Clodones and Bacchanals.  Other groups of Maenads are the Laphystria, Dionsiades, Bassarai, Dysmainaie, Leuccipedes, Klodones, and Mimallones. In the mythology of ancient Rome the Maenads are known as the Bassaris, the Bacchae, and Bacchantes from the word basseis meaning fox skin.

Bacchante reclining

A Bacchante reclining (1838).  Luigi Bienaime.  Public domain.

Maenads, due to the combination intoxication and wild dancing, are often depicted in an orgia or state of frenzied ecstasy, that worshipped the Greek god of wine. The rites were accompanied by the sounds of drums and the aulos flute. The climax of the ritual was characterised by feats of strength and insane dismembering of bulls – the tearing called sparagmos and the consumption of the raw flesh known as omophagia.


Dance of the Maenads (1765).  Cornelis Lens.  Public domain.

During the ritual the Maenads dressed in skins of fawns and wreaths of ivy, wore a bull helmet and carried a thyrsus. The purpose of the ecstatic revelry was to enable the celebrants to commune with Dionysus (Bacchus) by liberating their souls through a delight in revelry and a perpetual state of drunkenness (Guerber, 1893). The rite symbolised possession by Dionysus or Bacchus.

Bacchante Collier

A Bacchante.  John Collier.

The Bacchanalia which was a deteriorated Roman cult, was a cultic ritual that worshipped the god Bacchus. The frenzy of the Bacchanalia featured maniacal dancing, loud music and clashing cymbals.


Danse Bacchanale.  Charles Gleyre.  Public domain.

These intoxicated, whirling and screaming revellers indulged in mutual excitement to achieve intensified ecstasy. The main cultic rituals were the Greater and Lesser Dionysia, the Liberalia, and the Bacchanalia itself.

Bacchante Leeke

Bacchante.  Ferdinand Leeke (1859-1923).

Maenads and Bacchantes have been depicted as trying to avoid the aroused satyrs who were followers of the Dionysiac train or entourage. Portrayed on classical Greek vases a number of paintings and sculptures have also been created by artists of renown.


Bacchanale. Peter Paul Rubens.  Public domain.

Satyr and Bacchante

Satyr and Bacchante.  James Pradier (1790-1852).

Maenad also meant a category of women who were opposed and tried to resist the cult worship of Dionysus even though they wandered in wild mountain groups. These women were driven by the cult and forced to perform the Dionysiac rituals. In the 5th century BC the Maenads of Attica and Delphi were trained in and practised more restrained and disciplined rites.

Bacchante Leighton

Bacchante.  Frederick Lord Leighton

An example are the three daughters of Minyas. They rejected cult of Dionysus and continued loyally with their domestic duties. Other Maenads


A Bacchante.  John Reinhard Weguelin (1849-1927).

however continued to be possessed by the god Dionysus and accompanied him on his travels and journeys to mainland Greece from Thrace. These travelling Maenads instructed people in cultivation as they progressed from land to land.


Bacchante (1894).  W. A. Bougereau.

The original category known as the Maenads included associations and varieties of mythological, historical and supernatural female personages. The image of the Maenad rituals did stimulate the mythic imagination. As  supernatural nursing nymphs they cared for the infant Dionysus and thus became involved with his later worship.


A Sleeping Bacchante. Gerard de Lairesse.  Public domain.

References and Sources Consulted.

Coleman, J. A.  (2007).  The Dictionary of Mythology.  Arcturus Publishing Ltd, London.

Goodrich, N. L.  (1989).  Priestesses.  Franklin Watts, New York.

Graves, R.  (1979).  The Greek Myths. vols 1 and 2.  Penguin.

Guerber, H. A.  (1893).  The Myths of Greece and Rome.  Harrap & Co. London.

Harrison, J.  (1922).  Prlegogomena to the Study of Greek Religion.

Jordan, M.  (1992).  Encyclopaedia of Gods.  Kyle Cathie Ltd, London.

Leach, M.  ed.  (1972).  Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.  Funk & Wagnalls. New York.

Leeming, D.  (2005).  The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.  OUP, New York.

Murray, A.  (1988).  Who’s Who in Mythology.  Bonanza Books, London.

Price, S. & Kearns, E.


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