Raving Ones: Maenads and Modern Feminism

Woman holding a rally sign that reads "Smash the Patriarchy."

Maenads, by definition, are the female followers of Dionysus. Now, Dionysus—for those of you that weren’t obsessed with Greek mythology in middle school—is a god of hedonistic excess. Wine, grape-harvests, fertility, ritualistic madness, religious ecstasy, death and rebirth, and theater are all his domain. Maenads were, in mythology, were the nymphs who had raised the young Dionysus and, later, were the women who followed him, either willingly or unwillingly.

In practice, Maenads were the female worshipers of Dionysus—women who served as his priestesses and performed rituals in his name. Maenads were known for wearing leopard and fox skins (or even nothing at all), wearing crowns of ivy or snakes, and carrying rather large staffs known as thyrsus. They were said to be driven into a violent, debaucherous frenzy by the god, and there are several accounts of Maenads putting down opposers of Dionysus in rather gory ways.

Now, I know you’re not here for a history lesson, but context is important. How else am I to show you how Maenads are still influencing things, thousands of years later? So, indulge me in a bit more history, and discover for yourself how you can channel your own inner maenad. After all, leopard print is always fashionable!

Maenads & the Patriarchy

If you’ve paid attention to the world at all, it’s highly unlikely that you’ve somehow missed all the discussion surrounding the patriarchy. After all, it’s an institution that’s been the prevailing organization of society for pretty much all of recorded history. The patriarchal system is one run by men, where women are subjugated through any number of controls, from socialization and laws to violence and fear. Strong women are particularly disdained by patriarchal standards—often facing mockery, threats, a considerable amount of handwringing, and even legal actions.

Now, as nice as it would be to think that the modern patriarchal society was just the result of our puritanical beginnings as a country… well, it’s not. Instead, we’re just building on thousands-year-old Mycenaean Greek foundations. Nice. You see, Greek society wasn’t a big fan of women. Or slaves. Or foreigners, or—y’know what, let’s just save ourselves some time and say they were a fan of the rich, the powerful, and the male-gendered. Hmm, I wonder who that sounds like?

Anyways, Dionysus himself attracted the outcasts and disenfranchised of the ancient Greek world. There’s like, a whole story to that, which the Overly Sarcastic Productions YouTube channel does an amazing job of explaining. As they note, Dionysus was the god of wine and madness, and being wine-drunk was considered a form of possession by Dionysus. Obviously, attracting the attention of your patron god was a rather popular form of worship, which means that Maenads were experts in partying like there was no tomorrow.

As we all know—there’s nothing old, rich men are more afraid of than women who don’t give a fuck. Maenads were known for secret, female-only rituals, held high in the mountains and far from the influence of men. So, of course, there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing going on.

A quote from a play called The Bacchae, written by Euripides around 405 BCE states, “…but I hear about the disgusting things going on, here in the city—women leaving home to go to silly Bacchic rituals, cavorting there in the mountain shadows.”

See, AOC? They just really, really hate women dancing. So, being rich, powerful men, the leaders of the Greek state of Thebes outlawed the worship of Dionysus. You can imagine how well that went over. The Maenads were known for being able to party harder than anyone around, but they were also known for being incredibly violent and dismembering animals (and sometimes men) during their rituals. King Pentheus of Thebes, upon attracting the wrath of the worshippers by outlawing their god, died a quite bloody death at the hands of his local Maenads.

While Maenads were historically persecuted by some particularly brave men, for the most part, they were often feared and avoided. It was said that Maenads could route armies with their wild dancing and no harm would befall them by the hand of men. Wise men, for obvious reasons, just left them the hell alone. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Sadly, a lot of the historical context of the Maenads has been lost to myth, but the real-life, flesh-and-blood women behind the movement did exist, and left behind a lasting impression. It’s not much of a stretch to conjecture that powerful women, the wives and sisters, daughters and nieces, mothers and aunts of the powerful men may have been followers of Dionysus. This could explain why many men were both eager to speak out against Maenads, but also reluctant to actually take action against them. After all, as many women know, there’s a certain amount of protection when you’re privileged, even if your gender is seen as lesser.

So, why does this matter?

Besides being some very cool, badass women, Maenads can teach us some very important lessons about modern womanhood. After all, only so much has truly changed from Ancient Greece when you take a close look.

Large groups of socially feral women have power.

If you’re raised female, chances are you’ve been subtly taught to make yourself smaller, less obtrusive, less objecting, less in the way of men and their egos. Be pretty, be quiet, be polite. Smile, it’s just a joke. Don’t raise your voice, don’t raise your brows. Keep your head down, keep your thoughts to yourself.

Maenads were raised to the same patriarchal standards as many modern women, but they found freedom and power in their sisterhood. Followers of Dionysus were feared overall, due to their wildness, but the religiously mad and deliriously fervent Maenads cast off social constraints in the name of their worship and became a considerable source of fright for those who would seek to keep them contained and so much smaller than they truly were.

One Maenad on her own wasn’t what frightened the powerful of the day, though—it was the bond that she shared with her sister Maenads.

As modern women, we see our sisterhood actively undermined by those in power. How often are we set against each other in competition to be the most beautiful, the worthiest of attention and love?

We see headlines attempting to isolate certain groups of women from others, accusing feminists of transgressions that are too much for traditionalist women to be able to swallow, while other outlets throw traditionalist women to the wolves for daring to adopt conservative ideals and betray their fellow women to the patriarchy. Trans women are derided as “not really women” and are barred from female-only spaces.

Women of color, women suffering from poverty, and women who live with disability are routinely attacked and marginalized. Queer women and femme non-binary folks struggle to find safety and acceptance, often attacked and divided out by others in their community. Women are derided for turning men down, for not turning men down out of fear, for having sex, for choosing not to have sex, for having sex forced on them. If you stayed with your abuser, they ask why you didn’t just leave. If you leave, you’re looked down upon for not “standing by your man.”

All these aggressions, big and small, are created and enforced by the powerful. They’re socialized into us, written into our institutional policy, enforced by laws and the media and violence if necessary. Often, women are some of the biggest perpetuators of these aggressions against other women. Why? Because we’ve been taught that everything else female is in direct competition with us for the small amount of safety and privilege there is available.

What if, instead of tearing down your fellow women to win the manufactured patriarchal rat race, we turned on the structures that put us here and keep us here? What if we joined our forces and energy to lift up those who are downtrodden, include those who are outcast, and level the playing field for all?

What if we, like the Maenads of ancient times, routed the armies of those sent to stop us with wild, joyful, reckless love for ourselves and those who stand beside us? We might just find out that we’re powerful enough to tear this whole broken system limb from limb with our bare hands.