Memorializing Madness: Maenads and Epichoric Identity in Argos

Stella J. Fritzell (Bryn Mawr College)

In this paper I examine Pausanias’ identification of two Maenad burials in Argos (2.20.4,
2.22.1) and argue that these features of the landscape preserved an epichoric myth which aided
in the development and promotion of local Argive identity. The popular conception of Maenads
as wild, ravenous women owes a considerable deal to the dramatization of Euripides’ Bacchae,
and this imagination has been further developed in the work of myth-ritualists who interpret
Maenads as personifications of an ancient, savage ritual (cf. Harrison 1927). At the same time,
analysis of epigraphic evidence and the descriptions of religious practice suggest that the role
of the historical Maenad looked much more mundane (cf. Henrichs 1978; Jaccottet 2003). I
position myself between these two interpretive extremes to demonstrate that both the ahistoric
and historic understandings of these women played a role in the way that epichoric Maenad
myth was received and constructed in Argos. The Maenad tombs mentioned by Pausanias relate
to the story of Perseus’ battle against Dionysus (cf. Nonnus Dion. 47.480ff.). I show that there
was a vested interest in perpetuating this story, which allowed Argos to lay claim to the defeat
of a foreign enemy and thereby counterbalance its neutral position in the Greco-Persian Wars.
As tangible features of the landscape, these tombs also bound ideas of maenadic frenzy to
familiar understandings of actual cult practice. As such, they lent legitimacy to the Dionysiac
cult at nearby Lerna, which contributed to a sense of civic unity in a newly democratic Argos
during the 5th century B.C.E. (cf. Cassadio 1994; Kowalzig 2013; Lavecchia 2013). I contend that
connections to local religion and other regional stories about “differently-behaving” women
made these monuments and the epichoric Maenad myth particularly appealing to this new
political demographic.