Robert Palmer put out a video in the mid 80s featuring a long-legged young woman in a short dress, with messy lipstick, bird’s nest hair and disturbing false eyelashes. He sits in a chair with his nose in a newspaper, ignoring her as she schleps through a series of household routines.
Watching this as a young, newly-minted feminist, I read this video as the patriarchy’s casual dismissal of women and their expected societal roles. As long as she remained sexually desirable and invisibly useful no further attention was necessary. Looking at that video from the vantage of my life now, a woman teetering on the edge of crone-hood, I see him as a man in mortal danger, with no clue about the simmering, lethal ferocity prowling around the periphery of his dull life.
He is in the sight line of a maenad.
Maenads were the mythical followers of Dionysos, the God of wine, theater, frenzy, and ritual madness. They were reputed to be able to rip an ox or a bear to pieces with their bare hands and to call forth milk and honey from the earth itself by striking it with their thyrsoi (staves topped with pine cones.) They would dance wildly for days at a time, couple with captured men and eat raw flesh.
Mortal women can also be maenads. Ancient Greek men, fearing women’s feral power, went to great lengths to tame and control women, but recognized that damming up these energies would be catastrophic. So, a couple of times a year women gathered for women-only festivals, like the Thesmophoria, where they were free to behave in an untrammeled, natural manner unconstrained by the presence of disapproving men. There was a high level of anxiety and curiosity by the men about the goings-on at these festivals. From these fears arose Euripides’ play, ‘The Bacchae’, which is another word for maenads, based on Dionysos’s epithet ‘Bakkhos’, meaning ‘’loud’ or ‘blustering,’
Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is punished by Dionysos for suppressing his worship. The Wine God infects the women of the kingdom with maenadic madness, in which state they murder Pentheus, mistaking him for a mountain lion. His own mother triumphantly carries his head back into the city. What she endures when the madness passes and she is faced with the aftermath of her deed is another story.
While the wildness and ferocity of maenads conjures up a vision of youth, Dionysian frenzy isn’t limited to the young. It was Pentheus’s mother and aunts, after all, who did him in. While I may be a little slow and stodgy to be a stereotypical Bacchic reveler, I can still feel the red surge of ekstasis bubble up in my blood.
Theoretically, the need for maenads shouldn’t exist today, at least in first world countries. Women have unprecedented rights and freedoms. No societies in history have been more open to women’s ability to wield power in the public sphere. And yet still we chafe. It’s not greed that makes us want more, it’s the sure knowledge that we’ve been offered a sop, in the vain hope that ‘more’ will mean we stop striving for actual equality. We are still pressured to look a certain way, to modulate our speech patterns, to procreate according to laws created primarily by men, to show gratitude for the latitude granted by men, to earn less than men for the same work.
But the maenadic tide is rising. The same women termed ‘nasty’ by the current administration would have been considered the same by ancient patriarchies all over the world. Even as American politics turns its eyes to a non-existent idyllic past, modern women refuse to be pushed back into subservient roles, seething until the pressure valve is carefully released, then suppressed and ignored again.
Like poor old disembodied Pentheus, or oblivious Robert Palmer with savagery circling him, the patriarchy would do well to accept and honor the innate power of women.
Or the maenads will come.