The portrayal of gods and mortals’ relationship is one of the main themes of most ancient tragedies. Many ancient Greek authors depicted the divine and the mortal as mutually dependent. Thus, in their tragedies, both Sophocles and Euripides set out the essence of the relationship of people to the divine. Sophocles spoke of gods casting curses on Thebes and of Apollo dictating his own rules. Euripides portrayed the wine-making God Dionysus, seeking revenge on mortals. Through these themes, both ancient Greek authors allowed readers to explore the ambiguity of people’s relationship with their gods. In both the Bacchae and Oedipus the King, mere mortals feared and admired their gods at the same time. Thus, it is fear and admiration, which guided human relations towards gods.
At the beginning of the play Oedipus the King, the gods are portrayed as ruthless and cruel creatures. The tragedy begins with a scene that shows the city of Thebes dying without crops and cattle (Sophocles, 10). The inhabitants of the town are sure that the gods are severely punishing them for the death of the king. However, it is noteworthy that mortals still continue to pray and rely on the mercy of the deities humbly. In addition, the scene where Oedipus asks for advice from Apollo proves the humility of people before gods (Sophocles, 130). Oedipus unquestioningly submits to the will of Apollo, deciding to find and punish the killer of the king in order to establish justice. Through these scenes, Sophocles reflects the essence of the relationship of mortals to the deity. Thus, people recognize the cruelty and ruthlessness of the gods, but at the same time continue to believe in them and pray.
In The Bacchae, Euripides and Sophocles depict the relation of mortals to the deity. Dionysus, the god of wine-making, is often represented as a young and handsome man surrounded by his bacchantes. On the other hand, being the son of Zeus and a mortal, Dionysus is forced to prove his divinity and power to people. This inferiority complex leads Dionysus to the city of Thebes, where he decides to restore his honor. Hiding behind the image of the wanderer, the god sends his bacchantes to the city, who seduce all the women of Thebes. Moreover, the bacchantes lure the king’s mother, Agave, to their side. Being influenced by the god, she kills her own son. Such cruelty, thirst for blood, and power transform a merciful god into an absolute nightmare in the eyes of mortals. However, unlike the residents of Thebes in Oedipus the King, the people in The Bacchae are disillusioned with Dionysus. As they witness his anger and cruelty, they continue to wonder if he is a god (Euripides, 1350). After all, it is the demi-divinity of Dionysus that makes all mortals doubt him and his abilities.
Even though the relations of mortals towards the gods are different in both plays, there are still some similarities. The gods are the protectors of all people: they send them food, health, well-being, et cetera. However, for the gods to be merciful enough, people need to respect them and submit to their will. Thus, the citizens of Thebes in both tragedies are submitted to their gods. However, even humility and faith did not save both of them from the terrible punishment of the deities. The fear of being avenged unites mere mortals of both plays in their relation towards gods. In Oedipus the King, people feared that the city would perish under the deities’ righteous wrath. In The Bacchae, mortals feared the wrath of Dionysus, who corrupted the women of the entire city. Thus, the relationship between people and deities is driven by the fear of humans being punished.
Thus, both Sophocles and Euripides, in their own way, portray the relation of men towards their gods. Sophocles shows how people, being frightened by the curses of the gods, still continue to pray and worship them. What is more, through Apollo and Oedipus’s relationship, the ancient Greek author demonstrates how much mortals are submissive to the will and orders of the deities. On the other hand, Euripides proves that the wrath of gods does not always promise the submission of men. Having unleashed all his anger on the city’s innocent inhabitants, Dionysus wanted to prove to them his divinity and omnipotence. He was sure that this way, he would gain the respect and obedience of mortals. However, the inhabitants of Thebes were frightened by the actions of Dionysus, which led to their disillusionment with the god of wine-making. However, it is the fear of deities, which guides the relationship between the gods and mortals in both tragedies. The deities lead ancient Greek society by cursing, punishing, and only occasionally blessing them. With the help of such cruel punishments, they achieved the faith and submission of mere mortals. Thus, the conclusion is that people’s attitude towards the gods is based on their fear of being punished.
Euripides. Bacchae. Translated by Robin Robertson, Harper Collins Publishers, 2014.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay, Oxford University Press, 1978.