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Ménade danzante Casa del Naviglio Pompeya

The Maenads

They won’t wince at the mortifying humiliation of it all, the ghastly, dehumanising shambles; they won’t be filled with remorse or self-loathing’. Plutarch in AD46 and the background for legislation against the wild rites of the all-girl Maenads or Sarah Vine writing in The Daily Mail in 2017 on young women out at night partying?

Groups of women claiming social spaces, rewriting the rules of social interaction through overt displays of libidinal excess, have historically been seen as a dangerous threat to the establishment. Stories about them usually come with a warning: dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day led to Eurydice’s death; Giselle is warned that her love of dancing makes her at risk of joining the Wilis who kill men.

Video Notebook

While the Wilis are sometimes spoken of in relation to the Furies (Sally Banes, Dancing Women, pg 56), maenads dancing appeared early in our research.

Combining the image of a maenad wearing a transparent shift and carrying a wand (a wall painting from Pompeii used as the image for this card) with our reading on the Waltz felt like a good place to begin our studio research.

This video notebook comes out of a week of work in a Glitch studio lab earlier this year.

Giselle's co-author, Gautier describes the Wilis as 'cruel nocturnal dancers, no more forgiving than living women are to a tired waltzer' (Theophile Gautier, The Romantic Ballet As Seen By Théophile Gautier, p56 ) however ideas of Maenad rites run through both acts of Giselle.

In the libretto in Act 2 the Wilis, having killed Hilarion, take part in a wild bacchanale. However the image of Carlotta Grisi as Giselle in Act 1 carrying a thyrsus is a clear sign that even as a vine dresser she liked to party with the original girl gang.

The god, Bacchus, himself gets a minor part in the ballet, as patron of the festival where Giselle is crowned Queen of the Vintage and given the thyrsus.

I'm in a Maenad State of Mind

However the name 'maenad' is as much about a state of mind and body. Jane Harrison writes that 'Maenad' means The Rushing One, The Mad One, The Pure One, The Inspired One.

5 Ménade relieve romano Museo del Prado 01
A dancing maenad holding a Thrysus (Luis García / CC BY-SA (

Maenads are traditionally thought of as driven by female energy however they hold the phallic thyrsus sometimes shown as dripping in honey. This gender duality, along with their worship of a non-binary god, Bacchus (also known as Dionysus), is picked up directly in Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Masilo herself has spoken about her enjoyment of plays on gender identity (interview here) and in her production the vengeful Wilis are both men and women.

In related research we explore a connection with another kind of god-possessed dancing documented by Maya Deren in Haiti.

1 Harrison, Jane Ellen (1991) Prolegomena: To The Study of The Greek Religion 2 3 Gautier, Théophile (compiled and translated by Cyril Beaumont) (1932) The Romantic Ballet As Seen By Théophile Gautier 4 Banes, Sally (1998) Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage 5 Graves, Robert (1955) The Greek Myths 6 Deren, Maya (1953) Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti 7 Vine, Sarah (2017-01-02) Pictures that make me weep for today's young women; SARAH Vine on how British socieity is in the grip of out of control binge-drinking culture