True Blood: conflating the Dionysian cult with Satanism

truebloodIt hurts when a show you love betrays you. Especially if, despite yourself, you still love the show.

That’s what’s happened to me with True Blood. It’s a great, off-the-beaten-path vampire drama based on the equally wonderful Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. I have consumed both voraciously. And the novels, oh how they make me feel at home: Harris walks the lines of alternate realities and real/imaginary people with such grace. She has what would be real Wiccans and real Christians (Sookie Stackhouse, the main character, is an active and forward-thinking Christian) next to the imaginary beings of vampires and shapeshifters. Harris has taken real care to avoid defaming any religion, and even to keep ancient religions somehow true to their historical context and yet their storylines well within the supernatural realm of possibility.

So when she brought in Maryanne the maenad, it was expected that all hell broke loose. But to my deep chagrin, left in HBOs rather prurient and evidently still tied to fundamentalist-values despite the bawdiness throughout their channel, all Hell broke loose. HBO, you disappoint me. Ms. Harris, you do not.

In the books, the maenad was indeed a follower of the ancient Dionysus (NOT Bacchus) who had, in her ecstasies, become herself immortal. She was powerful stuff, powerful enough that the vampires would leave her “leave us the hell alone” offerings. And while she did attack Sookie, it wasn’t out of random spite – she did it to send a message to the vampires that she did demand an offering. When surrounded by humans, the only offering she wanted from them was what was in them already – there was no taking over the free will, and this had nothing to do with trying to bring a Horned God (yes, they really used that phrase) back to the earth. When people chose to turn away from their own evil actions, she lost interest in them. The maenad was a force of nature, yes, but because of her connection to nature there was no interest in destroying people.

I was still hopeful about the show with Maryanne until the hunter’s souffle’ episode. As she dragged in the rabbit and told Tara some tripe about pity being an avoidance of your own good feeling, a friend watching with me observed, “It’s like she’s memorized the Satanic bible!”

And it all went to hell from there. I am still profoundly disturbed at the entire eating-a-heart incident with Tara, and I would like to think there were many other ways to tell the same story about her complete posession without resorting to such disgusting ugliness. (And of course it isn’t slander towards modern pagans who worship Greek divinities because it’s fiction, or we’re fiction – right?) The Dionysian cult and bacchanals are being wholly represented as something that people wouldn’t do in their right minds that is obsessed with an all-consuming “god who comes” that will, in the words of the chanting posessed, “kill us all.”

While I understand that a major theme of this season of True Blood is a thorough skewering of religious extremism and that they need to somehow demonstrate an opposite extreme to the Fellowship of the Sun, this is not the way to do it. FOTS has possibilities in reality on the other side of the TV. Possessed cultists (who did not consent to possession) taken over by a historically inaccurate to the point of unrecongizable maenad do not.

To add a bit of det ail to this view, it’s good to point out what Harris, the original author of what became True Blood, pulled from for the character of the maenad.

From Wikipedia, which on this subject is reasonably accurate: “The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual which used intoxicants and other trance inducing techniques, such as dance and music, to remove inhibitions and artificial societal constraints, liberating the individual to return to a more natural and primal state. It also afforded a degree of liberation for the marginals of Greek society: women, slaves and foreigners.[1]

True to a maenad’s character, in that case, the shapeshifters would definitely appeal to Maryanne because of their state of marginilization. And while the bacchanal effect did happen in the book, it was something that people were already choosing to do that Maryanne intensified. Also of note: True Blood is not distinguishing between the worship of Dionysus, who like Osiris was a god who was sacrificed for the sake of the crops, and Bacchus, who while a wine god had little else in common with Dionysus. Admittedly, most American schooling that bothers with ancient myths tend to just lump them together as all the same with interchangeable names and then move on to something without potential to upset the more religious parents who will want say in the curriculum. The end result is writers who can’t be bothered to see how very distinct Bacchus is from Dionysus, or that in most representations neither of them had horns – and neither actually demanded blood sacrifice, prefering a good run of wine.

If this were a simple exploration of orgiastic madness and the way supressing our desires can make us vulernable to insanity, it would be all fine and well. Sanity and insanity needs some good public discussion.

But instead the writers and producers of True Blood are suggesting that embracing pleasures in itself is not only insane, but somehow inhuman – and therefore, Satanic. Because people who engage in acts of pleasure without guilt and confusion are, according to their interpretation, evil. And since a few modern pagan religions happen to take on pleasure as a positive part of life and not something you’ll only truly get after you die, True Blood writers are essentially saying that all pagan practices are evil and that we worship gods who, with sufficient invitation, will come and eat everyone. Because you know, killing worshippers is the best way to build a cult. I’m well aware that much of this is predicated on the belief by someone on staff that no one worships these gods anymore – this happens a lot with the Greek gods in particular. But even so, a little genuine research into the old Greek myths would reveal some much more complex stories not just about the nature of good and evil, but how excess virtue can lead just as much to evil as can simple excess – and how sometimes, in the heart of excess, you can find healing.


  1. Bran

    I totally agree with you.

    Here I thought there was going to be some sort of deep exploration of Theater as it relates to Ritual, both of which were united in the ancient Greek Dionysian drama. I also thought there would be an interweaving of Sun and Moon, Order and Chaos, Dionysus and Apollo. There was none of that!

    Instead it was just another example of how pagan myths and imagery can be thoughtlessly used for the cheapest and most cliched of purposes: the purpose of instilling fear. Afro-Brazilian music is there simply to give an aura of “primitiveness”. What Sam Merlotte said turns out to be true; drums can only lead to 2 things: cults and hippies.

    Just as in the propaganda of the Inquisition, we are taught that trusting our own intuition, embracing our physical, rhythmic bodies, we are ultimately leading ourselves down a path of evil. Maryann is shown to represent an evil far beyond that of mass-murdering vampires, ministers, or misogynist killers. The ultimate personification of evil is a once again a bird-goddess-worshiping woman who identifies deity in nature and encourages people to embrace the darkness and respect their own emotions.

  2. Naya

    It is all fine and well that modern worshippers of Dionysus are such friendly people, so sane and well-balanced.

    However, read your Greek mythology – try reading some of the primary sources. I would start with “The Bacchae.” In that, the Maenads, in their ecstatic madness, descend upon a pasture of cows and tear them to shreds, they put snakes in their hair, and suckle wild wolves. They tear human beings limb from limb, too.

    The maenads were GRUESOME. What HBO was doing was portraying a maenad as a maenad is. Read your mythology.

  3. Post

    Hello Naya

    Please get your head out of your ass. I have read my mythology, and I have read the Bacchae. I’m very familiar with it. One can assume that the writers of True Blood might be too. If you ACTUALLY WATCH THE SHOW you will see that what is done is not maenad is as maenad does, but a deliberate implication that modern pagans/ maenads were/are somehow Satanic, blending symbology of the Dionysan cult with the legends of Bacchae. I for one do not take the mythologies of my practices as objective facts. Do you?

    The historical Dionysian cult probably had some violence in it since Greek women were oppressed. But to conflate that with this was nothing more and nothing less than a comment on modern practices, especially seeing as how it’s a modern show.

    I am getting REALLY tired of random pagans showing off how very “educated” and “erudite” they are to the extent that they demonstrate no reading comprehension and even less ability to get the point. Just because you’re well read doesn’t mean you’re not a moron.

  4. marc

    I’ll start off by saying I have read the books, but haven’t seen the series. As such, I’m going to go on your description of how the maenads are portrayed. That said, I’d like to clear up a few details in your analysis.

    Bacchus (Bakkhos) is one of the Greek names for Dionysos. While the Roman ideas of Bacchus eventually grew to differ on a number of points from those of the Greeks, the Romans adopted him from the Greeks (who used the two names interchangeably). The “god who comes” is an extremely common epithet for Dionysos and somewhat of a central concept in his ecstatic cults, but the “to kill us all” bit is something innovated by the writers as far as I’m aware. Dionysos was occasionally depicted with bull horns but IIRC that was usually in reference to him as the “bull-roarer” and “bull-eater.” Blood sacrifice, of the animal variety, was an integral part of his cults, and consuming of raw animal flesh is historically attested.

    As to maenads, their depiction in myth had them riping animals and people apart with their bare hands and gnawing on the raw flesh. So if the writers are basing their depiction on myths, it’s not that far off. As far as the non-myth Dionysian revels, most were just general merry-making, but the cults in some places became so violent that they had to be suppressed by law. In one place in the Roman era, the rumors of what was going on at the festivities was so gruesome (including reports of human sacrifices) that it led to an empire-wide crackdown on all Dionysian cults, forbidding them to meet at night and limiting who could participate and how often could they meet.

    If anyone would like to confirmation of some of the details I’ve cited I’d recommend starting with this article:

    I do get your general point. It’s very frustrating that most media doesn’t care about playing fast and loose with the beliefs of others, even if they think that they are beliefs no one holds anymore.

  5. Post

    Mark, thanks for the interesting insight. I’m going to close comments because evidently some idiot dug this up and is now circulating it in forums or on a mailing somewhere where more and more “academic” types are proceeding to panties and BVDs in a wad. While I’m pleased to see that others indeed know what source material is – an improvement over ten years ago – I also feel the need to protect myself from yet more idiots who wish to show off how smart they are. Please find another sandbox. Mommy’s tired.

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