The Bacchants are Silent
: A Cognitive Approach to Interpreting Ancient Greek Maenadic Ritual Experience

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


For centuries, small groups of women across the ancient Greek world gathered every two years to celebrate the rites of Dionysos, dancing by torchlight high on the slopes of the mountains. They were, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, taking the role of, or representing, the mythical maenads, the wild women who accompanied Dionysos on his travels across Greece and Asia.

Mythical maenads, the rapturous devotees that Euripides put on stage in Bakchai, are strange and fierce figures. Greek priestesses, on the other hand, were respected and respectable members of Greek society. The question that has frustrated and tantalised scholars for over a century is whether these ritual women would, for a short time, experience the delirious delight of the mythical maenad, or whether their performance was merely symbolic, empty of emotional commitment.

This thesis offers a new perspective on this question, by interpreting the ancient evidence from the perspective of theories drawn from the Cognitive Science of Religion. The twin theories of event segmentation and predictive processing provide a model that describes how cultural knowledge, such as mythical depictions found in vase-painting and poetry, affects how the mind processes sensory information to generate experience.

By analysing the ancient evidence for the sensory effects of maenadic ritual performance, we can establish the external cues that would have been processed by the minds of ritual participants. Through examination of cultural knowledge about what it meant to take the role in the mimetic performance of a mythical maenad, we can reconstruct the internal cues that would have informed this processing. Bringing together these external and internal factors, this thesis explores the possibilities offered by maenadic ritual for two profound religious experiences; ‘loss of self’ and epiphany.
Date of Award28 Sep 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorEsther Eidinow (Supervisor) & Emma K Cole (Supervisor)


  • Dionysos, Dionysus
  • maenad, bacchant
  • cognitive
  • Ancient Greek religion
  • epiphany
  • ritual experience

Cite this