I am a cisgendered, female follower of Dionysos who engages in ecstatic trance with the god, and I commune with him through wine and revelry. But I am not a Maenad, and there are a number of reasons why.
What Maenads Are
called Lenae, Maenades, Thyiades, Mimallones, Clodones, Bassarae or Bassarides, all of whom are represented in works of art as raging with madness or enthusiasm, in vehement motions, their heads thrown backwards, with dishevelled hair, and carrying in their hands thyrsus-staffs (entwined with ivy, and headed with pine-cones), cymbals, swords, or serpents. Sileni, Pans, satyrs, centaurs, and other beings of a like kind, are also the constant companions of the god. (Strab. x. p. 468; Diod. iv. 4. &c.; Catull. 64. 258 ; Athen i. p. 33; Paus. i. 2. § 7.)
Seneca, Oedipus 401 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
now midst Cadmean dames has come a maenad [Agaue], the impious comrade of Ogygian Bacchus, with sacred fawn-skins girt about her loins, her hand a light thyrsus brandishing. Their hearts maddened by thee, the matrons have set their hair a-flowing; and at length, after the rending of Pentheus' limbs, the Bacchanals, their bodies now freed from the frenzy, looked on their infamous deed as though they knew it not.
He has subdued the scattered Gelonians; he has wrested their arms form the warrior maidens [i.e. the Amazones]; with downcast face they fell to earth, those Thermodontian hordes, gave up at length their light arrows, and became maenads. Sacred Cithaeron has flowed with the blood of Ophionian slaughter [i.e. of Pentheus]; the Proetides fled to the woods, and Argos, in his stepdame's [Hera's] very presence, paid homage to Bacchus.
What does all this mean? Simply put, Maenads are female* followers of Dionysos who engage in a type of madness I call (and some others call) Maenadic Frenzy. That Frenzy involves a few key elements: ecstatic trance (obtained through dance), loosening of the hair (which was worn up), brandishing a thyrsus, sword, cymbals, or serpents, and a type of dance that involves the head "thrown backwards," becoming "disheveled" and "raging with madness." Attaining this madness is a type of initiatory experience,
I'm particularly struck by the last quote above, in which the Amazon women become maenads once their weapons are taken from them. Maenads were the ones who ripped Pentheus to shreds (a process called Sparagmos, which also happened to Dionysos on a few occasions, and also famously happened to Orpheus). The fury of a warrior, without her weapons, produces a Maenad. And yes, it's as terrifying as you imagine.
*: This originally referred to cisgendered women, and some say it still does. Dionysos is a god of the trans* and genderqueer communities, but they have their own mysteries. I don't hold an opinion one way or the other. You do you.
What a Maenad is Not
Any female follower of Dionysos.
No, I'm serious. There's a bad habit I picked up from the internet of referring to any female follower of Dionysos as a Maenad, and it's simply not the case--I didn't even realize it for myself until a few months ago. There are a number of reasons spiritual, mental, and physical why I will never be a Maenad. I have watched Maenads dance: the fury, the prowling, raging, madness, the face paint and crazed eyes. It was both beautiful and horrible, as it should be, but it's a state I will never attain, nor do I want to anymore.
Why? Well, simply put, it would be mentally bad for me. I've mentioned before that I have a disorder called Bipolar 2, which involves periodic episodes of hypomania, alternating with severe depression. Mania, the characteristic symptom of Bipolar 1, is characterized by expansive, elevated mood, delusions and hallucinations, a lack of need for sleep, increase in "goal-directed activity" (being super productive), and a few other symptoms. Hypomania, the characteristic distinguisher between Bipolar 2 and Depression, is a milder form of that, without the hallucinations and delusions. The nasty part about hypomania is that, frankly, it feels GREAT... until you realize it's happening. You see, hypomania, for me, inevitably involves a severe crash afterwards--like coming down from a good high, except instead of returning to normal, you become SEVERELY depressed, even suicidal. Simply put, my moods are unstable and uncontrollable unless I manage to follow a fairly strict routine.
That's the mental reason. Physically, I'm incapable of dance, due to a number of factors. There are other physical "things" too, but that's not why I'm here, writing this.
Spiritually, it's interesting. I chose the name of this blog, Joyous Madness, originally to represent what I thought of as a Maenadic Frenzy. I had made it my ultimate goal to attain such a state, not realizing that it would likely not only trigger a mood episode for me, but was not my particular path. Now, I've come to realize that the blog title is apt, but for a different part of my personal spirituality: the initiator and healer roles, which I fit into a LOT better than any Maenadic hat I've tried on.
You see, my chosen profession is as a mental health therapist. I chose that track for my career because I have experienced madness: Bipolar 2 is notoriously hard to treat among the spectrum of mentally interesting, and I went through the wringer of medications and therapy until I got stable enough to function as an adult. I'm 27 and just now finishing school (I'll graduate 2 weeks before I turn 28), having had this as a goal for the last ten years. A two year program has taken me that long. So yeah, I'd say I understand that side of the fence. And I wanted to do for someone what my therapist did for me--if I can do it once, it's worth it.
I've also made a point of developing my personal trance practices. I function best in a state of liminality, of in-between, which makes me pretty uniquely suited towards guiding people to and from those ecstatic states. I can enter and leave trance as easily as I breathe most of the time, and trance is where I do my best magical and spiritual work. However, my trance is not dancing, mad trance: it's seated, eyes closed, looking for all the world like I'm taking a nap. A friend who spotted for me when I did my last experiment with working temporarily as a Neos Dionysos said she could feel the trance coming in waves--and also confirmed for me that the trance was genuine, as my mouth was spouting things my brain had no way of knowing about. That's what I am, and that's my role: as a tranceworker, as a healer, as a madwoman who knows how to release from madness.
Practically, Maenadic Frenzy is off limits to me. Even were that not the case, though, spiritually it still wouldn't be a fit. I have another path, one I was set on by my god, and I couldn't be more blessed to have it. Maenads and those who experience that Frenzy are savage and beautiful and I could sit and watch for hours their crazed dance--but at the end of the day, I will ring the bells and bring them home, bring them back from that madness. Not everyone is a Maenad. Not everyone should be. And that's perfectly okay.