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Madness (Mania, Lyssa)

6412: The Gorgon, about 570 BC. Acropolis Museum, Athens.

"She is mounted on her chariot, the queen of sorrow and sighing, and is goading on her steeds, as if for outrage, the Gorgon child of Night, with a hundred hissing serpent-heads, Madness of the flashing eyes." (The Theban Elders (chorus) in Euripides' The Madness of Heracles 880).

"Divine strength is roused with difficulty, but still is sure. It chastises those mortals who honor folly and those who in their insanity do not extol the gods. The gods cunningly conceal the long pace of time and hunt the impious. For it is not right to determine or plan anything beyond the laws. For it is a light expense to hold that whatever is divine has power, and that which has been law for a long time is eternal and has its origin in nature." (Attendants of Dionysus (chorus). Euripides, Bacchanals 884).

Jocasta: What is it like? What annoys the exile?
Polyneices: One thing most of all; he cannot speak his mind.
Jocasta: This is a slave's lot you speak of, not to say what one thinks.
Polyneices: The follies of the rulers must be borne.
Jocasta: That too is painful, to join in the folly of fools. (Euripides, Phoenician Women 390).

Madness is a powerful deity, capable of possessing both gods and men (though in quite different ways).

External forces

Madness is called Mania, and when in frenetic or rabid rage she is named Lyssa. The latter is notorious for suddenly raging everywhere at any time, but as a character she makes her appearance in Euripides' The Madness of Heracles, where translator A. S. Way calls her "a demon". He could as well have called her "a goddess" since Lyssa is (as she herself reveals through the playwright) the daughter of Uranus and Nyx, these two being her "noble sire and mother" (843). But the word is adequate in a mythological context, daímon (demon) and theós (god) being often interchangeable since "a demon" is a divine power, capable of influencing—for good or evil—the thoughts, emotions, words, and actions of a human being (or even a god).

Madness is represented as a primeval being whose existence began long before there were men on earth. They did not invent her but she invented the madman, a most common character who fully owes the turmoil of his soul to her. As "a demon" she is less distinct than a god and obeys the designs of more powerful deities, being rather the actual manifestation of their will. When such demons or gods act upon a man, he is no longer his own self but stands beside himself with cleft mind, or "out of his mind". And when they leave him, he may exclaim in amazement "What have I done?", or even refuse to accept any responsibility. For he regards the outcome of his actions as alien to his purpose or expectations, and therefore not properly his own. An action with unfortunate consequences, even if performed in serene self-control, does not belong to his intention, and therefore it does not belong to him: it is the work of "some god". A man hits a target or misses it not just because of dexterity or clumsiness but because "some god" arranges the circumstances in a certain way. Thus Athena, for the purpose of breaking the truce between Achaeans and Trojans, lured Pandarus. The goddess "… persuaded his heart in his folly" (Hom.Il.4.104). to shoot an arrow at Menelaus, only to thwart his intention by deviating the arrow aside to let it cause just a minor wound. If the outcome is favorable (with or without conscious intention), then "some god" has obviously helped. If designs are crossed or if judgment is lost through temporary blindness, then "some god" (often unidentified, but sometimes named) is to blame.

The mythical man is not cut off from outside influences. He is permeable to the forces animating and empowering him. Therefore he not always is his own self (as contemporary humans often believe themselves to be). He is possessed by drives that are instilled into him by external forces ("some god"), and he senses these impulses as psychical powers entering him just as wind enters the lungs, warmth the skin, sound the ear, or light the eye. And as they come—enlightening or blinding him—they also leave, making room for other thoughts or feelings—joy or pain, courage or cowardice, cruelty or compassion—which again are not fully his own.

"Frenzied in soul you are, by some god possessed," said the Argive Elders to the seer Cassandra (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1140). "Has some god possessed you, dear girl?" asked the women of Troezen to the lovesick Phaedra (Euripides, Hippolytus 141). And Creon, having caused the ruin of his family, exclaimed: "I think, some god struck me on my head with a crushing weight, and drove me into savage paths …" (Sophocles, Antigone.1272). Ruinous errors and also wise decisions are not seldom regarded as inspired by such external forces which, being themselves deities, affect even the gods. Thus Zeus held Ate (Delusion or Blind Folly—see PERSONIFICATIONS) responsible for the blindness that made him take a solemn oath. And also Agamemnon acknowledged:

"Even so I also … could not forget Ate, of whom at the first I was made blind. Howbeit seeing I was blinded, and Zeus robbed me of my wits, I am ready to make amends …" (Agamemnon to Achilles. Homer, Iliad 19.135).

It is often through the interference of a god that a man becomes a stranger to his own mind, words and actions. But he is not a simple puppet: "his own heart" may generate independent action or even combine with divine intervention, as the words of the herald warning Penelope of the plot of her suitors against Telemachus suggest:

"I know not whether some god impelled him, or whether his own heart was moved to go to Pylos …" (Homer, Odyssey 4.711).

Heracles as madman

Paradoxically, Madness is temperate, and, abhorring impious deeds, selects her targets with discretion. Lyssa does not use her prerogatives against friends nor feels "any joy in visiting the homes of men". That's why she protests before Iris, whom Hera has sent to incite her against Heracles:

"This man, against whose house you are sending me, has made himself a name alike in heaven and earth; for, after taming pathless wilds and raging sea, he by his single might raised up again the honors of the gods when sinking before man's impiety …" (Lyssa to Iris. Euripides, The Madness of Heracles 849).

But as a result of Lyssa's subordination to more powerful goddesses, Heracles was plunged into the raving madness that nowadays goes under the designation "domestic violence" and killed her wife and children. Lyssa seized Heracles when he was before the altar of Zeus making himself ready for an act of purification. He suddenly suspended the ceremony and with eyeballs rolling and bloodshot, and foam oozing down his cheek, took his weapons and mounted and imaginary chariot, laughing like the madman he was at the moment. When his putative father Amphitryon tried top stop him, Heracles cast him aside, supposing him to be the father of his bitter enemy Eurystheus. Then he aimed his bow against his own children, believing them to be Eurystheus' sons, and they sought protection, one with his mother, another behind a pillar, and a third under the altar. His father, wife, and servants cried aloud, but to no avail: he chased one child round the pillar and shot him in the heart. And the one under the altar, he smote on the head, crushing the bones with his club. By then Megara (for that was his wife's name) had taken the third child within the house, shutting the doors. But he opened them with levers and with one shaft shot mother and child dead. Then it is told that, when Heracles was about to kill Amphitryon, Athena came from heaven and put him to sleep by hurling a rock against his breast, upon which the company took the chance to bound the madman to a pillar where he recovered his calm in deep slumber.

Ambiguities of Madness

Medicalisation makes of Madness not "a demon" but an illness—a "mental illness" or impairment of mental functioning—sometimes genetically predetermined. But it tells us very little on its origin and nature, and it could be difficult to assert whether there is an essential difference between the drugs that calm down the madman and the cords with which Heracles was bound to the column. Both drugs and cords (followed by exhaustion and sleep) are methods for staying the madman's transgression of accepted norms, or for calming his inner distress. But not every transgression of accepted norms, nor every sign of distress are defined or definable as symptoms of madness. Moreover the notion of "accepted norms" rests on a quantitative approach that could turn "collective madness" into sanity by means of "the majority principle". In the view of King Pentheus, the Maenads did not conform to norms as they showed a deviant behavior that in his view equalled madness. But alone with them he was in the minority, and since their behavior was sacred (being inspired by a god), it was Pentheus who showed, by opposing a divinity, that it could be he who had gotten a screw loose. A seer had warned him:

"But this god is a prophet—for Bacchic revelry and madness have in them much prophetic skill. For whenever the god enters a body in full force, he makes the frantic to foretell the future. He also possesses a share of Ares' nature. For terror sometimes flutters an army under arms and in its ranks before it even touches a spear; and this too is a frenzy from Dionysus. You will see him also on the rocks of Delphi, bounding with torches through the highland of two peaks, leaping and shaking the Bacchic branch, mighty throughout Hellas. But believe me, Pentheus; do not boast that sovereignty has power among men, nor, even if you think so, and your mind is diseased, believe that you are being at all wise. Receive the god into your land, pour libations to him, celebrate the Bacchic rites, and garland your head." (Tiresias to Pentheus. Euripides, Bacchanals 299).

But the wisdom of Pentheus, bearing some resemblance to the dementia rationalis which Georg Picht defined, could not cope with the arational state that this kind of possession (enthousiasmos) may generate. Since Aristotle's Poetics, or rather since Plato's Phaedrus, it has been customary to say of man that he can accomplish nothing without a continual solicitation to madness, which, while it must be overcome, must never be completely lacking. According to Plato, Mania is part of the divine inspiration behind the utterances of prophets:

"For the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when they have been mad have conferred many splendid benefits upon Greece both in private and in public affairs, but few or none when they have been in their right minds …" (Plato, Phaedrus 244b).

of poets:

"And a third kind of possession and madness comes from the Muses. This takes hold upon a gentle and pure soul, arouses it and inspires it to songs and other poetry, and thus by adorning countless deeds of the ancients educates later generations. But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen." (Plato, Phaedrus 245a).

(Or in the words of Michael Drayton, 1563-1631: "For that fine madness still he did retain / Which rightly should possess a poet's brain")

and even of philosophers:

"… I need not mention Socrates himself—and all the rest of them; every one of you has had his share of philosophic frenzy and transport (manía kaì bakxeía)." (Plato, Symposium 218b).

It is therefore hard to regard "Bacchic frenzy"—despite reported excesses—as a vulgar form of madness, since it is seen as originating in "a mad god", a surprising idea which reason cannot easily handle, but that W. F. Otto attempted to describe by "antithesis and paradox":

"He who begets something which is alive must dive down into the primeval depths in which the forces of life dwell. And when he rises to the surface, there is a gleam in his eyes because in those depths death lives cheek by jowl with life. The primal mystery is itself mad—the matrix of the duality and the unity of disunity …" (Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Ch. 11).

The paradox could lie in that Dionysus in exercising madness reaffirms the "otherness" that restores sanity:

"At the heart itself of life on this earth, alterity is a sudden intrusion of that which alienates us from daily existence, from the normal course of things, from ourselves: disguise, masquerade, drunkenness, play, theater, and finally, trance and ecstatic delirium. Dionysos teaches or compels us to become other than what we ordinarily are, to experience in this life here below the sensation of escape toward a disconcerting strangeness." (Jean-PierreVernant: Mortals and Immortals, Ch. 11).

In more vulgar expressions of madness (other than Dionysian), a similar "cleavage of the mind" occurs, and the affected individual acknowledges: "This was not my real intention; I was out of my mind", or "I was misled by some god". Such acknowledgements could be a sign of restored sanity. But the cleavage of the collective mind may not allow such reconciling insights, and may debouch in conflicts between different sets of norms, in which one set is "mad" and the other "sane" depending on the viewpoint:

"And if my present actions are foolish in your sight, it may be that it is a fool who accuses me of folly." (Antigone to Creon. Sophocles, Antigone 469).

A kamikaze or a suicide-bomber is a madman, a murderer or a terrorist; or else he is sane, devoted to a cause, a martyr or a hero. As a madman, he is a fanatic, and as a sane man he is self-sacrificing. A charismatic leader bewitches the masses to madness, or else he faithfully interprets their destiny; he debases them and weakens their minds or else he dignifies them and strengthens their will. Likewise, the media brainwash, manipulate and promote stupidity, or else inform and are a source of knowledge and awareness. A cult or sectarian group is mad because its activities lead to violence and killings, or else it is sane because its purpose is liberation either from an evil world or from an evil power. Any individual is mad if society says so, but if society were mad the dysfunctional citizen could be sane, or else both could be mad seen from the outside. Law and order, and the power of government and its institutions represent the prevention of chaos and madness and the preservation of peace, or else they represent oppression, slavery, and the madness of dehumanisation and savage war. Likewise for the Maenads, Pentheus is himself mad, the "mad spy"—godless and lawless—that their own madness will destroy:

"Go to the mountain, go, fleet hounds of Madness, where the daughters of Cadmus hold their company, and drive them raving against the mad spy … For he was not born from a woman's blood, but is the offspring of some lioness or of Libyan Gorgons. Let manifest justice go forth, let it go with sword in hand, slaying through the throat this godless, lawless, unjust, earth-born offspring of Echion." (Euripides, Bacchanals 977ff.).

The king being lawless, unjust and godless, is denied his humanity; he is "Gorgon-like" and justice will slay him "through the throat" (as Perseus slew Gorgo). He is represented as the bestial offspring of a Gorgon, that is, a child of Madness who herself is "the Gorgon child of Night", the same that turned the eyes of Heracles into "Gorgon-glaring eyeballs" (869), and made him kill his children "with savage Gorgon-scowl" (990). The madness of the Gorgon represents

"… the terrifying horror of that which is absolutely other, unspeakable, unthinkable—pure chaos. For a human being, this is the confrontation with death—the death that the eye of Gorgo imposes on those who meet her gaze, transforming every single thing that lives, moves, and sees the light of the sun into a fixed stone, frozen, blind, and shrouded in darkness." (Vernant, op.cit.).

That is why Tiresias gives Pentheus a hopeless diagnosis:

"… you are mad in a most grievous way, and you will not be cured by drugs, nor are you sick without them." (Tiresias to Pentheus. Euripides, Bacchanals 326).

In this perspective, he is possessed by madness who is other than himself, and who remains in his otherness. His otherness has become his self and he can no longer transcend it. He has been petrified by the Gorgon. However, the myth rather suggests that sanity requires both the self and the other. Madness resides in neither, but in petrification: in the immobility that prevents crossing the boundary between the self and the other, or else in the chaotic crossing of the same boundary. It has been customary for some time to worship the limitless whether in science, economy, politics, or customs. For it is believed that by its mere infinity it will open undreamt-of opportunities and expand freedom. Accordingly, crossing boundaries has become more and more tempting. However, the myths have established the sacredness of boundaries, showing their significance in preserving identities and in allowing their sane interplay. Not only are there boundaries within the human psyche but between land and sea, city and countryside, beast and human, woman and man, childhood and adulthood, sky and earth … These and many other realities have been regarded as worlds with own laws, and the boundaries protecting them as sacred. Not to cross a boundary (geographical, political, artistic, moral, sexual, psychic, etc.) could mean narrowness since crossing boundaries permits passage from one state to another. Boundaries are seen as permeable, but crossing them without due preparation is often a violation. These two extremes are capable of freezing both the self and "the other" (within and in the outside world). It is such extremes that have often been associated with Madness, and represented as petrification under the gaze of the Gorgon.

A few anecdotes on madness:

Madness also seized the daughters of King Cecrops 1 of Athens, who threw themselves from the Acropolis, or into the sea, dying of their madness. And in a fit of madness caused by his pride, Ajax 1 let himself fall upon his sword, thus ending his heroic days. And those who slew their mothers, like Orestes 2 and Alcmaeon 1, were driven mad, as they say, by the ERINYES, who, according to the traveller Pausanias, were called Maniae (Madnesses) by the Arcadians, who built them a sanctuary. It is also told that during the reign of Anaxagoras, king of Argos, the women were smitten with madness until they were cured by Melampus 1, who received two-thirds of the kingdom in return for this benefaction. Hera, who drove Heracles 1 mad, also maddened Athamas 1, who out of his mind hunted his elder son Learchus as a deer and killed him. And Attis, a worshipper of Cybele (Rhea 1), castrated himself as Madness advised him. The hunter Broteas 1's delusion consisted in that he believed that fire could not hurt him, and his belief being firm enough, he threw himself into the fire and perished. Coronis 3, a devotee of Dionysus 2 in Thessaly, invoked the god after being raped by Butes 6, and as Dionysus 2 drove him mad, he threw himself into a well, meeting his death. And on King Calchus of the Daunians, who employed all means to gain Circe's love, it is told that the witch laid a trap for him by setting before him a table covered with meats that were full of magical drugs. As soon as he had eaten, he was stricken mad, and she drove him into her notorious pig-sty. After a time, as the Daunian army landed on the island, she released him from the enchantment, making him promise never to return. Also Echo is said to have fallen victim of madness, for it is told that Pan turned mad the shepherds and goatherds, and they, like dogs and wolves, tore her to pieces and flung them all over the earth. And Eurypylus 1, leader of the Ormenians during the Trojan War, went mad on seeing a cursed chest after the war. And King Deriades of India, in a fit of madness, cut off Habrathoos' hair (a bitter insult to an Indian). Melampus 1 the seer is said to have cured two of the daughters of Proetus 1 of their madness (Lysippe 2 and Iphianassa 3), but the third (Iphinoe 1) he could not save and she died. King Lycurgus 1 (perhaps of Thrace) was driven mad by Dionysus 2 or by Zeus, and killed himself. Odysseus is remembered, not for being mad but for feigning madness when Palamedes came to make him join the army that sailed against Troy. (Not linked names can be found in the Dictionary.)

Related sections The Labyrinth of Wisdom, Dionysus 2, MAENADS  

AETH.3; Apd.2.2.2, 3.4.3, 3.7.5-6, 3.14.6; Apd.Ep.2.2, 2.16, 6.13-14, 6.25-27; Dio.4.68.4, 5.50.5; Eur.And.884; Eur.Hel.96; Eur.Ion.20ff.; Eur.Ore.24; Hyg.Ast.2.40; Hyg.Fab.4, 166, 242; Long.3.23; Nonn.21.148, 25.311, 26.152ff.; Ov.Fast.4.223; Ov.Met.4.480ff, 10.104; Parth.12.1-3; Pau.2.18.4-5, 2.18.6, 3.19.12, 7.17.10-11, 7.19.6, 8.34.1; Pin.Isth.4.35; Pin.Nem.7.26; QS.5.482; Soph.Aj.815ff.


WALTER F. OTTO: Dionysus: Myth and Cult (Spring Publications: Dallas: Texas (1965), 1981), Ch. 11.
MARTIN P. NILSSON: A History of Greek Religion (The Norton Library, 1964), Ch.5.
JEAN-PIERRE VERNANT: Mortals and Immortals (Collected Essays). Princeton University Press 1991.
ERASMUS OF ROTTERDAM, 1469-1536, Praise of Folly (Penguin 1971).
ROBERT BURTON, 1577-1640: The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York Review of Books, 2001).