Books: A dictionary for Dionysus

WHOM GODS DESTROY: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness by Ruth Padel, Princeton pounds 19.95
"THIS is a book of ingredients," says Ruth Padel in her preface, summoning up images not of some tempting stew but of raw flesh and harsh flavourings, a heap of dry flour or an uncracked egg. She has trawled through classic literature for references to madness and sorted them into groups. Madness is black, she discovers: "dark-faced children of night" make men mad; Ajax's eyes are darkened in madness; the word "melancholy" derives from the Greek for black bile; black hellebore was a popular cure for madness. Another group of words imply that madness was a knock, a blow out of one's right mind. Yet another bristles with ideas of turning aside, twisting and perceptual distortion.

Ruth Padel notes that there are few Greek nouns for madness, and no simple adjective meaning mad. Why did poets plump for verbs rather than other parts of speech? Because of "the overriding Greek sense that madness is temporary". We encounter Dionysus, whose first mention in Western literature has him mainomenos, raving. Baccheuo means "I rave", "I madden" or "I celebrate Bacchic rites." In Greek tragedy characters who enter a phase of "mad-seeing" (Lycurgus, lopping his son like a vine; Agave killing Pentheus believing he is a mountain lion) recover their sanity to recognise the enormity of their actions. Padel mocks academics of the "he was mad all along" school, those who seek to psychoanalyse characters rather than listen to and honour the words of the tragedians.

In order to get back to what the Greeks actually thought, it is necessary to scratch away the cultural accretions of centuries, plus the smug view that our own ideas of madness are not just as parochial as theirs. "It is fine to use the Greek tragedies, with no reference to the society which produced them, to think with. To reflect your insight into, for example, modern psyches ... it is not fine to claim that what you see in that operation is thereby 'in' the plays. If you see yourself reflected in a flake of burnished obsidian, this does not mean the person who polished it 2,000 years ago ... put you there."

Padel is a poet as well as a classical scholar, and her flashing similes and imagery add a touch of wit to her potentially dry subject matter. Scoffing at academics who think that an Athenian poet's ambiguous (to us) rendering of the Erinyes means that he's implying that they don't exist, she quips: "You might as well say the Empire State Building does not exist because for some people it is a phallic symbol." She's good at disentangling our mind-set from that of the ancient Greeks, cautioning against "emulsioning Greek temples with our own paint". The exile, the beggar and the madman all wander, but this state is a shameful one, in no wise related to the glamorous drifting of the Romantics: "You did not travel for pleasure but for profit, war, or to consult oracles ... Wandering, solitude and madness did not appeal ... to ancient Greece." Similarly, in Ancient Greece as now, to see Dionysus would be proof of madness - not because he did not exist, but because he did.

She makes very heavy weather of her insights in this densely argued and somewhat repetitive book, frequently becoming simultaneously over-excited and over-earnest, as in this description of live Greek theatre: "This is madness as mask. Pretend madness, with imagined sanity behind it: as the Greek audience knows the real actor is behind and in the mask. 'Real' madness on stage is the drama itself feigning madness. Illusion, taken for reality, is presented by the illusion of a person, a mask that hides the actor..." and so on and on. But Padel has earned her place, sitting with her neat pile of perfectly polished pebbles next to the great cairn of Athenian tragedy.