In Greek mythology, maenads (Ancient Greek: μαινάδες, mainádes) were the female followers of Dionysus (Bacchus in the Roman pantheon), the most significant members of the Thiasus, the god's retinue. Their name literally translates as "raving ones". Often the maenads were portrayed as inspired by him into a state of ecstatic frenzy, through a combination of dancing and drunken intoxication. In this state, they would lose all self-control, begin shouting excitedly, engage in uncontrolled sexual behavior, and ritualistically hunt down and tear to pieces animals — and, at least in myth, sometimes men and children — devouring the raw flesh. During these rites, the maenads would dress in fawn skins and carry a thyrsus, a long stick wrapped in ivy or vine leaves and tipped by a cluster of leaves; they would weave ivy-wreaths around their heads, and often handle or wear snakes. German philologist Walter Friedrich Otto writes that
The Bacchae of Euripides gives us the most vital picture of the wonderful circumstance in which, as Plato says in the Ion, the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. They strike rocks with the thyrsus, and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth, and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid. Honey trickles down from the thyrsus made of the wood of the ivy, they gird themselves with snakes and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast. Fire does not burn them. No weapon of iron can wound them, and the snakes harmlessly lick up the sweat from their heated cheeks. Fierce bulls fall to the ground, victims to numberless, tearing female hands, and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots with their combined efforts.
The maddened Hellenic women of real life were mythologized as the mad women who were nurses of Dionysus in Nysa: Lycurgus "chased the Nurses of the frenzied Dionysus through the holy hills of Nysa, and the sacred implements dropped to the ground from the hands of one and all,as the murderous Lycurgus struck them down with his ox-goad." They went into the mountains at night and practised strange rites.
In Macedon, according to Plutarch's Life of Alexander, they were called Mimallones and Klodones, epithets derived from the feminine art of spinning wool; nevertheless, these warlike parthenoi ("virgins") from the hills, associated with a shamanic Dionysios pseudanor, routed an invading enemy. In southern Greece they were described as Bacchae, Bassarides, Thyiades, Potniades and given other epithets.
The maenads were also known as Bassarids (or Bacchae or Bacchantes) in Roman mythology, after the penchant of the equivalent Roman god, Bacchus, to wear a fox-skin, a bassaris.
In Euripides' play The Bacchae, Theban maenads murdered King Pentheus after he banned the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus, Pentheus' cousin, himself lured Pentheus to the woods, where the maenads tore him apart. His corpse was mutilated by his own mother, Agave, who tore off his head, believing it to be that of a lion.
A group of maenads also killed Orpheus.
In Greek vase painting, the frolicking of maenads and Dionysus is often a theme depicted on Greek kraters, used to mix water and wine. These scenes show the maenads in their frenzy running in the forests, often tearing to pieces any animal they happen to come across.