Re-Visioning Dionysus: A Modern Spin on a Ancient Diety

l recently rediscovered my youthful love for Greek mythology. It came on suddenly while I was lecturing on Hellenic Greek culture for my community college students, and was reminded of the many legacies of Greek civilization and how they inspired all areas of literature, art, and philosophy to some extent in subsequent generations. The textbook I am using, which released its 6th edition early in 2008, stresses the follies of corrupted absolute power for the downfall of most ancient civilizations, especially Egypt, Greece and Rome. The book’s latent claim is that through a study of the humanities, one can understand the dangers of hubris and how it cannot be successfully sustained. The gods played archetypal central roles in maintaining the boundaries between human and Olympian power. For example, one Hellenic ideal was to balance Apollo with Dionysus, or order with chaos. In Greek literature, this dichotomy is demonstrated by the consequences a character suffers if he or she operates under the guise of hubris and absolute power in decision-making, or Apollo, and how he or she will be put back into one’s place by Dionysus. Unfortunately, the death of theater at the end of the Hellenic era also brought a sort of death of Dionysus. He is still around, but has had to take on a new guise, forcing us in American society to learn a new way of experiencing the archetype.

To understand Dionysus as a god, it helps to first understand his three births as a god. In the first, he is taken from Semele by Zeus to protect him from Hera’s wrath after Semele is killed by Zeus’s divine presence. This birth is a mortal birth and ties Dionysus to the mortal tension of humanity. From Semele, the infant is placed in Zeus’s thigh to bring him to full gestation. When he is ready, he emerges from Zeus’ thigh, a divine birth. Walter Otto remarks that this “is the reason why he is, in a great and complete sense, a god—the god of duality, as the myth of his birth expresses it so beautifully and truly. As a true god he symbolizes an entire world whose spirit reappears in ever new forms and unites in an eternal unity the sublime with the simple, the human with the animal, the vegetative and the elemental” (Otto 202). During his childhood, he is dismembered, cut up, stirred into a stew and fed to the gods. He is rescued by Athena and reconstructed, an alchemical birth. Unlike the other gods, Dionysus is a transcendent deity, with ties not only to the human realm and the divine realm, but to another realm entirety that transcends human conception and divinity. The alchemical realm is one of mystery, due to the nature of the transformation that takes place–one rarely resembles its original state after the process is complete.

As a god, he is identified as the god of wine, festival, and theater, all of which induce uncivilized behavior within individuals, removing their sense of self-control and inciting chaotic behavior in Dionysian followers. Because of the frenzied behavior not conducive to Hellenic culture, Dionysus was honored and confined within the theater and any festivals surrounding it, such as the Dionysia in which new tragedies were performed. Dionysus is a primal god, connected with the uncivilized aspects of human behavior. There have not been too many incarnations of this archetype in modern times. He is associated with Christ and similar messianic figures. Joseph Campbell notes that in Orphic cults, the “ever-dying, ever-living god, who is the reality of all beings” is recognized as “the god whose symbol is the vine … known as Dionysus-Orpheus-Bacchus” (25-6). This recognition ties Dionysus to the earth and his presence in the plants. His death and resurrection is linked to the passing of the seasons and rites and sacrifices to this god were meant to encourage the crops to grow. This purpose for Dionysus faded when the Greek civilization started to prefer the Olympian deities under Zeus over the chthonic deities of the earth, especially Dionysus and Demeter.

One way to understand Dionysus, according to Ginette Paris, is to realize that he is not simply an actor in theater, but that he is the mask and the theater in and of themselves (49). That he cannot be confined to a polis shrine is a testament to the primal nature in this god: one needs to let one’s hair down, one has to drink or somehow release one’s sorrows or connect with one’s primal nature. The flip side is one weighted down by looming depression or a disconnect between mind and body.

The disconnect between mind and body is the fundamental basis between the argument of Apollo versus Dionysus. This is further relevant to Hellenic life and its quest for beauty and balanced harmony in all aspects of life, as demonstrated in the remaining artistic canon. This line of thought pits the two gods, Apollo and Dionysus, against each other:

In Apollo all of the splendor of the Olympic converges and confronts the realms of eternal becoming and eternal passing. Apollo and Dionysus, the intoxicated leader of the choral dance of the terrestrial sphere—that would give the total world dimension. In this union the Dionysiac earthly duality would be elevated into a new and higher duality, the eternal contrast between the restless, whirling life and a still, far-seeing spirit. (Otto 208)

Dionysus, as stated, is the god of wine who often induces his followers into a frenzied state, especially women, who often tore animals apart in their blindness. This should not be confused with hysteria, which is a medical condition. Apollo, by contrast, is the god of truth and wisdom, and his oracle at Delphi was held in a high, unquestioning regard, though open to human misinterpretations. The ideal balanced life would allow both gods equal footing in an individual’s life and in the greater society. If one is given more dominance over the other, then the resulting imbalance creates an unhealthy environment. For example, too much Dionysus leads to anarchy and nothing can be accomplished, and an unhealthy society quickly develops. Similarly, too much Apollo disconnects one from an earthy connection and roots a person in an ethereal quest for an intangible ideology. I suggest that the Western world is so tipped towards Apollo, that we have become an “air” society, and a reconnection with Dionysus would literally bring us back down to earth.

Looking at Apollo and Dionysus as archetypes, we get another perspective of their significance. Apollo is the rigid control of the psyche and Dionysus is the lack thereof. Apollo can be viewed as ego and Dionysus as id, or the shadow, the unconscious counterpart or opposition to the ego. Of course, there are those for whom Dionysus is ego and Apollo is the shadow. Jung would suggest that part of the individuation process includes striking a balance between both energies because, otherwise, one becomes rooted in neurosis, psychosis, and pathology. To own one’s shadow is the process by which one reconciles these two forces. For example, allowing Dionysus to drive one into a bit of frenzy from time to time, and taking a break from Apollo. The consequences of not doing this can be tragic. Dionysus will not be denied and can surface when least expected, causing something uncharacteristic to occur. Similarly, owning an Apollonian shadow involves introducing order and reason into one’s life. A healthy balance is resembled by a successful working professional who hosts a backyard barbecue regularly.

Since American society is Apollonian and this is a paper on Dionysus, I would like to now compare some ancient, Classical manifestations of Dionysus with some modern. The image of Dionysus has changed, but he still finds a way to leak into the mainstream.

Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, sets Dionysus against Theban king, Pentheus, who represents an Apollonian character. Dionysus comes to Thebes and induces his usual frenzy and chaos. Pentheus, as king, wants to rid the polis of the unruly god and restore control and calm. To do this would mean cutting short the festival going on in Dionysus’ honor, but Pentheus is determined, especially after learning that his own mother has joined the ranks of the Maenads, or frenzied women who follow Dionysus. Since Dionysus is not going to have that, he confronts Pentheus in disguise and convinces him to visit the Maenads in disguise and see for himself what is really occurring amongst them. The Maenads realize Pentheus is not a woman, and thus unworthy of their ranks, but in their frenzy they fail to recognize who he is. They tear him to pieces. After being freed from Dionysus’ spell, Pentheus’ mother realizes her part in killing her son and is exiled. The overall theme of the play stresses that it is a fatal mistake to try to suppress Dionysus.

Just before Thanksgiving 2008, the drama department of the community college I teach at staged a production of The Bacchae. It was directed and adapted by an adjunct faculty "artist in residence," but it was otherwise a student production. What started out as an excellent version of the play became a comic play at the end, when the image manager would interrupt the scene to inform the audience that which parts of the play have been lost over time, such as Agave’s lament. The production effectively made The Bacchae into a tragic farce, with all of the tension lost.

Catharsis is “a purification of whatever is ‘filthy’ or ‘polluted’ in the pathos, the tragic act” (Else 98). This cleansing action, as described in Aristotle’s Poetics, is one of evoking feelings of fear and pity for the character (Aristotle 40). A successful tragedy will have a character that experiences a terrible situation, often an act of fate out of control, yet the audience feels sympathy for the outcome. Part of a successful staging is the spectacle, the extent to which one’s experience is enhanced, not detracted from catharsis. One cannot be expected to sympathize with Agave if one is being told that her part is missing, even if the purpose of such a discourse is as a teaching tool.

In contrast to the tragedy, comedy is, according to Aristotle, “ an imitation of persons who are inferior; not, however, going all the way to full villainy, but imitating the ugly, of which the ludicrous is one part” (23). Not only does comedy imitate the ugliness, but the beauty as well, in order to draw attention to them. Comedy highlights aspects of one’s character, physically or personality, that the audience would recognize. In some cases, the emphasis helps identify a well-known character. In others, it ensures that the audience will be aware of the trait. The Frogs does both. Aristophanes plays up the pompousness of Euripides and Aeschylus while also raising awareness of the looming end of the Hellenic age.

Dionysus’ role in The Frogs, is that of a judge for the perfect tragedian, choosing between Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles is recognized as immensely popular and successful, so he is not considered, which may influenced by Aristophanes’ own opinion of him as a lower poet than the other two. Whoever won was permitted to return to Athens with Dionysus. This is demonstrated by a verbal tennis match, with each delivering lines from his work and lambasting the other. Dionysus decides by weighing the lyric and chooses Aeschylus.

At the time of Aristophanes’ play, tragedy was a dying form. The tragic playwrights following Euripides were either unable or unwilling to create genuine, good plays. The glory of Athens was in decline, and through Dionysus, “[he] seeks to bring back good writing to Athens, and with it the public wisdom which, as Aristophanes maintains against Sokrates, will always be found in the highest poetry” (Arrowsmith et al., 474). While it is not possible to actually resurrect the dead, the hope Aristophanes instills of resurrecting the glory and splendor of the Hellenic period, offers another type of catharsis: one that releasing the audience from is own emotional vacuum. The audience is cleaned through h the release of the filth that is associated with the bad news and downtrodden society.

Dionysus is integral with catharsis because through the chaos he invites, one can release emotions that otherwise have to remain contained. Frenzy is well-noted to be the opposition to productivity, which, in an Apollonian environment, is held to a higher esteem than creativity. Indeed, the creative spirit caught in the Hellenic age and in tragedy fell silent after a slow decline at the end of the era and remained in this manner until the Renaissance, with a few exceptions along the way in Medieval literature.

Ginette Paris in the Dionysus chapter of her book, Pagan Grace, stresses a need for celebrations to Dionysus and suggests that there are not enough in modern, monotheistic society. Maybe this seeming lack is due to the extreme nature of Dionysian celebration. I can think of three sanctioned holidays: New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, and Halloween. New Year’s is a one night celebration, full of parties, drinking, and sometimes a feast. It is a restrained event, focused on counting down until midnight, not absolute frenzy.

Halloween, similarly, is a one night event, except many people prepare for weeks. For children, Halloween involves finding and dressing in the perfect costume and seeking candy from neighbors and businesses. For them, Dionysus is found in the masks, but especially in the candy. For adults, Halloween is a night of misbehaving in or out of costume. Adult Halloween parties include candy, alcohol, and other vices. People who attend these parties are allowed one night of frenzy with the comfort of anonymity.

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, on the other hand refers to the last Tuesday before the Lent season, a period of fasting and austerity leading to the Easter celebration. Traditionally, it is the last day before the season of abstinence that one may eat animal fats, such as butter or lard. This festival has grown, in some places, to a month-long celebration of costume (masks), parades, drinking (vine) and lots of people behaving badly (frenzy). The festivities of Mardi Gras are among the few sanctioned by the Church to allow people the opportunity to lose control without consequences, except for those outlined by the community’s law.

After a month of preparation for a single event, is there still energy for continued Dionysia? According to Paris’ position, not only is there no energy, but there is no other sanctioned environment to honor Dionysus. I offer that there is one such place that is overlooked to its nature, as noted by several critics, as a commercial, consumerist, environment: Disneyland and the other Disney theme parks. If a tribute to Dionysus includes excess and letting one’s hair down, then Disneyland represents daily doses of Dionysus. No alcohol is served in the Magic Kingdom, but similar excesses, such as candy, can be attributed to Dionysus. The Disneyland experience from start to finish is one of the most extreme theatrical experiences, and one fabricated for people to experience happiness. The park is cut off from the outside world, not affected by news of war, recession, or unemployment. The food is all Disney themed, especially the Mickey Mouse-shaped desserts, and outside corporate influences are limited. Dionysus is invoked in the ongoing celebrations: the parades, the cheering fans, and the overall happiness of the place. Some families prepare for years for their pilgrimage to Disneyland, and others go regularly.

A fictional personification of Dionysus can be found in Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like Dionysus, Wonka was chased away from public view and isolated himself in his chocolate factory. His presence was still felt through his chocolate, but he was otherwise a private, isolated figure. Wonka decides to return to the public and opens up his chocolate factory for a select few, who can be "initiated" into some of the secrets of his chocolate factory. The world as a whole launches into a Dionysian-frenzy trying to find the Golden Ticket that would let them into the inner circle. Chocolate does not generate the same reaction as wine, but it nonetheless does inspire people to launch into another state. Some people react amorously, which is the realm of Aphrodite, but others, notably small children, become hyper and excited under the sugary influence, and thus enter a Dionysian state of mind.

Two historical periods represented by Dionysus are the Sixties Counterculture, known for its excesses in San Francisco, and the Club Kids phenomenon in Eighties New York. Both are marked with abuses of various substances, especially psychedelics and other drugs that not only put one into another state of mind, but also altered perceptions and experiences. In both cases, the participants were trying to avoid the rigor and control of the established society and live entirely by the rules of Dionysus. Many were young teenagers or in their early to mid twenties, and some were trapped in the puer stage of development and never wanted to grow up. Drugs provided an excuse to put off the responsibilities of adulthood, or Apollo, for a little while longer. Some were able to recover and start a new life, and others were forever stuck the cycle of addiction.

Dionysus does have a presence in modern life, even if it is not the one expected. He is no longer worshipped as a god of the vine, to whom one must sacrifice in order for the crops to go, nor is he simply the god of the theater. Those conceptions of Dionysus passed with the Ancient world. Sadly, so did the wealth of source material. Only a relatively small number of plays, stories, other texts, and works of art at extant. The rest have been lost with time or human destruction. The legacy of Dionysus lives on, however, as an archetype of excessive behavior and lack of control. Historically, this has been demonstrated through cultural movements that prefer the life of hedonism to the life of stoicism. Within popular culture, Dionysian energies surface in unlikely places that would not typically be associated with the god.

It is the task of modern mythological studies, I suggest, to recognize these changes. It is easy to conclude that myth, God, or any similar sacred or divine presence is dead in the modern, Western post-Scientific Revolution world, because the polytheistic gods of yore are no longer worshipped. But then, those gods are those of another era and fulfilled different cultural needs. The archetypal approach keeps the myths alive, but almost to the point of idealizing these myths to the exclusion of the myths currently floating around culture. Recognizing the myths, such as Dionysus in Disneyland, allows one to recognize the mythic quality of a facet of culture that could easily be overlooked. The Hellenic playwrights did something similar, personifying Dionysus as a character in their plays, which lowers him from a level of divinity to a level of human understanding. As the story of Semele’s death and Dionysus’s birth demonstrates, it is not possible to know the gods fully, because their divine radiance is too powerful for humans. They can only be understood through human constructs, which vary and change from person to person.

Works cited

  • Aristophanes. “The Frogs.” Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, Lysistrata. Trans. William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglas Parker. New York: Meridian, 1994.
  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Gerald Else. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967.
  • Arrowsmith, William. Notes. “The Frogs.” Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, Lysistrata. by Aristophanes. New York: Meridian, 1994.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Compass, 1968.
  • Else, Gerald. Notes. Poetics. By Aristotle. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967.
  • Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. C.K. Williams. New York: Noonday P, 1990.
  • Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1995.
  • Paris, Ginette. Pagan Grace: Dionysus, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in Daily Life. Putnam: Spring, 1990.

2 thoughts on “Re-Visioning Dionysus: A Modern Spin on a Ancient Diety

  1. “It is easy to conclude that myth, God, or any similar sacred or divine presence is dead in the modern, Western post-Scientific Revolution world, because the polytheistic gods of yore are no longer worshipped.”

    I had a significant wtf moment reading this sentence. It’s difficult to realize that anyone with enough interest in the Greek gods to write about them in history and popular culture can possibly be unaware that the worship of Dionysus and the rest of the Hellenic gods occurs in the modern world. Modern Greek pagans are, in fact, trying to get their religion recognized by the Greek government, while Norse polytheism has actually gained government recognition in Iceland and other Scandinavian nations.

    Furthermore, one only need to open a news app to realize that large numbers of monotheists – yes, it’s true – continue worship their God.

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