DIONYSUS: ROOTED IN EARTH AND ECSTASY
Each winter Apollo left Delphi to live with the Hyperboreans, a mythical tribe in
the North, and Dionysus moved into Delphi for those three months.
The contrast between Apollo and Dionysus: moderation and mental balance
versus an irrational power that allows people to explore their potential for
emotional and behavioral extremes.
Qualities in common: both sons of Zeus, they share his will to power and his
creative drive; both are born under difficult circumstances and both establish
While both Apollo and Dionysus are associated with “ecstasy”—a standing
outside of oneself—there are also important distinctions between them in that
respect. Apollo remains aloof from the worshipers who are not themselves
possessed by the god: only the Pythia, who speaks in tongues (glossolalia), is.
On the other hand, any follower of Dionysus can hope to be seized by the god
in an ecstatic frenzy.
One theory suggests that Apollo and Dionysus are two sides of the same
divinity, combining moderation and excess. Apollo and Dionysus then may
represent two equally important aspects of the human psyche. The worshiper
may encounter the divine either through oracular knowledge or by orgiastic
Both gods inspire poetry, song, and dance—Apollo with his lyre and Dionysus
with his timbrel.
Dionysus and other male fertility gods of the ancient Near East with whom he is
often identified—Tammutz (Dumuzi), Adonis, and Osiris—share a common
fate: violent death, descent into the Underworld, and rebirth as immortal
Some versions of the myth bring Dionysus to Greece from Thrace, others from
Asia Minor. While he brings with him a foreign cult and strange companions
and music, he also has the nature, in a paradoxical way, of a native son: his
birth, after all, took place in Thebes.
Euripides’s play the
tells of Dionysus’s (Bacchus’s) return to Thebes
from Asia Minor with a throng of Asian maenads (female followers of the
10. Dionysus’s birth follows the heroic pattern: Hera attempts to prevent Semele
from giving birth; in disguise, she convinces Semele that the lover who visits
her in the dark is an ogre. Semele persuades her lover to show himself as he
really is, and when Zeus appears in a blaze of light, she is incinerated. From
her corpse, Zeus takes the embryo of Dionysus and places it in his thigh, from
which Dionysus is born. For Euripides’s rationalization of this myth on the
basis of linguistic confusion, see Chapter 1.
11. Sprung from Zeus’s genital area, Dionysus is a fertility god representing the