Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dionysus & Apollo

Part 31 of Prisoners of the Real

The worship of Dionysus predates the Greek version of the myth and grew out of an ancient belief in the spirit of nature and fertility, often expressed in celebratory rites. It was only a matter of time before the Greeks recognized the cult. For them, Dionysus was the God of Wine, a constantly changing energy that oscillated between benefaction and destruction. His cup was life-giving and could heal any illness. His influence quickened courage and banished fear. Worshippers soared as they realized through Dionysus their innate ability to transcend their own limits. Working within and around human beings, he could transform them into gods and goddesses.


As Edith Hamilton described it, "The momentary sense of exultant power wine-drinking can give was only a sign to show men that they had within them more than they knew."

Dionysus has also been identified with the Indian figure Shiva, the Egyptian myth of the dead and resurrected god Osiris, as well as various rites of the killed and resurrected divine king. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes the figure of the lame king in Levantine, Cretan, Greek, Celtic and Germanic legend. Dionysus is said to have had a bull-foot. Campbell relates these symbols to the moon, the celestial counterpart of the sacrificed and resurrected king. The moon is lame on one side, then on the other. One side of the tree of life is beautiful, the other in decay. The moon is also the heavenly cup of liquor drunk by the gods.

In Jewish and Chinese legends of the deluge, the hero becomes lame. Noah is injured by a lion (a solar beast). He and China's Great Yu survive, ending the old and bringing on the new. The deluge itself is described in several ways – as mathematical inevitability, culmination of a cosmic cycle, monstrous catastrophe brought on by a freely willing god, or local geographical event marked by neither guilt nor mathematics. In any case, it is a hero legend whose central theme is not the deluge but the virtue of the hero who responds in harmony with the order of nature.

One of the most arresting of the Greek gods, as well as one of the two gods of earth, Dionysus eventually achieved the status of a major divinity. His admission to Delphi indicated the full acceptance of his worship as part of the state religion, often expressed in dramatic festivals. More than a mere merrymaker who freed people momentarily through wine, however, Dionysus represented the spirit of human liberation through inspiration.

Countless poems were composed for this expression of the divine idea. Through the power of Dionysus human beings were said to act gloriously, even divinely. He was a symbol of revelry, inspiration, destruction, and also afflicted suffering. According to the Greeks, Dionysus died with the coming of the cold, torn to pieces by elemental forces. But this death was merely a prologue to resurrection, since Dionysus also embodies the idea of life beyond material existence – the basis of belief in immortality.

In sum, the Greeks realized that instincts couldn't be denied. Therefore, they embraced and elevated as a god a force that personifies basic human instincts and desires. They were also well aware, of course, that the dangers of denial were paralleled by the dangers of excess. As a result, Dionysus reflected both the potential for inspired creation and frenzied destruction. Unfortunately, the inheritors of Greek culture lost sight of the liberatory implications and, much like the vengeful Hera, embarked on a campaign of persecution.

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Apollo and Dionysus are primal twins buried within the human psyche, yet for almost two thousand years we have worshipped Apollo and devalued the god of inspiration. Master musician and archer, Apollo is also known as a healer and god of light. No darkness exists, for the deity or his followers, as they seek the truth. Known as the son god, his second name – Phoebus – means "brilliant" or "shining."

The origins of Apollo, like Dionysus, stretch back further than the Greeks; in this case, to Indo-European migrations and ancient tales of fear and vengeance. To the Greeks, however, he was simply the son of Zeus and Leto, another victim of Hera's spite. Driven from country to country in search of sanctuary, Leto eventually settled on Delos, the island on whose northern slopes Apollo is said to have been born. A favored child, he was fed on nectar and ambrosia, reaching manhood in four days as a result.

Though courageous and skilled, Apollo was also hasty. Seeking to kill the serpent named Python, for example, he tracked it to the shrine of Mother Earth at Delphi, and struck it down in the very spot where the oracle spoke. Earth, demanding atonement for the defiling of her sacred place, forced Zeus to send his son away for ritual purification.

And despite Apollo's gifts, including the power of prophecy, he wasn't always kind. To Greek herdsman, for example, he was a fearful, "wolfish" presence that had to be placated, a god who could either protect them from wolves or, if he was offended, give tangible shape to their fears.

Here is another link between myths and men, with more lessons about the complex nature of human will. The light-giver, who can heal and purify, can also be quite pitiless and cruel. Just as the excesses of Dionysus have been accentuated, the cruel and primitive side of Apollo has been ignored.
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Dionysus is the desire to burst through the reality bubble that surrounds us, to experience a general sense of affirmation, to touch the unknown. It's the spirit of magic, potential scattered through time, matter becoming spirit, the ideal that cuts through the skin of the real world. Apollo is Dionysus is ordered form, spirit becoming matter, the actuality of space, the practical application of Dionysus when this unlimited complexity is captured.

The Pythagorean synthesis fused formless substance with harmonious form, incorporating the evolutionary movement from impulse and sensitivity to rational order. But the goal of the process was spiritual, personal and subjective – to grasp the One through the power of intellect. In the two millenia since the great triangle was conceived, however, humanity has used and abused intellect primarily to gain mastery over knowledge. Ultimately, the triangle was inverted: wisdom and creative intellect were sacrificed in order to concentrate on classifying truth. We lost sight of the One by endlessly subdividing it into the many.

The harvest of our rational, Apollonian choice, and the concomitant denial of intuition, has been a painful and deadly discontinuity and alienation between entities. The world is perceived as atoms, particles, and individuals, bound to one another only by the laws of cause and effect. Rationalized humanity has assumed that aggression and territoriality are inherent. In this bright, cold world surrendered freedom has been promoted as the only way to avoid war and shield the world system from chaos – widely accepted as the "state of nature."

Next: The Path of Invention

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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