The Creativity of Dionysus A non-academic attempt at linking creative genius to the archetypal Dionysian character.
From the twelve Olympian gods, there is one that prefigures as comparatively extraordinary and distinct, Dionysus. The god of wine and revelry, featuring on many ancient Greek vases holding a cup or vine branch and the symbol of his wild and ecstatic activities, the staff known as the Thyrsus, a giant fennel stalk topped with ivy leaves. From the excess and intoxication of much wine, led to ritual madness and rapturous freedom, seen as escape from the everyday, the mundane, the drudgery of being just like everyone else.
Euripides writes of Dionysus as bringing wine to mankind, ‘which, when they drink their fill, banishes the sufferings of wretched mortals, and brings forgetfulness of each day’s troubles in sleep. There is no other cure for sorrow . . . ‘ (Bacchae 278-83). Homer describes him as, ‘a joy for mortals’ (Illiad 14.325) and Hesiod ‘he of many delights’ (Theology 941). The duality of character of Dionysus is exemplified in the extraordinary story of his coming into life, which then creates a precedent or prototype manifesting itself into what may be understood as an ‘archetype’ that would in time come to be inhabited by and within all human sub-consciousness. Zeus in his zest for union with mortal women chose Semele to lay with him but seen by her as a mortal man. However, even the Olympian gods acquire human characteristics and traits so that Hera, the present wife of Zeus, jealous of Semele, convinced her to ask the man to truly reveal himself of his true form and power, knowing of the full consequences.
As Zeus cannot be seen of his godly form by mortals, on being asked to disclose his true nature, Semele was instantly burnt to a cinder as the light of the god blazed itself on her. Semele being already with child, Zeus at once plucked the unborn child Dionysus placing him into his own thigh for future birth. Snatched prematurely from his mothers womb, then implanted into the thigh of Zeus so that he may be born in full term, thus he comes to be known as the ‘twice born’. The archetypal essence of being born twice is fairly illustrated within human societies when an individual has an epiphany of some nature where he/they are changed through a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization. The birth of the Christ child illustrates an individual birth that would come to give a ‘rebirth’ to many others in the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12). The words of the Christ emphasizes, ‘most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’. (John 3:3). Ancient societies experienced a corporeal transition from one state to another through ecstatic practice, walking on fire, repetitive drumming, taking of substances or a myriad of other means in which the participants may induce an altered experience, into another world, a newness of perception and understanding. Today’s society continues the ‘new birth’ phenomena, apart from the drugs of heroin and other substances, in perhaps what may be seen as initiation rites through the tribal collective of the supporters in sports, particularly football, religious fraternities such as fundamentalism, but also the present attitude to material gain of money, possessions, prestige and power, pornography and sexual exploitation, all seeking to replace one life with another, a shift of personal enhancement, of a ritual of passage, of a new birth, to be ‘born again’.
Dionysus, conceived in his mother’s womb but ultimately born from the thigh of Zeus, is known as the ‘twice born’, the bringer of wine to the world, travelling endlessly through many countries in order that all may partake of this new liquor. Hera manifestly remained angry with jealousy towards Dionysus rendered him to a state of madness, now he was forced to wonder the ancient world through Syria, Egypt and Phrygia where he was cured by Cybele the mother goddess of fertility and mistress of wild nature, identified by the Greeks with Rhea, wife of Cronus. His spectacular entourage with lions resembled a triumphal procession. The birth from Semele was a mortal birth as indeed she was. The birth from the thigh of Zeus was a divine birth, Dionysus thus inhabiting both mortal and divine attributes that defined a spirit that would combine both order and chaos, of both light and darkness, of both enlightenment and degeneracy, of being in one place but also in another, shifting, sliding, eluding one dimension for another. Walter Otto, the nineteenth century German classical philologist, makes an appropriate consideration on the duality of birth that “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”. [i]
When we consider another of the Gods of ancient Greece, Apollo, who was the son of Zeus and Leto, twin brother of Artemis, he was the god of music, and he is often depicted playing a golden lyre. He was also known as the Archer, far shooting with a silver bow; the god of healing, giving the science of medicine to man; the god of light; and the god of truth. Dionysian characteristics, which when compared with the Apollonian decency and faultless persona, are marginalized by mayhem, impudence and destruction, become mere silhouettes. “As a result Dionysus, the polar opposite of Apollo, was plunged into the shadows. Dionysus is androgynous, embracing female and male energies and when honoured, inspires spontaneity, ecstasy, rock and roll, mystery and tragedy. Dionysus from the shadows inspires joyriding soul-destroying drugs; the drug ‘ecstasy’ is a Dionysian word that has taken on a shadow character”. [ii] When we unequivocally and unreservedly accept that seemingly dark nature of duality, we plunge ourselves into rivers of creativity and inspirational activity that inevitably results not only in pain and exhaustion and some confusion but more rewardingly in giving life and substance to great work. To reject and disregard the offer of Dionysian artistry not only leads to a life of inability, utter frustration and futility but to death and destruction. Walter Otto again summing up, the relationship of Apollonian and Dionysian energy, “In Apollo all of the splendour 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”. The Apollonian Dionysian dichotomy may well be represented and visualized when applied to nations and societies when either characteristics are followed. In any nation, law-abiding society exists, we may say due to the following of Apollo allowing for normalization, peaceful and undeterred daily existence. However, when amidst these populations Dionysus appears and visits an individual, contrary behaviour and characteristics manifest themselves in the individual branding him/her as revolutionary, anti-social, an agitator, a subversive but in reality stubborn to the rules of the state, forgoes all attempts to cease their uncivil activity are such people as John the Baptist, Ghandi, Martin Luther King jr, Che Guevara, Oscar Remero, some of the worlds more prominent ‘agent provocateur’s’ that inhabited all abandoned to their cause.
As a god of constant ability to be one person then another, an ability to induce an insanity, a pandemonium, mayhem in others (to the good for those that followed him but to their demise those that refused him) a certain creativity that would bring about ecstatic innovative and ingenious originality in song, dance, music that would so arouse others to join the procession in all its celebrations to the god. Evidence from the scientific community and the folklore world, both attest that madness and creativity are mutuality balanced to those especially involved within the arts industries, being the case for many centuries now. Whether those carrying genes of schizophrenic and bipolar psychoses elements and for those involved in the arts, creativity may be one of ‘compensatory advantage’. [iii] The 2012 book Tortured Artists, by the American arts journalist Christopher Zara, shows the universal nature of the tortured artist stereotype and how it applies to all of the creative disciplines, including film, theatre, literature, music, and visual art. The artists profiled in the book have made major contributions to their respective mediums (Charles Schulz, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Michelangelo, Andy Warhol, Amy Winehouse, and dozens of others). In each case, the author attempts to make a connection between the art and the artist’s personal suffering. [iv] ‘There is no great genius without some touch of madness’, says the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (Moral Essays) which belies the fate of such creative artists as the Ballet Rouse dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, musicians Donizetti died in an insane asylum, Berlioz was afflicted by black depressions and tried to kill himself, Bruckner had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for mental illness, the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh epitomizes the cruel suffering of the creative genius battling with the Dionysian psychological complex, whilst attempting to bring to life a work of art that must be given birth.
Those that opposed him were severely punished but those who received him hospitably he bestowed gifts and rewards. During his travels Dionysus became a roving, itinerant god embodying the notion of being everywhere and nowhere, of belonging and not belonging, shape shifting of duality. Wherever he travelled there were those that worshiped him, so fervently as if a contagious disease, almost epidemic, his worship spreading like a flood. The need to be acknowledged wherever he passes, his prestige and position, as a god must always be rendered to him. Finally Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele returns to his birthplace Thebes, to establish his cult.[v] With his revellers of satyrs and sirens, nymphs and maenads travelling the world celebrating the gods rites with wine and music, song and dance, welcoming those accepting them or to death and destruction when resisted. [vi]
An interesting aspect of the Dionysian religion is that it seems to attract those of the community that for whatever reason somehow do not conform to the institutional organizations or groups. In ancient Greece the women were excluded from political life, so the ability to be allowed into the Bacchanalian entourage, to be allowed freedom of expression, freedom of movement in dancing, exalting themselves in riotous following of the god, was fully expressive and liberating plus being allowed equality with the men. “. . . the Dionysian tendency in religion provided a group framework for those that found themselves on the periphery of the recognized social order. Some of the religious titles that applied to the god, such as eleutherios and lusios, testify to this convergence of the social and religious within a shared aspiration for freedom and deliverance”. [vii] Here was the opportunity for a radical and transforming experience for those hemmed in, curtailed by officialdom, constrained by the status quo and the rigidity of freedom of expression, creativity that pushes back the boundaries of acceptability. This antithetical situation of the Dionysian religion stands in grand opposition of the world where public and societal behaviour is regulated as being acceptable based on control and composure, everything and everyone in their place as prescribed by the state. The followers of Dionysus, once devoting themselves to the new religion, found together with many others that they were in total contrast to the organized religions, consecrated and organized, as was the norm. Further, a more complicated and disturbing aspect was to be redefined, as boundaries between men and gods, the supernatural, the strictures of those of power and control, were to be demolished and disposed as freedom and exuberance manifested in the new. This is not a personal belonging, not a personal salvation but rather a corporate experience, a collective within a mystery religion where the individual is absorbed into the ‘whole’, moulded into a new fraternity with a single entity.
Dionysus is also known as the god of theatre, where impersonation, the mask being the symbol of transformation of identity. Ancient Greek theatre’s use of mask by actors (also known in the ancient form as ‘hypocrite’ came from the Greek word ὑποκριτής (hypokritēs), our modern word hypocrite. This double characterization of the actor being one person pretending to be another, the duality of personhood, identity falsified is where Dionysian archetypal impetuous finds itself at home within all human activity. Dionysus becomes the personification of shape shifting energy, dualism of character and form of the archetype embedded in all of human kind. The need to be one person at one time but then to change (rebirth, born again) into another personality is human nature playing the Dionysian card.
Returning to his city after many years, he enters as a stranger, a foreigner, his appearance is seen as different, somewhat unsettling, disconcerting, anomic. Refusal by the Thebean population to acknowledge Dionysus as their god brought dire and terrible consequences resulting in madness and death. The conflict between the locals, the status-quo and preservation of identity, in contrast with the need to accept and welcome the alien, the stranger and ultimately the ‘other’, as long as this divide continues there could not be any resolution, nor possibility of reconciliation. This rejection of the stranger, rejection of the ‘other’ brought conflict and disorder to the population of Thebes.
Those who embodied the unconditional attachment to the unchanging preservation of their value system against all attempts to recognize whatever is ‘other’ from themselves, the refusal to listen to any outside communication; the inability to empathies with those outside, an intolerable and wretched catastrophic thing befalls them. The disability in those that refuse to understand themselves differently away from their superiority, where there is a reticent to seek alternatives, become the fallen and topple into derangement, into horror, into the monstrous and consequently lose their own identity in the process. The civilized man, self-controlled and objectively astute loses all in the denial of the ‘other’. Insofar as one human group refuse to acknowledge another, to grant a share, the first group becomes merciless and egregious resulting in cultural dislocation and the sense of identity is lost.
These are the eternal narratives embedded in such stories as Romeo and Juliet; West Side Story and other such archetypal Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomies which are also rooted in the human tribal pack and deep rooted primordial instincts. The Greek tragedies inhabit the monstrous, inhuman vengeful disease, as depicted in Agamemnon’s house of Atreus, of the parent killing the child and the child killing the parent. Condemned, cursed by contagious revenge and guilt, the ancient tragedians reflected on a culture ridden by its guilt when there is refusal to recognize not only the stranger of justice but also the hand of redemption. Threats to social acceptance and belonging manifest behavioural responses and their construal’s are myriad and at best, deplorable. Rejection; discrimination; ostracism; betrayal and stigmatization encapsulate those in their refusal of acceptance and recognition in the alternative, the neighbour, the ‘other’. These manifestations of the ancient Greek Furies, appointees of filial revenge; harbingers of hate and discourse; ‘blood will have blood’, seek out those who disregard truth, justice, conscience and the law of human nature.
EURIPIDES – THE BACCHAE
“The Bacchae”, also known as “The Bacchantes” (Gr: “Bakchai”), is a late tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, and it is considered one of his best works and one of the greatest of all Greek tragedies. It was probably written as early as around 410 BC, but it only premiered posthumously at the City Dionysia festival of 405 BC, where it won first prize. The story is based on the myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, who are punished by the god Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) for refusing to worship him.
︎Remembering Dionysus: Revisioning psychology and literature in C.G. Jung and James Hillman by Susan Rowland
︎Divine Madness: Shamanic Dreaming, Dionysus & Pathologizing Soul, may be read at:
︎Re-Visioning Dionysus: A Modern Spin on a Ancient Diety, may be read at:
︎Dionysus by Russell Roberts
Dionysus since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium,
Revised Edition by Edith Hall (Editor), Fiona Macintosh (Editor), Amanda Wrigley (Editor)
[i] Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Trans. Robert B. Palmer. 1995, Indiana University Press
[ii] Shaw, Steve, Dancing with Your Shadow. 1995, SPCK, London.
[iii] Barrantes-Vidal, Neus, Creativity & Madness Revisited from Current Psychological Perspectives. Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 11, Numbers 3-4, 2004, pp. 58-78(21). Imprint Academic
[iv] Zara, Christopher, Tortured Artists. 2012, Avon, Mass: Adams Media. p. 272.
[v] Pierre Vernant, Jean, The Universe, The Gods and Mortals. 2001, London.
[vi] The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves and foreigners. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly. By its nature as a mystery religion reserved for the initiated, many aspects of the Dionysian cult remain unknown and were lost with the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism; modern knowledge is derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies.
[vii] Pierre Vernant, Jean, Myths and Thought among the Greeks. 2006, Zone Books, New York.