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Fickle Muses an online journal of myth and legend


Dionysus On Park Avenue
by Ronald Pies, M.D.

An odd feature ran in the New York Times recently (4/22/06), describing how Raymond W. Kelly—New York City’s police commissioner—returned the head of an ancient statue to the Italian government. The head was that of the Greek god, Dionysus, but Kelly also used the god’s Roman name, Bacchus. “It’s fitting now we bring Bacchus to where it belongs,” Kelly said to the Italian consular official, in a ceremony held on Park Avenue.

But just who was Dionysus? And how might an understanding of the Dionysian archetype have implications for the perilous state of our nation?

Some readers will recognize Dionysus as one of the two mythic pillars of Western archetypal consciousness, the other being the god Apollo. In Nietzsche’s classic work, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), a fusion of the irrational Dionysian and rational Apollonian principles was seen as fundamental to the development of Greek tragedy. In a more debased form, we know Dionysus as Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry.  But this conflation has stripped Dionysus of his tragic layers, and relegated him to the realm of drunken debauchery. There is a darker  side to this mythic figure, who appears in the form of Dionysus-Zagreus. In various legends, Zagreus is portrayed as a hunter, a hermit, and in some accounts, even a vampire. It is this darker Dionysus who is worshipped by the maenads--those female devotees who tear apart and devour young animals. Ultimately, at the instigation of Zeus’s wife, Hera, the Titans attack Zagreus. In the ensuing struggle, the god is torn apart and consumed by these giants. 

This myth is much more than a scary folk-tale. It reminds us of an archetype that is alive and well in our own time. We learn from the death of Zagreus that those who live by the sword shall die by it, and that those who hunt and kill shall themselves be hunted and killed. A similar teaching is found in Talmudic Judaism, when Hillel tells us “Because you drowned others, they have drowned you; and in the end, they, too, shall be drowned.” [Pirke Avot 2:7]). The rending of Zagreus at the hands of the Titans also tells us that, unconstrained, the demonic leads us to self-destruction.

There is, of course, a positive side to the Dionysian archetype. In many versions of his myth, Dionysus is linked with the blessings of music, dance, and even prophecy. Paradoxically, we find evidence in Greek culture that Dionysus embodies an element of restraint and order. For example, a common motif in ancient Greek coinage was the “dolphin-riding boy”. This motif was closely associated with Dionysus, for whom the dolphin was sacred, and suggests the taming and mastery of Nature. But on a psychological level, the dolphin-riding boy also suggests the taming of the self. For without such self-mastery, the boy “rider” could never bring himself into harmony with the dolphin.

American culture has always maintained a creative tension between the Apollonian the Dionysian—between the restraint of law, and the dynamism of impulse; between the Enlightenment philosophe and the high-plains drifter. In many ways, this has been our glory as a society: our ability to balance thoughtful and measured reflection against headstrong, hell-bent action. De Toqueville observed that even during the American revolution, Americans  “…did not contract an alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy…” but favored “…a love of order and law.” I believe that in our current political mind-set, this country has lost its archetypal balance—and that, like Zagreus, we are paying the price. Our foreign policy has cast us, like Zagreus, in the role of predator, no matter how we may have rationalized our intentions. The current administration’s domestic policies, too, have drawn us away from the rule of law and toward the rule of the lone hunter. The sovereignty of human rights has given way to the rights of unchecked sovereignty. If we do not draw the proper lesson from the fate of Dionysus Zagreus, this country may be torn apart by forces we cannot restrain or understand. The image of the dolphin-riding boy should serve as a pointed reminder: those who seek vainly to master others should first master themselves.