The Myth of Dionysos and the Birth of a New Age

“But you cannot, artificially and with an effort of will, believe the statements of myth if you have not previously been gripped by them. If you are honest, you will doubt the truth of the myth because our present day consciousness has no means of understanding it. Historical and scientific criteria do not lend themselves to a recognition of mythological truth; it can be grasped only by the intuitions of faith or by psychology, and in the latter case although there may be insight it remains ineffective unless it is backed by experience.” (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, P. 528)

In our recent articles, we considered the archetype of the Hero and how it is activated during a time of transition and change from one set of cultural values to another. The focus of those articles was to establish the fact that “heroes” exist as people who are part divine, part mortal, and though they exist within time, they by necessity are timeless or exist out of time as well. Whenever the prevailing cultural attitude has become defunct and lost the energic capability to motivate and unite a people, such an “archetype” as it is called becomes activated–that is, whenever the life of a culture slows to a drip from a flow, then the hero archetype activates in order to “clear the blockage” and restore the vitality of the human spirit to a culture. But, after this transition time, what next? Though the hero exists to slay the dragon or the “old-king”, what time follows this slaying of old and decrepit values?

This part of the transitory time belongs to the archetype of Dionysos, or the archetype of rebirth, after the hero causes the “death” or “transition” from an old set of values–then does the archetype of Dionysos bring about the necessary space for the values of a new generation and a re-enlivened culture. First though, let us examine the place that Dionysos, that ever elusive and stranger to Greek culture, occupied within the Greek mythos and cult, and then we will analyze and interpret the meaning that such a figure in mythology represents. Frazer begins with one of the more popular accounts of Dionysos’ origin and dismemberment.

“Like the other gods of vegetation Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again; and his sufferings, death, and resurrection were enacted in his sacred rites. His tragic story is thus told by the poet Nonnus. Zeus in the form of a serpent visited Persephone, and she bore him Zagreus, that is, Dionysus, a horned infant. Scarcely was he born, when the babe mounted the throne of his father Zeus and mimicked the great god by brandishing the lightning in his tiny hand. But he did not occupy the throne long; for the treacherous Titans, their faces whitened with chalk, attacked hm with knives while he was looking at himself in a mirror. For a time he evaded their assaults by turning himself into various shapes, assuming the likeness successively of Zeus and Cronus, of a young man, of a lion, a horse, and a serpent. Finally, in the form of a bull, he was cut to pieces by the murderous knives of his enemies.” (Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, Abridged. 1922. P. 451)

And then Frazer continues with an explanation of how the dismembered and murdered god comes back to life, like the seasons.

“Thus far the resurrection of the slain god is not mentioned, but in other versions of the myth it is variously related. According to one version, which represented Dionysus as a son of Zeus and Demeter, his mother pieced together his mangled limbs and made him young again. In others it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven; or that Zeus raised him as as he lay mortally wounded; or that Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus and then begat him afresh by Semele, who thereby conceived him.” (Ibid, 452)

Therefore, one sees that in his aspect as a God of Vegetation (much like Adonis, Attis, and Osiris (Ibid, 449), Dionysos is born, lives a brief time, is torn asunder, often by the Titans, and is resurrected to reascend anew, like the dawn from eternal night, or spring from frosty Winter. Forever does Dionysos, the dismembered and deceased god, or principle of the immortality of the spirit, experience death and rebirth. These solar and vegetable analogies are useful, but the symbol of a god as representing the change of the seasons is hardly novel. To connect the archetype of Dionysos to the process of the birth of a new age requires a more humanistic and human-centric approach.

Before observing the civic role which Dionysos plays, though, we must observe and examine the point that one comes to over and over again with the Dionysos myth: he experiences rejection (and usually dismemberment) before being accepted as an Olympian. He is at once a bastard son of Zeus and in the cults, and often enough he is a stranger from Thrace or farther East (Frazer, 449). How, then, does this strange God of orgiastic rites, first dismembered, and then glorified, express the situation of a culture which has experienced the rise and fall of a prevailing attitude or set of values? We will now look to Vernant who includes Dionysos as a figure who serves to transform children into citizens, just as he first represented the change of Fall to Winter and Winter to Spring.

“But before this time, the young of the two sexes had deposited garlands of grain near Artemis, which, in allusion to the first victims, dedicates them forever to the goddess in their youthful status. It is as if, through these garlands given up to the goddess, they are both the young who are “sacrificed” to her and the ones, now ripe, who are liberated from her charge. Instead of grain given to Artemis, they put garlands of ivy around their foreheads and, thus arrayed, they go to the temple of Dionysos Aisymnetes, the god who, a stranger like them, was integrated into the civic cult with the title of Master and Arbiter. The nocturnal ritual, the controlled and regulated orgiastic behavior of this daimon xenos [strange god; my trans.] who henceforth was adapted to Greek culture[my italics], guaranteed the young their own integration into the civic community by contriving a change of status through which the young ceased to be young in order to become adults[my ital.], yet without entailing any confusion in status between youth and adult or any effacement of boundaries between them.” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals, P. 212)

One therefore observes that beyond simple transformations of the seasons that Dionysos was also associated with changes of status between children and citizens. He is, in of himself, always duplex in some form or another. In Hesiod’s hymn to him, he appears androgynous and wearing purple, looking like a youth or a man, or a man or a god. It is precisely because Dionysos, youngest of the Olympian gods, is expressive not only of initial rejection (dismemberment; or like any new cultural idea), but of transformation from one form of being to another–child to adult-citizen, alive to dead, dead to alive, stranger to familiar, and mortal to immortal. Just as in our most recent article we observed Kronos’ role as a god who experiences the rise to power and the fall from it, so does Dionysos represent the prevailing confusion, discontent, “de-unification” (dismemberment) which occurs during a twilight state of transition between one age and another, one cultural dominant to another, or even one prevailing attitude to another on the personal stage.

The Archetype of Dionysos indicates a time of dangerous and uncontrolled energies. Without the form and structure set out in a person or culture’s life, the energies of the person or people are unrestrained, destabilized, and without unity. Therefore, just as the Archetype of the Hero represents the positive aspect of change from the old-dying king (culture cut off from life), so does the Archetype of Dionysos represent the time between the fall of the old cultural values (old king) and the coronation of the new values (or new, revitalized, king or cultural values). During this time between “rulers”, the energy or vitality of the unconscious rushes back into a culture, but without the cultural safeguards of order, ritual, and custom to hinder its explosive and potentially monstrous force. The Archetype of Dionysos, then, represents the negative or darker aspect of transition–the moments between darkness and light–and the dangers which twilight and dawn both hold for those who desire clarity of sight and purpose.

This time, however, serves a valuable purpose. Just as day does not become night without first passing through twilight, so does the Archetype of Dionysos serve as a time of “preparation” in that it allows for katharsis or cleansing of one mode of being that another might replace it. Joseph Campbell here explains this “time between” below.

“…tragic katharsis (i.e. the “purification” or “purgation” of the emotions of the spectator of tragedy through his experience of pity and terror) corresponds to an earlier ritual katharsis (“a purification of the community from the taints and poisons of the past year, the old contagion of sin and death (my ital.), which was the function of the festival and mystery play of Dionysos. The meditating mind is united, in the mystery play, not with the body that is shown to die [or former attitude of conscious, personal or cultural; my add.], but with the principle of continuous life that for a time inhabited it, and for that time was the reality clothed in the apparition (at once the sufferer and secret cause), the substratum into which our selves dissolve with the “tragedy that breaks man’s face” has split, shattered and dissolved our mortal frame.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, P. 26)

The Archetype of Dionysos thus acts as an “intermediary” time between one set of collective (or personal) values and another set of oncoming values. During this “middle” time, a great purge or catharsis of the former attitudes and values occurs in order to make way for the new ones. And in observing this time between, one observes not only the unity between prevailing cultural and personal values, but also the continuity of life beyond one’s necessarily limited and mortal perspective. Though one’s customs, attitudes, values, or body might fade in their mortal decrepitude, so does one observe that life itself will prevail and continue on–just as it did before, during, and will after one’s physical death (was this perhaps the great secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries?). One therefore celebrates “the universal life”, as Campbell puts it, in experiencing the Dionysian age and rites, and in one’s mortal and finite way, experiences the magnitude of life eternal beyond one’s mortal grasp. To really hit home this imagery, Jane Harrison espouses the role of Dionysos in the Eleusinian Mysteries through a brief explanation of a vase painting from the 4th century.


“The central figure is Demeter, crowned and sceptred, sitting on an altar-like throne. To the right is Kore with her torches. She turns towards Dionysos. He too is seated, as becomes a god, and he holds his thyrsos. He is seated, but on what a throne! He is seated on the omphalos [midriff of the world; my add.]. To the ancient mind no symbolism could speak more clearly; Dionysos is accepted at Eleusis; he has come from Delphi and brought his omphalos with him. We are apt to regard the omphalos as exclusively the property of Apollo, and it comes as something of a shock to see Dionysos seated quietly upon it. We have already (p. 319) seen that Apollo took it from Ge, took the ancient symbol of Mother Earth and made it his oracular throne; but at Delphi men knew that it had another and mystical content. It was the tomb of the dismembered Dionysos.” (Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Pp. 556-557).

What we see above is that Dionysos is, as written earlier, the symbol for unification of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum) par excellent. Not only does he offer the time between one prevailing set of attitudes and values and another (as katharsis or purification), but he, in of himself, carries the omphalos of the world with him, which contains his own dismembered corpse, and is usually associated with Apollo. This is a lot of symbolism expressing the same concept: the omphalos indicated the connection between the lower half of the body or world with the upper half; carrying one’s own dismembered corpse indicates the connection between immortality and mortality, or life and death, and the association with Apollo indicates the transition from the god of daylight, or the sun, high in the empyrean, through the twilight space of Dionysos, to the earthy and dark richness of Ge (Gaia=Earth). Dionysos, in all we see above, serves therefore as an archetype of the transition–between one time and another, life and death, heaven and earth, and mortality and immortality. And in of himself, as a god and archetype, he contains the principles of the coniunctio oppositorum, particularly linking life with its opposite, death.

Post Scriptum:

If one is so inclined to look, one even finds them same strange idea of the rejected or discarded item (or the rejected and dismembered god) which would come to great importance in the rather obscure works of Carl Jung. Here he quotes an obtuse passage from the Bibliotheca Chemica.

“Finally, there will appear in the work that ardently desired blue or cerulean colour, which does not darken or dull the eyes of the beholder by the healing power of its brilliance, as when we see the splendour of the outward sun. Rather does it sharpen and strengthen them, nor does he [Mercurius] slay a man with his glance like the basilisk, but by the shedding of his own blood he calls back those who are near to death, and restores to them unimpaired their former life[my italics], like the pelican.” (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, P.14)

And again, but in slightly clearer (but still highly obscure) form:

“But sometime he must set about the opus himself, for, as the alchemists emphasize, nobody else can do it for him. Like this apprentice, the modern man begins with an unseemly prima materia which presents itself in unexpected form–a contemptible fantasy [or this quote itself! my addition] which, like the stone that the builders rejected, is “flung into the street” and is so “cheap” that people do not even look at it[like this blog! my addition]. He will observe it from day to day and note its alterations until his eyes are opened or, as the alchemists say, until the fish’s  eyes, or the sparks, shine in the dark solution. For the eyes of the fish are always open and therefore must always see, which is why the alchemists used them as a symbol of perpetual attention. The light that gradually dawns on him consists in him understanding that his fantasy is a real psychic process which is happening to him personally. Although, to a certain extent, he looks on from outside, impartially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche.” (Ibid, 528-529).

Just as Dionysos suffers death and rebirth, so does a man and so does a culture metaphorically do so, and in so experiencing such suffering and decay–and then rebirth, so does a new attitude in one man come to be and a new cultural consciousness and awareness on a larger scale.