Apollonian and Dionysian: two human tendencies.
You might have heard these terms somewhere, but can’t put a finger on why you know them; OR perhaps you’re a Philosophy enthusiast and already know Nietzsche “came up” with the dichotomy.
But did he, really? Or is it a few millennia older?
I’m of the opinion Nietzsche was spot on in describing both sides of the spectrum, but did a terribly incompetent job at judging them. It is very clear, when you read his material, that he favours one more than the other. If he didn’t, the Nazi wouldn’t be so enamoured with his philosophical musings. I am RADICALLY against that. I think we should strive for the middle way instead of one of the extremes; And I won’t even bother pretending it is a personal opinion, because it does in fact have a theoretical backing. A very compelling one, in fact. My opinion (of favouring a middle way instead of “this or that” side) agrees with the Ancient Greek — Ya know, the people who came up with the mythology in the first place.
I’ll say more: the people who embrace one extreme and avoid the other one like the plague are just being lazy. Yes, lazy is the correct term. Apollonian or Dionysian are, after all, human tendencies. It’s easy (comfortable, effortless, detrimental to building character) to just lean on one side, because both extremes are good at feeding the human ego. On one extreme, you will find comfort in eternal victimhood (the extremely Dionysian think life happens TO them, and the world is so unfair, oh god, oh life); on the other extreme, you will find comfort in eternal greed (the extremely Apollonian think THEY make everything happen, and the world is so incompetent, oh god, oh life). None of them sound like a good idea, now that I got real with you about their dangers, do they?
For polytheists: are you a Hellenic polytheist? Do you believe in multiple Greek gods? Pay attention here. You’ll find these dichotomies whether or not you acknowledge them (another common one I can think of is Aphrodite vs Ares), but today’s post is about Apollon/Dionysus only. Maybe you’re not extremely Apollonian or Dionysian, and in that case, this post isn’t for you; but if you ARE (again — whether or not you admit it, I think deep down you’ll know you are. Come on, stop fooling yourself), consider worshipping the other god. Yes, I know, he is “so ridiculous, so annoying”, he “represents all the things you dislike”, he is “just not your thing, thanks but no thanks”. I know. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? GOOD. It’s SUPPOSED to be. Now, get out of that childish mindset, choose to grow up beyond the comfy-comfy extreme you’re in, and you’ll find this journey a lot more rewarding than if you had stayed in the comfort zone.
Or don’t. Who am I to tell you what to do? In that case, maybe life will teach you instead.
For non-polytheists: are you [insert other faith here]? Are you a total atheist and/or sceptic? Feel free to read anyway. The metaphors are hopefully interesting.
There is a reason why, in Greek mythology, you can search as far and wide as you want (across space and time, as long and as far as the Hellenic culture ever extended) but you won’t find even ONE myth where Apollon and Dionysus compete or dislike each other. The same is true for Aphrodite and Ares, by the way. Go on, dive deep into the surviving myths. I dare you to find that.
They are as different as, well, water and wine (and this will become a bit more LITERAL if you’re into their mystic traditions— namely, Orphism and the Delphic oracle). Nonetheless, they haven’t ever confronted or shunned each other. And dare I say, they never will. Quite on the contrary in fact, if you look at the Orphic myths, Apollon actually helps Dionysus quite a lot. Greek mythology is full of these “opposites who let each other be” (or even end up falling in love with each other. Not the case here, but you know what I mean), and I find that beautiful.
Outside the myths, and through a more anthropological lens, if you have ever taken a look (even superficially) at their cultus, you probably know they held equal importance at the same exact places. The “temple of Apollon” in Delphi wasn’t actually known as “temple of Apollon” back then — it depended on the time of year. During the warm months, it belonged to Apollon, but during the cold months, only Dionysus would be worshipped in there. If these gods disliked each other, why would that even be a thing?
It is probable that every temple of Apollon, throughout the Hellenistic world, also housed a cultus of Dionysus. Likewise, every one of the theatres of Dionysus also housed music performances, which blur the line between Apollonian and Dionysian.
It begs the question: why do modern Neopagans insist so fiercely in ignoring one or the other of these gods in their individual practices? Is it because today’s society is a bit too addicted to the comfort zone? Today’s world is rife with people who embrace alternative spiritual paths with the sole purpose of (re)affirming their identity politics, instead of pursuing any ACTUAL progress for the mind and soul. I’m here to question that. I’ll keep questioning that, regardless of how much hate I get for bringing you this hard-to-swallow pill. One thing is for certain: you can dislike me all you want, but you can’t say I don’t have a point.
This is not to say the act of ignoring Apollon or Dionysus to focus on other gods was unheard of in the Ancient world, or should never happen today either. Maybe there are exceptions to this rule, ie. people who genuinely have different metaphysical needs without necessarily “hating” on Apollon or Dionysus or both (and this is probably because these people ALREADY are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum I showed you above). That’s perfectly fine. What I AM saying here, instead, is that worshipping them together should be more common today. It isn’t. And that’s likely because a majority of modern Hellenists are getting lost in the dichotomy instead of pursuing balance.
Likewise for non-polytheists: when you strip this down to the essential metaphor behind the myths, you’ll see that a lot of people today (regardless of their religion) let themselves get lost in one extreme or the other, and instead of remedying that, they turn the problem into an identity. That’s how you get the radicalism, intolerance, and otherwise yucky stuff that comes from extreme ascetic/hygienist movements like white supremacism and religious fundamentalism on one side (Apollonian) VS… On the other side, extremely liberal movements that glorify drug abuse, “incel” rhetoric and other escapist/victimist groups that wrongfully assume the world owes them reparation but they need not take any accountability for anything in their lives or have any kind of discipline ever (Dionysian).
All I’m saying is maybe we should stop and rethink that. Neither extreme is good for you. You’re more than capable of achieving a healthier stance. Trust me, I’ve been there too.
The Apollonian archetype relies on precision. Just like an archer striving to hit the bull’s eye, they can be restless and perfectionist. Everything has its place, feelings aside, because there’s no other way to achieve the excellence we strive for. Routine and/or repetition is encouraged, as is being willing to admit and correct a mistake whenever it’s detected.
All well and good… Until the excessive Apollonian energy becomes toxic. Some turn to hateful lines of thought by interpreting “everything has its place” as “every GROUP OF PEOPLE has its place (and not everyone gets a favourable one)”… And I’ll let you imagine where that can ultimately lead you.
Other toxic Apollonian are a lot more ethical and refrain from joining the above, but will misunderstand (or even go as far as completely avoiding) Dionysian people because “chaos is bad, period”. This can ultimately lead you to become an insensitive person, even if silently and harmlessly so (but let’s be honest here: even if you aren’t harming others… That’s not to say this train of thought won’t end up harming yourself).
The Apollonian should be super careful not to fall for the fallacy that the “ends justify the means” — and I’m not just talking politics. I’m also talking small everyday dilemmas. It’s rarely true. Most of the times, it’s just counterproductive. Don’t normalise it.
Another self-defeating tendency to watch out for is “I’ll force you to see/listen” (insert Clockwork Orange meme). Not everyone is prepared to learn everything all the time. Yes, I know, I know… The “annoying Dionysian crowd” is too entitled and thin-skinned and apparently “won’t ever” try facing the lessons they need to learn. But that’s between them and the gods, aye? I mean… Apollon had an oracle, and it did NOT include any kind of “Apollo’s witnesses” going from door to door offering the service. The oracle stayed in one place; people could CHOOSE to pursue it or not. Let that sink in. If nobody asked you, chances are you should keep “the answer” to yourself.
Problems aside, there is one good side to the Apollonian which even the very extreme will have: their courage to get real. They’re never afraid of getting real with others, getting real with THEMSELVES, getting real with the world at large. This is no easy feat, but somehow it brings them joy. And love it or hate it, it’s healthy. Everyone should at least dip their toes in the fountain of unapologetic truthfulness. It’s there for a reason. Use it.
Apollonian is synonym with “rule-follower”, and sometimes even “rule-maker”. This archetype is most comfortable when staying in line, and will have a very clear code of conduct even if it’s their own (and not somebody else’s) they’re following. You can’t hit a target by shooting mindlessly in every direction, after all. To some extent, I think there is a lesson here for everyone: are you falling short of your objectives? Well… Sometimes, injustice is at play. But other times (or even at the SAME time)… Maybe, just maybe, a bit of discipline is in order.
The Dionysian like to think of themselves as unique, misunderstood, easy-going and (as I’ve heard from a bunch of people) goofy. They are underdogs, the poor sweethearts! Always getting crucified (translation: mildly inconvenienced by normal feedback) for their sins (translation: totally understandable, but not above getting noticed, misconduct).
*Sigh*. You can probably guess what side of the spectrum I’m on.
I initially wasn’t going to blog about this topic, exactly because I understand my own side (the good, the bad, and the ugly) but didn’t know enough about the other one, so the article would read as a biased opinion piece. Fortunately, I think I’ve studied enough by now and I’m happy to say I understand the Dionysian a lot better. Let’s hope I’ll do them justice.
If the Dionysian archetype had lyrics, it’d be a drinking song. That’s especially true because drinking songs tend to start with “look how much I suffer” and end along the lines of “but let’s forget it all for a moment and have some fun together” (Or that’s the case in Ireland, anyway). Indeed, the Dionysian have the wonderful ability to help people relax when they’re getting into a vicious cycle of overthinking. Sure, every problem has a reason to be and deserves some attention, but sometimes you’ll help someone out a lot more by offering emotional proximity, instead of logic alone.
Christmas spirit is a [genuinely, not falsely for pity points LOL] misunderstood tenet of Dionysian psyche. Yes, today it’s conflated with Christianity, and no, it didn’t have this ~name in Antiquity (because obviously, Christmas has to do with Christ. Don’t lecture me, I know), but its essence has pagan roots. I mean, think about it: where in the Bible does it say that Jesus was born in winter? Nowhere. Does it mention or even imply that “people should drop their conflicts for a sec and get cozy together”? I mean… Apart from the tale of the 3 wise men, no it doesn’t (and it’s more about Jesus being perceived as special, rather than “hey, look, let’s everyone do the same and give each other gifts”). Ya know? That part did NOT come from Christianity. It’s pagan. It’s Dionysian because this god used to be celebrated in winter, specifically December. Not a coincidence. If you just keep in mind that the Roman, who spread Christianity in Europe in the first place, used to be Hellenists… You’ll know I am not talking out my arse.
Apollon and Dionysus are friends. Maybe this isn’t in vain, you know?
I suppose this “Christmas spirit” side of Dionysus is misunderstood even by the Dionysian themselves. Especially so today. They get too caught-up in that ONE dark-and-spooky chthonic side of the god (which is not less important but… Let’s stop pretending it’s the source of EVERY lesson? Shall we? Please?) just in order to fit in with the edgy crowd and reaffirm that “underdog” aesthetic. *Another sigh* Look, I’m not preaching toxic positivity. Far from that. What I mean by “Christmas spirit” is: you can’t win someone over by being domineering or aloof. You only win people over by practising hospitality. And hospitality sometimes means putting your differences aside for a while. REALLY putting them aside, not being fake about it. Ain’t nobody telling you to forget it all forever and give up addressing what needs to be addressed. But sometimes… You’re not exactly talking to the culprit, right? Maybe you’re just talking to a minion who doesn’t know he’s a minion. Is it really fair to give this person the same treatment you’d give the actual villain?
Simple example: maybe you’re a feminist like me. If you’re being targeted by a total incel who lives and breathes mysoginy 24/7, sure, maybe give him the Apollonian treatment (ie, fight/resist him). But on the other hand, if you’re dealing with a loving, caring, selfless partner who just happens to have some leftovers of internalised mysoginy to unlearn here and there… It’s probably best to just “have wine” with him and show him the emphasis will be on the hospitality and reward for corrected behaviour, instead of punishment for, uh, the current state of affairs. Nobody is perfect, and kindness goes a long way with people who actually DO mean well.
Besides, some people are being destructive just because they’re a bit chaotic. And not every kind of “chaotic” needs organising. Some simply need to feel welcomed and held. They’ll settle and calm down just fine. Chaos can be helpful because not everything in the world fits in neat little boxes, and if we attempt to understand everything effectively… We’ll probably go mad. There are areas of life that escape our comprehension, so it’s best to experience them without judgement. That’s a challenge for the Apollonian.
On the other hand, some Dionysian need to learn that just because a lot of things escape our comprehension, that doesn’t mean EVERYTHING is to be welcomed or experienced without judgement or without wheat-and-chaff-sorting. It doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to give up trying to make a change where a change is due, before you even start trying. And above all else, it definitely DOES NOT mean you’re completely and utterly passive because I guess you read it in the stars or something. No. You’re a human being. You have two legs because you’re supposed to use them and go places (take this metaphorically if needed). Even babies have some sort of autonomy. There’s no excuse to outsource the steering wheel of your life to some greater power all the time. Wake up.
The Dionysian should also learn that not everything is addressed by hospitality. Some people are NOT interested in staying as long as you wish they would stay, and/or CANNOT learn to love you. Not even Jesus (or Dionysus…) pleased everybody, and they weren’t ever entirely human. So… Why would you? If “merrily drinking together” was the destination for every kind of story with a conflict, why would Apollon even bother exist? And that’s not to mention all the other gods (talking to polytheists here, but feel free to take the metaphor home). There are tragedies, too. There are stories to make you cry, or rage, or feel blasé, and it’s okay that they exist. Their existence makes the happy-ending-stories all the more special.
I never said the journey to the middle way would be easy. I take a stumble every now and then, myself. But knowing it’s worth it, I keep going. I hope you follow.