Dionysus Son of Zeus

The following is an excerpt from my dissertation on Dionysus, trauma, and initiation. It is out of the section exploring Zeus as the male womb. I put it here for my peeps interested in archetypal psychology.

Dionysus Son of Zeus

Persona, Flexibility, and God of the Mask

Dionysus is not the God behind the mask. He is the mask. . . . He is concerned with the constant metamorphosis of identity and opposed to any fixed identification with a role. (Paris, 2003, p. 49, original italics)

Dionysus, child of Zeus, birthed of his father’s thigh, is also the God of Theater and of the Mask. As the child of the thigh, his dismemberment is a given, for wounding and loss are intrinsic to the transformation of thigh into womb. He is thrice-born, once of his mother, once of his father, and a third time as an outcome of the Titans’ ghastly feast. Dionysus’ status as the thrice-born child of Zeus means he must face dismemberment, yet within this structure he also embodies a resolution of that situation, a capacity to be reborn into new forms. In being born of the thigh, Dionysus partakes of Zeus’ ability to actively deliteralize his masculinity as well as of Semele’s ability to give herself fully and passionately within the moment. As discussed above, he is born of a unique relationship between masculine and feminine, ego, soul, and superego, relations that resist the tendency to concretize their attributes into any of the various positions within the relational dynamic.

As such, Dionysus is a divinity who teaches flexibility of the ego, a deliteralizing of the ego’s concerns, and an ability to allow oneself to transform into the new roles that life offers or demands. Consistent with Dionysus as the element of moisture (Otto, 1965), he also presents this fluidity as God of the theater and the mask, tutoring humanity in the art of persona. Persona is a term that comes from the Athenian theater, referring initially to a mask with a hole in it through which the actor’s voice is projected (Hopcke, 1995, p. 200).

The wisdom of a healthy persona is flexible and able to adapt to new situations; one is able to think on one’s feet and stand with the strength of ones psychic thighs. Born of the thigh, one becomes capable of standing one’s ground as well as rolling with the punches. Both flexible and grounded, strong psychic thighs support one in figuring out proper action in the face of difficulty. Thighs are required for strong sea legs, so that one can maintain one’s balance despite the high seas of emotional storms where the deck is always in motion.

Dionysian lessons in identity and in the rigidity of the ego’s interpretive stance are demonstrated in the story of the sailors who kidnap this son of Zeus. Dionysus is given passage across the sea with a group of pirates, none of whom except the helmsman are able to recognize that divinity stands before them. These sailors, rather than exhibiting the envy seen in Hera’s section of the mythology, enact a more common, selfish greed. They are not seeking to destroy Dionysus, but—enveloped in their desires for profit and wealth—are only blind to he who stands before them. In this case, Dionysus does not destroy and dismember those who do not recognize his divinity; instead he brings about their transformation into dolphins, giving us a “how so” tale that explains the intelligence and compassion that these creatures show to humans. The old self is gone, but a new self is born, one that both partakes of otherness and contributes to humanity.

The flexibility of character that Dionysus teaches through the art of persona leads to the emergence of new ways of understanding one’s self. The ego is challenged to deliteralize its self definitions as the roles that contribute to a sense of identity are challenged. The imaginal ego, as Hillman (1972, p. 185) refers to it, understands itself as one archetypal perspective among many. More than this, the art of persona that Dionysus demonstrates teaches the ego not only to befriend those images foreign to the ego, but to take up their perspective when life demands that one do so, to drop one mask for another, to refrain from literalizing or concretizing one’s sense of self.

Dionysos shatters the positivist perspective, for which there is only one interpretation, one truth, one definite place for everything and everyone. [Jean-Pierre Vernant] defines Dionysos as the God who introduces us to the world of Otherness. To be able to play many roles we must have this built-in sense of the other. (Paris, 2003, p. 51)


Because his birth from the thigh itself contains dismemberment as an essential aspect of his coming into being, Dionysus embodies the fluidity of movement between parts, an ability to move from one role or one aspect of a dynamic to another. Resistance is ultimately futile, as can be seen in the person of Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. As Kerenyi (1976) notes, Pentheus is not only opposed to the God, but becomes his devotee, his priest, and—in Pentheus’ dismemberment—the God himself (p.193).

In Dionysian dismemberment, according to Hillman (2007), “our rending can be understood as the particular kind of renewal presented by Dionysus. This renewal describes itself by means of a body metaphor” (p. 28). There is no reintegration in Dionysian dismemberment. The broken body remains a broken body; it knows itself as pieces. But because Dionysus is a divinity that transcends his own polarities, this brokenness does not mandate an absence of functionality.

Instead consciousness—and especially body consciousness—becomes aware of itself as parts. In the dismemberment that Dionysus brings, whether as trauma or initiation, the renewal following the rending is not characterized by putting the old parts back together in a new order.

Perhaps it is better to envision this renewal not as a process at all. Rather the crucial experience would be the awareness of the parts as parts distinct from each other, dismembered, each with its own light, a state in which the body becomes conscious of itself as a composite of differences. (Hillman, 2007, p. 28)

Consistent with the Orphic image of the shattered mirror, consciousness moves into each part as part. The mirror, which captures the soul along with the image, becomes all the things of the world, reflecting back the divinity who in-forms the world. The epiphany of Dionysian initiation allows consciousness to traverse the multiple perspectives of which one is composed.

Exerp from: Turner, B. (2010) The Mirror of Dionysus: Fragmentation Linking, and Container-Contained in the Transformation of Psychological Trauma. Dissertation. (pp.167-169). Carpenteria CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute.


Hopcke, R. (1995). Persona: Where sacred meets profane. Boston: Shambhala.

Hillman, J. (1972). The myth of analysis: Three essays in archetypal psychology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Hillman, J. (2007). Mythic figures. James Hillman Uniform Edition, vol 6.1. Putnam CT: Spring.

Kerenyi, K. (1976). Dionysus: Archetypal image of indestructible life. (R. Manheim, Trans.). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Otto, W. F. (1965). Dionysus: Myth and cult. (R. B. Palmer, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (Original work published 1933).

Paris, G. (2003). Pagan grace: Dionysus, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in daily life. Putnam, CT: Spring.


3 thoughts on “Dionysus Son of Zeus

  1. Hi Barb,

    Thanks for this stunning look an a to often overlooked god, Dionysus. What I think Dionysus offers us moderns is a way out of our inability to be present with the disintegration of the culture and our favoritism of heroics that insist we save ourselves.

    Although I read this post awhile ago, I keep coming back finding myself so enjoying its richness.


  2. Reblogged this on The Ptero Card and commented:
    I often sense that a culture in the throes of death wants only to save itself. We live in those times, I think, where there is much emphasis on saving ourselves. We are so enamored with heroics. But do they not keep us from where we are right now? What about the nature of disintegration? Could we learn more about our present situation from Dionysus? I think so. Here is a wonderful piece by Barb Turner on Dionysus.

  3. Wow! This is awesome. I write a lot about archetypal psych and myth on my blog. I was just about to ask…then I see your citation of your diss…I went to Pacifica too! Graduated in Myth in 2007….Wrote my dissertation on self-mutilation. Lots of discussion of trauma; some discussion of Dionysus as well. Nice to see someone else out there blogging…Look forward to reading more.

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