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)

Dismemberment

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.

References:

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.

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Dionysus, the Shattered God

Knowing death before even birth, the child, only six months inside his mothers womb is torn from her burnt body. Zeus brings the fetus to term in his own thigh. The proud father intends this delightful young God, bull-horned and serpent-haired, to become the next ruler of the world. But Hera his stepmother, resentful of this child conceived in mortal womb, is not in agreement. She organizes her vengeance.

While Zeus is away, Hera enlists the Titans on earth below. They paint themselves white with gypsum. Invisible like ghosts of the dead, they gather together toys and a great mirror to entice the child’s curiosity. They call to him. Peering over the edge of Olympus, the child God is captivated by his own image reflecting up from the earth below. Hera needs give him only a gentle shove. Down he falls, into his own image, into the mirror which shatters into innumerable pieces. The Titans jump upon the child, and though he transforms into all the seasons of the earth, he cannot get away. He is dismembered and consumed.

Meanwhile, Zeus smells the cooking of sacrificial flesh and comes to investigate. In his wrath Zeus burns to ash the Titans and the earth along with them. But Athena, the young God’s sister has been watching. She takes the heart of her brother and delivers it to their father. Of this heart, Zeus regenerates Dionysus. From the ash of the Titans who ate the young God’s flesh, humanity is born. Of the innumerable shards of Dionysus’ mirror, which captured the soul along with the image, are born all the things of the world. And so even today, when we reflect upon what appears to be outside ourselves, we find alive reflecting back, the God who’s life in-forms our world.

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This is my telling of the Orphic version of Dionysus’ birth.

Baucis and Philemon

In the ancient hills of Phrygia, there lives an ancient oak intertwined with an ancient linden tree. A low wall encircles the two. Locals come and travelers too, to visit and to rest. Some come make offerings, a pilgrimage of love.
The surrounding land, now marsh, gives sanctuary to the water birds of the region, the loon, the coot, the great blue heron. It was once fertile farmland, till one day, Zeus, with his wily son Hermes came to earth as travelers, strangers seeking respite.
They knocked upon 500 doors, but at each, they were turned away, until they came to one humble home, the cottage of an aged couple, dear Baucis and Philemon. She and He had lived here many years and growing old together found peace of mind in one another’s company. They were not concerned with wealth or poverty but lived each day with hearts quite full of love.
And so it comes as no surprise that when the travelers inquired at their gate, the couple bade them enter and set about to make the strangers comfortable. He pulled up chairs and she the cushions. And as she worked to stoke the fire, he went out back to gather greens and produce from their garden plot.
And as she fed the embers with twigs and sticks, and breathed new life into the hearth, the aged couple chatted cordially to pass the time and sooth their hungry guests. Soon  the food was cooked.
The meal was spread – a humble wine, some cheese and bread – now cabbages and hearty roots and just a bit of precious meat. And as a second course they served their best, some nuts and plums and fruits in season. And in the center was a honeycomb, fresh and sweet and golden. To this they added liveliness, the cheer of hospitality.
And as they moved to offer more, the couple noticed something odd. The wine stood full despite the pours. It seemed to fill up magically. So Baucis and Philemon, they raised their faces to the sky and set their palms in prayer. Sincerely they apologized for their humble fare. They recognized divinity and set to kill their only goose as offering to their godly guests.
But the goose was quick, the couple old. The goose quickly won the chase. He jumped into the lap of Gods who said, “You shall not kill the goose tonight.” “And for your generosity, please come with us, for you shall live beyond catastrophe.”
And so the couple aged and frail, they climbed beside the Gods and up the mountain slope were led. Looking back they saw indeed, the town’s land was submerged. Flooded and now lost to them were all those who previously denied the gods.
And as they watched and grieved the dead, they saw their cottage small, change into a temple, transformed before their eyes. Rough hew timbers change to marble. The thatched roof glowed with gold. The once dirt floor was marble now, great pillars in the hall.
A temple stood where once their home. Zeus turned towards these two. “Dear Grandmother and Grandfather, if you could have one wish…”
They looked into each others eyes and knew what they would ask. They spoke as if one voice they shared. “We wish to serve the Gods, my Lords, to tend what is now a shrine. And since we live as one right now, a life in peace and harmony, we’d like to pass in kind. No separate deaths, we’d ask of you, but two as if we’re one.” “I’d ask him not to bury me.” “Nor she to tend my grave.” And so the Gods did make it pass. What was asked they gave.
The couple lived for many years within their temple home, until one day their wish fulfilled outside the temple door. They stood and watched each other grow green with leafy bows, over smile and eye their bark did grow as each bid their love fair well.
Now ancient oak and linden tree, forever in embrace, create a temple of their own, the guardians of that place. We could look with mortal eyes or see with eyes of grace, for those to whom the Gods have blessed are the spirits of that place. They give their shade to travelers and comfort to the wind. Let all who visit know its true, this love beyond all end. 

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Notes:

Adapted telling from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book VIII. I have chosen to use the Greek names for the Gods, although Ovid told the tale in Roman tradition where Zues and Hermes are known as Juno and Mercury.

Sources:

Mandelbaum, Allen Translator (1993). The Metamorphoses of Ovid. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company. pp. 273-277.

Longley, Michael. (1994). “Baucis and Philemon.” In Hofmann, M. and Lasdun, J. (1994) After Ovid: New Metamorphoses. New York: Noonday Press. p. 194.