Dionysos: The Archetype of Indestructible Life

Easter 2020, Western, Armenia



Dionysos  (Bacchus): the archetypal image of indestructible life.  God of wine, theater, ecstasy, ritual madness




Collar (hormos) with medallion of Dionysos, late 4th-3rd century, gold, Apulia, Italy. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



There were more representations in Greece (Magna Graecia) and in Italy of Dionysos in ancient times than of any other god. This includes myth, image and ritual expression.


In cultures so god-besotted, this is saying something.


The more the god’s cult expanded, the more kinds of followers associated with him: sileni, bacchantes, satyrs, maenads, niads, Thyiads, fauns, nymphs, human beings.


And Pan, his half- brother: the only immortal ever reported to have died.






Two Fauns carrying a child, thought to be Bacchus, in a basket, 1513-1515, engraving. 

Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1480-c.1530, Italian.  Philadelphia Art Museum




And the ubiquity of the god undoubtedly has to do with this:



Dionysos represents the mystery of the life and death of all organic matter:  that life is an unbroken chain of being linking all organic matter.  


It is indestructible and it is fed by the death of that matter as that matter cycles, in their individual instances, from life to death.



Our lives exist in a continuum with that of all other life.  



Our lives are interpreted, usually, by our consciousness and our egos as individual, differentiated, special, unique;


and our deaths as a catastrophe.





Dionysos seated on a panther skin with a lion.  Both animals were sacred to him.

  Roman Imperial period, restored in the 17th century in Italy.  Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia




Bacchantes, Clodion, 1790s, Philadelphia Art Musuem-3

A satyr abducting a bacchante, 1790s, terracotta.

 Claude Michel (called Clodion), 1738-1814, French.  Philadelphia Art Museum



Dionysos is an archetypal image pointing to a truth.



The Dionysian archetype is not a matter of faith but of fact.



The indestructible force of unending life


does not have to do with the promise of life after death or of Purgatory.  Or of heaven or the Elysian fields or Hades and its several synonyms. Or of the possibility of re-incarnation.


Faith is a future-tensed anticipation of a state which has not yet arrived.





Bacchus seated on a panther and carrying grapes.  Marble.

This figure is Roman, 1st-2nd CE and was extensively restored by Francois Duquesnoy, 1597-1643, Flemish. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



Dionysos is the present-tensed  acceptance that our present lives will end in our deaths because life feeds on life. 


My Christian training was to have faith in life resurrected with no explanation of the mechanics of the obvious life/death/life cycle in nature:

the ashes to ashes and compost heaps.


I found it incomplete.  Life-unhelpful.



Dionysos is a reality which our Western civilization at its foundation encoded in him:  life feeds life with its own death; and that life stream is indestructible.


It follows that our lives are the experience of an eternity, an eternal life stream.






Bacchus and Nymph with a Child and Grapes, terracotta, c. 1790-1800.

Claude Michel (called Clodion), 1738-1814, French.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



The Ancients (and many peoples past and alive) had an emotional adaptation to the reality of death that our ‘Christian’ civilizations do not have.

Death remains one of our great taboo subjects.  



Death with us is to be delayed by any means necessary.   Illness is a ‘battle’ which we ‘lose’ when we die.


And the grief which follows for those who cared for us, follows, often, in the unaccustomed wordlessness and isolation of our very wordy species.



The rampant addictions and psychosomatic dramas in our societies suggest, among other things,  that it is to our peril that we ignore Dionysos.






Dionysius, oil on canvas, 1949.  Barnett Newman, 1905-1970, American. 

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC




Perhaps it is no surprise that Sigmund Freud, (1858-1939, Austrian), the founder of psychoanalysis and a pre-eminent interpreter of the human condition,


requested that the urn in which his ashes lie be painted with Dionysian scenes.




Dionysos, a son of Zeus, by the mortal Semele, (or, variously, either by the immortal Persephone or her mother, the goddess Demeter) whose cult was known as early as Mycenaean Crete,

was/is the archetypal image in our Western civilization of the indestructible force of unending life. 



His cult is intimately related to viniculture which is thought to have originated on Crete.




The Infant Bacchus, c. 1505/10; oil on panel transferred to panel.

  Giovanni Bellini, 1430-1516, Venice. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 


Who can resist the look in the god’s eyes?




Sensuality is associated with the god; and the pleasures of the flesh also. 





 Sardonyx cameo with a Bacchic group.  Hellenistic or Earl Imperial Roman, 1st century BC to 1st century AD.

  Metropolitan Museum, New York



Ecstasies and ritual madness in its communal Dionysian form passed from the West with Christianity. 




Marble head of a deity wearing a Dionysiac fillet, Roman, A.D. 14-68, copy of a Greek work of the 2nd century B.C. Red pigment remains on the eyes, lips and fillet; and traces of gilding on the hair.

It is thought that this work may represent Dionysos himself, of his consort, Ariadne.




This god’s followers drank heavily and took  mind-altering substances and spent their time in Dionysian ecstasies.   Out of their minds.





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Dancing maenad holding a fennel stalk. 

Marble relief of a dancing maenad, 27 BCE-14 CE:  a Roman copy of a Greek relief which dates to 400 BCE.  Metropolitan Museum, NY

 Dionysos and his followers carried a thyrsus: a stalk of fennel sometimes tipped with the head of fennel and sometimes with a pine cone, covered with ivy





Vodka of fennel seeds, stalk and citron rind.




Inevitable, perhaps, because which of us wants to die even in such an essential program as the continuation of life itself?  


We want to go on and on living and enjoying ice cream and the fragrance of lilacs in bloom in April forever and ever.



This is also why the mask is a manifestation of the god.  He is the god of the dramatic arts. 



So difficult a message as is embodied in this archetype requires the greatest  communication skills and art.





A terracotta theater mask, 2nd century CE, found in a burial site at Medinet-el Fayum (Arsinoe).  

All such masks were a manifestation of Dionysos.

  In Egypt, Dionysos was associated with Osiris, the god of rebirth.  Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia






Naiad  (water nymph) with tragic mask,  c.1920,  plaster painted green and white with evidence of gold leaf. 

Alexander Stirling Calder, 1870-1945.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts




The god arrives on the surface of the earth in autumn when Apollo begins to withdraw and the light leaves earlier and earlier and the nights grow long.



It is Dionysos’ followers who siphon the colours out of the natural world.  One day in late autumn, you look out of the window and the colors have gone.






 Damp Autumn, 2001-2008, oil on wood and historic frame. 

Howard Hodgkin, 1932-2017, English.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art




The god’s disciples distill those colours into delicious alcoholic drinks to sustain them through the winter. 






Vodka of rose-scented geranium (pelargonium) 





Vodka of American black walnut ages from golden green to a lustrous brown.  Here with a split vanilla bean, lavender seed and sugar.

Neither sweet nor savoury and very heady.






This image is on an Attic red figure kylix (a bowl) dating to 490 BCE in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. 


  Dionysos is holding the thyrsus, stem of a fennel plant, the top a pine cone, the whole a symbol of fertility, prosperity and love of life; greeted ecstatically by a satyr.




Dionysos has his way of signaling his arrival in Autumn:  the eye marked on trees; the circle which is the sign of unending life;  the trace of the hand of a woodland follower of the god; sometimes a ‘D’.







Trees in the park at Winterthur, Delaware in the autumn 



There are the mushrooms also: psilocybin mushrooms in fabulous colours which appear in the damp of Autumn.  Some are very big.  All of them make you very happy:







 Mushrooms which appeared in October 2016 in the park in Winterthur, Delaware.  The big mushrooms are of wood and are for children as play companions.



Ivy, grapes, fennel and the pine cone were also associated with the god.




There is a belief that the god is ugly, hirsute, fat, unkempt, noisy and obnoxious.  This is not true. 


The god is very good looking and often portrayed as androgynous.  Melting, piercing eyes.





Marble plaque found at Nemi, Italy.  On the right is Dionysos. On the left a satyr. 1st century CE. 

Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia





This piece of marble sealed a burial niche in a tomb. 

The god Bacchus is on the left in a low chariot pulled by a centaur.  The god is accompanied by satyrs and a lion and panther, sacred to the god.  Late 2nd or 3rd century AD. 

Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia






A mask of Dionysos in his archaic form where he was always shown with long beard and long hair.  Bronze, 1st century BCE-Ist century ACE. 

Thought to have been found in the sea off Mallorca, Spain.

  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




The maenads are among the few examples of self-actuated women in ancient times.   The god’s cult was thought to have been spread and protected by women:





Cameo glass medallion of a maenad in a frenzied dance.  1st century AD, Roman. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.


So much more interesting than housework. Not to speak of going to the office.







Sardonyx cameos of maenads.  British, 19th century.  Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia





It is Silenus, the chief of the Dionysian band, the god’s tutor and his vintner,  who is the ugly, ferocious one.  Along with his band of happy drunks.






Silenus on a wineskin.   A bronze reproduction of a figure made in Naples before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. 

Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.





Tin-glazed earthenware plate (maiolica) showing Silenus and Bacchic revelers with the arms of Isabella d’Este, 1524.

Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe, active 1520-1537/38, Italian. 

Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY






A painting related to Dionysian rites on a wall of a villa in Italy, 50 to 40 BCE. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY






Head of Silenus, 1st to 2nd century BCE.  Marble. 

Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Worn out with drink and debauchery.





And the satyrs, half man, half horse are noisy and lecherous.





Marble statue of a young satyr turning to look at his tail.  Roman version of the 1st or 2nd century AD of a Greek original of the 3rd century BC. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY






Silenus and the Satyrs, oil on wood panel, c. 1505-1510.

Cima da Conegliano  Italian (area of Venice), 1459/60 – 1517/18. 

Philadelphia Museum of Art





A maenad using her thyrsus to fight off the attentions of a satyr, c. 480 BC, a painting on an Attic red figure kylix .

 Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany






Bronze statuette of a satyr carrying a wineskin and an inverted torch on the way to a Dionysian revel. Greek, 3rd to 2nd century BCE. 

Metropolitan Museum, New York





The god is handsome. 


Which one of us would look at him twice, let alone have him persuade us that our deaths are necessary for life to continue, were he obnoxious and disorderly like Silenus?






Two views of Bacchus and a faun (half human, half goat), probably Milanese, c.1580-1600, bronze .

National Gallery  of Art. Washington, DC





Dionysos leaves the surface of the earth in Spring. 



He withdraws as the sun grows brighter and the light stays later in the evening and Apollo prepares his arrival on the surface of the earth.



Apollo, the master of light and of everything rational and clear, and Dionysos do not overlap their time on the earth. 


They acknowledge each other at the change of season, Spring and Autumn. 



In Autumn, Dionysos, whose arrival signals the plants to their winter transformation, first fills the landscape with the  colours of the departing Apollo:  yellows, golds. 


In homage.






Winterthur November 2011-6Autumn. Delaware and Pennsylvania




And in Spring it is Apollo’s yellow which appears first in the flowers of Spring (north-east US):




Amur Adonis on February 19, 2017 in Winterthur, Delaware



Winter aconite (eranthis) on February 23, 2017 at Winterthur, Delaware




Dionysian soft grey circles encircle the first flowers of Spring .




The poplars, beginning to leaf,  are likewise marked with soft grey circles.





Siberian squill, Winterthur Delaware, March 2017


Grey poplars, ringed, Winterthur, Delaware, March 2017




Apollo has arrived and Dionysos has gone with the arrival of the first bush to flower in the region of the world in which I live:  forsythia.  A bush dear to both gods.


Gold is the colour of Apollo.


But the form of forsythia is as as riotous as any Dionysian could want.  Its branches and twigs grow every which way.






Forsythia, March 9 2017 at Winterthur, Delaware





The energies of Apollo and Dionysos, their personalities and ways of being are not compatible. 



They will not be together on the earth until our sun goes supernova on its way to becoming a brown star. 



Then the life of all organic matter on earth may be done. 


Burned to a crisp.


The earth also: perished into billions of smoke particles streaming out into the whorls of the Milky Way. 



And life will continue, indestructible, in forms unknown to us mortals; known only to the gods.





A photo of Karl Kerenyi’s (Hungarian, 1897-1973 ) 

‘Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life’ published first in German in 1976 and 1994. 

With libations of American black walnut vodka and British blackberry whiskey.















2 thoughts on “Dionysos: The Archetype of Indestructible Life

  1. Bel article.
    Un truc m’a frappé dans les illustrations, c’est le nez des satyres, ils n’ont pas le “profil grec”

    1. Vous avez raison.

      Les satyres sont des barbares, des gens venus de ‘l’etranger’, Ils ne savaient meme pas comment se comporter!


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