Pagan Studies

Pagan Scholar seeks to examine particular topics within Paganism through the various lenses of philosophy.
Also, I make goofy vlogs and review books.
Formerly, A Pagan Aesthetic.

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Apollo, Dionysus: meet Nietzsche. Nietzsche: Apollo, Dionysus. Part 1

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

This entry is a little long so I'v split it into two segments. So don't worry if you feel theres something missing in the proposed philosophy. That gets covered in the second part. Here's part 1


Perhaps the central theme of Neo Paganism in terms of worship is the duality of God and Goddess. These forces, separately, represent all manifestations of human experience and cultivate realms of significance in terms of correspondence. Solar energy is typically understood as masculine and a part of the metaphors belonging to the God. Conversely, the Goddess offers lunar metaphors. The masculine concepts of deity are understood to be penetrative, the feminine, receptive. The list of correspondences extends toward literally everything in existence as all properties are believed to come from one of these opposing sources. Additionally, the Neo Pagan duality of worship stresses harmony and balance between the two gendered ideas. The one cannot survive without the other, the other invigorates the one. As the most intimate medium of understanding the world is indeed gender (within the context of western contemporary society), the metaphoric understanding of deity through gender provides an avenue of connection for worshipers and adherents of Neo Paganism. This essay is not to lambaste the gendered binary understanding of deity or the world, but to provide an alternative perspective on the duality of deity. Offered will be a short exploration of the Apollonian and Dionysian world views in context with previous examinations of said topic and a contemporary application of the worldviews within the context of Neo Paganism.


The first topic that must be examined are the primary metaphors of the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. Understood as ancient Greek deities, both Apollo and Dionysus were gods of particular realms of import and specificity. While there were particular historical accounts of worship attributing these deities with different manners, the typical consensus of these two deities remains quite straight forward: Apollo was a god of light, understanding, order, and the individual, and Dionysus as a god of wine, intoxication, chaos, and the homogeneous group. With these basic interpretations of the god’s properties, an expanded interpretation must be examined.


Nietzsche explored the dichotomy of the two gods in his work “The Birth of Tragedy”. His thoughts (briefly) examined conclude with the idea that the two deities represent opposing forces both necessary for the cultivation of a thriving and wholesome society. The Apollonian perspective views Apollo as “the dreaming god”, the god of the sculptors, the poets, the architects, who ponder and bring about art into the world from within themselves as isolated individuals.


The Dionysian understands intoxication, yes as a property of Dionysus but more intensely, as the disintegration of the isolated individual consciousness into the ecstatic homogeneity of the world around them. Explained colloquially, when one is drunk, one loses oneself to the atmosphere around them, one forgets oneself, and indeed, one may not even remember what happened the next day. Intoxication is of course not limited to drunkenness, but includes other forms of ecstasy.  


The two forces are then necessary for the growth of the society, but also, dependent upon one another. A purely Apollonian society would grow stale, cold, and have no understanding of community. A Dionysian society would not even be a society, but an ecstatic conglomerate without individual purpose and would accomplish nothing. The two forces must be present for a society to thrive. The Apollonian produces the external world around them, the Dionysian beholds and connects to the world around them. When one grows in excess, the other steps in and grants a refreshed perspective for the other.


While this duality can grant a positive understanding of society, to what end can it be applied to personal worship? Can the polar duality of gender previously discussed find stock in the proposed conceptual duality of Dionysus and Apollo? Perhaps an applied examination of typical correspondences can answer this question. A basic connotation of gendered deity is the receptive/penetrative duality. In this instance, the Apollonian would serve as an aggregating force. Though the Apollonian idea begins within the individual, the ideas expand outward from the individual and into the world around them. The Dionysian then assumes the receptive role; the abandon of personal identity is a passive action, the opening of oneself to the excess of the totality of the rest of the world. It could then be argued that Apollonian ideas are penetrative and Dionysian are receptive.

A slightly different interpretation of gendered polarity is the prescription of archetypes and roles one plays in life that are dependent on gender. Goddess archetypes would refer to the stages of a woman's life, from maiden to crone, with bride and mother in between the two. A similar progression of roles for men would be the journey from “warrior” to father, and then to “sage” or elder, though there is slightly less work that explores the masculine life cycle within the context of Neo Paganism. For the conceptual duality to provide for this paradigm, some shifting of perspectives must occur.

The default understanding of life beginning in a maiden or warrior mode overlooks the infant stage of life. Infants are without identity, and are thus open to the world of experiences before them. It would then be said that all life ultimately begins with the Dionysian. As life progresses and the individual identity is cultivated, a slow shift from the Dionysian to the Apollonian occurs. Upon the threshold of the maiden to bride and warrior to groom, the individual is totally Apollonian, secure in their desires and identity in the world. With the first crossing of the threshold into bride and groom (These terms are slightly more poetic than factual. When bride and groom are discussed, it is in relation to sexual maturity.) the individual is reintroduced to the Dionysian, the loss of identity in the throes of aroused intoxication. Within this stage of life, there is often a tumultuous shifting between the existential identity of the Apollonian (“finding” oneself, finding one's place in society, ruminating over the future), and the satisfaction of returning to the Dionysian, (experimentation and exploration of the identity though avenues of self and other, i.e. sexual exploration and sometimes intoxication though alcohol or other substances). While this shifting between perspectives can and does continue for the rest of the individuals life, upon reaching the mother/father roles (again, these titles wax poetic as this stage of life can occur without actually producing children), the Dionysian mellows in favor of the stability of the Apollonian. If the individual actually has children, the Apollonian role exemplifies itself in creating a structured and safe environment for their Dionysian child to cultivate an identity from. If the individual remains childless, the Apollonian element is still present in the colloquial western idea of “being a grown up”:maintaining a steady job, security from crisis, knowledge and wisdom about the world around them. The final stages of the archetypal cycle, the crone and the sage, are ideally a perfect balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Individuals who have reached the crone and sage titles are depositories of wisdom from which the community can turn to for clarity. Having lived through the ever shifting attitudes of life, the elders of a community have an Apollonian wisdom about the Dionysian experience. Conversely, the Dionysian element manifests itself within the elders in their overarching and homogenous understanding of the whole experience of life. With these examinations, it is not suggested that the conceptual duality of Apollo and Dionysus replaces the gendered life cycle, but favors the experience of life (conceptual duality) more than the medium through which life is experienced (gendered duality) .


To Be Continued!

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An unpublished writer but a published poet, Travis writes in the hopes that he can actually use his philosophy degree for something other than grad school. He finds pleasure in working uncommon words into his lexiconic exchanges, discovering work cited lists in religious studies books, and in general pretending his life is not dissimilar that of a 50's Parisian beatnik (ennui: check). He practices what essentially boils down to Wicca with influences from his studies in Philosophy of Hermeneutics, Existentialism, and Mysticism.


  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Monday, 17 February 2014

    "Perhaps the central theme of Neo Paganism in terms of worship is the duality of God and Goddess." If you replace "Neo Paganism" with "Wicca," perhaps I might agree, but if you are actually asserting that duotheism is a "central theme" of the much more diverse Pagan sphere, perhaps I would suggest that Paganism is wider than your experience. In other words, the statement begs for clarification.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    I would agree with Terrance that Neo-Paganism is more multi-vocal than the assertion of duality of God and Goddess. Many Goddess feminists have yet to "find a God" we can like or worship, while not denying the need for positive male symbols on animal, human, and divine levels. I for one would not accept that anyone has to go through a "warrior" stage, as I view patriarchy and war not as eternal archetypes of the "masculine" but as a mistake. In matriarchal societies (see my post today) boys and men are taught to be lovers and nurturers of life. They don't have to be taught to "hate and fear" or to dominate others. Siggghhh.

  • Travis
    Travis Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    I think you both have made excellent points. Terrence: I agree the duality Im interpreting does lean very closely to the wicca ideology. The reason why I opted out for the broader term Neo Pagan was due mostly to the statistics I found in "A Pagan Census" with Wicca being the largest demographic within contemporary paganism. I shall have to revise and be more specific.
    Carol: Your point of the (un)necessity of antiquated life stages is significant with its ties how we need to explore history and our value systems with an egalitarian hand. I think the challenge is to find not a "warrior" stage, but a resilient archetype in which women and men can both participate in and feel fulfilled by. The second part I'll be posting later starts to articulate these sentiments but still needs work (as dose the first section but I submitted it because I felt it was ready for critique!).
    I appreciate your critical readings both of you! Thank you for your wisdom.

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