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Are you Apollo or Dionysus?

Updated on April 15, 2015



The Questions

Question 1

When you pull a burnt dinner from the oven, do you (a) chuckle with laughter and run for the nearest takeaway outlet or (b) do you say: our food has been exposed to a temperature of 200 degrees C, for too long. In order to correct this error, we need to repeat the cooking procedure, this time paying greater attention to the oven variables and the state of the chicken tikka masala, so that we carbonise it correctly?

Question 2

When on the beach, a wave washes over your clothing and soaks you and everyone around you to the skin. Do you (a) scream with joy and run around in the sun to dry off or (b) do you say: that wave was travelling at a velocity of over fifty miles per hour and the water/person collision had a force of half a megaton, leaving our clothing with a humidity factor of 90%, which will take approximately 45 minutes to dry off in sunlight of this strength?

Question 3

When your partner/son/daughter returns from the supermarket with three pizzas instead of four, do you (a) simply shrug, carve the offerings into equal shares before eating or do you (b) make the perpetrator eat cold bread and cheese (as penance) while you and the others enjoy slices of luscious, hot food?

If your answers to these three questions are predominantly (a), then you are a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care Dionysus. If you mainly tick the (b) box, then you are an all-controlling, must-get-it-right, uptight Apollo.



A very odd couple!

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus were two chaps with very different personalities.

Dionysus, identified by Romans as Bacchus, was the son of Zeus and Semele (daughter of Cadmus and Harmony). From the start, Hera (wife of Zeus) hated Dionysus, so Zeus transformed him a number of times to keep him hidden. While in India, he acquired his train of triumphal followers, which included satyrs and the Bacchantes, the Sileni and other minor deities. Back in Greece, he drove his chariot, bedecked in ivy and pulled by a pair of panthers. Tradition has it that the revellers travelled around the countryside, the wild music of the Bacchantes driving people into ecstasy and eventually, madness. Slowly, his human followers established the Dionysian cult and carried branches of myrtle to identify themselves.

Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, and the twin brother of Artemis (Diana). A jealous Hera (again!) delayed their birth until other deities intervened by offering her precious gifts. Eventually, Apollo and his sister were born on Delos or Delphi. One of the many gifts he received was a chariot drawn by swans, which took him to the land of Hyperboreans. When he grew up, Apollo slew a monster that Hera had sent to devour Leto before he and his sister were born. In thanks, the inhabitants of Delphi established the Pythian games, while other deities lauded and celebrated him. Not only was Apollo brave, physically strong and very handsome, he was the god of poetry and music and supposedly fathered Orpheus. Tradition has it that he was the father of Pythagoras, the greatest of all Greek mathematicians.

Over time, his name became linked with all that is erudite and ordered in the universe; music and poetry, the arts and the sciences, while Dionysus became synonymous with all that was out of order, wild and frenzied. Even now, when a person appears cautious and thoughtful, we describe him as Apollonian while a person appearing reckless and uninformed is Dionysian. Writers and filmmakers have played much with this dichotomy, producing enticing and conflict-filled drama. One great example was The Odd Couple, my favourite comedy from the 1970s. Felix Unger (Tony Randall) was an exacting newswriter sharing his New York apartment with the garrulous sports’ columnist, Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman). While Felix was always neat and flawless with perfect social manners, Oscar mooched about in a baseball cap and sweater, and often got into conflict with Felix and his guests.

An essential dichotomy

It is a mistake to suppose that the qualities of either Dionysus or Apollo are “good” while the other qualities are “bad”. Apollo does come across as an annoying guy who gets it right all of the time, in short, the kind of person that we love to hate. As with Felix, we want to scream at him, to hang loose and have a good time. But without the Apollonian capacity for meticulous observation and painstaking attention to detail, we would have had no arts or literature, scientific discovery or technology. And Dionysus wasn’t always in pursuit of mindless pleasure; he cared tenderly for Ariadne when Theseus abandoned her on the isle of Naxos. Just like Oscar, he could be kind to folk in trouble.

The ancient Greeks recognised that it was not a good idea to be in either an Apollonian or Dionysian mode all of the time, which is they created the gods to represent the pair of dichotomies. And fun-filled feast days punctuated their regime of labour, learning and worship. Nowadays, we all know an Apollo who should party a little more, and a Dionysus who just doesn’t seem to know when (or how) to quit merry-making. Indeed, you could argue that a successful life stems from keeping these two qualities in balance; what do readers think?


The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Pierre Grimal


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