Dionysus and Apollo

Dionysos and Apollo are depicted on opposite sides of the Borghese vase, the orginal of which is in the Louvre in Paris. Mrs Coade made many copies of the vase in the late 18th Century in London and at Hammerwood Park the figures of the vase appear on two Coadeware plaques above doors in temples at opposite ends of the house. (On tours of the house at 2pm on open days the symbolism of these plaques is often explored further). The figures of the Borghese vase invite a comparison between Apollo and Dionysos

Dionysus Dionysos

Dionysus is not an Indo-European deity. Probably Phrygian in origin, the god and his cult traveled to Macedonia, then to Thessaly and Boeotia. The myth of his birth relates that his mother is Semele and that he was fathered by Zeus. When Hera, Zeus's wife, learns of Zeus's infidelity and the approaching birth, she disguises herself as Semele's nurse and convinces her to demand that Zeus reveal himself in the totality of his godliness to her. Zeus appears to Semele in the fullness of his thunder and lightning. The appearance strikes Semele dead, but just before her death Zeus snatches Dionysus from her womb, cuts open his thigh, and places the child therein; after nine months Dionysus is born from the thigh of Zeus. Dionysus is called the twice-born--from the womb of Semele and the thigh of Zeus.

Dionysus's appearance always seems to be accompanied by some violent activity that presents a threat to conventional order. As the center of an orgiastic mystical cult, he tends to break the bonds of social life. Euripides, in his drama The Bacchae, describes the Dionysian cult. (Dionysus is also called Bromios, the Boisterous, or BACCHUS.) The aim of the cult was to produce ecstasy--the experience of standing outside of oneself--or enthusiasm--the experience of being filled with the god. The heart of the Dionysian mystery was that the devotee and the god become identical. The majority of the cult followers were women, the MAENADS, those who had gone mad in their ecstasy. When the priest of Dionysus played on his flute, the devotees went into a frenzy, in which they were said to dismember animals. (Dionysos is often compared to the south American god Quetzalcoatl and his music is very much alive with Brazilian rhythm drumming performed in the south of France).


Apollo stands in contrast to Dionysus. Whereas Dionysus orients his devotees to wild orgiastic rites, Apollo is the god of moderation and represents the legal or statutory meaning of religion. Apollo is foremost a god of law; he is described by Plato as the source of law. In his role as lawgiver, Apollo refers to the precedents of the gods and laws of the city.

Apollo has another side, however. Like Dionysus, he was related to the oracle of DELPHI, and his devotees there were enthusiastic and ecstatically possessed. W. K. C. Guthrie, in The Greeks and Their Gods, suggests that Apollo originated in Siberia and that the ecstatic powers attached to his cult were derived from the tribal shamanism of that area rather than from the Dionysian cult at Delphi. Because of the common ecstatic elements, Apollo 's cult exerted a moderating influence upon the distinctly non-Olympian religious experience of Dionysus.

Parts of the above Copyright - 1993 Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.

Click here for Led Zeppelin - the 20th century incarnation of Dionysus
Click to return to Hammerwood Resources page and for tour of the house.

This page was inspired by Latrobe's work at Hammerwood Park. Click here to visit or stay. (This site is one of the oldest on the net, April 1996.)