The Greeks knew human nature well, deifying the characteristics most archetypal to the human experience. They flocked to Apollo’s shrine at Delphi, believing this to be the clearest channel to commune with the divine.
Apollo was synonymous with rationality and temperance. The phrases mēden agan meaning “Nothing in Excess” and gnōthi sauton meaning “Know Yourself” were inscribed on the black marbled exterior of his sanctuary. To the Greeks, this was the center of the earth and therefore nearest to Mount Olympus and the holy. Apollo became the patron god of healing, truth, and poetry. Zeus’ golden child. But Zeus had other sons.
Dionysus watched over his big brother Apollo’s temple for three months a year, replacing reason and balance with the intoxicated ecstasy and chaotic revelry of the unconscious.
Dionysus practiced a surrender to emotion and pleasure, becoming the god of the vine, the grape-crusher. His followers connected to him through the wild improvisation of dance and song, yielding to the raptures of sensuality. Dionysus and Apollo were both patrons of the arts and chief conductors between flesh and spirit. They only went about it differently.
The mind of the alcoholic is the shrine at Delphi.
The majority of the time, it houses clear-minded rationality. When sober, alcoholics are known to be driven, willful, and gritty. But, like our western version of the Apollonian-Dionysian split—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the alcoholic hides a dark oblivion from himself.
Our Apollo is obsessed with Dionysus. The more our rational brain tightens the reins, the more powerful the kicks of a wild horse bucking to be free. The mixture of a dueling persona—the impulsive Dionysus and the reasoning Apollo—creates an obscure balance in the alcoholic. He verifies falsehood. He falls down the stairs in a stupor and reasons that the railing was loose. He cannot know himself. Denial comes in many forms, but it is certainly not a river in Egypt.
We’ve invested our cultural capital in Dionysus.
Western romance is fraught with the conflict inherent in quenching the uncontrollable urge, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s characters, Stevenson’s Edward Hyde, or the life examples of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Jack Kerouac.
We associate creative brilliance with tragic self-destruction, as if the only ticket to godliness is a deal with the devil. Contemporary pop culture is a polluted conversion of the Dionysian freedom from inhibition. A few turns of the radio fill the imagination with the urge to succumb to pleasures not for communion, but for the sake of succumbing to pleasure. Dionysus was more than a hedonist.
It makes one wonder if space will clear again in the arts for the sober Apollo.