Humanities 220
Professor Easton
Department of English
SUNY Geneseo

The Dionysian and Apollonian impulses in Antigone


Both Dionysus and Apollo are gods of the creative arts in the Greek tradition.

Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Semele (the mortal daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes). His "native place" is Thebes.

When Semele was six months pregnant, Hera, jealous of her husband's infidelity, induced Zeus to appear before his mistress in all his splendor as the God of Thunder and Lightning. Needless to say, Semele was consumed by fire. Zeus was able to save Dionysus out of Semele's ashes and complete his gestation in his own thigh.

Because of his own salvation and stories about bringing Semele back to life, Dionysus is associated with death and resurrection. He is also called "Iacchos" and "Bacchus"; some stories make him the brother or bridegroom of Persephone.

Like Persephone, Dionysus is associated with vegetation myths (death in winter and resurrection in spring). His festival is celebrated in the spring. In one myth, Dionysus is torn to pieces by the Titans, but born again every three years, restored to a new body.

Dionysus inspired a mystery cult, which preceded the creation of Dionysian theatrical festival in Athens. Practitioners within this mystery cult performed ritualistic displays of grief for the god's disappearance in the winter and joyous welcoming at his return in the spring. Followers of Dionysus were both women and men, who are often depicted as mad and or intoxicated. Certain female followers, known as maenads, famously (some say madly) ran, screamed, and danced through forests, eating live animals, and decorating themselves with vines and grapes. The consumption of live animals enabled the followers of Dionysus to "incorporate" their god within themselves.

Dionysus is considered a very sensual god; the wine produced by the grapes that mark his fertility inspires music and poetry. Words frequently associated with Dionysus are dance, contradiction (life and death), intoxication, fire, frenzy, mad women, and ecstasy.

* * *

Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto (an immortal; one of the Titans). His twin sister was Artemis.

Although he was a distinct god in early Greek culture, in some traditions Apollo came to be associated with the SUN. He was always a god of light, and, like Dionysus, he inspired poetry and music. Unlike Dionysus, however, Apollo's poetry and music are elevated and orderly. He is sober, elegant, and eloquent; he plays the lyre; he is never ecstatic.

Though his association with light, Apollo comes to represent justice, prophecy, and mental and moral purity.

There is also a contradictory side to Apollo: he is the god of plague as well as the god of healing.

Rather than having a cult following, Apollo was honored with shrines, most famously at Delphi and Delos. At these shrines, seekers of truth and wisdom sought oracles (predictions or clarifications of facts) from one of Apollo's priests or priestesses.

Words associated with Apollo are light, music, poetry, eloquence, justice, morality, purity, elevated thought, restraint, and order.

* * *

We might think of these two gods representing the "irrational" and the "rational." How do Dionysian and Apollonian impulses show up in Antigone?

As the god whose native city is Thebes, Dionysus is directly invoked throughout Sophocles' play. Apollonian order is the implicit contrast, appearing in references to the sun, to law and justice, and to restraint.

Examples (page references are to Three Theban Plays):