Artemis and Dionysus: Antithesis and Synthesis

Thista Minai

I’ve mentioned before that I believe the root of the clash (for lack of a better word) between Artemis and Dionysos comes from the fact that They are each Gods of freedom and transition – only Artemis approaches it by knowing boundaries well and thus being able to cross over or through them, while Dionysos destroys the boundaries altogether. Reading Written in Wine has helped me to understand this quite a bit more, so here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
The first thing that struck me when I started Written in Wine was how similar Dionysos and Artemis really are. People would speak of turning to Dionysos for the exact same things for which I would turn to Artemis, and the effect they described was very similar to the effect Artemis has on me. Nevertheless, the second thing that struck me was how antithetical Dionysos and Artemis are. They go about things in such incredibly different ways that even though They accomplish the same end, They can’t – or perhaps simply don’t – coexist in the same place.
Artemis and Dionysos are both filled with contradictions. The God of madness and destruction is also a God of growth and vegetation. The Goddess of hunting is also the Goddess Who protects animals. We all know how these are two sides of the same coin, necessary for each other. The ways in which Artemis and Dionysos contradict each other, though, don’t seem to be complimentary in that way. I think this is best illustrated in the type of wildness one experiences in the company of either.

My limited understanding of the wildness of Dionysos is that it is (eventually, anyway, as seen through the eyes of a non-devotee) complete madness. The ultimate result is liberation and thus being better able to fully express and understand one’s self, but the path to get there involves at least temporarily completely losing yourself in Dionysian madness, just letting go completely. There is no control, and the point is perhaps to lose control. There is almost no self in it at all, just ecstatic frenzy.

The wild dances of Artemis are similarly liberating, but there is no loss of consciousness (for lack of a better expression) involved. Her dance is wild and unfettered but self-aware – not in an angsty, self-conscious sort of way, but in a way where She could see a deer nearby and hunt it and shoot it down without missing a step in the dance. It’s a wild awareness. Artemis says “Look, within yourself. There’s a beast inside you. Know it and be wild. Be the beast and know it as yourself.” There is never any point where you are separated from yourself. The boundary between you and beast is still there, and yet through Her lessons of wildness you become able to cross from one side of that boundary to the other at will, in effect integrating that beast into yourself. She shows us how to welcome and embrace being wild and beastly without ever letting go of our self control. That wild freedom concurrent with control is one of Artemis’ internal paradoxical contradictions. As Sannion explains it,

I’ve always felt that a fundamental key to understanding Artemis (and relatedly her brother) is through the archer, the bow, the intense focus and concentration necessary to shoot straight and clear. Kind of a Zen thing. You don’t lose yourself, but you become aware of things to a degree you normally aren’t paradoxically through the narrowing of focus. It shuts out all the background noise, the internal static, until there is just you, aiming the arrow, and the victim whose every movement you are so keenly aware of.

In fact, Artemis is very much about boundaries and transitions both, and that’s a ‘two sides of the same coin’ sort of complimentary contradiction. Know both sides clearly, know exactly where the line is, and then you can cross from one side to the other easily, and even walk the fine line itself. Her temples were often at liminal areas, space between or on the edge. She presided over transitions, but these were all rituals where someone went from one state to another. There would often be wild chaos in the middle (e.g. the whipping of Orthia, or the arkteia of Brauronia) but even in this wildness there would be no confusion of which state was which or where they were. Before you were one thing, in the middle you are wild, and after you are something else. The lines are permeable, and there is even often space of liminal wildness in the middle, but the lines are also always clear.

Dionysos, on the other hand, seems to be about blurring those lines or destroying them altogether. I can’t go into depth about it because I don’t understand Him as well, but it seems to me that in His madness, you’re not really sure where each side is, or if there are even sides anymore at all. Perhaps part of the point of this is to illustrate the necessity of boundaries by showing the chaos that emerges in their absence. Even so, I think that right away this makes it pretty clear why Artemis and Dionysos generally don’t go so well together. It’s not that They don’t get along (or at least I’ve never experienced a sense of Them disliking each other); They just don’t work together, and perhaps often can’t work together, because Their methods are antithetical to one another.

Nevertheless, if Hippolytos taught us anything, it’s that mortals must never actively exclude any of the Gods from their lives. But then why and how would a follower of Artemis approach Dionysos? Or a follower of Dionysos approach Artemis?

I’ve pondered this a long time without really getting anywhere, and Written in Wine showed me why. Just about anything someone would go to Artemis for, they could also go to Dionysos for. It can’t be an issue of what you ask each of Them for help with, but rather of why you ask Them in particular.

It was the cult of Artemis and Dionysos near Patrai that actually helped me figure it out. That is the only place I know of where Artemis and Dionysos were actually worshiped together in the same festival, although even then they would have an activity for one, an intermittent activity, and then an activity for the other. The story goes (according to Pausanias’ Description of Greece 7.19.1) that a priestess of Artemis Triklaria had a lover, but neither her parents nor his would let them marry, so out of desperation she had sex with him secretly in Artemis’ sanctuary. Plague followed, and the oracle at Delphi revealed the lovers as the cause, and that Artemis required not only that the couple be sacrificed, but that every year the handsomest young man and most beautiful young woman would be sacrificed to Her as well (i.e. She was pissed). This practice was finally put to an end by Dionysos. A man came along with an image of Dionysos Melikhios that caused madness when it was looked upon. A festival replaced the human sacrifices, in which children wearing garlands of ‘corn ears’ would process down to the river Melikhios, dedicate their garlands before an image of Artemis, bathe in the river, put on new garlands made of ivy, then go to the sanctuary of Dionysos the Dictator, built for the image that was brought to Patrai. Burkert asserts that this festival would have included a maddened revelry of some kind, and while I have been unable to find direct evidence for that, the idea is not without reason: nine men and nine women would accompany the image to the river Melikhios, and this same image would inflict madness upon all who looked at it.

All this made me wonder: what was it about that madness – or at the very least a festival of the God of Madness – that made it the solution to the problems at Patrai? What if the act of a priestess of Artemis sleeping with her lover in Artemis’ sanctuary was so incredibly polluted, so heretical that it could only be explained as madness? And what if, then, the only solution, the only way to end the punishment (meaning, at that point, the human sacrifices) was to sanctify that madness? And who better to sanctify madness than Dionysos? Human sacrifice would have been thought a type of madness by the ancient Greeks, but in the circumstances at Patrai it was a sort of necessary madness: an act of heretical madness had to be punished by a method of equally mad severity. This cycle of madness could not be wholly eliminated, but it could be brought into an acceptable and controllable structure: a festival of Dionysos. The cycle is broken and life is once again under control.

If all this is true, then when Artemis and Dionysos finally came together, it was when one thing needed to be destroyed and then replaced with another. This is, I think, the unique circumstance in which Artemis and Dionysos can work together. Sometimes one boundary isn’t right and it needs to be torn down and replaced with another one. In this case one would need Artemis and Dionysos together, Dionysos to tear down the old boundary and Artemis to put up the new one. Neither of Them can do the whole job as effectively alone.

So, when might a follower of Artemis approach Dionysos? When some boundary or bond absolutely must be destroyed, when simply knowing and traveling through it isn’t good enough and it must be taken down (and perhaps replaced by a new boundary by Artemis, or perhaps not).

And when might a follower of Dionysos approach Artemis? When there is a need for a boundary, or when a boundary can’t be removed and must instead be fully understood and made permeable.

I think it might be hard for a follower of Dionysos to accept that sometimes boundaries really do need to exist, and I know it’s hard for a follower of Artemis to let go of control even for a second. But every now and then it needs to happen.

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2 Responses to Artemis and Dionysus: Antithesis and Synthesis

  1. Yiannis says:

    There’s a myth in Alexandria that says that “Artemis and Apollon are children of Dionysis and Isis”

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