top of page


Two instincts that complete each other in open dissent

• • • ​

The terms Apollonian and Dionysian come from ancient Greece, from the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Let us first imagine them as the two worlds of dream and inebriation. Apollo, the god of light, penetrates everything like the sun's rays. He is the patron of the beautiful splendor of the intimate world of fantasy. His eyes are as serene as the sun, even when he is angry and frowns. He presides over music, poetry and the visual arts. From him radiates the Apollonian spirit, whose power clothes the most frightening things in our eyes with enchantment. Escorting the Sun on his chariot across the entire celestial vault, Apollo illuminates the Earth, bringing with him harmony, wisdom and order. He makes the human soul shine with a clear and well-defined form.

While, on new hidden paths and dance places there is another spirit, stirred by strange, inexpressible needs, a mind brimming with questions and secrets on which is written the name of Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy and the most radiant liberation. Crowned with ivy, he leads a chariot covered with flowers and garlands that, preceded by the sound of drums and the dances of Bacchae, is pulled by the vigor of a panther and a tiger. From him arises the instinct of the one who, like spring, permeates the whole of nature with glee, the one who has unlearned to walk and talk, and dancing is about to fly away into the air. His spirit does violence to human feeling and wrenches it from the tranquility of limpid self-awareness. It shows nature without veils, and represents life, which in its overflow becomes madness.


In ancient Greece there were cults for every god on Olympus. Among the most important were that of Apollo and Dionysus. The former aspired to divine wisdom and represented the religion of light, physical and spiritual. In its climaxes, it became the religion of the spirit, which favored the demands of clarity, purity, order and harmony. Apollonian worship was grounded in self-consciousness and awareness of the world. 

In contrast, in the cult of Dionysus, or Bacchus, celebrations hinged on the desire to surrender totally to one's animal nature and let go of all inhibitions. It is said that the Bacchae, inside caves and forests, celebrated their god half-naked, dressed in transparent clothing or fawn skins. Their improvised crowns were made of ivy, oak or fir, and in their hands they held burning torches and thyrsus. Intoxicated with wine they shouted and danced enthusiastically, in that state of being filled with the god, accompanied by the sound of cymbals, kettledrums, flutes and crotales. At the height of ecstasy they would fall into a Dionysian, frightening delirium, indulging in every excess. 


At Delphi, on Mount Parnassus, Bacchic festivals preceded the Apollonian religion. It was only later, in the 4th century B.C., that one of the most important shrines was built in Apollo's name. This happened when the sun god, who had come to Delphi as a child, killed Python, a snake-shaped being, who at the same time was also Dionysus. From that moment Apollo, ousting the Dionysian entity already present at Delphi for a long time, erected his own temple on the remains of the previous one, making it the religious place par excellence dedicated to sun worship. However, the three winter months, in which he was said to leave for the Hyperboreans, were dedicated to the worship of Dionysus. At that time, night feasts, lit by torchlight, were celebrated on Mount Parnassus. The two cults alternated regularly throughout the year to such an extent that they appeared, according to some, as a single cult. What the relationship between the two religions was at Delphi is a complex and debated question. There is no doubt, however, that between the two deities so often interpreted as extreme and contrary expressions of each other, there existed a profound bond, which in some cases seems to reach, paradoxically, to the point of identification.


Apollo and Dionysus completed each other, and the contrast of their spirits resided in them as it still does in every human being. It was Nietzsche himself who, in his book The Birth of Tragedy (1872), first introduced Apollonian and Dionysian into the history of the spirit. Looking back into Greek mythology, the German philosopher recognized the existence of two extreme life forces: one spirit that dazzled life with enchantment, and another, which in its intoxication overflowed with truth. He realized that the two contrasting entities were the cornerstones of ancient Greek tragedy. And not only that. Through them it was possible to reach the highest aim of art.


In fact, according to Nietzsche, Apollonian and Dionysian are not only the ambrosia of Greek drama, at the same time they represent the vital essence with which every artist struggles to realize his or her works. Here again, the contrast and unification of the two spirits are fundamental. Apollonian liberation in art alone, the ecstasy that is achieved through mere conventional beauty, is not a ferocious place, since existence and the world are eternally justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. Only when the Apollonian genius merges with the primal artist of the world, with the natural artistic forces beyond man's control, does he know something of the eternal essence of art.


Apollo and Dionysus thus find themselves symbolizing two primordial forces that have always conflicted in the human being, in eternal struggle, but complementing each other in open dissent.


Whoever generates something life-giving

must sink into the primordial abysses,

where the powers of life dwell.

And when he resurfaces,

a flash of madness lights up in his eyes,

because over there death coexists with life.

Written by Matteo Mascolo.

Translations: Text translated into English by Alberto Rabachin and Bianca Pasquinelli, into Spanish by Matteo Mascolo.

Source: The information is based on my personal research and especially on the book The birth of tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, published by Laterza, 9th edition (march 30th 1995).

La Tecnica di danza di Doris Humprhey: Chi siamo
bottom of page