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Apollo and Dionysus Comparison Term Paper



For those who strive to gain an in-depth insight into the discursive significance of Greek antiquity, it represents the matter of crucial importance to be able to understand that the Olympian gods of Apollo and Dionysus do not only reflect the essence of the ancient Greeks’ sense of religiosity, but also what used to be mutually incompatible and yet thoroughly interrelated workings of their unconscious psyche. Whereas, Apollo can be well discussed as an embodiment of ancient Greeks’ longing for beauty, order, and cognitive clarity, the figure of Dionysus appears to have been subliminal of these people’s irrational/atavistic anxieties, concerned with the notions of passion, drunkenness, and sexuality. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, in regards to how the famous works of ancient Greek literature refer to the earlier mentioned Olympian gods.

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Even though throughout the course of millennia, Homeric Hymns have been edited/rewritten countless times, which caused some of these hymns’ parts to end up being rather unintelligible, they nevertheless do contain discursively relevant information, as to what kind of existential values the god of Apollo stood for. For example, while referring to Apollo, the anonymous author states:

Across the fertile mainland and the islands.

You (Apollo) love the lookouts and the towering headlands

Of the steep mountains, and the seaward rivers (To Delian Apollo 19)

As psychologists are well aware, it is specifically people endowed with the so-called ‘Faustian’ (domination-seeking) mentality, who are being particularly attracted to the ‘towering headlands’. This is because, while on top of the hill/mountain, these people experience the sensation of being able to impose certain dominance upon the surrounding environment. Even in the purely utilitarian sense of this word, being on top of the hill/mountain provides the concerned individual with the advantage of remaining thoroughly aware of the potential movements of his would-be-enemies. Therefore, Apollo’s fascination with open spaces, illustrated by the above-quote, can well be regarded, as such that extrapolates this god’s innermost desire to dominate others.

This also explains why, throughout the course of Homeric Hymns, Apollo is being described as an individual who derives a particular pleasure out of combating enemies – especially if the latter happened to radiate the spirit of a wicked primevalness:

The noble son Of Zeus (Apollo)

Killed a huge snake with his stout bow there,

A savage, bloated monster, who brought outrage

Continually against the country’s people (To Pythian Apollo 29).

Because it is in people’s very nature to be afraid of reptiles, there can be very few doubts, as to the fact that the act of snake-killing, on the part of Apollo, is clearly archetypical. That is, it projects ancient Greeks’ fears, in regards to the ‘abominable’ works of nature, and provides these people with a certain behavioral matrix, as to how they should be acting, when faced with the terrifying unknown.

Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to suggest that Apollo’s strive for domination/power was essentially irrational. Quite on the contrary – the literary accounts of this particular god expose him, as someone who never ceased being fully aware that the foremost key to domination/power is intellect/rationality. Hence, the discursive significance of the following quotation:

Who gather here. Above all, show my (Apollo’s) purpose…

If any word or act of yours is stupid…

Then other men will come to be your rulers (To Pythian Apollo 37).

By having stated this, Apollo evidently wanted to encourage people to address life-challenges reasonably, while remaining unaffected by their deep-seated irrational desires. This once again portrays Apollo, as the ‘god of reason’, whose place on the hierarchy of Olympian gods reflected an ancient Greeks’ attitude towards rationality, as probably the most worthy existential virtue of all.

The majority of references to Apollo, contained in the Homeric Hymns, also imply that ancient Greeks used to think dialectically. That is, they never ceased being aware of the deterministic nature of the relationship between causes and effects. Hence, the connotation of Apollo’s strong affiliation with the notion of beauty:

With fine, high steps and brightness rayed around him (Apollo).

His rapid feet and precious tunic glow (To Pythian Apollo 26).

Apparently, the anonymous author wanted to promote the idea that Apollo’s stance in life, as a rationale-driven and domination-seeking god, could not be discussed outside of the specifics of his physical appearance. Having been a glow-radiating ‘gold-haired’ god, Apollo sublimated ancient Greeks’ unconscious awareness of the fact that it is quite possible to define what a particular individual is, in the psychological sense of this word, by simply looking at him or her. The figure of god Apollo also reflected these people’s understanding that in this world, everything has to do with everything, which is why it is fully appropriate to draw parallels between the surrounding reality’s organic and non-organic emanations. This explains why Apollo’s ‘gold-harness’ was meant to serve as yet another indication of his nobleness. After all, the metal of gold even today continues to be considered the noblest of all. The account of Apollo, contained in the Homeric Hymns, illustrates the main cognitive predisposition, on the part of the ancient Greeks – their tendency to refer to the notions of beauty and intellect/rationale, as such that organically derive out of each other.

The earlier suggestion helps to explain the symbolic subtleties of how the anonymous author of Homeric Hymns refers to the god Dionysus, as well. For example, the author made a deliberate point is accentuating ‘non-Aryan’ particulars of Dionysus’s appearance:

On a jutting height and looking like a young boy

In his first bloom, his lovely black hair flowing (To Dionysus [Fragments] 1)

This, of course, was meant to advocate the idea that there must have been indeed much of a difference between Dionysus and Apollo – even prior to readers being exposed to the accounts of Dionysus’s positioning in life, as a passion-driven person, who perceives the world around him in the clearly emotional manner. Apparently, even as far back as during the time of Greek antiquity, people were aware of the fact that the ‘darker’ a particular individual happened to be, the more he or she is being likely to act irrationally. In this respect, the behavior of dark-haired Dionysus appears fully consistent with the discursive implications of his physical looks:

Immediately he called to his companions:

“Idiots!”… (To Dionysus 68)

The above-quotation represents Dionysus, as an individual who never ceased experiencing the acute sensation of irrational anger – hence, his verbal abusiveness.

Nevertheless, the fact that Dionysus has been commonly described by ancient Greek authors, as an emotionally impulsive god, who quickly loses its temper, provides only a partial insight into his character. As Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae indicates, Dionysus was also fond of subjecting those who would dare to doubt his divine nature to a variety of different punishments. For example, after having had an argument with Pentheus, Dionysus caused the earthquake, so that his adversary’s house would collapse. After having been informed of Pentheus’s misfortune, Dionysus takes a strong delight in what had happened to this ‘unruly man’, while exclaiming: “And now his (Pentheus’s) sword is fallen, and he lies outworn and wan Who dared to rise against his God in wrath, being but man” (Euripides 23). This, of course, portrays Dionysus as a particularly revengeful person, who used to derive an emotional satisfaction out of seeing others suffer. Given the fact that revengefulness is an unmistakably passion-driven emotion, this once again confirms the validity of Dionysus’s traditional image, as someone who used to indulge in the ‘associative’ mode of thinking, while relying on the sheer strength of his intuitive emotions, in order to be able to tackle the challenges of life.

One of the reasons why, as opposed to what happened to be the case with Apollo (‘the god of reason’), Dionysus is being commonly referred to as the ‘god of passion’, is that ancient Greeks used to think of him as the patron of winemakers. When drunk, people are much more likely to allow their unconscious anxieties to take over their rational mind, which is the reason why there is nothing odd about the sights of drunken men fighting, while at the bar. However, as psychologists are being well aware of, a result of consuming alcohol, individuals do not only grow more violently minded, but also ‘playful’ to an extent. This explains why, throughout the course of Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, Dionysus continues to adopt a variety of different disguises, while willing to sink even as low, as to pose as his own slave Xanthias: “Dionysus: Come then, if you’re so very brave a man, Will you be I, and take the hero’s club and lion’s skin, since you’re so monstrous plucky? And I’ll be now the slave, and bear the luggage” (Aristophanes 21). Nevertheless, even though Dionysus’s comfortableness with adopting the identity of others did help him to weasel out of many potentially dangerous situations, it can hardly be considered admirable, in the moral sense of this word. Apparently, people intuitively feel that there is something utterly inappropriate about one’s willingness to pretend to be someone, which he or she is definitely not. This explains why, until comparatively recent times, the profession of an actor used to be held in contempt. In this respect, Dionysus may be well-referred to as the first actor ever – unlike Apollo, he never troubled himself with trying to behave in a dignified manner.

The earlier quoted comedy provides us with an additional clue, as to what kind of person Dionysus used to be, in the scene in which he mocks the conventions of Greek classical theatre: “No, he’ll (Aeschylus) cut in with ‘Lost his bottle of oil!’ Those bottles of oil on all your prologues seem to gather and grow, like styes upon the eye. Turn to his melodies now for goodness’ sake” (Aristophanes 46). Apparently, Dionysus could not help coming up with cynical remarks, in regards to just about anything. In its turn, this suggests that despite his formal status of ‘god’, Dionysus had very little to do with the notion of ‘divinity’, in the first place. This is because it is specifically one’s realization of the fact that, despite being destined for something greater, he is doomed to lead a thoroughly ordinary lifestyle, which causes the concerned individual to perceive the surrounding reality through the lenses of sarcasm. Yet, the notions of ‘divinity’ and ‘powerlessness’ (exhibited by Dionysus’s sarcastic remarks) do not quite correlate.


Based upon what has been said earlier, we can summarize the major discursive differences between the Olympian gods of Apollo and Dionysus as follows:

  1. Appearance – whereas; Apollo has traditionally been portrayed as a physically fit blond-haired young man, Dionysus is being commonly referred to as a rather ordinary-looking dark-haired (and sometimes dark-skinned) young man.
  2. Mentality – whereas; Apollo’s foremost psychological trait is his strongly defined sense of idealism, the main feature of Dionysus’s mental constitution is his cynical-mindedness, reflected by this god’s tendency to mock other gods and mortals.
  3. Unconscious psyche – whereas; Apollo appears to adhere to the clearly masculine values of courageousness, honesty, and rationality, this cannot be said about Dionysus, whose very ‘passionarity’ implies him being more of a woman, in the psychological sense of this word.

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to what can be considered the major discursive contrasts between the Olympian gods of Apollo and Dionysus, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, it is indeed fully appropriate to refer to them, as such that symbolize the ambivalent workings of just about any person’s psyche.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. The Frogs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. Print.

Euripides. The Bacchae. Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Print.

“To Delian Apollo.” The Homeric Hymns. Eds. T.W. Allen, W.R Halliday and E.E. Sikes. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1936. 19-24. Print.

“To Dionysus [Fragments].” The Homeric Hymns. Eds. T.W. Allen, W.R Halliday and E.E. Sikes. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1936. 1-2. Print.

“To Dionysus. The Homeric Hymns.” Eds. T.W. Allen, W.R Halliday and E.E. Sikes. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1936. 68-69. Print.

“To Pythian Apollo.” The Homeric Hymns. Eds. T.W. Allen, W.R Halliday and E.E. Sikes. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1936. 25-37. Print.

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