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Greek mythology, pt. 1: Christ, the middle, and chiasmus

October 16, 2011

[The impetus for this series of posts came from some thoughts I had after writing about the Milosz poem “Bypassing rue Descartes” in the post titled “Empire, City, and Earth”. This post will take the form of a series of diagrams, with commentary, laying out the relationships between various archetypal figures. Subsequent posts will carry the inquiry slightly further as well as comment on what sort of inquiry I am endeavoring here, and whether it is valuable, but for now I’m simply going to proceed with my inquiry as if I can assume that it is valid.]

Let’s start with the pair of Apollo and Dionysus.

APOLLO
DIONYSUS

You don’t need to have actually read Nietzsche, though you do need to have had a bit of formal literary education, to know roughly what characterizes each. Here are a few suggestive dichotomies: Apollo represents the rational, the ordered, the principle of unity, the transcendent; Dionysus represents the emotional, the chaotic, the principle of multiplicity, the immanent. In a sense, one could argue, Apollo represents deism, Dionysus pantheism.

*

It’s not too hard, I hope, to see why it makes sense to insert Christ in here between them (cf. William F. Lynch, S.J., Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination):

APOLLO
CHRIST
DIONYSUS

In Christian theology, Christ bridges the gap: he makes the transcendent immanent; unites his many followers into one body while letting them retain their individuality; brings rational order to the chaos of human life without denying the importance of that life. I could go on. He is both Apollonian and Dionysian and beyond both Apollonian and Dionysian. The point is, there is at least some validity to the above.

*

But, as I suggested in my post on “Bypassing rue Descartes,” there is at least one other figure who might be said to bridge this gap:

APOLLO
ORPHEUS
DIONYSUS

Orpheus was the preeminent lyric poet (Apollo) whose song made even the trees dance (Dionysus). He was even said to have established the cults of both Apollo and Dionysus. Both of the above triads, I think one could argue, make perfet sense.

*

But the fact that we placed Christ and Orpheus in the same place, between Apollo and Dionysus, raises a question: what is the relationship between Christ and Orpheus?

ORPHEUS
CHRIST

There are both associated with certain themes beyond those that allow them to stand between Apollo and Dionysus: descent into the underworld; raising others from the dead; sacrificial death inflicted by those who once loved him; cannibalism; priesthood. In essence, both founded mystery religions. The difference is that the Orphic cult is gnostic, in both the sense of esotericism and the sense of dualism, while Christianity considers itself an “open mystery” (there is no secret knowledge to be gained, rather Christian “mysteries” are mysterious because a fallen humanity cannot fully comprehend them) and “sacramental” (we are not trapped in an illusory world from which we will escape into the real, rather the physical world is good and points us towards God).

*

Now, is there some third figure whose placement relative to these two will offer us any insight? Neither Apollo or Dionysus will be useful here, I think, because we already know that these two stand between those two. I also do not think that any figure can be usefully placed between Orpheus and Christ, mostly because I do not know of any middle way between Christianity and Gnosticism. Is there some third figure who can be placed below Christ, so that Christ stands between him and Orpheus? I meditated on this question for some time before coming to what I think is a satisfactory answer:

ORPHEUS
CHRIST
HERACLES

I would place Heracles there for a number of reasons. First, Heracles is associated with some of the same themes as the earlier Orpheus-Christ list, specifically, descent into the underworld, sacrificial death inflicted by those who once loved him, cultic worship. He is not, as far as I know, associated with raising others from the dead, cannibalism, or priesthood. But there are a few themes both he and Christ are associated with that Orpheus, as far as I know, is not: immortality, conquering evil, kingship.

Of course, Heracles was only meant to be king, before Hera tricked Zeus out of it; but Orpheus was only meant to raise Eurydice from the dead, a task at which he failed. One way to look at it (and a not uncommon one) is that both are types of Christ, in the same way that certain Old Testament figures are types of Christ, and that Christ fulfills the unfulfilled promise of both figures. The non-Christian approach is to say that Christ was simply the founder of the most successful mystery religion of many mystery religions, and that the characteristics listed above are common in such religions.

But why put Christ between these two, or even on the same line rather than just grouped together? To see why we must consider the Heracles-Orpheus dichotomy and see why Christ is both Heraclean and Orphic and beyond both Heraclean and Orphic. The simplest way to put it is that Orpheus is gnostic, and Heracles seems almost humanist, by which I mean a belief in the ability of humanity to raise itself up without extraordinary divine intervention. My evidence for this is somewhat scattered, but here are my reasons: he freed Prometheus, associated with making humanity less reliant on the gods; he is the god invoked in the Aesop’s fable whose moral is “the gods help those who help themselves”; he was more often persecuted by the gods than helped; upon death, he was deified for his human accomplishments, thus fulfilling the dream of humanism. So by placing Christ between these two, I suggest that what he represents–Christianity–stands between humanism and gnosticism. It is both open and mysterious; both exalts and humbles humanity; emphasizes both physical and spiritual.

*

And now we have two triads, both with Christ in the middle. This makes the following diagram a natural next step;

APOLLO

HERACLES

CHRIST

ORPHEUS

DIONYSUS

 But wait: from my above description of the Heracles-Orpheus dichotomy, it sounded suspiciously like the Dionysus-Apollo dichotomy; Heracles stands for physical immanence, as does Dionysus, while Orpheus for spiritual transcendence, as does Apollo. But does it not also sound like the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy: Heracles stands for order and the defeat of evil, as does Apollo, while Orpheus stands for chaotic chthonic ecstasy, as does Dionysus? So we cannot fold any two parts of this diagram into each other. Nevertheless, the similarities pointed out above are not illusory; there is more going on here than meets the eye. What can we do to make that “more” visible?

*

Let us take out Christ for a moment and rearrange the diagram. We might consider Christ to reside in the chiasmus, the X formed by the Apollo-Dionysus line intersecting the Heracles-Orpheus line. And let us label the diagram’s rows, columns, and diagonals:

man

body

spirit

god

sky

HERACLES

APOLLO

sky

earth

DIONYSUS

ORPHEUS

earth

god

body

spirit

man

I don’t want to explicitly define any of these terms because I’m not trying to establish a technical vocabulary. I mean simply to suggest what characterizes each dichotomy: Heracles and Apollo are of the sky, while Dionysus and Orpheus are of the earth; Heracles and Dionysus are of the body, while Apollo and Orpheus are of the spirit; and Heracles and Orpheus are men, while Apollo and Dionysus are gods. Christ, one might say, is all of these. This is enough, I think, to make clear what I mean by each of these words, which is a sort of definition.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2011 5:38 pm

    That was quite interesting, Joseph.
    I lean towards panantheism, myself.
    But then again, I look like a tree.

    I like the way you think. Bravo! :)
    And peace to you, UT

  2. October 16, 2011 6:03 pm

    I like this. It puts into diagram form what CS Lewis said regarding the knowledge of truth through myth, and how there’s only one myth that actually is true…

Trackbacks

  1. Greek Mythology, pt. 2: Archetypes and Punnet Squares « Ironical Coincidings
  2. Greek Mythology, pt. 3: Rectangular Linguistic Investigations « Ironical Coincidings
  3. How Four Quartets Works, And Other Shorts « Ironical Coincidings

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