Dionysos. Mainomenos. Lysios

Performing madness and ecstasy in the practices of art, analysis and culture

by: Gary D. Astrachan

This is a story about names and naming. What is it to name some thing, some one? What is it to name a god? What is it to name god?

This is a tale about the power of naming and the names of the great Greek god, Dionysos, a god of many names. Out of his multitude of epithets, the ritual and cult names denoting his numerous appearances and disappearances, we will take up in particular just two of his names in greater depth.

The first is Mainomenos, Dionysos Mainomenos, the ‘raving one,’ the ‘mad god,’ the god behind all forms of madness. From mania, meaning simply ‘madness’ in Greek, his presentation in all of the stories surrounding him is the manifestation of ‘otherness,’ the uncanny and the un-conscious.

The second of his names we will hear about today is Lysios, the ‘loosener,’ ‘liberator,’ ‘releaser,’ the untier of knots and bonds. This name is cognate with the practice which we perform, psycho-ana-lysis. Lysis, lysios. The loosening, dis-solving and dis-solution of the psyche. Psychoanalysis is seen here as the practice and performance of freeing the psyche, the loosening of the soul.

The topos, or place which Dionysos inhabits since the very first appearance of his name on a Linear B clay tablet from about 2000 B.C. as the god of wine, ‘Di-oinos,’ is the altered space of intoxication, becoming ‘other-ed’ to one’s self. As the god from Nysa, ‘Dio-Nysa,’ he is always and everywhere, in each of his blazing hierophanies, the god from beyond the regions of the known. He is the god of the wild. He arrives from places of wilderness. He is the stranger. He is called the ‘stranger god ‘ in Euripides’ play, the Bacchae. He is always the foreigner, alien, disturbing, deranging and unsettling.

There were at least a dozen places called Nysa or Nysos in antiquity, all of which serve as one or another of his legendary birthplaces or home-grounds, ranging from the mountainous and thickly-wooded forest regions of Thrace, in the extreme north, contemporary Bulgaria, to a lush and exotic Nysa on Africa’s Red Sea, in spice-laden Saba, in today’s Ethiopia.

The most famous land of Nysa, however, where it is said he was brought shortly after his birth, to protect him from the persecutory wrath of Hera, is in Asia, in ancient Lydia or Phrygia, western or Anatolian Turkey. It is there that he is raised by an all-female society of nursing nymphs who become his mothers, lovers, devotees and attendants, the Maenads, the mad women followers of Dionysos. These women are also called the Bacchantes, or the Bacchae, the ‘initiated ones,’ and Dionysos himself has, as the other major name by which he was known right through the Roman era and up until today: Bacchus.

Dionysos-Bacchus always appears surrounded by the swirling frenzy of his maddened retinue, blissfully dancing women, ithyphallic satyrs, flowing wine, curling ivy and spotted leopard skins – nature rampant and unleashed. He arrives amidst chaos and comes as a threat to the noble, remote and rational Homeric Greeks, with their heroically established order and calm. To the classical, patriarchal and sober maxim inscribed above Apollo’s temple in Delphi, ‘know thyself,’ Dionysos counters with his own: ‘lose thyself.’

There are basically two major stories of the birth, early years and fast times of this god. The first, enshrined in the Bacchae, still the basic testament and bible of Dionysiac religion, is the traditionally-accepted, mainstream tale of his origin. In this version, his mother is called Semele, and she is one of three daughters born to King Cadmus of Thebes. When yet a maiden, Princess Semele catches the eye of the ruler of all the Olympian gods and goddesses, Zeus. He seduces her and they begin a clandestine love affair which transpires at night in her royal bedchamber. The wife of Zeus, Hera, Queen of the Olympians, gets wind of this nocturnal romance, and, disguising herself as an aged servant, insinuates herself into the courtly Theban household. She slowly persuades Semele to find out just who her invisible lover really is. After all, she suggests, he might be a prince, or a great hero, or even a god. So Semele, at Zeus’ very next visit, makes him promise to appear to her in his true form. Zeus, heavy-hearted, but bound by his own oath to fulfill her sole wish, reveals himself to her in his natural form as a lightening bolt, incinerating the hapless Princess Semele right there on the spot. Just before she is reduced to a pile of smoldering ash, however, he snatches from her womb the as-yet unborn neonate, the infant god Dionysos. Opening up his own male thigh, Zeus places Dionysos inside, closing him up with clasps of gold. After nine months, he brings the child to full term, and Dionysos, reborn from this masculine womb, earns the epithet Dithyrambos, the god ‘of the double door,’ he of the second birth.

Hera, however, still infuriated by jealousy and maddened with murderous rage, is unremitting in her attempts to destroy this illegitimately begotten child, and so to protect him, Zeus entrusts the infant to his faithful servant and messenger, the god Hermes, who brings him to the nymphs of far-away Nysa. Throughout the entire mythologem of Dionysos, we find his frequent comings and goings to be often narrow escapes from those his openly sublime divinity arouses with the urge to annihilate and rend apart.

In the second version of his birth, which is the more mystical, underground and countercultural story of the god’s origins, his father is once again Zeus, but Zeus now in his underworldly form, Zeus Cthonios, the subterranean Zeus, who in this dark semblance is synonymous and identical with his own brother Hades, Lord of the Underworld, realm of the shades. His mother in this tale is Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, also known as Kore, the ‘maiden,’ and she is the bride of Hades and Mistress of the Underworld. Conceived in that darkness, Dionysos is a child truly born of the depths and of death.

In this version of his story, he is seen shortly after his birth playing in a grassy field with his toys strewn all about him. Just at that moment, when he is laughing at his own reflection in a mirror, the Titans sneak up on him. The Titans are a primordial, barbarous and unruly race of giant-like beings from a much earlier strata of Greek mythology, who, subdued and conquered by Zeus and the other Olympians, and then banished to the nether regions of Tartarus, are summoned, once again by Hera, from their retirement, to do her murderous bidding. The primitive creatures daub and smear their faces with white chalky paint and sneak up on the innocently playing child. Coming upon him, they brutally grab and tear him apart limb from limb, scattering his ragged body. All except for one limb or organ which is picked up by an unnoticed god or goddess lingering around this bloody scene. In one tale, it is the still-throbbing heart which is recovered. In other variations, it is the male member or phallus of Dionysos which is found. In either case, the overlooked piece is brought to Rhea, the grandmother of all the gods. She places it in a small basket upon her head and carries it there for nine full months, and the slain child god is once again reborn, whole.

Returning to the gruesome scene of slaughter, however, the Titans collect the child’s remaining body parts and proceed to first boil them in a cauldron, and then roast the limbs on spits. Adding unspeakable horror to monstrous infamy, they then eat the body of the divine infant.

And here we come to the amazing anthropogonic portion of this story which is the central myth of the Dionysiac mystery religions. For when Zeus hears of the awful murder of his beloved son, he arrives at the feasting place of the god-gorged Titans and blasts them with his thunderbolts, reducing them to piles of smoking ash. And as the kernel of this story which strikes to the heart of our own unique histories, out of these smoldering remains, Zeus creates nothing less than the entire human race.

So that from those distant beginnings, we human being are ever since created out of a violent, boundless and destructively Titanic part, which the Dionysiac initiates call the soma, the human body. As well as we are also composed out of, and contain, a divine Dionysiac spark or part, our innermost being or god-likeness, which those ancient Greeks and we ourselves call to this day, the psyche, psy-che, the human soul.

It is furthermore to that very re-membering, the putting back together again of all the scattered, dis-membered pieces, and to the re-collecting of all the dissociated, dis-articulated parts of the divine child, the god within, that the Dionysiac faithful and we ourselves, bend all of our efforts in the enterprise which we know as psycho-therapy, the therapeia of the psyche, the ‘caring for’ and cultivation of the soul. It is thus the aim of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to heal and repair that primally split and ruptured body-soul that we as human beings, actually are. To hold and contain both soma and psyche, both body and soul, is the psychological task that this founding myth bestows upon us.

For the first time in Western culture and spirituality, the possibility of a direct, spontaneous and unmediated experience of the god within is ushered into our own proto-European civilization. With the birth story of Dionysos Demotikos, the god ‘of the people,’ he sweeps aside all the hierarchies and divisions of caste, class, creed, race or gender, and announces his two main spiritual gifts to all: ecstasy and enthusiasm. Coming from ek-stasis, ‘standing outside’ one’s self, and one’s ordinary life, ecstasy is the blessing we can still collectively experience at all of those Dionysiac festivals still held all around the world in the same season, in mid-winter, with Carnival, Mardi Gras, Fasching, or Fassnacht, with their similarly ritualistic performances of sexuality, drugs, spirits, music, costume, and dance.

With the second major numinous experience which follows in his frenzied wake, enthusiasm, from the Greek, en-theos, being ‘filled by the god,’ Dionysos collapses the gulf and chasm formerly separating devotees from the direct presence of the god. Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most famous prophets of Dionysos, writes in his Birth of Tragedy:

Now with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.

(Nietzsche 1967, p. 37)

Let us now turn to that unique, participatory, ritualized form of communal religious celebration, which since its earliest inception, basically tells the story of the birth, passion, suffering and death of just one god. Greek tragedy is the performative enactment of the life of Dionysos. As the central portion of the Dionysiac festivals, held for the collective renewal and rejuvenation of the entire polis, tragedy originated from the agricultural rites of the dismemberment, death and rebirth of all plant life in the form of a young, dying, son-lover god figure. Dionysos Zoë is revered as the energetic impulse of infinite life flowing through all things.

Tragedy, from tragos, a ‘child goat,’ began with the ‘goat-song chorus,’ the tragoidia, the song of the goat which was torn apart and eaten raw in memory of the god’s fate. Dionysos is the original, sacrificial scape-goat. Besides looking back to our own earliest paleohominian ancestors who ate the still-living flesh of their prey, honoring Dionysos Zagreus, the ‘great hunter,’ also foreshadows the Eucharist of the Christian communion service, the incorporation of the body and the wine-red blood of the god, who is himself hunted down, eaten and reborn anew in the devotee.

Aristotle tells us in the Poetics that the overriding function of the tragic performance is what he calls, catharsis, the purification and purgation of the emotions, especially those, he says, of pity and fear. Furthermore, this catharsis of the emotions is ritualistically dramatized for the benefit of the entire congregated polis, the whole body politic, the community of believers, spectators or audience.

In a much later and very different context, with the polis having undergone vast upheavals and reorganizations, Sigmund Freud, in the theatre of his consulting rooms, began in the 1890’s to develop the first theories of psychoanalysis which he also, squarely based on the principle of catharsis, the abreaction, or experiencing-out, of the emotions. The new ‘talking cure,’ founded upon the singular rule of free association and the performative power of words and language to release unconscious emotion, memories, infantile events and trauma, repressively held in check from early childhood, becomes for Freud, not only the technique and method for the practical application of psychoanalysis, but it also becomes his theoretical and practical platform for understanding both the structure and function of dreams. That is, dreams, like tragedy, indeed like the form and course of the psychoanalytical treatment situation itself, take place through a rational, linear, logically and sequentially unfolding dramatic narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end, and that involves a plot, character, diction, thought and spectacle, and reaches its conclusion in the expression, and satisfaction of an emotional experience. So that, dreams, like tragedy and the analytical process, take manifestly apparent place under the aegis of the god Apollo, Apollo Katharsios, the ‘purifier,’ the solar god of noble order, distance, purity, beauty, illusion, form and appearance, half brother of Dionysos, and for Nietzsche, his co-creator, especially through tragedy, of all Greek culture and civilization. Dreams, tragedy and analysis are thus seen from the conscious perspective, to be a series of considered Apollonian forms and comprehensibly ordered appearances, but as viewed from the depth perspective of the unconscious, can only manifest when combined with and powered by, an underlying, seething and transfiguring Dionysian energy of unloosening. ‘Men,’ Aristotle writes, ‘have inscribed in their nature at once a tendency to represent…and to find pleasure in representation’ (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1996, p. 283).

Following upon Freud’s discovery of dreams as the via regia to the unconscious, Carl Jung, in the only papers he devoted exclusively to analyzing the nature and form of dreams, also employs an even more explicitly Aristotelian dramaturgical model for understanding how dream narratives appear and operate within the psyche. He states that dreams have a four-fold dramatic structure (Jung 1969). The first phase, the exposition, sets up the initial scene, place and protagonists of the dream. The second part he calls the development of the plot. Tension builds. For the third section, he uses Aristotle’s own dramatic term, the peripeteia, and the dream situation culminates in a decisive happening. The fourth and last phase, the solution or result produced by the dream and sought by the dreamer, is the dream’s conclusion, finale, or dénouement, the ‘untying of the knot.’ Jung calls this final situation, the lysis. Lysis, lysios. Dionysos Lysios, the loosener and releaser finally appears at the end of our dreams.

For both Freud and Jung, however, there is one major class of exceptions to this orderly flow of representations which seek to reach dramatically satisfying results in dreams. There are, in fact, certain dream narratives which do not reach an end at all. They explode in the face of beliefs and expectations that dreams even have a lysis, or an end desired by the dreamer. These are traumatic dreams, anxiety dreams, nightmares, dreams where there is no lysis; interrupted, frightening dreams which do not end until they wake us up, or we rouse ourselves, oftentimes sweating, with beating heart and accelerated pulse. These dreams forcefully disrupt and disturb both dreaming and sleeping. They jolt the entire sleep and dream cycle. Dionysos Lysios is not allowed to appear.

What we do see irrupting so dramatically in traumatic dreams, and perhaps to some extent in all dreams, is the primary manifestation of Dionysos Mainomenos, the ‘mad’ god, the ‘raving one.’ Madness itself makes its appearance. The dark side of Dionysos, neglected, dishonored and dis-owned, is forcefully revealed. Although somewhat transformed by Apollonian artifice into a series of generally ordered representations, their rough edges relatively smoothed over by successful dreamwork, these visitations of the night may still easily burst apart, leaving us to peer aghast into a deep Dionysiac abyss. That oscillation between Apollonian appearance and Dionysiac terror, between what Freud called the manifest dream and its affectively-powerful latent content, constitutes the twinned dynamic poles of all psychological life, in dreams and in waking. The nocturnal enantiodromia between the creation of form and its de-creation into formlessness plays out in dreams in the same way as it does in tragic drama.

It is the work of dream interpretation and analysis that seeks to release the Dionysiac energies bound up and contained by unconscious representations, conflicts and complexes. This loosening is the work of analysis. This is a process and experience that takes place, however, like the presentations of both dream and tragedy, through confrontation, dissonance, dissolution and dis-integration. The analytical situation presents a theatre essentially for staging the performances of Dionysos Mainomenos. The mad god needs to appear. The telos of dreams, their deepest desire, is not to create the pleasurable satisfaction of wish fulfillment. It is rather that through the appearance of mainomenos, the upsurge of unconscious emotion and libidinal energy that the dream presents, that we make space for lysios, the loosening of soul and the liberation from the terror and tyranny of the conflicts and complexes that bind us. The appearances of Dionysos, both Mainomenos and Lysios, in analysis and in dreams, take us beyond the pleasure principle. It is not pleasure that we strive for in dreams, or in art, or in life for that matter, but freedom. The telos of the soul is lysios, the enhanced capacity and experience of moving closer to the rhythms of nature.

In analysis, the focus substantially shifts with this alternative and de-centered stance, from what dreams mean, their symbols, interpretations, amplifications and conceptualizations, to what dreams do. The project of analysis, like dreams, tragedy and sublime art, is not to create new images, symbols or representations, but instead to problematize the very activities of reference and representation themselves.

Analysis and art, tragedy and dreams, seek to first interrupt, and then transform our basic representational subjectivity. Rather than conceptualizing meaning, understanding or insight, these Dionysiac modalities perform, release, and let loose their already overdetermined meanings. As vehicles for the appearances of Dionysos, these forms not only present mania, madness, on both the inner and outer stages, they produce and create madness. First mainomenos, then lysios.

Analysis, tragedy and dreams stage the dis-articulation, de-construction and dis-organization, not only of the spectator, the spectacle, and of the spectacular relationship itself, they also rupture and smash the specular and speculative nature of the whole enterprise. They stage the death of representation as mimesis, the death of representation as the imitation of nature and/or of life. This postmodern, sublime, or Dionysiac art and analysis is unwilling to accept imitations.

In his prose Remarks on the translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus, Friedrich Hölderlin, the early nineteenth century German poet, himself entirely mad for nearly the whole second half of his life, from about 1806 until his death in 1842, writes:

For the tragic transport is properly empty and the most unbound.  Whereby, in the rhythmic succession of representations, in which the transport presents itself, what in (poetic) meter is called the caesura, the pure word, the counter-rhythmic intrusion, becomes necessary in order to meet the racing alternation of representations at its culmination, such that what appears then is no longer the alternation of representations but representation itself.

(Hölderlin in Lacoue-Labarthe 1989, p. 234)

We have come very far from Aristotle, and perhaps from Freud and Jung as well. There is no polis, catharsis, or satisfying representation. Nothing remains. All ways of viewing, experiencing and framing spectacle, whether in the ‘disreal’ (Lyotard 1989, p. 156) spaces of temple, church, theatre, sports stadium, television, computer or video screen, cinema, museum, or consulting room, are all destroyed, obliterated.

As subjects of desire and images, in thrall to illusion and to all the multiply mediated and highly simulated versions of constructed reality surrounding us, we forget that we live within a theatre of representations, within images of images. Dionysiac practices, contrary to imitating, repeating, or re-presenting images, illusions, or appearances, seek instead to create ‘new presentations, not in order to enjoy them, but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable’ (Lyotard 1984, p. 81). ‘We need,’ according to Julia Kristeva,

to come as close as possible to the crisis, to accompany it and produce individual works because that is the predicament we are in, in a kind of pulverization and solitude.

(Kristeva 1995, p. 27)

She says further, that:

We need to maintain a state of duality-on one side the most violet fragmentation and abjection, on the other, in the background a (continuous) inquiring into the state of the world.
(Ibid., p. 25)

Attempting to name this catastrophe and cataclysm we are currently living, ‘we are drawn,’ Maurice Blanchot writes,

by too strong a movement, into a space where truth lacks, where limits have disappeared, where we are delivered to the immeasurable. And yet it is there that we are required to maintain an even step, not to lose a sense of proportion and to seek a true language by going all the way down into the deep of error.

(Blanchot 1982, p. 184)

In allowing ourselves to be solicited by the gaze of the other that resides in exteriority, we submit to our own de-centered, dis-appropriated, dis-membered Dionysiac gaze, the loosened looking of psyche’s ana-lysis. Dispersed and disseminated throughout this world, our gaze is reciprocally returned to us from every thing. There is no place, space or detail which does not see us, and to which we are not called upon to respond.


  • Blanchot, M. (1982). The space of literature. A. Smock (Trans.). Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska.
  • Jung, C. G. (1969). On the nature of dreams. In The structure and dynamics of the psyche, CW: V. 8, Bollingen series XX. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 281-300.
  • Kristeva, J. (1995). Of word and flesh. In Rites of passage: Art for the end of the century. S. Morgan and F. Morris (Eds.). London: Tate Gallery Publications, 21-27.
  • Lacoue –Labarthe, P. (1989). Typography. mimesis. philosophy. politics. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
  • _____ and Nancy, J.-L. (1996). Scene: an exchange of letters. In Beyond representation. Philosophy and poetic imagination, R. Eldridge (Ed.). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 273-302.
  • Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • _____. (1989). Beyond representation. In The Lyotard reader. A. Benjamin (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 155-168.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1967). The birth of tragedy. W. Kauffmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Gary D. Astrachan, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst in private practice in Portland , Maine. He is a faculty member and supervising and training analyst at the C.G.Jung Institute in Boston and lectures and teaches widely throughout North America and Europe. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles in professional journals and books and writes particularly on the relationship between analytical psychology and Greek mythology, poetry, painting, film, postmodernism and critical theory.

7 Responses to Dionysos. Mainomenos. Lysios

  1. Merle Molofsky says:

    Dear Gary Astrachan,

    What a deep, beautiful, wonderfully crafted and delineated piece of work. You explore the persistent, pervasive mythos of the Dionysian and Appolonian; of two aspects of ecstasy, inspired madness and inspired structure; of enticing Chaos and alluring Formal Control, in an original and pursuasive form.

    My understanding is that the gift psychoanalytic process offers is integration. We cannot be fully human without Dionysian “loosening” and Apollonian restructuring.

    I am particularly taken by your eloquent conclusion, your offering of the “gaze” that is omnipresent and that informs our sense of ourselves in the world.

    Thank you.

    Merle Molofsky

  2. Merle Molofsky says:

    After savoring this excellent article, I came across an article in The Psychoanalytic Review which also explores Dionysian frenzy in an original and revelatory manner. Readers of this beautiful essay by Gary Astrachan may appreciate this other article as well. Gary, I suspect you would too. The article is “Agave, Salome and the Enchanted Heads: Mind and Body Dialectics in Euripedes’ and Oscar Wilde’s Work”, by Ilias Vlachos, The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 96, No. 4, August 2009. “The practice of omophagia was intended to release instinctual life from the shackles that reason and social conventions dictate.” I hope this quote whets your appetite. Oops, not a good image to evoke in a discussion of omophagia! Dr. Vlachos explores symbolic significance of Agave’s and Salome’s dances, touching on gender, oedipally-colored mother-child relationships, male-female conflict, and rational-mystical oppositions. A nice companion piece to Dr. Astrachan’s contribution. I wish I were teaching a course that would allow me to utilize both articles!

    Merle Molofsky

    • Ilias Vlachos says:

      Dear Dr Molofsky,
      I coincidentally searched about my article in the internet today and came across your comments.
      I feel honoured by your warm words anfdhope to keep in contact with you.
      Ilias Vlachos

      • ifpe says:

        Dear Dr. Vlachos,

        I would be very comfortable moving from titles to first names, so please feel free to call me Merle. If it is comfortable for you, I will call you Ilias with your permission. And I have not earned the title of “Doctor.”

        I would be pleased to stay in contact with you. I hope you continue to read Other/Wise, and that you find something of value in our articles, artwork, stories, and poetry. Perhaps you would consider attending an IFPE conference!

        The themes of your work and the depth of your thought really engaged me. I’m delighted your internet search led here!


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