May 16, 2021

1. Apollo and Dionysus

E. R. Dodds argues that the Delphic oracle played an important role in ancient Greece — more important than I’d realized. The priestess at Delphi, known as the Pythia, was believed to speak for Apollo. You would bring your question or problem to the Pythia, and she would respond, speaking from a trance. “Greece had neither a Bible nor a Church,” Dodds writes. “Without Delphi, Greek society could scarcely have endured the tensions to which it was subjected in the Archaic Age.”1 The Greeks had to feel that, behind the “seeming chaos” of life, there was “knowledge and purpose.”

Even Greek philosophers believed in the Pythia’s wisdom; “Heraclitus accepted it... and Socrates is represented as a deeply sincere believer.”2 Aristotle doubted divination, but he didn’t doubt that the Pythia was “enthused,” “in-godded,” “entheos, plena deo” (full of god); Aristotle didn’t doubt that god spoke through the Pythia, when she was entranced. For more than 1,000 years, the oracle was consulted. It finally lapsed, not because people became skeptical, but because other religious consolations had arisen.

To prepare for her trance, the Pythia performed “a series of ritual acts.” She bathed, and she may have drunk from a sacred spring. Since laurel was sacred to Apollo, the Pythia tried to connect with Apollo by holding a laurel branch, or by “fumigating herself with burnt laurel leaves,” or by chewing laurel leaves. Finally she mounted the sacred tripod, which may have been placed over a cauldron that emitted intoxicating vapors, or over a crack in the earth that emitted such vapors. Below is a depiction of the Pythia, seated on the sacred tripod, holding a laurel branch, and breathing vapors that are rising from a crack in the earth.

Dodds mentions a scholar, Professor Oesterreich, who “chewed a large quantity of laurel leaves in the interests of science, and was disappointed to find himself no more inspired than usual.”3 Dodds believes that none of the Pythia’s magical procedures have any “physiological effect.” In an earlier issue, however, I mentioned that the Yale professor Donald Kagan believed there were special vapors at Delphi, and one of his students went to Delphi and found evidence of such vapors.4 An ancient observer could say, “It doesn’t matter whether such vapors/gasses are present, the Pythia is still communing with Apollo.” And a modern observer could say, “It doesn’t matter whether such vapors are present, the Pythia could still be connecting with her unconscious.”

There are many ways of tapping into the power of the unconscious — vapors, alcohol, music, dance, dream, etc. Dodds often compares the Pythia to the modern medium (the modern psychic). Most modern psychics don’t rely on intoxication. So Delphi’s vapors may have been a contributing factor behind the Pythia’s trance/inspiration, but it’s unclear whether the vapors were a necessary factor.

The ancients believed not only in the Pythia’s inspiration, but also in the poet’s inspiration. Poet and prophet were originally one; the Latin word vates means both poet and prophet/seer.5 Prophets often spoke in verse; it was even said that “the hexameter was invented at Delphi.”6 In all countries and ages, those who are “possessed” often speak in verse. “Automatic or inspirational speech,” Dodds writes, “tends everywhere to fall into metrical patterns.”

As the prophet had special knowledge, so the poet had special knowledge, or received special knowledge from the Muses. Nowadays we think of the poet as possessing imagination and a gift for language, but the Greeks believed that the Muses imparted truth, “detailed factual truth.”7 In Homer’s view, “the distinctive mark of a poet [is] special knowledge.”8

The Greeks believed that the poet was prompted by the gods, as the Pythia was. If you don’t believe in the unconscious, where can inspiration come from if not from the gods? “Like all achievements which are not wholly dependent on the human will, poetic creation contains an element which is not ‘chosen,’ but ‘given’; and to old Greek piety ‘given’ signifies ‘divinely given.’”9

At first, it was believed that the Muses were inspired, and the poet merely wrote down what the Muses whispered to him. Later the poet himself was regarded as inspired. The philosopher Democritus, a contemporary of Socrates, was the first to regard the poet as inspired; Democritus “introduced into literary theory this conception of the poet as a man set apart from common humanity by an abnormal inner experience.”10 Plato called genius “divine madness.”

The idea that the poet was eccentric made would-be poets strive for eccentricity. As Horace said, “Because Democritus believes that genius is more important than wretched art, and excludes from Helicon all poets who are in their senses, many don’t cut their nails or beard, visit solitary places, and shun the baths.”11

As the Pythia may have been inspired by vapors, the poet was often inspired by alcohol. As Horace put it, good poetry can’t be written by water-drinkers (aquae potoribus).12 The poet is a worshipper of Dionysus, the wine god, called “Bacchus” by the Romans.

Dodds says that Dionysus was “as much a social necessity as Apollo.” By giving frenzy a “ritual outlet,” the worship of Dionysus prevented “outbreaks of dancing mania and similar manifestations of collective hysteria.”13 Dionysus was the god of joy and freedom, hence he was called Liber (free). The rites of Dionysus cleansed the mind (Liberi patris sacra ad purgationem animae pertinebant).

When you worshipped Dionysus, you forgot yourself and your responsibilities. As the individual was emerging from the family, he was feeling the weight of being an individual, and he needed to periodically throw off that weight, forget himself. Dionysus

enables you for a short time to stop being yourself, and thereby sets you free. That was, I think, the main secret of his appeal to the Archaic Age: not only because life in that age was often a thing to escape from, but more specifically because the individual, as the modern world knows him, began in that age to emerge for the first time from the old solidarity of the family, and found the unfamiliar burden of individual responsibility hard to bear.14

If people sometimes have an urge to be wild and irresponsible, perhaps this urge can be quenched by giving it a ritual outlet. The worship of Dionysus could bring catharsis, purgation.

One way to forget yourself, to lay aside your individuality, is to wear a mask. Greek actors wore masks, and their patron was Dionysus. “Dionysus became in the sixth century the god of the theater because he had long been the god of the masquerade.”15 Drama grew out of ritual, as poetry grew out of prophecy.

The worship of Dionysus was for all strata of the population; it was popular, democratic. Aristocrats sometimes despised it; Dodds says that Homer’s interest in it was “very slight,” and Heraclitus had “contempt” for it.16 Apollo “moved only in the best society... but Dionysus was at all periods demotikos, a god of the people.”

Dodds speaks of the “mountain dancing” of the Bacchae. I’m reminded of the mountain dancing of the Shakers. The Shakers used dance and music to attain ecstasy, self-forgetfulness. “[Shakers] worshiped by ecstatic dancing or ‘shaking,’ which resulted in them being dubbed the Shakers.” Many prominent Shakers were women, as followers of Dionysus were often women (they were known as Maenads or Bacchae).

The Dionysus cult used orgiastic music and orgiastic dance to take its followers out of themselves. Music was sometimes used to cure those who were insane or possessed. You could make a diagnosis based on the patient’s response to music. As Plato said, those who are possessed “have a sharp ear for one tune only, the one which belongs to the god by whom they are possessed, and to that tune they respond freely with gesture and speech, while they ignore all others.”17 Dodds compares the Dionysian ritual to the Corybantic ritual, which also used music and dance to create ecstasy.

Nietzsche famously distinguished between Apollonian rationalism and Dionysian ecstasy. His friend Erwin Rohde, whom Wikipedia calls “one of the great German classical scholars of the 19th century,” accepted Nietzsche’s view, and argued that Apollo’s cult was originally calm and composed. Rohde said that the Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, didn’t have inspired trances, prophetic ecstasies, until the Dionysus cult swept through Greece.

Dodds takes issue with Rohde, Dodds argues that “ecstatic prophecy” was always part of Apollo’s cult, even before Apollo came to Greece.18 According to Dodds, Plato was right when he said that Apollo was the patron of prophetic madness. Dodds argues that the Apollonian and the Dionysian are both ecstatic, but in different ways. The Apollo cult is the prophetic madness of the solitary medium, while the Dionysus cult is the ecstasy of the group, the group of dancers/drinkers. The Apollo cult draws on the psychic powers of the medium to reveal the future or the secrets of the present. The Dionysus cult is “essentially collective or congregational”; it purged wild impulses by giving them a ritual outlet. The Apollonian aims at knowledge, the Dionysian at catharsis.

We’ve discussed the Pythia and the poet. It remains to discuss the madman. The Greeks believed that, like the Pythia and the poet, the madman was in communication with the gods. (In modern speech, the madman, the Pythia, and the poet were all in communication with the unconscious.) The Greeks felt that the madman was both accursed and blessed, a person to spit on and also to revere. The Latin word sacer meant both accursed and blessed.19 The madman was sacer.

Those who had a mental illness were shunned, spat upon, stoned. They were regarded as accursed, perhaps contagious. This was especially true of epileptics. The Greeks viewed epilepsy as a “sacred disease” (morbus sacer), an attack by a daemon. If someone had an epileptic attack on the day of an election, it was a bad omen, and the election was canceled. Hence epilepsy was known as the election disease, comitialis morbus. “We spit upon epileptics,” wrote the elder Pliny, “that is, we avoid their contagion” (Despuimus comitiales morbos, hoc est, contagia regerimus).20

But the insane were revered as well as shunned. Dodds writes,

If the insane were shunned, they were also regarded (as indeed they still are in Greece) with a respect amounting to awe; for they were in contact with the supernatural world, and could on occasion display powers denied to common men.21

The insane often spoke a peculiar language, which could be viewed as divine or daemonic, holy or satanic. The Bible describes those who are inspired as “speaking in tongues.”22

2. Miscellaneous

A. A group called Unite America is proposing reforms to make American politics less polarized. Their director, Nick Troiano, recently argued that our primary system forces candidates to extremes, and discourages moderation. To win primaries, candidates must appeal to the base, not the center. Troiano says we should abolish the party primary, and institute a “non-partisan primary [in which] voters select their preferred candidate regardless of party in the primary, [and] the top four finishers advance to the general election.” He says that several states are already moving in this direction.

It might seem that a general election with four candidates would allow a radical candidate to win with, say, 30% of the vote. This can be averted by having “ranked choice” voting, or by having a run-off election between the top two candidates.

B. Around fifty years ago, Ed Banfield said that news was becoming entertainment. What would he say now? In recent years, news and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined, and news broadcasts compete for ratings.

Trump seemed to take this trend a step further, and make politics itself entertainment. Trump was successful as the host of a TV show, “The Apprentice.” He took his entertainment skills into the political arena. Perhaps he never treated politics as a serious matter; it was a ratings game, a TV show.

3. The Gulag Archipelago

Surely one of the greatest crimes in human history is Stalin’s Gulag. (The word “Gulag” is an acronym for the Soviet prison system, to which Stalin sent millions of people between the late 1920s and the early 1950s.) Britannica once estimated Gulag deaths at 15 to 30 million, an estimate that’s probably consistent with Solzhenitsyn’s estimates. Left-wing scholars were never comfortable with this estimate; one source (the encyclopedia known as Encarta), went so far as to say that “about 900,000 people died” in the Gulag. This was a blatant attempt by left-wing scholars to minimize the crimes of the Left.

Now Britannica has revised its estimate. Instead of putting the number of deaths at 15-30 million, it’s saying that Gulag deaths were between 1.2 and 1.7 million — a drastic revision indeed. Wikipedia is saying 1.5 to 1.7 million.

Why has Britannica revised its estimate so drastically, and why is Wikipedia using a (relatively) low number? ‘The Soviet archives have been opened, and these archives point to a lower number.’ As if the Soviet archives were the most reliable of sources! This is a case of putting the fox in charge of the hen-house, then asking the fox where all the hens went, then placing complete faith in what the fox tells you. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn’s estimates are dismissed as “literary,” though Solzehenitsyn spent years imprisoned in the Gulag and also spent years researching the Gulag.

This is a case where exact knowledge is impossible; we can only make a rough estimate. This case shows how elusive truth is, even with respect to a major historical event, an event that took place in the recent past. Given the general brutality of Stalin’s regime, the long duration of the Gulag, the large number of people sent there, the harsh weather conditions, the poor food, the poor health care, etc., it seems clear that Britannica’s estimate is too low, and is probably the result of political bias.

* * * * *

Conservatives are complaining that Wikipedia has a left-wing bias. They say that Wikipedia’s articles on socialism and communism ignore genocides like the Gulag, and trumpet the “significant technological achievements” of the Soviet era. One conservative who’s complaining about Wikipedia is Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia. Sanger is starting a new site, an alternative to Wikipedia.

I don’t doubt that Wikipedia has a left-wing bias, but I still find it highly useful, I’m still a big fan, and I have little interest in a Wikipedia-alternative. Perhaps Wikipedia isn’t reliable on a topic like “socialism,” but I wouldn’t look up “socialism” anyway.

4. How the Earth Was Made

I’ve been watching a geology documentary, “How the Earth Was Made.” It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It has 26 episodes, each 45 minutes long. It’s available on Prime Video, Kanopy, and Youtube.23

One of the episodes deals with the creation of Yosemite Valley. In an earlier issue, I mentioned that John Muir had a dispute with Josiah Whitney about how Yosemite was created. Muir argued that the valley was carved by glacial ice. Whitney argued that there were cracks in the bedrock, and the valley fell down.

It’s widely believed that Muir was right, and the documentary agrees with that view. But the documentary says that Whitney was at least partly right — there are indeed major cracks, and these cracks probably caused a depression. As a result of the depression, the Merced River flowed through the area, gradually carving a valley.

As the depression provided an opening for the river, so the river provided an opening for the glacier, which widened and deepened the valley. When the glacier receded, it left behind a moraine (a ridge) that ran across the valley, blocking the river and creating a lake. The lake, in turn, produced silt that settled evenly on the lake-bottom, leaving behind Yosemite Valley’s distinctive flat bottom.

Another geology dispute, which took place around 1840, pitted Gradualists against Catastrophists. Here again, both sides turned out to be partly right: many geological features result from gradual processes, but many others are the result of sudden catastrophes.

As Jung said, most intellectual disputes are resolved by taking pieces from both sides — both sides are partly right. Jung predicted that posterity would take pieces from his system, and pieces from Freud’s.

“How the Earth Was Made” discusses plate tectonics — the slow movement of plates and continents. This is a cycle of creation and destruction: new rock/crust is created at mid-ocean ridges, while existing crust is destroyed at plate edges, where one plate falls beneath another. The falling of a plate is called subduction, and it produces volcanoes, earthquakes, and high mountains.24 Below is an illustration of subduction — one plate falling beneath another.

One area where plates meet is the west coast of South America and North America, a coast that has numerous volcanoes, earthquakes, and high mountains. Here in New England, we rarely have volcanoes or earthquakes, since we’re not at the edge of a plate; if we want to climb a high mountain, we need to travel far away, to a plate edge.

There are some places that are exceptions to this rule, there are some places that have volcanic activity though they aren’t at plate edges. “How the Earth Was Made” mentions two such places: Hawaii and Yellowstone. Both these places are in the middle of plates, yet they have lots of volcanic activity. Why? Because both these places have unusual “hot spots,” magma pools, below them.

Such hot spots remain stationary for a long time, perhaps for hundreds of millions of years. Meanwhile, the plates above them are gradually moving, hence the point of volcanic activity moves, just as, if you moved your hand slowly over a candle, the point of intense heat would move.

In the Hawaiian Islands, volcanic activity creates land, creates islands, which are made from lava and ash. As the plate drifts northwest, new areas toward the southeast come over the hot spot, and become the site of volcanoes and islands. This explains why the Hawaiian Islands are a chain of islands, a straight line, with the newest islands at the southeastern edge. Below is a diagram of the Hawaii Hotspot; the islands on the left (northwest) haven’t been volcanically active for millions of years, while the island on the right (southeast) is volcanically active today. On the far right, a new volcanic island is being created under the ocean.

The newer islands, the southeastern islands, have more fresh lava and ash, and less vegetation. On the older islands, the northwestern islands, the lava has had time to become soil, hence the islands are greener. So if you want lush vegetation, go to the northwestern islands, and if you want to see flowing lava, go to the southeastern island. The southeastern island, known as the “Big Island,” has several active volcanoes, and the most active, Kilauea, is near the southeast coast of that island, near the hot spot.

© L. James Hammond 2021
visit Phlit home page
become a patron via Patreon
make a donation via PayPal

1. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, p. 75 back
2. p. 93, footnote 71 back
3. p. 73

Things didn’t always go smoothly for the Pythia. Plutarch “reports the case of a recent Pythia who had gone into trance reluctantly and in a state of depression, the omens being unfavorable. From the outset she spoke in a hoarse voice, as if distressed, and appeared to be filled with ‘a dumb and evil spirit’; finally she rushed screaming toward the door and fell to the ground.... When they came back to pick her up, they found her senses restored; but she died within a few days.” (p. 72) A change of voice is common among both ancient and modern mediums, as is a change in breathing.(p. 73 and footnotes 52, 61) back

4. Sometimes it seems that I’ve touched on most everything somewhere in my writings. As Thoreau said of Carlyle, “It would be hard to surprise him by the relation of any important human experience, but in some nook or corner of his works, you will find that this, too, was sometimes dreamed of in his philosophy.” back
5. Ch. 3, p. 100, footnote 118 back
6. p. 92, footnote 70 back
7. Ch. 3, p. 81 back
8. p. 100, footnote 117

In the Georgics, Virgil asks the Muses not for imagination or eloquence, but for knowledge, scientific knowledge. Show me the paths of the stars, Virgil says, the sun’s eclipses and the moon’s phases, whence the shaking of the earth, and what makes the lofty seas swell.

   caelique vias et sidera monstrent,
defectus solis varios lunaeque labores;
unde tremor terris, qua vi maria alta tumescant

Could maria alta (lofty seas) refer to tsunamis? Virgil doubtless knew about tsunamis.

The poet’s knowledge, like the prophet’s, could be of the past, the present, or the future. The poet’s knowledge may come to him through a vision, a waking dream. In an earlier issue, I said that Goethe “had a vision of himself eight years in the future,” and I mentioned two English schoolteachers who visited Versailles in 1901, and had a hallucination of Versailles at the time of the French Revolution.(see Dodds, footnote 116) back

9. p. 80. Discussing Hesiod, Dodds speaks of, “a feeling which has been shared by many later writers — the feeling that creative thinking is not the work of the ego.”(p. 81) This leaves open the possibilities that creative thinking is the work of the gods or the work of the unconscious. back
10. Ch. 3, p. 82 back
11. Ingenium misera quia fortunatius arte
credit et excludit sanos Helicone poetas
Democritus, bona pars non unguis ponere curat,
non barbam, secreta petit loca, balnea uitat (Ars Poetica, 295) back
12. Epistles, I, 19 back
13. Ch. 3, p. 76

Mass hysteria is especially common in troubled times, when the world seems to be falling apart. Dodds mentions an essay on “mass hysteria in Japan” as World War II was ending.(p. 94) I’m reminded of the mass hysteria among American Indians, the Ghost Dance, when their world was falling apart. back

14. pp. 76, 77. When van Gogh was finding life especially difficult, he wanted to join the Army, in order to set aside individuality, freedom, responsibility. “Where I have to follow a rule,” van Gogh wrote to his brother, “as here in the hospital, I feel at peace; and if I were serving in the ranks it would be more or less the same thing.” back
15. p. 94, footnote 82 back
16. Ch. 3, p. 94, footnote 80 back
17. Ch. 3, p. 79, quoting Plato’s Ion back
18. Ch. 3, p. 69 back
19. See Freud, “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words” (1910). Freud begins by saying “the attitude of dreams towards the category of antithesis and contradiction is most striking.... Dreams show a special tendency to reduce two opposites to a unity or to represent them as one thing. Dreams even take the liberty, moreover, of representing any element whatever by the opposite wish.”

After studying dreams, Freud found an essay by Carl Abel, an essay that discussed how languages sometimes express opposites by the same word, or by a very similar word. Abel noted that

  • “in Latin, altus means high and deep”
  • clamare means “to shout,” while clam means quietly
  • siccus = dry, succus = juice
  • “with” originally meant “without” as well as “with,” “as can be recognized from ‘withdraw,’ ‘withhold’”
20. Pliny is quoted on page 85, footnote 22 back
21. Ch. 3, p. 68 back
22. See p. 68 and footnote 24, p. 85 back
23. Kanopy seems to have only the first season (there are two seasons). I can’t find the 90-minute pilot episode anywhere. back
24. Plates sometimes move past each other, instead of under/over. An example is California’s San Andreas Fault, the site of numerous earthquakes. back