Why Must We Always Get Mad in March? (“An Interlude on ‘The Big Dancer'”)

Last week the St. John’s men’s basketball team beat Rutgers in a game that may be best remembered for its “wild last minute” of play. With 4.9 seconds left in the game and St. John’s ahead 65-63, Rutgers inbounded the ball by throwing it from their basket to just past midcourt. As a St. John’s player and a player from Rutgers converged on the thrown ball, they collided with one another, sending the ball in the direction of a second St. John’s player. After this second player seemingly walked with the ball – an infraction – he stepped out of bounds and, thinking the game over, exuberantly and victoriously threw the ball high in the air.

This is where it got even more interesting. Replays indicated that not only did the St. John’s player walk with the ball but when he stepped out of bounds there still were 1.7 seconds on the clock. However, no travelling call had been made by the referees nor was the ball called out of bounds. Thus, the last 1.7 seconds ran off the clock, and when the Rutgers coach looked around for the referees none were to be found. Just that quickly, they had already left the court for their locker rooms. (The three referees later withdrew themselves from the tournament.)

News reports make it clear that the wildness of the game’s back-and-forth finish coupled with the noise of spectators made it difficult to know exactly what was going on. As the player who walked with the ball, stepped out of bounds, and gave the ball a heave toward the heavens said, “”I just let my emotions get to me. I was just trying to throw it up so the time would expire.” It seems he was not alone in letting his emotions get to him. [1]

Perhaps it is important to note that no one is blaming this player for losing emotional control in this way. Under the circumstances, i.e. the excitement and importance of the game, it is even to be expected that players and spectators alike are going to be enthusiastic participants. If anyone is being blamed it is of course the referees whose poor management or control of the crucial last seconds of the match has been deemed “unacceptable.”

As we embark this week on the 2011 version of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament readers might be wondering what this all has to do with a blog purporting to be about mythology and psychology. Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. But first a little mythological primer…

To the degree that most of us think of mythology at all, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome or the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt. Next in line might be stories that have been passed down to us and/or given new life on the silver screen, i.e. movies about mythic figures such as Zeus, Apollo, and the rest of the Olympians. But why do these figures and their stories (and others like them) still capture our imagination thousands of years after they were first told?[2]

This is one of the questions that a psychological approach to mythology attempts to answer.  (Another form of the question: “how is it possible that people two thousand years ago could actually build temples to and worship these figures?”). A short, quick, and certainly only partial answer to both questions is that in the stories and rituals that have been built up around them these figures embody energies that are important, even vital, to what it means to be spiritual and soulful human beings. Among other traits, Zeus is associated with paternal authority and potency, Apollo with order and excellence in the arts, sciences, and athletics, Athena with the protection, peace and prosperity of the populace, Aphrodite with all things beautiful, Ares with soldiering and war, and so on.

Then there is Dionysus. More so than the other gods and goddesses, Dionysus is a god of the people, living down among them rather than up on Mt. Olympus. These gods and goddesses up on high represent lofty ideals whereas Dionysus stands for an emotional bodily experience in the here-and-now. Two words are often associated with this type of in-the-moment Dionysian experience, the first being enthusiasm, which etymologically means “to be filled with the god.” Somewhat paradoxically the second word is ecstasy which means “to stand outside oneself or one’s body.”

Author Barry B. Powell discusses the ancient festivities engaged in by the followers of Dionysus, or Bacchus as he was also called, which made a simultaneous experience of enthusiasm and ecstasy possible:

“When Dionysus was present, his devotees lost their sense of personal identity and became one with the god. So strong was this sense of oneness that the follower was called Bacchus too. With the loss of identity came a willingness to transcend ordinary standards of decent and rational conduct.” [3]

Mythfire hopes that readers are beginning to see the links between the energies of Dionysus and the present day experience of sporting events such as the NCAA basketball tournament. To return a moment to the game mentioned at this blog’s start, the rush of enthusiasm in the basketball arena, the noise level, the spontaneous emotional heave of the basketball, the stepping out of bounds and even the disappearance of the referees are all in keeping with the experience of Dionysus. Regarding these last two aspects, anyone familiar with the myth of Dionysus knows that wherever he goes he upsets the status quo, the rule of law and order – so much so that people do things that they wouldn’t normally do, i.e. “step out of bounds.” Finally, to the degree that individuals try to avoid such powerful and frightening emotions, which are most often experienced as “losing control of oneself,” they go running for the hills – just as the referees did.

Several other parallels between sports events and the energies contained within the myth of Dionysus can also quickly be noted. For example, this god was most usually depicted in the company of maenads, (pron. mee-nads), partially clad women who frenetically danced to the beating of drums, played flutes, and thereby fostered in themselves and others a direct experience of the god. Today’s maenads, of course, are none other than the dancing and pom-pom swinging cheerleaders helping us root “our” team on.[4]

As an aside it is in fact arguable that anyone who looks on cheerleaders and cheerleading with moralistic disdain is both a) “unmythological” or unpsychological in the sense of not being aware of the important mythic energies given form and expression in and through the cheerleaders , and, b) very mythological, albeit unconsciously, in the sense that they themselves, i.e. the moralizers, are today’s version of Pentheus, the man in the original myth of Dionysus whose fear of the body and emotions manifested in an overly rational fundamentalistic adherence to law, order, and control. In the myth, Pentheus was driven mad and torn to pieces because he could not find a place in his life for a healthy relationship to Dionysus.

Lopez-Pedraza writes: “A living Dionysian experience is feeling oneself in the body.” [5] That is, Dionysus is a spiritual experience we have in the here-and-now, generally in the company of others, and through the engagement of emotions and the body.  To deny this experience altogether or to indulge it to an extreme is to court madness.  One of the best ways, then, to honor the god, i.e. his and our spiritual energies, in such a way that forestalls madness is through ritual. Rituals simultaneously contain these energies and allow them to circulate and be expressed. In ancient Rome and Greece one prominent religious festival devoted to Dionysus was the Great Dionysia which was held in March to mark the end of winter and beginning of spring. Something in us recognizes that the miraculous and ever-revolving cycle of death and rebirth must be honored and celebrated. More tangibly, those emotions and energies which were bottled up over a long winter need to once again spring forward with characteristic vigor and lust for life.[6]

This entry could go on and share more aspects of the myth of Dionysus and how he gave a sense of meaning to the ancient Greeks and Romans. His soulful association with the comedy and tragedy of theater is well known and also transferable to the dramatic thrill of victory and equally cathartic agony of defeat in sporting events.  In other words, the next time we hear sportscasters refer to the “Big Stage” of an NCAA tournament game or call the tournament in its entirety the “Big Dance,” we know which divine energies are about to dance in and through us.

As stated, Dionysus is one god who does not like too much rationalization and explanation, too much thinking. So, today’s blog post will end with this delirious prospect: our Great Dionysia, i.e. “March Madness,” is upon us once again.

Get ready to rumble because Dionysus is in the House!


Coda: As suggested in this entry, a psychological approach to myth sees how the mythic figures of old represent dynamic energies which still course through us for better and for worse. To bring more consciousness and fullness to our lives requires in no small part learning about the positive and negative aspects of these energies, how we might be neglecting or repressing them, and how we might more adequately honor and express them. Not just Dionysus, then, but the other figures named above (as well as others not mentioned) reflect back to us our own potential for a deeper, more spiritual and soulful life.


Next Monday: The Epic Behavior of Charlie Sheen

[1] Video of the Rutgers-St. John’s “wild” finish, which included more errors by the refs than mentioned above, can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKw6jgZVONI . For the player’s quotes see: http://espn.go.com/ncb/recap?gameId=310682599.


[2] For two articles about recent and upcoming films based on mythic themes see: http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2010-04-06-mythmash06_VA_N.htm and http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2010-04-06-mythmash06_CV_N.htm. The first article bears the title “‘Clash of the Titans’ heralds a return to mythic moviemaking.” [3] Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004: p. 280. Other good sources of information on Dionysus are Ginette Paris’s Pagan Grace: Dionysos, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in Daily Life and Dionysus in Exile: On the Repression of the Body and Emotion by Rafael Lopez-Pedraza.

[4] The maenads (“manic or raging women”) were also sometimes called Bacchae, i.e. “women possessed by Bacchus,” or Thyiades: “Frenzied ones.” See Powell p. 258.


[5] Dionysus in Exile, p. 43. In The Myth of Analysis, James Hillman provides a good juxtaposition between the styles of consciousness exhibited by Dionysus and Pentheus as well as a hint at the neurotic “acting out” disorders that ensue when the former is repressed: “[Dionysian consciousness] would be abody-consciousness, giving the experience of a somatized awareness of self in concrete, actual behavior. This would in turn transform that old frustration of reflection divided from action, where consciousness is conceived mainly in terms of speech and mind, giving over the unconscious to the body and its ‘actings-out.’” (285). Hillman’s book is particularly to be recommended to psychotherapists wanting to see how Apollonian and Dionysian energies play out in analysis.

[6] In Dionysus:Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life Carl Kerenyi evocatively conveys the serious religious regard the Athenians had for Dionysus in a section entitled “The Dionysian Festivals of the Athenians.” The first festival, occurring at winter’s onset, celebrated the more tragic aspects of life including death; the last festival, the Great Dionysia, celebrated rebirth and life’s restorative powers. See pages 290-315 as well other pages in the book on the Great Dionysia.

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