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Reinterpreting the Kwakiutl Hamatsa Dance As an Expression of the Apollonian and Dionysian Synthesis

Issue: Vol 26 No. 2 (2007)

Journal: Religious Studies and Theology

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies Islamic Studies Biblical Studies

DOI: 10.1558/rsth.v26i2.149


In Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict appropriates Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian art impulses as the model for her discussion of cultural diversity among North American Indians. However, Benedict’s use of the Nietzschean model not only fails to capture the true ritual significance of the religious or spiritual practices of Kwakiutl Indians of the North West Coast, the result of which portrays the Kwakiutl as primitive savages, but it is also a crude misrepresentation of the Nietzschean model she takes herself to be adopting. While I do not think that Benedict’s position is definitive of current scholarship on this topic, it is my contention that the Apollonian/Dionysian model, properly understood, yields some rather interesting insights into the religio-spiritual practices of the Kwakiutl and so is deserving of further study. This article offers an interpretation of the hamatsa dance of the Kwakiutl Winter Ceremonial as a synthesis of both Apollonian and Dionysian art impulses through which the Kwakiutl construct their ontological and moral worldview.

Author: Alan McLuckie

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