The New Wine we were promised
I’m sure that it comes as a surprise to absolutely no one that I honor with hero-cultus a certain poet and musician by the name of James Douglas Morrison. I am, after all, a passionately devoted Dionysian and lazy journalists in his own time were constantly comparing him to the ancient Greek god of theater, madness, intoxication, sex and death. Since Jim’s early but hardly unforeseen demise this mythic association has taken on a life of its own to the point where Dionysos in the popular conception has a decidedly Morrisonesque shape and many consider the poet to have been the god made flesh and come to earth to bring ecstatic deliverance to the masses once more. Even if this incarnational theology goes a bit too far it cannot be denied that the Lizard King has done more to introduce people to the realm of Dionysos than almost anyone else in recent memory, with the possible exception of the German philologist and philosopher of the tragic Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (who was himself a major influence on Morrison’s thought and writing.) In fact I’d go so far as to say that a sizable portion of the contemporary Dionysian community (at least if their e-mail lists, forums, blogs and websites are anything to go by) first discovered the god through the music of The Doors. I seem one of the rare exceptions who got into The Doors well after I had been a practicing Dionysian, but even so Jim has profoundly influenced me and helped me to see certain things about Dionysos that I might not have otherwise.
Despite the high admiration for the man and his music among many contemporary Dionysians there was a conversation a while back on one of the lists that goes to the heart of what it means to be a hero in ancient Greece and how we conceive of and interact with such beings today. The list was in the process of compiling a festival calendar for use by its members. While the majority of the festivals consisted of those celebrated in Athens and other parts of the ancient Hellenic world there were also a host of new festivals created by members to acknowledge and celebrate aspects of Dionysos not really touched on by the old ones, to commemorate important events in our lives and relationships with the god and to honor figures associated with him such as Ariadne and Prosymnos or historical incidents such as the suppression of the Bacchanalia by the Roman senate or the destruction of his temple in Alexandria by an angry Christian mob. In line with this was a proposal to include a day honoring Jim Morrison as a Dionysian hero and prophet. While this was met with enthusiastic support from the majority of the members there were also a few dissenters. They brought forth a wide range of arguments including:
- Jim Morrison may have been a very talented and popular musician but having a bunch of gold records and sold-out concerts doesn’t place him in the same category as Theseus and Herakles who slew monsters, founded kingdoms and walked with the gods.
- Jim Morrison was a massive dick who was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive to his girlfriends, exploited groupies, mistreated his band-mates and incited violence, endangering the lives of innocents.
- Jim Morrison may have talked a good show about freedom and independence and perhaps even channeled Dionysos through his poetry and on-stage theatrics, but he was a piss-poor Dionysian in the end. He was lacking in restraint and self-discipline, utterly addicted to drugs and alcohol, with a monumental ego and an ultimately infantile outlook on life. What potential he had was squandered through his self-destructive excesses. It’s not romantic to go out in a youthful blaze of glory – it’s just sad and pathetic, especially when you think of all the kids hell-bent on following in his footsteps.
They brought forth a number of other arguments (some as cogent as this and more that were not) but these are the ones that I consider directly relevant to a discussion of hero-cultus in both its contemporary and ancient forms. And if we take such views as representative of at least one strain of contemporary thought on heroes it is abundantly clear that there is a disparity between this view and the way that the ancients understood such beings.
To begin with, for the ancients a hero (and for simplicity’s sake let it be understood that both males and females are being included in this category) was not an embodiment of virtue, martial prowess and self-discipline who provided an example of noble deeds for the young to emulate. There were certainly some heroes of this caliber – one thinks especially of Theseus and Herakles who were specifically cited during the debate – but in many respects these two were anomalous both in how they related to other heroes and the cultus that they received. Herakles, for instance, could be regarded as a full deity and given Olympian-style sacrifices. Furthermore his worship was not localized the way that such cults often were for the other heroes, but rather was carried out all over the Greco-Roman world including places as far apart as Tyre, Afghanistan and the British Isles. For the ancients a hero was predominantly a dead person who continued to influence things on earth from beyond the grave in stark contrast to the majority of the deceased who resided as impotent and ignorant shades of their former selves in the underworld. Without first being fed on the blood of sacrificial victims, Teiresias informs Odysseus in the Homeric Nekyia, they cannot even recognize their fellows let alone what transpires in the world above. The hero, on the other hand, was one of the mighty dead who sent disease, blighted the crops, destroyed livestock and afflicted their families and members of the community with other violent punishments if neglected. Conversely if a proper shrine was built and tended with sacrifices, games and similar appropriate honors regularly bequeathed to them then the hero could be a powerful ally to the community, promoting fertility and health and offering prophetic guidance and protection from outsiders. In fact the assistance of the heroic dead was considered so vital to the wellbeing of a community that wars were fought over possession of the hero’s remains and the rights to conduct his or her festivals.
What made a person a hero was their exceptional power, something that was demonstrated through extraordinariness in life and preserved posthumously. The exemplary virtue and martial prowess of a Herakles or Theseus was one way that a hero’s extraordinariness could manifest, but it was far from the only way. Usually it was shown by violence, mental instability, insatiable appetites, the flouting of societal conventions and an aura of the uncanny. The hero was a person apart, a dangerous and bizarre figure who suffers things greater than most men can endure and often brings suffering upon those he is closest to. This is true whether you consider the heroes of legend – Achilles, Agamemnon, Orestes and the like – or figures of cult whose stories were only dimly known to the Greeks and even less so to us – Melampos, Amphiaraos, Trophonios, Protesilaos, Kleobis and Biton, etc. A good example of this is the story of one of the last people to be recognized as a hero in antiquity, a wrestler who could consume whole oxen by himself and usually ended up killing or seriously maiming his competitors. One day he completely snapped and murdered some children. He was chased by the grieving parents into a temple and in the ensuing fight a piece of the roof fell down and crushed him. Glad to be rid of the troublemaker the community did their best to forget about him but then disease and other calamities befell them. When they finally consulted the oracle at Delphi they learned that their troubles were caused by the angry hero and would abate only once they had built a shrine for him and placated his wrath through sacrifices. And even Herakles fits this heroic pattern since the labors that won him eternal glory were meant to atone for the massacre of his wife and children which he committed in a fit of divinely-sent madness. So the fact that Jim Morrison spent a good portion of his life out of control, consumed by Titanic appetites, carelessly mistreating those around him and serving as a lightning-rod for violent liberation, madness and excess doesn’t disqualify him for consideration as a hero – if anything it suggests that he is more of one than his detractors might be comfortable admitting.
But what of the charge that Jim was merely a poet? All of the examples I’ve cited thus far were men of action who left their mark on the world through their deeds – however deplorable we might judge them – and not their pretty thoughts and words. While it’s certainly true that most heroes and heroines were people of this sort, it would be a grave error to assume that the Greeks knew of no other type of heroic soul. A great many poets were granted heroic honors on account of their godlike skill in the service of the Mousai. Homer had hero-shrines built in his honor in all of the numerous cities that claimed to be his birthplace and a large and lavish temple staffed by a college of priests was constructed for him in Egypt under the Ptolemies. And long before Homer other fabled musicians such as Linos, Mousaios and Orpheus had their herōa, the latter with an oracular shrine on Lesbos where his preserved head gave forth prophecies that rivaled Apollon’s in their clarity. Archilochos – whose verse was so powerful that it caused people to hang themselves when he scathingly mocked them – had a hero-cult in his native land that possessed Delphic sanction, and Pindar’s home was regarded with such religious awe that when Alexander the Great razed Thebes to the ground only it and the city’s temples remained inviolate. Nor was this treatment reserved for the poets of remotest antiquity alone – a cenotaph was erected for Euripides in Athens since he had perished in far-off Makedonia and both of his contemporaries Aiskhylos and Sophokles received posthumous honors, though in Sophokles’ case it was largely for his involvement in bringing Asklepios to Athens since he had permitted the god to take up residence in his family’s home until work on the Asklepieion could be completed, giving rise to a new name for the poet Dexion or “The Receiver.” Other men of intellect could be treated similarly – the birthday of Epikouros was observed as a solemn religious feast with sacrifices by his disciples, Plato and Sokrates both had statues and festivals in their honor (the birthday of Plato actually continued to be observed as a holiday through the Renaissance) and Plotinos would have been given heroic honors by his followers had an oracle of Apollon not informed them that the illustrious soul of their teacher had completely transcended the mortal realm and been welcomed into the company of the blessed gods. So clearly, then, a hero was – and is – more than just an oafish brawler.
Although I have explained why I feel the objections of Jim’s detractors do not preclude his consideration as a hero, I haven’t really addressed why I feel this status is appropriate and what that means in the realm of cultus. I shall presently do so.
Act Two: I am the Lizard King. I can do anything!
There are two main reasons, distinct and yet related, why I regard Jim Morrison as a modern-day hero worthy of cultus: who he was and what he represented.
It is difficult bordering on the impossible for us today to grasp how truly different and revolutionary the music of The Doors was when they exploded on the scene in the winter of 1967. Here’s a little experiment to give you a sense of what that may have been like:
First listen to “My Girl” by the Temptations, “Love Me Do” from The Beatles and The Searchers’ big hit “Sugar and Spice.” Now put on “The End” by The Doors.
That’s a pretty striking contrast, isn’t it? And yet to get the full effect you’d have to forget everything that’s happened musically over the last 40 years. No Punk and Goth, no Glam Rock, Metal, Grunge or Industrial. None of that existed before The Doors and likely wouldn’t have happened without the influence of their dark, brooding, sensual lyricist and lead singer. It wasn’t all just folk ballads and bubble gum pop on the radio before Mr. Mojo Risin’ leapt on the stage and began pouring out his apocalyptic Oedipal fantasies – there was Jimi and Janis and the Stones; hell even the Fab Four took a turn towards the strange thanks to acid trips and Transcendental Meditation – but none of these acts hit the American heartland with the same disruptive force or possessed Morrison’s charisma and theatricality. Even his greatest detractors acknowledge that the man knew how to work an audience, transforming a conventional rock concert into a ceremony of the most primitive theater. He understood his role primarily in shamanic terms – a spirit-possessed actor making the unseen visible through his bizarre antics and outbursts, drawing the audience along with him in a hallucinatory trek through the underworld, whipping them up into a mad frenzy so that they could experience a kind of cathartic release. And America at that time had a lot of inner demons in need of exorcism. The country was being torn apart from within as a result of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, poverty, governmental corruption and all the rest. Even in the midst of violent riots and assassinations America was doing its damndest to pretend that everything was alright, that the dream of prosperity, normalcy and traditional middle class values would triumph in the end. Even the counterculture was content to sing of peace, love and understanding as a remedy to all our ills. But The Doors insisted that the end had come already and we were living in the bloody and bankrupt ruins of a failed American Dream. They put all the shit that everyone was trying to ignore before their eyes – all the violence and hypocrisy, the monstrous banality and empty delusions of a civilization that had lost its moorings and was plummeting into the abyss. They provided a wake-up call to the world, a challenge to seek a more wholesome and authentic way of life by confronting what was really going on within and around us – and what would happen if we refused to do so. The only way out of the mess is through it, to create a new world out of the rubble of the old. And to do so requires a courage, boldness and a willingness to fearlessly look the dark, absurd and mad squarely in the face – and recognize it as one’s own. Morrison was a fervent missionary of the irrational for he understood that in this alone lay man’s redemption. The messianic and visionary quality of his poetry set the music of The Doors apart, gave it a depth and value that so much produced during that period lacks – which is why it still speaks to us in a way that “Surfin’ Safari” and “I want to hold your hand” just don’t.
But the remarkable thing about Morrison is that he didn’t just talk a good talk – he internalized the message completely and manifested it in every aspect of his life. He never took the mask off, stopped playing the part – even when it cost him his life and all he held dear. Once he chose to follow the road of excess – the long prolonged derangement of the senses – he traveled it all the way to the palace of wisdom and beyond. In doing so he ceased to be a mortal and became a myth. Granted, a myth full of tragic suffering and wasted potential – but that’s true of most of the mortals who walk in the shadow of Dionysos in the way that he did. And note, clearly, that what follows is a description of a very unique path to Dionysos, but it is not the only one nor is it one that I think most Dionysians have any business treading.
Which brings us to the second reason why I consider Jim a hero – what he represented. And what he represented was the archetype of the Neos Dionysos, the mad-god made flesh. This is a pattern, a role, that stretches back through a number of important figures to Alexander the Great and even earlier. It’s origins lie in the actor impersonating the god and dancing the horrible things he suffered during the celebrations of the grape harvest. And even before that in the experience of drunken votaries who felt themselves possessed by and filled with the god’s spirit in their ecstatic intoxication. When the dramas of the primitive agrarian rites evolved into choruses of actors performing a variety of different parts drawn from myth and legend there remained something of Dionysos about them. The primary role was usually that of a king who suffered and was destroyed from within, torn apart like the sacrificial victims of the mainades and the young god whose flesh was rent and consumed by the Titans. The king is a uniquely Dionysian figure as the Anthesteria festival and the legends of Theseus, Pentheus, Skyles and all the rest so amply attest – but Alexander was one of the first who sought to fully embody the god’s contradictory and excessive blessings and to act out his myths on the world stage. Alexander was conscious of following in Dionysos’ footsteps in his march through the eastern lands and like the god he sought to create a new world order through the destruction of the old, bringing peace, prosperity and civilization in the wake of purifying violence. Like Jim Alexander shone with a superhuman brilliance that eventually consumed and destroyed him. Like Jim his young life ended in violence, debauchery, drunkenness and madness. Many others came after and suffered the same fate – the Ptolemies and Attalids, Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, Jesus Christ, etc. – but before the seemingly inevitable end there is the glory and the abundant power, a man who can accomplish what others are only capable of dreaming of, a man with otherworldly charisma and creativity who liberates the people from oppression and misery and shows them a happier, healthier and more authentic way to live. Frail mortality is not made to contain the abundance of a god – and especially a god like Dionysos – for long and so these men often succumb to the dangerous excesses he presents. But before that happens the people get to see a god on earth and in the flesh, and through their relationship with the kingly vessel they are granted a direct encounter with the divine.
Jim Morrison, who proclaimed himself the Lizard King in keeping with this ancient tradition, fulfilled his role exemplarily even up to his untimely – but mythically necessary – death. Therefore I consider him a true hero in the Dionysiac mold. It’s not just how he lived and died – important as such things are, especially on the mythic level – but also the message he had and the way he expressed it. Dionysian symbolism runs deeply through a great deal of Morrison’s poetry, with numerous allusions to the god’s myths and mysteries. In fact much of Morrison’s poetry is frankly incomprehensible except when interpreted in this light, whereupon it gains profound meaning and vitality. There are things he talks about that only someone who has undergone the core experience of Dionysian initiation could know about. This is one of the reasons I enjoy the music of The Doors so much – it resonates with me on a deep, personal level, speaks the language of my god with words I have heard from him and nowhere else. I have long contemplated putting together a Dionysian exegesis of Doors’ lyrics and Morrison’s other poetry – but this isn’t really the place to go into that. Instead in the next and final section of this already lengthy piece I shall discuss what it means to recognize Jim as a Dionysian hero and how that finds expression through cultus.
Act Three: A Feast of Friends.
Jim Morrison is a modern-day hero and one of a long line of men to perform the role of Neos Dionysos. Granting that, what does it actually mean, especially since he’s been dead now for longer than most of the people reading this have likely been alive?
Well, to begin with it means that he is among the mighty dead and capable of influencing things in this world from beyond the grave. You don’t have to take my word on that, however, as it’s abundantly clear that the Lizard King continues to touch the lives of countless people today. There are all the artists and rebellious youth who draw inspiration from his life and words – often to the point of outright plagiarism – as well as lawyers, doctors and politicians who consider themselves fanatic lovers of the band. Then there is the intense, quasi-religious devotion he has generated in people who are willing to travel from all across the globe in order to sacrifice at his grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Seeing the makeshift shrines, piles of offerings, candles, flowers and personal testimonials left by pilgrims over the years, one could be forgiven for thinking that they had stumbled upon the tomb of a saint instead of a rock star – except that those offerings often consist of panties, booze, drugs and the like. This is particularly noticeable when you read some of the cards, poems and graffiti that visitors have been moved to leave. There used to be a website – and I have no idea if it still exists – that preserved some of the material and it was a fascinating glimpse into the world of popular devotion which is reminiscent of certain aspects of folk Catholicism. People talked about how Jim’s words had pulled them back from the brink of suicide and given them a reason to live. Others recorded dreams and spiritual visions in which they met and spoke with him. Some even credited him with healing and other miraculous feats. Nor is his effectiveness limited just to the area around his tomb. There are a number of religious bodies that worship him on his own as well as in his role as an avatar of Dionysos, including a group located in California that regularly hosts elaborate rituals in his honor at Pantheacon. I had hoped to attend when I was there a couple years back, but unfortunately the ritual I was helping to organize for Dionysos was scheduled in the same time slot. However I heard from others that it was a powerfully moving experience and that Mr. Mojo Risin’ made his presence felt in numerous undeniable ways.
I think that it would indeed be an incredible thing to have the opportunity to honor him alongside other intensely devoted celebrants, though so far all of my cultus for Jim has been conducted privately. (Not counting opportunities I’ve had to enjoy and discuss his music in the company of close friends.) For the most part my worship of Jim Morrison is pretty simple and straightforward. I don’t have a personal shrine for him (my apartment is much too small to encompass all of the shrines I’d ideally like to have!) although I do keep an image of him above Dionysos’ altar. Over the years I’ve marked the anniversaries of his death and birth in various ways, both informally and ritually, though because he’s gaining in importance for me of late I have instituted a special festival in his honor as part of my personal religious calendar. Aside from this I don’t really feel that it’s necessary to have other holy days and ritual observances in his honor, especially since he’s almost always in the background, if only through his music which has found its way into nearly every one of the devotional playlists I’ve created for my assorted gods and spirits. His presence is considerably more noticeable than that, but before I delve into this I would like to take a moment and discuss the Lizard King festival I’ve devised.
Like many of the hero-feasts of ancient Greece it is observed on the anniversary of his death. Also in keeping with tradition its central feature is a theoxenia or a meal shared between the devotee and the hero. A place is set aside for him and he is received as an honored guest and served his portion of the meal. The meal itself consists of a heaping pile of fried chicken and whiskey with the flesh of swine and beans under a strict prohibitive taboo. The meal is consumed in total silence with the mind focused on him the whole time, with his music playing in the background. The rest of the evening is spent reading his poetry, listening to music, watching movies, interviews and documentaries about him. Impressive quantities of alcohol and other strange substances are consumed with the aim of facilitating direct communion with him. And should inspiration strike I will compose some poetry of my own in his honor. As such it is not a large and elaborate observance, especially when compared to the other festivals I keep – but when I have done such things for him in the past they’ve proven successful and personally rewarding.
Although this simple theoxenia is the only festive occasion I’ve set aside for Jim it is far from the only time I honor him. He is included in all of my festivals and observances for the dead, he is frequently invited to things I do for Dionysos and I’ve felt him enter my peripheral awareness without bidding, especially when I’m doing certain types of ecstatic worship involving the Neoi Dionysoi – though I rarely interact with him directly. When I have I get the impression that I’m not necessarily dealing with the man so much as a projection of him, the persona he crafted and played so compellingly and convincingly on stage that others forgot that there was a man beneath the mask. When the man died this Lizard King alter ego gained a kind of life of its own, taking up its place in the retinue of Dionysos, which is only appropriate since it was in some sense a reflection or image of the god to begin with, filtered through the experiences of Jim. I have not met and will never know the mortal man Jim Morrison – except insofar as some portion of him remains within the Lizard King. This, at least, is the impression I get but I could very well be over-thinking things. There’s no reason why the entity I’ve encountered couldn’t be the actual Jim – I’ve just never experienced anything of him beyond the myth, the artfully constructed image he presented to the world. And I’m perfectly fine with that, because it’s a great image and one that has profoundly touched and inspired me over the years.