Why we do what we do
Most of us today in the West operate under a fairly simplified conception of what constitutes Ho Anthropos, The Man. Man is a body and a mind with the mind subdivided into its conscious and unconscious halves. Many further postulate the existence of a spirit or soul that survives beyond the grave and is regarded as the true essence of a man. This nebulous organ of consciousness may be conceived of as independent of both mind and body or arising from the unconscious depths of mind.
The reductiveness of this model is strikingly apparent when you compare it to the ones that proliferate among most traditional polytheist cultures and indeed throughout much of Christian Europe until quite recently. Although I suspect it would prove fruitful to compare the various spiritual bodies and local and non-localized organs of intellect and power among the Greeks, Celts, Norse, Egyptians and other philosophical and religiomagical systems such as Qaballah and Buddhism, that is not my intent here.
What I intend to do instead is discuss why I believe that dance and music play a cathartic role in Dionysiac religion.
Ancient Dionysians held to the majority view that man consists of more than a mind, body and soul or spirit. In fact the impetus for this conception may have come from the Dionysian currents that swept through Greek religion with the god’s arrival from abroad — up to that point there is little said on the subject. But with the enraptured rupture of the personality brought about by the god’s unique form of worship characterized as it is by the experience of ekstasis (literally “stepping out of one’s self”) and enthousiasmos (“being filled with a divinity”) the Greeks began to think hard about what they were made up of and what was going on within them. This sort of speculation became so widespread that it ended up as a significant plot point in the epics of Homer and was the constant obsession of philosophers, particularly those who claimed descent from Pythagoras. Much attention was spent on sorting out where these parts were located and how they operated together and whether there was any material component to them.
With regard to the last question I tend to think that there is, with the understanding that “material” encompasses a far wider degree of density than we are capable of perceiving with our ordinary senses. Meaning that even things that we think of as purely insubstantial such as emotion and thought possess a physicality that enables them to act and be acted upon by other objects. Those familiar with the theory of optics and harmonics developed by the school of Demokritos will understand.
For the most part thoughts are fluid and constantly in motion, bouncing off of each other and merging with other thoughts into something new. But what happens when too many thoughts collect in the chamber of our mind and congeal into a viscous blob that clogs the pipes and impedes the passage of other thoughts? Or when the flow of thoughts become agitated and erratic, chaotic and impossible to calm? This is madness, and in both cases the cure lies in Dionysiac ritual, especially with its strong emphasis on music and dance and striking imagery.
The point of these things is to get us flowing properly again, harmoniously. The vibrations from the music effect particular agitations on our thoughts, rather like the influence the moon holds over the tides or the force of magnetism, so that one could conjure quite specific moods out of thin air through the simple arrangement of a handful of notes. Likewise specific configurations of movement can radically alter our mental state — imagine if I grabbed the child from your arms and started shaking it violently; undoubtedly you would feel an elevation of annoyance as a result — especially when that movement is aligned with rhythm and melody, as in the dance. Seriously, next time you’re feeling blue do the Twist. Five hours of that will have you grinning like Gwynplaine.
Our thoughts are influenced by what we see, often at a level far below rational awareness and beyond our cultural and personal associations. Dionysian religion with its penchant for theatricality manipulated this to great effect through its choice of color and objects laden with symbolism such as the egg and cup but also objects capable of triggering powerful unconscious responses such as the snake or mask or bloody victim handled in an unconventional manner. Thought was even put into the order of presentation so that one’s responses would build upon themselves and the individual could be lead through a series of experiences and understandings that resulted in epiphany and catharsis. This is what makes art such a powerful force in our lives and why true art and ritual are indistinguishable from each other.
And that’s why whenever I’m feeling angry or depressed or like nothing is quite synching up right I resort to acts of creativity and ritual. Doing so helps focus my mind on my gods and spirits and that connection alone can help me get over the hump — but more than that I believe that there is efficacy in the rites themselves since I can feel their benefit even when I am unable to establish contact with my divinities. Even if I don’t feel immediately better after doing it, I often find that in the aftermath my mind becomes more fluid and I am able to let go of unpleasant emotions I had been obsessively clinging to.
Now obviously the primary reason for doing these rituals is not therapeutic but devotional, however if this stuff is left unattended it can get in the way of pure devotion so I consider putting my mental house in order to be part of the work. But I also strongly believe that Dionysos is Lusios, the Loosener of Cares who has come to soothe men’s suffering hearts and that it was he himself who taught us these sacred techniques, so it is only proper to use them in the way that he intended.
The great thing about all of this is that you don’t have to understand how or why it works in order to receive the benefits of this type of ritual. Everything you need to know to do this can be found on the side of an amphora or a description of maenads and satyrs from Greek literature.
What do you do?
Surround yourself with his imagery.
Speak from the heart.
Let the music move you.
Repetition is key.
Repetition is key.
Repetition is key.
Shake that shit loose!
Don’t hold back.
Go where it takes you.
Do what feels right, even if it doesn’t make sense. Especially then.
Praise him with all you have. If all you have is broken, filthy and empty — give that to him. If you are his, it belongs to him anyway. He will restore it and make it better.
Open yourself up to him.
Discover him in the dance.
If you do this enough you’ll find the right way, what works and what does not.
You’ll find the harmony that your component parts naturally seek.
You’ll find his grace in the ritual.