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Posts Tagged ‘Myth’

This morning, as my beautiful and sexy wife and I were lazing in bed, avoiding getting up and starting the day, our two wild beasts, by which I mean “children,” climbed (inevitably) into bed with us and started acting rambunctiously. I called them the beasts that they are, which my five-year-old son thought was hilarious, and so he proceeded to describe himself, dramatically, as a beast.

“I’m bigger than a house!” he growled, “Bigger than a temple!”

I tensed immediately and sat up. Where did that come from? I asked curtly, “What do you mean, a temple?”

“You know,” he replied “like the temple of Zeus and Hera.”

I smiled and relaxed and settled back down into my pillow. Mission accomplished.

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Zeus is our Heavenly Father, but let’s face it: most of us have shitty relationships with our fathers, and that can carry over into our relationships with our Heavenly Father.

It’s alright though, ’cause we’ve got Ares.

Ares is the older brother who tells you all about girls and the real deal about sex, who turns you on to heavy metal and cars and gives you your first beer and your first cigarette.  But he expects you to keep your cool, to be tough, to roll with the punches and not to be a mama’s boy.

Ares is the upperclassman you respect and admire, who lets you be one of the guys, who shows you how to tie a tie and button your cuffs, who makes you feel accepted and doesn’t treat you like a dumb kid. But he expects you to do the right thing, to study hard, to treat girls well, and to show respect and earn the respect of everyone around you.

Ares is the uncle who takes you camping and shows you how to build a fire, to hunt and fish, to shoot a rifle and take care of yourself.  But he expects you to do hard things, to not complain or whine, to learn fast, to try hard and to tough it out when things get shitty.

Ares is the team captain who gives his all, who holds the team together and who understands exactly what you’re going through because he is right in the middle of it too.  But he expects you to train hard, to play hard, to keep your head in the game, to take care of your teammates, and to win.  

Ares is the squad leader who laughs with you, drinks with you, teaches you to be a warrior, and leads you into battle.  But he expects you to fight hard, to have integrity, to have courage and a good attitude, to take care of your battle buddies, and to kill every last one of the enemy motherfuckers.   He does his damnedest to make sure you make it back home, but he makes damn sure you are never forgotten when you don’t.

Just because you’re born with a penis doesn’t mean you know how to be a man. Don’t worry; Ares will show you.

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My top five favorite books of all time, in alphabetical order by author:

1. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes: A dark carnival comes to a fictionalized Waukegan in a timeless October, bringing nightmares. It is a story about childhood and growing up, fathers and sons, friendship, and the good and evil in every one of us.

2. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!: Unimaginably rich and mythic, a magnum opus about the South, chronicling Thomas Sutpen’s obsessive but doomed struggle to found–“tore violently a plantation”–an aristocratic dynasty in Mississippi before, during and after the Civil War, and about the destruction brought down on his bloodline and the land they inhabit as judgment that ripples through place and generations as a result. In the end, it is relentlessly a book about the dark places we should not go but that we ultimately cannot resist.

3. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: Lewis’s re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the most true book about God that I have ever read. It is the story of an ugly queen whose beautiful sister is taken from her by a god, and who unintentionally enacts her revenge on everyone around her by taking just as ruthlessly, until at last she is finally forced to come to terms with the true nature of herself and the Divine.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove: An epic, episodic novel about a pair of grizzled ex-Texas Rangers and the men and boys they lead on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, for no reason at all, more or less, other than to be the first to be there. It is a powerful and poignant story about manhood, friendship, obligation, women, cattle and death. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.

5. Jack Schaefer, Shane: A short but intense novel from a young boy’s perspective about a dark gunfighter who drifts into a Wyoming range war between farmers and an unscrupulous cattle baron. Shane is a cracking, fast-paced novel about courage, love, commitment, manhood and true strength.

6. T. H. White, The Once And Future King: A lush and quirky but immensely powerful retelling of the entire Arthurian legend. In a sense, there is nothing that this book is not about. If I had to give a boy only one book to live their life after, it would not be the Bible. It would be this book.

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Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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1. Are you a Christian?

In the sense that most people probably mean when they ask that question, my answer has to be no. I like Jesus just fine, but I do not believe that Jesus is the only-begotten son of the One True God, or the One True God uniquely made flesh. I believe in good and evil but I don’t believe that I am guilty of sinning against the One True God, and I don’t believe that I am in need of salvation that only God can provide. I don’t believe that a contemporarily obscure greco-Jewish messianic figure was the central pivot point in the spiritual history of the cosmos (not that there’s a specific reason he couldn’t be; just that I don’t believe he is). I don’t believe that the Jews are the chosen people of the One True God. There are many parts of the Bible that I do not believe are scriptural or inspired writing. I am not personally committed to the person of Jesus in any way.

2. Why not?

I’m just not. I don’t think it makes sense for me to have to affirmatively have a reason to disbelieve Christianity. Quite the opposite: I am not Christian because I don’t have enough sufficiently compelling reasons to be Christian. The burden of persuastion is squarely on the religion, and in my case, the burden just has not been met. I am unpersuaded. I find Jesus compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling. I find Christianity compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling.

I find value in culture and tradition, and I recognize that Christianity has played a pivotal role in my culture’s history, but it’s not the only spiritual tradition in the mix (look at our great art and literature and see for yourself: classical mythology may be out of favor on Sunday mornings, but it has stayed the course pretty fucking powerfully in our cultural consciousness). And given my own personal religious background–born and raised Mormon but gone apostate–it’s hard for me to claim “Christianity, generally” as my own personal cultural tradition, especially given the pluralism of the society I live in now. As great as I think it would be to identify with a particular tradition and to feel like my spirituality was connected to firm cultural roots, I just don’t, and I never really have.

3. Have you read the Bible?

Yes. I’ve read the Old Testament all the way through once, and different parts of it a number of other times. I’ve read the New Testament at least twice all the way through, and individual parts of it many times. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know my way around the book really well. I have mixed feelings about the Bible, as indicated above, partly because I think it’s sometimes a mistake to think of the Bible as one work. It’s not one work; it’s an anthology of works by different people at different times and in widely different cultural circumstances. Parts of the Bible have the character of scripture to me: they resonate mythologically (Genesis, 1 & 2 Samuel) or they are profoundly mystical (the Psalms, the gospel of John, Revelations, many of the Prophets). Other parts just don’t feel holy to me. The epistles may be complex, masterful and fundamental works of theological wordsmithy, but that doesn’t make them have spiritual weight. I’m basically familiar with the process of selecting what went into the canon, and I conclude that the canoneers were simply evaluating the books with different criteria in mind from what I am using. I’m comfortable with that.

I think there’s wisdom and relevance in the Bible. Maybe not uniquely so in an inherent sense, but certainly given the Bible’s place in western civilization for the last 2,000 years, it has a preeminent or at least prominent place in our cultural, philosophical, and spiritual history. The Bible is beautiful, resonant, and generally has a lot to offer, and I don’t think that being a non-Christian changes that. It may change the way I approach the text, but it doesn’t dissuade me from approaching it in the first place.

4. Do You Go To Church?

Absolutely. I like going to Church. I like going to Church with my wife, and I intend to keep on going for the rest of my life. And though I’m not much of a believer, I find value in community, and I intend to be active and involved. I don’t feel the need to attract attention and be the center of attention because I’m a non-Christian going to a Christian church. I’m happier to just be quietly heretical. But like I said, I like Jesus, I like the Bible, I like Church. I don’t agree with everything that gets said, but nobody should, about anything, ever. So I’m comfortable with that.

We don’t have a church we go to right now, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. When we find a church we like, we’ll go to it. And it will most definitely be a Christian church.

My kids will be raised Christian. I’m comfortable with that. They’ll know I’m not, and they’ll know that not being a Christian–or that being various shades of Christian–is a live option for reasonable people. I want them to be able to make up their own minds, but I’d also like to give them a decent tradition to be raised in and to be able to fall back on when they need to without feeling that they are forced to conform to it. And I’d like them to grow up seeing that vast differences in approaches to faith are ultimately reconcilable and mutually compatible.

I don’t really attend any other kind of non-Christian spiritual gathering, either. I’m tangentially affiliated with a group of revival Druids in Chicagoland, but I have never actually met with them in person. And revival Druidry isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christianity anyway.

5. What do you think about Christians?

I like ’em just fine. I’m married to one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be Christian. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to commit to a faith or a tradition. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take a stand and decide what you do and don’t believe. I understand completely that someone could find Jesus uniquely and supremely compelling, even though I don’t necessarily. I understand completely that someone could believe in One True God: sometimes I kind of do, too.

What I think is arrogant, though, is to pretend that you can be absolutely certain about any of it. There’s just no way. There is no way to know something without the possibility that you are wrong. We’re nervous systems floating in a dark jar, and we put a lot of faith in the data our senses feed us and the way our brains process that data. We could be wrong. We could be misled. We could be in the Matrix, and we would not know it or have any way of knowing it. The whole world could be a convincing illusion (some Hindus certainly think it is). Not only is it a possibility, but its a possibility that we can’t even judge how likely it is, because we have no frame of reference.

I’m not saying you have to waver or be wishy-washy. Practical existence means that, despite the possibility that it’s all an illusion, you have to act like it’s not. There’s virtue in taking a stand, and value in making sacrifices for what you believe. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that it’s possible you’re wrong, and find a way to weigh that against your convictions. In my mind, that’s faith. Unwavering certainty is just foolishness and self-deception. Going forward despite the possibility of being wrong is faith. What’s more, unwavering certainty makes people make bad decisions. The possibility of error allows us to act in faith but temper our actions with the consequences of error. It doesn’t mean paralysis. It just means our decisions, even the ones made on the basis of faith, are better decisions, because they are decisions we have weighed and considered properly.

6. Will you ever change your mind?

Maybe. Who’s to say? I change my mind about a lot of things, all the time. I try to live an authentic life, and sometimes that means backtracking and taking things back. I can live with that.

7. What would it take to make you change your mind?

Anything that would make Christianity and/or Jesus somehow uniquely or superlatively compelling. I don’t think it’s possible for Christianity to be objectively proven, and even if it’s theoretically possible, I think that Christianity has managed not to do it for two millennia, and I’m not optimistic about it’s chances of being objectively proven anytime soon.

So it would take something personal and subjective to make me into a Christian. A powerful mystical experience? A spiritual need uniquely filled? Something to make Christianity stand out and above everything else that I find just as compelling or more compelling. It’s a kind of spiritual economics. The value of being exclusively Christian would have to outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs of the rich extra-Christian spiritual landscape that I would have to forego.

8. Haven’t you already had powerful spiritual experiences confirming the unique truth of Christianity?

Yes but no. At one point in my life I said I did, because it was important in my faith tradition to be able to say that, to be able to testify publicly that you had received a personal spiritual witness of the truth of Jesus Christ. So I went looking for this witness I was supposed to have, and the first powerful emotional experience I had that was Jesus-related, I labeled personal revelation. It was not intentionally dishonest. The cornerstone experience I had was an emotional breakdown in a set of circumstances effectively designed to be a lab for spiritual/emotional breakdowns. It is suspect because of the setting, and because of the effort and desire I put into getting a specific result that I believed I would get.

The point is, no emotional experience is objective proof of anything. At best, it’s proof that you’re having an emotional experience, that’s all. Spiritually emotional experiences are relevant, but how we weigh them, the creedence we give them, and the conclusions we draw from them are not necessarily straightforward. An experience that was compelling to me under one set of circumstances may simply no longer be compelling to me, for any reason.

I had an emotional experience, but I no longer find it sufficiently compelling to believe in the unique truth and exclusive divinity of Jesus.

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In Euripedes’s the Bacchae, Dionysus, god of wine, intoxication, madness and the revel rolls into Thebes with a train or crazed maenads in tow. Thebes is Dionysus’s homeland, although that is not widely known. The Thebans go out to the wilderness to join in the frenzied worship, dressing the part and dancing the dances and partaking in the mad rites of the god. All of the Thebans, that is, except Pentheus, the king of Thebes and a cousin of the god, who is livid. To Pentheus, the god is a pretender, an interloper and a chartlatan who disrupts the social order, makes fools out of wise men, and makes the women of Thebes act… inappropriately. Pentheus fobids the worship of Dionysus, and orders the arrest of anyone who gets involved.

Pentheus has Dionysus detained and brought before him, and he peppers the god with questions in a scene not at all unlike Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and Dionysus gives the same kind of wise but evasive answers that we see Jesus give centuries later in the gospels. Pentheus is unhappy that Dionysus’s answers are not more clear to him, so he has the god imprisoned. Of course, Dionysus escapes easily; he’s a god after all, and in the process, he reduces Pentheus’s palace to flames and rubble.

Angry but curious, Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into going out to see the maenads, and Dionysus inflicts madness on Pentheus because Pentheus fought against the god’s worship. The frenzied maenads tear Pentheus to pieces, and the king’s own mother parades his head through the streets, unaware that she holds the head of her son.

This is a work of profound spiritual and theological importance. If you have not read it, you need to.

Inside each one of us is a dark side, a shadow to the Jungians, a part of us that needs to break free from our bonds, break all the rules, go crazy, be wild, be drunk, and in short, to transgress the boundaries of civilization. That part of us can be tamed and channeled, but never destroyed and never completely suppressed.

Dionysus calls to that part of us—he is the living embodiment of that dark, beautiful and terrible shard of the human soul. When we give in to it, we are his. But Dionysus is not a jealous god! It is enough that we, like the Thebans, go out to meet him and join in the revel every now and then. Our shadows need to be expressed but they can be expressed deliberately, channeled into appropriate and healthy pursuits.

We don’t need to let our shadows devour us: that would be the end of civilization and the end of virtue, and that’s not, as a general statement, what Dionysus wants from us at all. He certainly does not demand it. But we have to give our shadows a place in our lives. We have to entertain Dionysus in order to stay healthy and balanced. Because when we suppress our shadows, war against our shadows, pretend they are not there—when we imprison Dionysus and threaten those who do give him the honor he deserves—we do so futilely and at our own peril.

Dionysus is a god; he will not be imprisoned. He will not be defeated. The god of breaking bonds will never be bound. And if we, like Pentheus, refuse to admit Dionysus into our lives, the results will be catastrophic. Dionysus will have his way with us one way or another. The choice is ours: either we give honor to Dionysus on our own terms, or he compels us to give honor to him. And he is a god who knows no limits. Dionysus does not use safe words or designated drivers.

When we suppress our shadows they gnaw at us from the inside, and they tear us apart just as Dionysus tore the king’s palace apart. Healthy appetites become unhealthy obsessions. When we do not engage with our shadows, our shadows make ever-greater demands from us; our psyches fester in ever-deeper darkness. And eventually, we lose. Eventually, because we refuse to bend to Dionysus, we are broken by him. The results are ugly, and they leave a wake of victims. Pentheus ended up dismembered and decapitated by his mother; the psychosexual implications are not accidental.

So we party. We dance. We fuck. We drink. We fight. We let our hair down and have a good time when good times are called for because we have to. Its built in to who we are. If we think we can suppress those urges all the time and conquer that part of us completely we are fooling ourselves, and the script for our destruction has already been written, centuries ago.

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Tonight, while Katie L., Ms. Jack, and my beautiful and sexy wife Katyjane all gather to cause extreme trouble at my house in Chicago, I will not be there.

Instead, I will be rocking the fuck out at the encore showing of The Big Four from Sonisphere, Bulgaria. Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer–the Big Four of thrash metal–all performing on the same stage for the first time ever. They’re not doing any US shows, but they did show it in theaters here on Tuesday, and they’re showing it again tonight.

So while epic polygamy Jesus assassin wife history is being made at my house, I will instead be witnessing epic metal history.

In all seriousness, hard rock and heavy metal are spiritually significant to me. Want to feel the sublime essence of Dionysus? Go to a metal show and get lost in that energy. It’s awesome.

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Taking a suggestion from the now-defunct (but excellent and accessible) Sponde: Hands-On Hellenism website, I decided to put together a personal calendar for prayer and worship. The idea was really to just get started and dive in, rather than to agonize over just the right way to set it all up. I can tinker later if I feel I need to, but nobody’s looking over my shoulder to tell me I’m doing it wrong (well, other than the gods). I have spent so much time dragging my feet and procrastinating getting serious about this, that it has been so refreshing to just get something down in a concrete form and start practicing. So, here’s how it stands at the moment: each day of the week I say prayers and make offerings to one (or two) specific gods and/or goddesses. I chose the gods that I did because of a combination of their personal meaning to me and their applicability to me (so, I chose Aphrodite and Dionysus because of significant mystical experiences, and I chose Zeus and Herakles because of their significance as household gods).

Monday: Herakles
Tuesday: Zeus
Wednesday: The Divine Twins (Apollo and Artemis)
Thursday: Aphrodite
Friday: Dionysus
Saturday: Hermes

Sunday is my day to choose a different god or goddess, for whatever reason, so I can rotate in whomever I need to (or even offer the odd prayer to Odin every now and then). In addition to my daily devotions, I add some other regular and irregular prayers and offerings. First, every morning, I light the tart burner in the living room (our hearth I guess–the trend among Hellenic polytheists seems to be to substitute the kitchen, but it just doesn’t seem central to our home) and say a short prayer to Hestia. Also, thanks to a reminder from my beautiful and sexy Christian wife who Pagan-pWn3d me, another prayer to Hestia goes at the end of the day when we blow the candle out to go to bed.

Second, when the opportunity arises, I also plan on praying to Hera with my awesome and incredibly supportive wife. I feel like it is important to pray to Hera as a couple, except maybe when you go to her with a specific particular concern. But general praise and honor seems like it makes the most sense coming from both of us, united and desperately in love despite our different beliefs. Third, since I do a fair amount of hiking and tramping about the woods, I plan on offering at least a quick prayer each to Dionysus, Pan, and Artemis whenver I do so. Finally, I will pray and pour out libations to the other gods and goddesses whenever appropriate (to Ares when I am headed out to military service, for example), and also in the context of seasonal rituals and celebrations, which are still seriously under construction.

So far, it has been pretty fulfilling. I feel like my faith is becoming better integrated into my life, even though what I do doesn’t really take up much in terms of time and effort. It gives me a sense of calm and of spiritual accomplishment, like I am building a real and meaningful relationship with the gods instead of just thinking about building a relationship with them.

I’m also thinking about composing a kind of set of written devotions/rituals to the gods that I pray to and worship, soemthing for me to use in my daily devotions but that will also let me change things up a bit. A sort of rotating program of Hymns and Devotions, maybe three to each god/dess in sets, one for each week to go in a three-week cycle. As I write them, I will post them here on the blog.

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I came across a pretty cool essay on Jim Morrison and Dionysus, and the pagan spiritual implications of Morrison’s life, music, philosophy, and his unique and fascinating madness. It gets a little closer to what I was trying to write a few days ago about the Lizard King. With all due respect and entirely without permission, I am reprinting it here in entirety:

THE CULT OF THE LIZARD KING
by Delia Morgan

I. The Rock God:

Jim Morrison–rock star, poet, prophet, electric shaman, and god incarnate. The lead singer of the 1960’s acid rock band known as The Doors, Jim Morrison identified himself very strongly with Dionysos. The Doors were the first group to really do rock concerts as ritual, as a means of taking the audience on a psycho-religious trip. They took their name from Aldous Huxley’s quote (here paraphrased) that “When the Doors of perception are cleansed, we will see things as they truly are–infinite.” Morrison described their mission in terms of trying to “Break On Through” to a bigger reality: “There are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between are the Doors.”

Morrison, with his “Greek God” beauty, his fiery passion and dark mysterious persona, has been considered a Dionysos incarnate. He certainly tried to bring something like shamanism and Greek drama to rock music and to the stage; he tried to shock people out of their complacency and into a terrifying and liberating ecstasy. Since his death at a young age in 1971, a cult has grown around him; many people, myself included, sense his presence as a guiding force, build altars to him, etc. There was even a “First Church of the Doors” at one time.

Morrison himself was, by all accounts, a man as brilliant as he was daring. At a young age he had read extensively on shamanism and ancient mythology, including James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” (much of which is about Dionysos); he was also quite taken with Friedrich Nietzsche’s passionate vision of Dionysos as portrayed in “The Birth of Tragedy.” One of the last books he had been reading before his death was Jane Ellen Harrison’s voluminous and challenging “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion” which is also mostly about Dionysos. It seems to me that Morrison let himself be completely possessed by Dionysos, until the man and the god were irrevocably merged; he carried the torch of his mythic Dionysian vision all the way to his death.

Unfortunately, most people never quite ‘got’ what he was trying to do at the time, which was religion. Rock critics called him pretentious for taking himself so seriously; few of them knew enough about myth and religion to put the pieces together. Ray Manzarek’s recent book “Light My Fire” is a personal history of the Doors, and also talks about Morrison as Dionysos.

Here are just a few quotes from Morrison’s songs and poetry where the dark and Dionysian mystic slips through:

“I call upon the dark hidden gods of the blood…”

“Where is the wine we were promised, the new wine…?”

“We could plan a murder, or start a religion…”

“I promised I would drown myself in mystic heated wine…”

“Let us reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages;
celebrate symbols from deep elder forests…”

“I am a guide to the labyrinth.”

II. Perspectives on the Morrisonian mythos:

Some perceptive authors and music critics at the time caught on to the Dionysian element in Morrison’s philosophy and in his performances; others have come to realize this in retrospect. (Still others never caught on, and can’t understand what all the fuss is about.)

The following excerpt from a Doors website makes explicit the Doors’ connection to Pagan spiritual sentiment:

http://www.elektra.com/rock_club/doors/bio.html

During the late 1960’s bands sang of love and peace while acid was passed out. But for The Doors it was different. The nights belonged to Pan and Dionysus, the gods of revelry and rebirth, and the songs invoked their potent passions–the Oedipal nightmare of “The End,” the breathless gallop of “Not to Touch the Earth,” the doom of “Hyacinth House,” the ecstasy of “Light My Fire,” the dark uneasy undertones of “Can’t See Your Face in My Mind,” and the alluring loss of consciousness in “Crystal Ship.” And as with Dionysus, The Doors willingly offered themselves as a sacrifice to be torn apart, to bleed, to die, to be reborn for yet another night in another town.

The pagan/Dionysian theme is expanded upon by Danny Sugerman in the following excerpts from the introduction to the famous biography of Jim Morrison, titled “No One Here Gets Out Alive.”

http://www.thedoors.com/beta/mythos.htm

DOORS MYTHOS
by Danny Sugerman

“Though the favorites of the gods die young, they also live eternally in the company of gods.”
— Fredrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

An account of initiation into the mysteries of the goddess Isis survives in only one in-person account, an ancient text that translated reads: “I approached the frontier of death, I saw the threshold of Persephone, I journeyed through all the elements and came back, I saw at midnight the sun, sparkling in white light, I came close to the gods of the upper and the netherworld and adored them near at hand. ” This all happened at night. With music and dance and performance. The concert as ritual, as initiation. The spell cast. Extraordinary elements were loosed that have resided in the ether for hundreds of thousands of years, dormant within us all, requiring only an awakening.

Of course, psychedelic drugs as well as alcohol could encourage the unfolding of events. A Greek musicologist gives his description of a Bacchic initiation as catharsis: “This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, that the depressive anxiety of people, produced by their state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared away through melodies and dances of the ritual.”

There is a strange tantalizing fascination evoked by fragments of ancient pagan mysteries: the darkness and the light, the agony and the ecstasy, the sacrifice and bliss, the wine and the ear of grain (hallucinogenic fungi). For the ancients it was enough to know there were doors to a secret dimension that might open for those who earnestly sought them. Such hopes and needs have not gone away with time. Jim Morrison knew this. Morrison was the first rock star I know of to speak of the mythic implications and archetypal powers of rock ‘n’ roll, about the ritualistic properties of the rock concert. For doing so, the press called him a pretentious asshole: “Don’t take yourself so seriously, Morrison, it’s just rock ‘n’ roll and you’re just a rock singer.”

Jim knew they were wrong, but he didn’t argue. He also knew when the critics insulted him they demeaned his audience. Jim knew that music is magic, performance is worship, and he knew rhythm can set you free. Jim was too aware of the historical relevance of rhythm and music in ritual for those transforming Doors concerts to have been accidental.

From his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jim took solace and encouragement in the admonition to “say yes to life.” I never believed that Jim was on a death trip as so many have claimed, and to this day still find it difficult to judge the way he chose to live and die. Jim chose intensity over longevity, to be, as Nietzsche said, “one who does not negate,” who does not say no, who dares to create himself. Jim also must have been braced to read the following Nietzsche quote: “Saying yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types-this is what I call Dionysian, that is what I understood as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to get rid of terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous effect by its vehement discharge, but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity. ”

It was Jim’s insatiable thirst for life that killed him, not any love of death.

III. Morrison Today

Why, among all stars in that infamous rock-n-roll heaven, is Jim Morrison uniquely qualified as an avatar of Dionysos? It’s no doubt true that various worthy and charismatic figures in rock-n-roll have gained something of a fanatical cult following. Visions of Elvis, etc. One recent translation of Euripedes’ play “The Bacchae” even put Elvis on the cover. But, really, it should have been Jim.

Morrison was, as far as I know of, the first or only rock performer to actually identify with Dionysos, and to express (sometimes subtly) the stated intent of trying to bring back the old pagan religions. He was also the only one to do serious research on the cult of Dionysos, and to attempt to recreate the cathartic experience of Greek tragedy as a ritual on the stage. He forged a connection between shamanism and Dionysiac cult: the shaman, by going on a spirit journey, could heal the tribe; then the rock performer, by making the presence of Dionysos manifest, and by bringing the audience with him, could create a healing breakthrough for both himself and the spectators/participants. He was brilliant, and possibly mad.

He was also the performer who (in my view) best expressed the enigmatic, mysterious qualities of Dionysos himself – the paradoxical juxtaposition of sweetness and violence, ecstasy and agony, deep masculinity and androgynous beauty, orgasmic chaos and graceful precision. Etc., etc.

I have no doubt that the spirit of Dionysos permeated the world of rock music in the 60’s, and even somewhat today. But it remains that Jim Morrison alone gave himself to Dionysos, entirely and without reservation, to the very end; and all for the purpose of bringing back Dionysian religion to a world without a clue.

And since his death, he has become a real and guiding presence for many devotees; in other words – a god. Doors fans have built altars and web shrines, conducted rituals in his honor and written poems about their spiritual encounters with Jim. He was certainly a powerful force in my own pagan awakening. This point came home to me, in many ways over the years; I’ll relate one.

One evening, I was sitting on the couch reading Jane Ellen Harrison’s “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,” a book which deals extensively with the religion of Dionysos. I was at the section where she describes how the dead hero becomes transformed into a god. I got very excited, and was scribbling notes in the margins, about how I saw this process of heroic deification as applying to Jim Morrison. (Snakes figured largely into this process, as they did in the cult of Dionysos; and Doors fans know all about Jim and “the ancient snake.”)

Suddenly, for no reason, I had a strong urge to turn on the television. (I almost never watched it; my roommate did.) When I did so, there was a program about the history of rock music, and they were doing a short segment on Jim Morrison. Then they interviewed the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, on the subject of Jim’s death and/or possible continued existence. Ray said (paraphrased): “Jim isn’t here on earth anymore. Dionysos returned to Olympus, and he’s sitting up there laughing at us.”

This statement, coming right after my reading the same idea in Harrison’s book (and my relating it to Morrison), seemed like a remarkable coincidence to me at the time. I’m sure it was Jim who prompted me to turn the TV on at that moment. A few years later, I learned that (according to Jim’s girlfriend, Wiccan priestess Patricia Kennealy) that Harrison’s book on Greek religion was the very same one that Jim was reading just before he left for Paris, where he died a few months later.

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“Calling on the Gods…
Cobra on my left, leopard on my right…”
– Jim Morrison, from the album “The Soft Parade”

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I was a faithful Mormon for nearly three decades, and while I definitely busied myself spiritually, and tried to be close to Heavenly Father, I never actually wanted to worship him. Worship in Mormonism is problematic anyway: in my experience Mormonism is much more about trying to experience certain things, trying to feel the Holy Ghost. What that winds up meaning is that the individual personal relationship with God is one in which the believer receives from God without responding worshipfully. Instead, the appropriate response is supposed to be obedience and righteousness, not praise and adoration. I believe that true worship is an almost foreign concept to Mormon belief.

So when I tried to make post-Mormon Christianity work for me, and I didn’t exactly feel as worshipful towards Jesus as I thought I probably should, I blamed Mormonism. My Mormon upbringing had taught me to believe without true worship, I said to myself, and so it had stunted and retarded my spiritual senses.

I no longer really think that is the case. When I think of or experience the Hellenic gods, I want to worship them. I want to fall down on my knees and subject myself to them utterly and totally. They are gods and goddesses who are truly worthy of worship, and they provoke a response in me that is supremely and almost painfully worshipful.

It’s kind of odd, really, because there’s a lot of material out there in Neopagan literature suggesting that an attitude of total worship is not only not required, but perhaps not even appropriate. Much more emphasis is given to the reciprocal nature of our relationship with the gods: we give so that they may give. Utter worship and submission to the gods is treated, at best, as a lingering bad habit from a Christisn upbringing.

But here I am, and that cannot possibly be the case with me. I was raised sort-of-Christian (it depends on whom you ask), but in a tradition that did not emphasize the kind of worship that gets the Pagan stamp of disapproval. Wherever I learned to worship, it certainly was not in my own religious upbringing. And during my post-Mormon Christian explorations, I never really felt the urge to worship. So I didn’t get it there either. I honestly believe that my desire to worship the gods is purely and simply because they have revealed themselves to me as proper objects of my worship. They are my gods, they are real, and they are incredible.

Furthermore, the more I think about it, the more I think that the submission-versus-reciprocity meme is a false dichotomy. If a proper relationship with the gods is one of kharis (hospitality and reciprocity), wherein we give to the gods and the gods give to us, then what greater gift can we give but total worship and utter submission? Perhaps such a gift is not mandatory, but certainly a gift to the gods is not inappropriate because it is too great.

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