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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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I believe in the Hellenic gods.  I have personally experienced their presence and their effect on my life.  I think that worshipping an honoring them in a traditional way makes sense.  I pray to Zeus, to Hermes, to Ares, to Aphrodite, to Hera, Athena, Dionysus, Artemis, Hestia and the other Olympians.  And I believe that I should also be finding ways to honor Pan, the nymphs, and the other immediate, present land-spirits.  I think that Euripides’s The Bacchae is one of the most intense, meaningful, and wise pieces of literature ever composed.  I believe that classical ethics and the Golden Mean remain–as they always have been–the best and most reliable guide for human behavior.

I have a strong pull towards personal mysticism and inner work: I have a strong desire to explore the landscape of the unconscious.  I think there is immense truth to the work of Jung.  Somehow, rock and roll, Dionysus, the Holy Grail, Jim Morrison, and snakes are all tied up in this.  And probably tarot, too.  I believe that there is something to be accomplished, some Great Work, some journey.  A journey outward into the literal Wilderness that is also a journey inward into the Wilderness of the human psyche.  There’s something there that wants to be discovered.

I believe that the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads, taken together, are an unsurpassed work of spiritual genius.  Reading them is like drinking light and wisdom.  I think that the philosophy of Vedanta comes the closest of any human philosophy to explaining the universe as we are situated in it.  If there is such thing as enlightenment–and I have to believe that there is–then the path outlined in the Gita has to be the way to find it.

So what does that add up to?  I don’t cast spells, or do any magic(k), or even really believe that other people who claim to are actually doing anything.  I don’t celebrate the wheel of the year.  I’ve tried, and it just didn’t click like I thought it was going to–it always seems like it should be relevant and emaningful and important to me but I never am able to make it be anything other than awkward and ill-fitting, like an outfit that looked great on the mannequin but just fits me terribly.  I think.  Or maybe I was somehow doing it wrong.  I don’t believe in assembling a homemade pantheon of gods that I “work with.”  I don’t think “working with” gods is a very good term at all, if nothing else because it fundamentally  misunderstands our relationship to them and in a terrible act of hubris tries to convert them into tools for our use.  I do divinations with tarot–and have often had uncanny insights–but sometimes I think the randomness of drawing cards causes me to miss the power and symbolism that the tarot has as a whole and in all of its parts.  I believe in right and wrong, but I don’t believe that we need salvation from sin.  I’m not sure if I believe in literal reincarnation, or literal life after death (I don’t deny either one: I just don’t know).  I’m inclined to agree on a philosophical level with the revival Druids, but when it comes down to specifics, none of what they do really reaches out and grabs me.  I’m not an ecofeminist.  I’m not a pacifist.  I’m not politically very liberal. 

I don’t feel much in common with most people who get included in the boader umbrella of “paganism” or neo-paganism; I don’t even think that the broader umbrella is a meaningful category because it includes too many things that have nothing in common other than being-clumped-together-into-the-category.  I’m not a Christian, but I have no fundamental problem with or hostility against Christianity.

So what, then?  What am I?  How do these pieces fit together?  How do I move forward, given all of this?  What’s the next step for me, spiritually?  Who am I and what does this all mean?  What does it mean for me as a father, a husband, a lawyer, a brother, a human being?  How do I keep myself from getting pulled away into tangents and driven off-course and away from things I hold sacred by the countless diversions and slippery slopes and spectra of meaning and practice that all of these disparate threads seem to be tied to?

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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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Note: This is another post for International Pagan Values Month.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

I have been thinking about the post I wrote yesterday on sources for pagan values, and I have realized (partly because of a conversation that I had about the post with my brother) that there is at least one big gaping hole in my presentation. In a nutshell, my thesis was that as pagans we should be looking to nature and the pagan past–mythology in particular–for our values and not just taking western liberal values and looking for a pagan justification for them. While I do think that we should be looking for authentic sources for our values, and I do think that just adopting western liberal values and inventing a pagan justification for them creates a morally meaningless religion, I presented the two options as a false dichotomy. My assumption was that if pagans have values that do not come from nature or mythology, they must simply be spouting out liberal pop culture values. While I think that is in fact what Brendan Myers does in The Other Side Of Virtue, it is not fair to accuse all pagans of doing the same. The problem that dawned on my shortly after writing my post is that I left out a major and significant source for the majority of pagans: the Age of Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Okay, so the song is more than a little over the top. I kid because I love. But in all seriousness, when we talk about modern paganism, we’re including a lot of people who self-identify as pagans that are heavily (if not primarily) influenced by the 20th-century New Age movement. Whether or not it was that way from the beginning, Wicca has pretty much adopted New Ageism whole-cloth, and even though it makes the Reconstructionists’ heads asplode, Wiccans are by far the most numerous of the self-identifying pagans. In any case, the New Age movement has its own set of values, a utopian vision of a world of peace, free love, spiritual connectedness, and enlightenment (and probably also vegetarianism): the Age of Aquarius. And because so much of neopaganism draws on New Age sources, these Aquarian values are held by so many neopagans that they go virtually unquestioned outside of Reconstructionist circles.

I’m not really talking about whether Aquarian Utopianism should be a source for pagans to derive their moral values from; I’m saying that it is in fact such a source. Not for all pagans, no, but it is prominent enough that it deserves mention and a seat at the table. And when we are talking about “pagan values,” their prominence among pagans and New Ageism’s influence on neopaganism generally is such that it is not unreasonable to say that Aquarian values are pagan values.

Aquarian values are not ancient, the way our pagan heritage and our mythology are (and they’re definitely not ur-primoridal the way nature it elf is), but that does not make them somehow invalid. As John Michael Greer is usually quick to point out, the age of a spiritual tradition has nothing to do with its valididty; a functional, productive religion is functional and productive whether it is a billion years old or was invented last week. They have not yet stood the test of time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t. And for us, the only thing that matters really is whether they work.

The trick is that we as pagans need to be at once mindful that the New Age Aquarian vision is a major source of our collective values, and simultaneously mindful that it is not our only source of values. It is not the be-all end-all; there should not be an automatic presumption of Aquarianism. The easy mistake that I think a lot of pagans make is simply to buy into Aquarian values whole cloth without really thinking about what they are doing. The lessons we get from nature, from mythology, and from our pagan past may completely contradict what Aquarian New Ageism teaches us, and although I do think that a reasonable neopagan could conclude that in such a situation, Aquarianism trumps its opponents, I don’t think that’s the kind of decision one can make responsibly without thinking it thorugh and realizing what one is doing.

If we do add Aquarian ideals to the mix of mythology, heritage, and nature, then the result is a pretty diverse set of sources from which we can derive our values. This is a situation that invites careful thought, deliberate scrutiny, and difficult weighing. It also means that different pagans are going to come up with different answers. Paganism is pretty diverse, so that won’t really change anything–hells, look around at the pagan values blog carnival I linked to at the top and you’ll see evrything under the sun represented–but if we’re all going to come under the same umbrella, we need to have some kind of common ground, especially in critical areas like moral reasoning. If we can at least acknowledge the sources for our moral values, then we are in a much better position to think critically about them ourselves and discuss them with each other and with non-pagans in a principled and productive way. And if despite our differing conclusions, we actually do share a common set of moral sources, then we have more common ground than we otherwise might think we do.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

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