April 28, 2022
Stop Making Sense: Dionysian Mysteries, Counterculture, and the Liberatory Power of Ecstasy
By Connor Marvin
Dedicated to the memory of Wilhelm Reich, P.B. Randolph, and all those who have kept the Light of Dionysus lit through our dark age.
“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is sh*t-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world” (Terence McKenna).
Since the lunar nodes have moved into the same position they were in leading up to the Summer of Love in 1967, and because of the astrological signatures of the upcoming eclipse on April 30th, I have felt it important to release a much-expanded version of this piece which was initially published before the Summer Solstice of 2021. The south node is in Scorpio, the sign of (among other things) trauma, darkness, intensity, and the shadow, while the north node is in Taurus, the sign of sensory pleasure, material abundance, fertility, luxury, and bodily joy (and, yes, sometimes stubbornness). The north node is, in older understandings of astrology, “gluttonous” – it has a head but no body, an appetite but can never be full. The north node or head of the eclipse dragon is often seen, in the birth chart, as the karmic direction towards which the soul wants to move over the course of its incarnation.
The south node, on the other hand, is ascetic – it has a body but no head, therefore cannot eat, and is seen in the birth chart as the karmic direction the soul wants to evolve out of. Collectively, nodal shifts tend to purge themes from the south node and move towards themes from the north node. Release naturally follows tension, as drawing the bow-string back is only half of archery. The amount of tension that has been built by the pandemic and (mostly intelligent) restrictions on our lives and movement for over two years, in addition to all the tension from all the other critical issues and movements in the world, cannot be overstated. This article is meant to suggest one possible direction we might point the arrow of our collective energy, perhaps a more useful direction than whatever bull’s-eyes we are given by the dominant American culture and its messaging apparatus. Let the arrow fly.
On April 30th, our first Taurus North Node eclipse will occur close to Uranus, the planet of revolutionary change. Sextile by sign (though not in direct aspect) on the same day will be the exact conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in Pisces. These are the two benefics, the planet of joy, wisdom, generosity, expansion, wisdom, and abundance meeting with the planet of love, harmony, beauty, and art, in Pisces, the sign of oceanic nondual merging. Venus is exalted in Pisces (think of the myth of her birth from the ocean foam), and Jupiter is in rulership. As this will be a solar eclipse, the moon (exalted in Taurus) will be new, and the ruler of the sign the new moon occurs in “rules” the lunar cycle until the next new moon. As Taurus is ruled by Venus, the importance and relevance of her (in one of the most auspicious placements possible at that moment) is highlighted even more. In short, this looks good. There is massive potential to reorient the collective towards love, harmony, and beauty, which is clearly lacking in our social structures, systems of governance, and economic system.
I will be discussing the historical “Hippy” movement, and I ask that you set your resentments and judgments aside for the moment. I see much of this common distain as based in misreadings of history. The incredibly visible but statistically small Hippy movement of the late ‘60s laid the groundwork for the resurgence of witchcraft and the occult we are seeing today. In fact, the explosive popularization of Tarot cards, Astrology, and various forms of meditation today are a direct parallel and result of that cultural upheaval. Countercultural movements in the 1960s produced social and political change on a scale that goes largely unacknowledged, in part because we take it for granted, in part because much of it was un-done during the Reagan era. This emergence of liberationist ideology mixed with interest in direct experience, psycho-social authenticity, and consciousness expansion was incredibly dangerous to the status-quo. Despite how new and sudden the movement in the 60s seemed, it bore marked similarities with movements and traditions throughout time and place, all of them dangerous to established power structures. It may lie dormant for decades or centuries in any given culture, but will erupt when it is needed. IO DIONYSUS IO.
The Hippie counter-cultural movement of the late 60s has been deliberately painted as unintellectual and naïve, its revolutionary potential and accomplishments reduced to juvenile aesthetic. The reality was far more interesting. The problems and downfalls of the Hippie movement are myriad, and outside the scope of this article; in short, the movement was torn apart when the community of idealistic young runaways was beset by predatory pimps and pushers on one hand and police and state counterintelligence on the other. Much has already been written on the shortcomings of the movement; instead, I wish to connect that movement, and movements like it, to ancient Pagan, mystic, and indigenous lineages and provide keys for doorways by which one might further enter into that eons-old tradition of ecstatic, transgressive liberation movements.
“A tree arose. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree within the ear!
And all was silent. Yet in that silence
pulsed new genesis, new signaling, new change.”
(Sonnets to Orpheus I.i, Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow)
The Diggers of the 60s, who named themselves after a 17th century English Christian-Communist movement of reclaiming public land for agriculture and sharing food and property, were community anarchists who organized street theater, free stores, and other community projects. Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane played at their events. One Diggers-organized action was driving a flatbed truck full of naked belly dancers through the financial district of San Francisco, inviting the wealthy black-suited normies to climb aboard and abandon their jobs. This gives a good indication of the energy they brought. Thousands of youth flocked to San Francisco in 1967 during the “Summer of Love,” many of them runaways (the lunar nodes moved into the same position they are now earlier that same year). Flyers were posted around the city by concerned parents begging their children to call or return home. Hundreds slept in Golden Gate park that summer, fed for free by the Diggers and other groups.
Established psychedelic-left community organizations and individuals were tasked with “turning on” these young people, who were drawn as if by a magnet to the brightness and freedom of the emerging Hippie movement but who had very little experience living on their own and often no articulate sense of what they were doing. The philosophy of the Hippies was similar to that of Thelema’s “do what thou wilt will be the whole of the law” – in essence, if everybody “does their thing,” if we all embody our fullest authenticity and withhold judgment of others, we can be free. In order for this to work, people must withdraw their projections and assume that those around them (at least those in the movement) are doing their best to embody their Dharma, Tao, or True Will. With this was combined a radical compassion and love for others that more closely resembled the teachings of Christ than the dour, bigoted, joyless manifestations of various Churches that bear his name. This potent combination of devotion to both individual liberty and service to others is likely as old as humanity, visible in the artworks of prehistoric peoples clearly showing reverence for the human (as self and other) as well as the environment.
White radical Hippies asked the Black Panthers what they could do to support the movement, and were told to start a parallel organization, the White Panthers. Their demands included total abolition of private property, police and jails, and money. An excerpt of a White Panthers statement reads, “Our program of rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets is a program of total freedom for everyone. We are totally committed to carrying out our program. We breathe revolution. We are LSD driven total maniacs of the universe. We will do anything we can to drive people crazy out of their heads and into their bodies.” The Pink Panthers were also formed, a group of queer radicals who dressed in pink and provided community defense for other queer people in an environment where violence from both police and straight society was commonplace. The Hippie movement was largely aligned with various queer, feminist, and racial liberation movements, as well as the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements (the “peace symbol” comes from the semaphore nautical flag code for “ND,” Nuclear Disarmament, within a circle).
The Hippie protest tactic of “love-ins” or “be-ins” was particularly disorienting to the establishment. Instead of ordinary protest, which police were and are more than happy to demolish with violence, Hippies would gather high out of their minds and just socialize. A loud and colorful crowd of freaks gathered in front of the courthouse giggling and laying in the grass to protest the arrest of someone for giving oral sex on a park bench in broad daylight. By using non-ordinary protest tactics, Police were forced to grapple with the reality that their ordinary antidemocratic tactics might not be suitable for the job. The Hippies were often welcomed by the mostly Black neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury – they didn’t drive up housing prices, because straight white society didn’t want to live next to Hippies. They were overwhelmingly poor, often cramming roommates into small apartments and supporting themselves by selling zines or countercultural paraphernalia on the street. The Hippies were not homogenously white, though that was the majority. Despite this, white Hippies were routinely targeted, harassed, and beaten by the police. By marginalizing themselves, they stepped towards solidarity with their Black neighbors.
The idea was to refuse to participate in or contribute in any meaningful way to mainstream society. Not in some grim, dour, cynical, nihilistic way, but ecstatically, joyfully. Attraction rather than promotion – people were drawn to the movement not by intellectual logic or appeals to a sense of shame, but because the Hippies really looked like they were having a better and freer time than mainstream American culture offered. Dropping out really meant it – abandon middle-class success culture. Spend your days sitting in the park, “doing nothing.” Get high and make art. Make love, not war. Drop acid, not bombs. Burn your draft card and risk prison. If you have some money, buy a plot of land and deny access to it to no one. Less critique, more creation. Abandon Puritanism in all its forms – sexual, moral, rational, political. Strike at the jugular of the Machine, with an ecstatic smile on your face.
“Spring has come again. The earth
is like a child who knows poems by heart;
many, so many!… For the work
of such long learning, she wins the prize.”
(Sonnets to Orpheus I.xxi, Rilke, tr. Snow)
The Dionysian Mysteries are at least 5,000 years old, and likely a continuation of an older tradition. The cult thrived in matriarchal Minoan culture, and spread across the Mediterranean. Hellenic Greece by contrast was aggressively patriarchal – there were laws in many places that dictated the types of sounds women were allowed to make in public. Local Dionysian Mystery cults, on the other hand, were often women-only or women-majority, and both the Greek and Roman state considered them a threat to stability and state control. Greek and Roman attempts at controlling or banishing the Dionysian Mysteries failed for centuries. It was only the forced Christianization of the Roman Empire that eventually led to the Mysteries falling silent – which is ironic, considering the similarities between early Christian and Dionysian rites. In the centuries after Christ, there is ample documentation of Gnostic Christian sects having orgies to celebrate the eucharist, with menstrual blood taken to be the wine and semen taken to be the bread.
The Mysteries of Dionysus were rural, egalitarian, and decentralized. People of all classes, including enslaved people, were welcomed as initiates. So serious was their dedication to egalitarianism that people were turned away if their clothing was too expensive or their hair was braided in a fashion indicating higher class. Initiates took vows of silence, so little is known of the techne (method) of ritual initiation. What is known are the effects – Greek philosophers and historians describe initiates as coming to an unwavering peace and loss of any fear of death. It was said that to die without ever experiencing the mysteries would be like never having lived at all. To experience and therefore conquer death while still in a living form was the common aim of the ancient Mysteries (mutu qabla an tamutu, “die before death,” is also the motto of the Sufis, which will be discussed later). Fearless people are always a problem to Authority. Euripides’ play The Bacchae describes the god leading his bands of Maenads (female devotees) into the hills to observe the mysteries, who would tear apart any man who stood in their way. The Maenads were feared by “straight society” in Greece, as they would go into an ecstatic frenzy during religious holidays, and Dionysus was a god of liberation, not state dogma. This was not the stoic intellectualism of the urban elite, but an anarchistic (an-archos means without rulers, not without order), orgiastic cult of rural and common people. Most scholars agree that these initiations involved drinking wine spiked with some entheogenic psychedelic from a kantharos (drinking vessel). Many myths and references also describe Dionysus’ travels through Asia, and Cannabis Indica was burned as an offering to Dionysus in areas where Greek and Indian culture mingled.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, he differentiates ordinary mania (madness) from theomania (divine madness). He delineates four types of theomania – Poetic, Telestic, Mantic, and Erotic. These gifts from the gods liberate the experiencer, as opposed to ordinary mania / madness which is psychologically destabilizing. Poetic theomania is inspired by the Muses – Plato goes so far as to explicitly say that sane people cannot write good poetry. They must be possessed, god-mad, and only then can they serve as a channel for true poetry. Mantic theomania is a prophetic state, inspired by Apollo – again, the prophesy does not come from the human but rather through them. Erotic mania, inspired by Eros or Aphrodite, is the divine madness of love. This is not ordinary infatuation, which also has the ability to induce ordinary madness, but rather a sublime, ecstatic state. Eros and Dionysus share an epithet or title – Eleutherios, “the Liberator.” Telestic theomania refers to the divine madness induced by initiation, and is specifically associated with Dionysus and his mystery cults. It was this madness that gripped the Maenads and Bacchantes and so terrified the Greek and Roman states that they spent centuries unsuccessfully trying to eradicate the Dionysian mysteries. Let us prove that their repression was a failure.
“Will transformation. O be ravenous for the fire
in which a thing boastful with change forever eludes you;
that designing Spirit which plots earth’s flourishes, –
it loves most in the figure’s energy the moment of turning.”
(Sonnets to Orpheus II.xii, Rilke, tr. Snow)
Greek historians identified Dionysus with Shiva, who was accused in the Rig Veda of teaching mystical secrets to the lowly and of leading a band of young delinquents who mocked normative society. Shaivist Tantra is the earliest organized manifestation of Tantra in India, and Tantric devotees (bhaktas – notice the similarity to Bacchantes) of Shiva walk a path just as transgressive and ecstatic as those of Dionysus. Shaivist Tantra (more commonly known as Kashmir Shaivism) is a living tradition practiced by hundreds of thousands of sadhakas today. Dionysus is also identified with the Roman Liber (the etymological root of “liberty”) as well as Osiris, another dying-and-rising god associated with beer.
In addition to various lineages of Tantric Yoga, another tradition that has clearly inherited remnants of the Dionysian current is Sufism. Pir Zia Inayat-Khan describes how in India, to this day around the urs (“wedding,” meaning anniversary of the death of a Sufi saint, the day they went to meet their Beloved) of a famous saint wild dervishes will emerge from the jungle, puffing chillums of hashish, long dreadlocks swaying in the humid heat, and make their way to the grave-shrine of the saint. For days before the urs, the Sufis will gather at the shrine, often without sleep, and go into a God-intoxicated trance of drumming, music, singing, and ecstatic dancing. After the urs, they will make their way back into the jungle. Like Plato, Sufis differentiate two forms of madness – majnun describes one who is struck with ordinary madness, while majzub describes one who is God-intoxicated, and appears drunk in their state of ecstasy and union with the divine Beloved. Traditional names for Sufis – dervish, fakir, salik, even the term Sufi itself – were originally disparaging terms meaning something like “bum” or “vagrant.” These were and are people who truly tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. As Kabir, the famous Indian poet who was likely both a Sufi and Shaivist Yogi said, “I have burned my house down. Follow me, and I will burn your house down as well.”
The politics of the Sufis also mirror those of the ancient Dionysians and modern eruptions of that ecstatic current. Chishti Indian Sufis were so committed to not going to the courts of kings (not bowing to or waiting on worldly state power) that one saint, Nizamuddin, refused to bow to the king even under threat of death. The king was away on a military campaign and sent word that when he returned to Delhi all the Sufis would be killed. Nizamuddin’s murids (students) were frightened, but every time they would suggest fleeing he would reassure them, saying, “Delhi is still a long ways off.” The night before the king would have arrived in Delhi, his tent collapsed, killing him instantly.
“Delhi is still a long ways off” is still a saying in India, a reminder not to bow to worldly power, for the true sovereignty is an awakened heart before which even powerful kings should bow. There are many stories of kings going to study with Sufi sheikhs and being turned away, because the worldly power and influence was understood to be such a corrupting force, no matter the purity of the king’s intention. The idea is that, instead of courting worldly power, we can use spiritual power to establish paradise here and now, in our own communities, instead of waiting on the state to fix the problems it created. Most Chishti darghas (grave-shrines of saints) serve food to hundreds or thousands of poor people in India every day. Anyone familiar with Rumi or Sufi poetry in general will be familiar with the use of wine and drunkenness as a central metaphor for the ecstatic state of union with the Divine, another thread connecting them to the Dionysian mysteries.
I hope you don’t take all this to be glorifying psychedelics as the path to liberation, though they do have the tendency to liberate people from conditioned patterns of thinking and acting. Consciousness expansion without a stable container and orientation towards service to others lead to all kinds of neurosis. I have over 11 years sober, and my experience with both Sufism and Tantra (within the traditional container of teacher and lineage) has proved that the incredibly powerful ecstatic states and experiences described by the saints and poets of various traditions are not always indicative of some hidden “entheogen.” This experience is not exclusive to these traditions, and is clearly evident in the historical record of European Witchcraft. Most lineage traditions of the world hold the keys to this experience, even when they are covered up by dogma or colonialism. These states are accessible to us, and they are part of the birthright of humanity.
Many traditions have initiation rituals involving things that, without a ritual container, would otherwise be traumatic (sensory deprivation, fasting, isolation, ritual burial etc.). It is my experience that ecstasy as I have spoken of it here is the opposite of trauma, and can bring a healing and transformative sacred container to those moments where we felt the sacredness of our being was demolished. From the Hippy movement to the Dionysian mysteries, people entering into a direct experience of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all being causes changes not only in how you feel and think, but how you act – instead of theory, instead of being held as a cognitive object, ecstasy is embodied belonging and connection. Various protest and liberation movements in the modern era (the environmental movement being the most visible and obvious) have arisen specifically from the ground of the ecstatic experience produced by psychedelics, ecstatic spiritual practices, or both. There are some experiences you can’t un-have. You cannot objectify a landscape into a dollar amount or resource to exploit if you have heard its voice and felt its breath. This isn’t “New-Age,” this is animism, this is the primordial tradition.
“Torn open by us again and again,
the god is the place that heals.
We’re jagged, because we want to know,
but he is scattered and serene.”
(Sonnets to Orpheus II.xvi, Rilke, tr. Snow)
I am calling on Dionysus. Pleading, wild-eyed, dancing, pounding on the gates of Paradise begging for the Waters of Life to flush the world. We are so used to playing defense, so numb to the onslaught of atrocity, that we forget what it would feel like if we were winning. Yes, the situation is grim. All life hangs in the balance, and a tide of war, authoritarianism, and biosphere collapse seems poised to snuff out this beautiful experiment of life on earth. The human species needs to evolve, and quickly. Those interested in the psycho-spiritual evolution of humanity are hopelessly outnumbered, but we are not fighting alone. The joy-denying fast-food megachurch of hate commonly masquerading as Christianity in this country makes frequent use of spiritual means to effect political and social change. If the political situation is any indication, it seems to be working for them. I suggest we try the same, but – instead of mass prayer to elect the most right-wing candidates imaginable as dictated by the hierarchy of the church and motivated by fear and hate – autonomous ecstatic ritual to bring liberation to all as dictated by the desire of the individual and motivated by love, harmony, and beauty. I see no evidence that cynicism is productive, and I see no reason to aim for anything less than wild utopia.
Feel the ecstatic potential of this cultural moment. Widespread political and social repression, disconnection from body, community and nature, the bow has pulled back, the tension increasing by the day. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of Peace. Paradise is our birthright, and damned be any who stand in the way of Love. There are so many books on magic and so few of them contain anything directed towards collective liberation, and even fewer that mention the ecstatic experience or how to get there. How many long for the sublime touch of bodily presence, thirsty for one drop, one moment of actually being here on purpose and loving it? How much of the animal, the explosive ecstatic surging life-force within us, is straining at the bit as the reigns begin to fray? What titanic copulations are waiting to be unleashed? As we move deeper into spring and eclipse season, may the receding tide of paranoia, alienation, and restriction be swallowed by an even greater wave of Love, reveling, and liberation. I imagine naked poetry readings howling at the moon from the rooftops; I imagine trauma survivors gathering to collectively invoke pleasure, safety, and rest, marinating our nervous systems in the ambrosia of what we thought was taken from us; I imagine a Summer of Love less naïve, more informed by grounded political and psychological theory than that of 1967. The masculine-colonial cult of rationalism has had its time and failed, we must put Ecstasy back on the throne. DIONYSUS ELEUTHERIOS, may all beings be free.
“Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.”
(Sonnets to Orpheus II.xxix Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Joanna Macy)
Partial Bibliography –
Mystai by Peter Mark Adams
Dionysus: Exciter to Ecstasy by Vikki Bramshaw
Tree of Lights: The Chishti Lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan by Pir Zia Inayat-Khan
In the Teahouse of Experience by Pir Netanel Miles-Yepez
Gods of Love and Ecstasy by Alain Danielou
The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku
Revolution (1967), a documentary filmed at the height of the (first) Summer of Love in the heart of Height-Ashbury, San Francisco, available for free on YouTube.