Type: Definition Essays
Sample donated: Regina Hansen
Last updated: April 6, 2019
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. “1 This is a basic fact about human nature.
In order to retain our sanity we are compelled to occasionally remove ourselves from the world around us through various methods of intoxication, be it drink, drugs, or spiritual possession. This intoxication performs a vital role in maintaining both the psychological balance of the individual and, by extension, the stability of the society they are part of, a fact that can be seen throughout history, right back to our earliest ancestors.From anthropological comparisons with later ecstatic religions we can note that Greek ecstatic cults satisfy a vital psychological requirement for the Dionysiac followers2, alleviating the anxieties that the participants may have had about environmental pressures surrounding them. However, this emotional outlet also performed an important social role: by providing a ‘safety valve’ for pent-up aggression, the ecstatic rites ensured that the natural frustrations of women in Classical Greece did not impinge on the regular running of the state.Modern anthropological studies of religion tend to approach ritual practices from an atheist and critical point of view, rationalising the rites and explaining them in terms of their function in society, or as a psychological necessity. This is both logical and necessary to gain a scholarly understanding of the practices, unclouded by personal beliefs. However, the limitations on this sort of analysis are clear for the social historian: by applying secular thought to the study of religion, we are restricting ourselves in a complete understanding of the experience.
Although we gain a deeper understanding of the ‘social’ functions provided by religion, there is little elaboration on the personal motives and psychological effects on the individual resulting such practices. In the first part of this essay I shall therefore examine the personal experience of the followers of ecstatic cult, before moving on to a discussion of the social role provided by such practices in ancient Greece. The two are not, however, mutually exclusive.From comparing ecstatic cults in contemporary cultures with the archaeological and literary evidence from ancient Greece, it becomes clear that the individual emotional experience of the initiate was essential for social stability and development. Moreover, the environmental pressures and cultural beliefs already in existence may have shaped the personal attitude towards the ecstatic trance. For instance, though followers of Dionysiac ecstasy may have recognised the curative psychological effects of the ritual dance, the majority would have sought possession mainly for its religious value3.It is not the form of the cults we are investigating here, but the function behind them, their role in Greek society and individual thought. So do we need to investigate the structure of these rites in order to understand the purpose? Essentially yes.
To fully understand the psychological process involved in ecstatic cults, we first have to consider how the Dionysiac followers themselves might have regarded the process of ecstasy, and consider the social conditions of those taking part in the ceremony.Here we encounter our first major problem with examining Greek ecstasy: unlike modern anthropological investigations, were the analyst can observe firsthand (or even become involved in) religious ceremonies, our journey here is through time, not space, and the data available is therefore greatly reduced. Anthropologists such as Malinowski, the ‘inventor’ of fieldwork, have argued persuasively that ethnographic research needs to be done on site in order to gain a fuller understanding of the area being examined4.However, without direct contact with ancient Greek culture we are left with the same limitations that all students of ancient social history face. Although some information can be gleaned about the rituals from archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources, explanations of the rites are rarely given, and the functions behind them are open to a great deal of speculation. With ecstatic cults the situation is slightly different as a number of ecstatic rituals still survive in ‘primitive’ religions and have been analysed in ethnographic surveys.However, this raises a further question: do the ecstatic rituals of contemporary societies correspond with the experiences of ecstasy the Dionysiac followers underwent? In order to work out the cults’ function, we first need to sift through the available information to determine their character and form.
The majority of our information on the subject comes from contemporary classical literature5. As has been noted by a number of scholars, the myths and fables surrounding the god Dionysos are some of the most savage and emotional in the whole of Greek mythology6.As Euripides’ play The Bacchae demonstrates, this god of wine appealed to the most basic sensory pleasures and was the embodiment of animal excess, offering an escape from reason and a rebellion against ‘rational culture’, such as that enforced by Pentheus7. Apparently, through possession and an ‘excess of vitality’8, Dionysos was be able to confer miraculous power to the cultists9, freeing the soul from the body, and bringing about a higher mode of existence for those held in the Bacchic trance.The Bacchants depicted by Euripides reveal a communion with vital and cosmic forces that they clearly interpret as divine possession10. This raises the intriguing question of what historical maenads actually believed they were experiencing.
Did all of the participants at the cult reach such a heightened state of frenzy as is depicted in The Bacchae, and could it have been perceived as anything other than spirit possession in their eyes? The ‘Lenaean’ vases, a number of fifth century stamnoi and lekythoi depicting women engaged in ritual activity around an image of Dionysos, might shed some light on this.These vases, the earliest extant images of Dionysiac worship on Greek pottery11, not only affirm the existence of Maenadic cults in Classical Athens12, but also illustrate the form that this frenzied worship took. The figures displayed are clearly removed from themselves in a ‘mystic state’, with their heads thrown back and bodies tensed in ecstatic devotion. The image portrayed in The Bacchae could therefore be seen as a reasonably faithful, if exaggerated, representation of the state of mind achieved by the bacchic revellers13.
From the evidence available we are able to reconstruct the basic form and character that these ceremonies may have taken. Surrounded by flickering torches, those engaged in the process would be driven into a state of excitement through rhythmic repetitive tunes14 accompanied by tambourines, timbrels and auloi. The continuous synchronised rhythm of this music, combined with furious and unrestrained dancing heightened the senses of the dancers to achieve a trance-like state and eventually collapse into unconsciousness15.Although we cannot establish with any certainty, the combination of visual and literary evidence16 gives us a crucial insight to the form Greek ecstatic ritual took, and thereby allows us to compare it with more recent cultures. As we are unable to observe Greek ecstatic rituals firsthand, a comparative study of ecstatic religions is vital to develop a deeper understanding of the intention of maenadic ritual and the function of such practices in Greek society. For ecstatic trance seems to be recognised phenomenon in religious practice across the world.
A recent study of ancient and modern traditional societies from numerous diverse areas of the world, for example, demonstrated the presence of culturally patterned, institutionalised forms of altered states of consciousness in ninety percent of the sample societies. 17 Yulia Ustinova is therefore unequivocally correct when she states that: ‘The Greeks are far from being unique in seeking certain forms of madness, considered to be inspired by supernatural forces. Ecstasy, trance, spirit possession and related states are one of the basic ingredients of human behaviour, regardless of i?? poque, place and stage of social development. 18 Ritualised madness (mania) is a part of religious life in virtually all societies.
The notion of a ‘changed and extended’ consciousness is one of the most essential supports for religions across the globe19. It is surely possible therefore, to construct a general pattern of ecstatic techniques using anthropological, sociological and psychoanalytical surveys, which would doubtless benefit any investigation of cultish practices in ancient Greece. As I have shown above, for the ancient Greeks, as with many more recent civilisations, the mania of the maenads was, in a way, proof the initiate was entheos – filled with the god20.The spiritual aspect of ecstatic ‘possession’ was never in question. However, modern analyses of religious practices state that rites and myths must be based on human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social, which demands explanation or definition through myth or action21. The fact, therefore, that ecstatic rites almost certainly pre-existed the Dionysiac connection22 has led to a number of theories being raised about the psychological origins of this sensuous experience and the role of ritual dance and ecstasy in religion.Philo’s statement that ‘Like the bacchic and corybantic ecstatics, [the Therapeutae] continue in their possession until they see they object of their desire’23 suggests that the Bacchants were in some way working towards a specific vision through ecstasy. There must have been a particular objective, either illusion or reality24, that the revellers were aiming to achieve during the course of the dancing.
From the literary sources, we can conclude that this aim was to become possessed by a spirit.The ‘spiritual experience’ is one of the main cornerstones of all religions25 and the primary aim of ecstatic behaviour in all societies (and ancient Greek culture in particular) is therefore to achieve a higher level of spirituality – a union with the god. However, modern analysers refute this purely religious explanation which must have satisfied Greek observers – there must be a deeper explanation for the actions of the Dionysiac followers.
Although spiritual enlightenment was the official justification for maenadic ritual, those partaking must surely have recognised the physiological benefits and simple enjoyment of energetic dance as well. Burkert notes that the Bacchic initiation could function as a form of psychotherapy. Citing a quote from Aristides Quintilianus, he states: ‘This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, that the depressive anxiety [ptoiesis] of less educated people, produced by their state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared away through the melodies and dances of the ritual in a joyful and playful way.
’26 This statement raises two important points.Firstly that the initiations were carried out by ‘less educated people’, and secondly that the ceremonies were in some way designed to relieve depressive anxiety brought on by their state of life. I shall return to the point of who participated in the rituals later, but first wish to examine the idea that ecstatic frenzy was an instinctive reaction to misfortune or terror. Certainly Andromache, on hearing of her husband’s death is described as acting ‘like a maenad’27, and this would fit well with the homeopathic model of dance as a relief for inner turmoil28, using external activity to quell inner commotion.As sentient human beings, it is virtually impossible to remain passive in the face of uncertainty or risk. Our instinctive nature demands action, but it is difficult to see, on first examination, what purpose these ecstatic dances aimed to achieve, or indeed what they would be responding to. The exhilarating effects of dance have been well documented.
Steven Lonsdale, for example, lists the functions satisfied by dance, not just from the context and point of view of the participant, but in the broader context of social mechanisms, in his 1993 work on dance in Greek religion29.As a physical activity dance can have curative and cathartic effects for the individual, but can also perform roles within society, such as temporarily reversing or inverting the everyday social order30, or acting as a social control for maintaining or transmitting sentiments. Studies of ecstatic practices from a number of cultures have illustrated the various healing properties of ecstasy31, whilst the anaesthetic effect of being put in a trance is well demonstrated by shamanic seances from across the globe.Bremmer, for example, notes a number of tribal shamans who seem impervious to harm, such as the Tungus shamans who reportedly play with burning coals whilst in a trance, and the Islamic (i?? awiyya dervishes who ‘through ecstatic practices became immune to sword and fire. ’32 This sense of invulnerability is also noted amongst the maenadic worshippers in The Bacchae, where the women are reported to ‘carry fire on their heads’ without being harmed at all [Bacch. 755f. ].Though Dodds argues that this is a literal depiction of the miraculous powers transmitted to the Maenads during their trance-like state33, this theory has become unfashionable.
Most scholars, such as Bremmer (1984), now conclude that Euripides’ dramatisation is an exaggerated rendition of historical maenadism – the playwright is therefore using the image to indicate the feeling of invulnerability amongst the intoxicated Dionysiacs, rather than an actual description of what was taking place. This perception of invulnerability could have come from a number of sources.Primarily, the Bacchants who had actually entered a trance would doubtless have actually believed that they were possessed by a god, and had taken on some of his powers. This is the most common explanation for the ecstatic feelings in shamanic religions and would almost certainly have been the explanation of the Dionysiacs themselves.
Even those who did not enter a trance-like state would have experienced a bond with their fellow dancers and felt the power of the ritual. As Pentheus remarks, the phenomenon was highly infectious and spread like wildfire amongst the women [Bacch. 78.
] The strength felt, therefore, could have come simply from being part of a forceful group, and the worshippers, whipping up excitement, would have felt emboldened against the feelings of any outside threat or disquiet on their minds.Weber sees this pursuit of strength and miraculous powers to be more important than the spiritual union with the god, and declares that where the possibility of obtaining superhuman actions and powers was involved, ‘otherworldly goals were of course completely lacking in all this. 34 This statement, at first glance startlingly excessive, is in fact generally referring to shamanic actions seeking to obtain prophetic powers. In this respect it is undoubtedly too overstated to be applied to the Bacchic followers. However, it does raise the point of whether the ecstatic ravers were consciously seeking something beyond a ‘union with the god’, which governed their pursuit of mania. For example, the idea that the Bacchants were seeking the spiritual purity is alluded to in the parados of Euripides’ work: Blest is the happy man who knows the mysteries the gods ordain, and sanctifies his life, joins soul with soul in mystic unity and, by due ritual made pure, enters the ecstasy of mountain solitudes. ‘ [Bacch. 74ff.
]Could the ecstatic rites therefore be seen as a purification ritual, with the presence of the god removing any miasma or shame which may have polluted the women? Parker thinks not. ‘They are released from anxiety or madness rather than from guilt,’ he states ‘and immediate psychological well-being is more likely to be their aim than a better lot in the afterlife. 35 It is not the soul being elevated by these rites, therefore, but a purging of the mind which left the initiates with a general sense of wellbeing and satisfaction. This fits in well with the anthropological examinations of ecstatic cult in more recent religions throughout the world. ‘Ecstasy’, the Encyclopaedia of Mysticism tells us, ‘is thought to bring on a sense of release from sorrow and from oneself which leads to an apparently transcendent experience’36. All well and good.But did all the women involved in the Dionysiac practices in fact achieve a frenzied state that would classify them as maenadae, the uncontrollable ‘maddened women’ that Euripides so vividly describes? Investigations of Greek death rituals have shown us that the expressions of grief at funerary processions were generally not a spontaneous outburst of emotion.
Rather, the whole process was a carefully controlled affair with lamentations ritually prescribed for the relatives and sometimes for professional mourners as well37.Just like the wailing and overwrought reaction to death, therefore, much of the ecstatic revelry could be regarded as little more than a contrived exaggeration of what is felt, or even a cynical representation of what is expected of them. The idea that not all the adherents of the Bacchic cult were actually succumbing to ecstasy was not unknown to the Greeks at the time, as Ustinova rightly points out. As far back as the Classical period Plato commented that in Dionysiac cults ‘Many bear the thrysos, but few are Bacchants’38.Clearly not all of those involved in the ceremonies were achieving the state of ecstasy apparent from the artwork and literature of the period. Moreover, rather than being an unprompted display of emotion, the Maenadic festivals were set at fixed times of the year, with ritual limitations on time, place and membership which were incompatible with the ‘spontaneous, unmitigated wantonism’39 so often described.Much of what has been perceived as ‘uncontrollable ecstasy’ must, therefore, have taken place in a fully conscious and lucid condition, a theatrical development which has also been noted in a number possession trance rituals in more recent times40.
This idea directly follows Henrichs’ theory that the ecstatic trance was not achieved by the majority of the Bacchic revellers, and that the ceremony, rather than leading to an emotional climax and change of mental state, was, for the main part, a simple physical exertion. By all indications, the peculiar religious identity of the maenads had more to do with sweat and physical exhaustion than with an abnormal state of mind. ’41 However, the Bacchic participants did not need to be in the midst of an ecstatic trance in order to benefit from the ‘heath-giving’ arts of ecstasy42. Physical activity alone, no matter what the belief lies behind it, has a proven therapeutic and calming affect effect on the mind.Even if the Bacchic revellers were not able to reach a complete state of ecstasy, then, they would still have enjoyed the experience of the Dionysiac festival as an opportunity to both ‘let off steam’ through rigorous exercise and to congregate with other women outside the confines of the home.
The followers of Dionysiac ecstasy would surely have recognised these curative psychological and physiological effects of the ritual dance, whether they achieved an ecstatic state or not. For most of them the ritual would have achieved the necessary restorative aim, which they would naturally suppose was thanks to the power of the god.As Bryan Wilson observes, when examining the functions of religion that are not overtly apparent, ‘these functions were latent in the sense that believers did not themselves know of them; for religion was an obligation, a necessity, the ‘given’ means of coping with the world. ’43 The participants of the rites were neither self-conscious of the process, nor intellectually curious about what pressures they may have been alleviating.
They simply knew that the god Dionysos Lusios – the liberator – had somehow provided an escape route from their troubles and temporarily alleviating their burdens in their mind.However, through his ecstatic personification and the actions of the cult, Dionysos was also to prove a liberator in a much more basic sense. On an everyday level, too, Dionysiac revelry, ‘broke the rope of heavy cares’44. Women in Ancient Greece were forced to suffer a dull and isolated lifestyle, with little stimulation and little opportunity to leave the home45. Participation in ecstatic cults would therefore have provided them with a rare opportunity to leave their quarters and congregate in areas not overshadowed by male influence. 6 Furthermore, Maenadic ritual, by acting as a frenzied outlet for the frustrations encountered in everyday seclusion helped them to endure the routine of their lives47. The women were encouraged to be as wild as possible, to dance and scream themselves to an emotional climax which would have been physically and mentally exhausting, right up to the point of collapse.
This may have been encouraged by the polis leaders who, on some level must have recognised this dammed up frustration, on a political, social and sexual level, and also perceived the therapeutic value of ‘ritualised possession’ as a method of dealing with it.The rites were therefore of practical value to society, and since their effect was appreciated as useful and desirable both by individuals and by society as a whole, they were incorporated into the framework of the polis48. As Robertson-Smith succinctly puts it, ‘Religion did not exist for the saving of souls, but for the preservation and welfare of society’49. The Dionysiac rituals were a necessary ‘safety valve’ allowing the women to release pent-up aggression before it impinged on the structure of the polis, and allowing them to escape, briefly, from their ‘conditions of absolute reality. The freedom and spontaneity of the cults, inaccessible in normal circumstances and seen as a deliverance from the social order, might go some way to explaining the mass adherence of women to these cults. As Ioan Lewis notes, there is a marked prominence of women in ecstatic cults the world over50, especially in male dominated societies, and these cults could therefore be regarded as ‘religions of the oppressed’.
They were not, however, as some scholars have attested, a female rebellion against male authority, with the aim of actually changing their position within the community51. Rather, as Lewis correctly states, they functioned as a ‘pseudo-protest cult’ allowing individuals lacking political influence to ‘advance their interests and improve their lot, even if only temporarily, from the confining bonds of their allotted stations in society. ’52To conclude, therefore, we can see that ecstatic cults were a vital part of Greek society, both to alleviate the personal anxieties of the initiates and to perform a number of important social functions. Through dance and the pursuit of ecstasy, the female participants were able to break free from their monotonous and isolated existence.
Though motivated by religious reasons, the Bacchic revellers would surely have appreciated the curative effects of the dance as well as simply enjoying the opportunity to be away from the house and to mix freely with other women.This individual ‘recharging of the batteries’ promoted social cohesion and provided emotional support for the participants of the cult, thereby maintaining the cultural norms already in place. That ecstatic cults and methods of intoxication still exist across the world is testament to the fact that human nature demands a release from absolute reality on occasion, an anthropological detail which can be observed from the earliest civilisations right up to our own time.