The Risen Goddess vs. the Burn

AncientpilgrimsMetanira

THE RISEN GODDESS vs. THE BURN

Techne is a Greek word meaning skill or craft. Plato and Aristotle both used it as the definition of something done well. An athlete or carpenter both must possess techne for performing their activities. Their means and methods would be their technology, which can be taught.

In the broader sense, there is a technology to anything that is effective in creating an aimed-for change in the world.

The skilled use of language to entrance people, whether by poetry or storytelling, is a primordial techne. So are the performances involved in ritual psychodrama.

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Imagine a 2000 year-old nightclub that holds an annual rave. At this rave, the people must abide by rules set by the MCs and bouncers. After, the ravers swear that they’ve lost their fear of death when they witnessed something inside a place called the ‘White Cave.’ It is only something a person can experience for oneself; it can’t be explained in words. And anyway, once you’ve experienced it you’re not supposed to talk about what happens in this White Cave. Discussing what occurs in the White Cave could even bring exile or prison.

Eleusis

A festival like this occurred, between 1600 BCE and about 400 ACE, in a small town called Eleusis fourteen miles outside Athens, Greece. That’s roughly 2 millennia of yearly events. Some scholars date it even earlier, and its first performances as far back as 2500 BCE, giving it another millennia of life. Some trace its roots to the Minoan culture.

Historically, the event was presided over and managed by two families, the Eumolpides and Keryces, who passed down overseeing the event for dozens of generations. The families were secretive, and did not share the magic they had perfected that could inspire identical experiences in the pilgrim-participants. Imagine the skill they must have honed over centuries by observing the effects of their event on the Athenians and others who made the trek, fine-tuning every aspect from the food and libations and music and dance to the setting and stagings, the timing of dramatic events that merged audience with performance….

The Eleusinian Mysteries was a mass ritual, willingly undergone by the people, highly anticipated, and technologically designed to transform the audience’s souls. Everyone across the ancient Mediterranean were permitted to attend, slave and free citizen alike, except “barbarians” (those who couldn’t speak Greek) and murderers. One could not attend the Greater mysteries without first attending the Lesser, which were preparatory. All hostilities including war maneuvers were suspended for the period of the festival.

The event at Eleusis had a painstaking structure to it, all based upon the tale of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, her mother Demeter’s grief and subsequent wanderings clothed as a mortal, and her tenure as a governess for the son of Triptolemos, a prince of Eleusis.

Participants fasted beforehand, and had to ritually sacrifice a pig in Demeter’s name and ritually cleanse themselves in the Illisos River. The pilgrims called upon Iakchos (Bacchus) as they walked the Sacred Road to Eleusis that originated in the Athenian cemetery.

At the pilgrims’ arrival at Eleusis, the Eumolpides family abided by a three-part program: the dromena, which were ritual actions that started with the Lesser Mysteries.

Second, on the grounds near the Telesterion temple, was the legomena: ritual vocalizations by the hierophants and the priestesses who mixed the sacred kykeon brew and distributed it to the crowd in a procession and elaborate dance.

By this point, the thousands of celebrants had been seated or stood within the Telesterion. The kykeon worked fast, apparently, causing vertigo and cold sweating.

At this point, objects were supposedly displayed by the hierophant in a wooden shrine inside the Telesterion. A pilgrim was a mystes (one with closed eyes) before this revelation, an epoptes (witness) afterwards. This was the culmination and transformative event.

In some accounts, the simple display of alphi, an ear of barley, was the final revelation.

But such a mundane depiction surely could not be a psyche-shattering event, even under the kykeon’s spell?

It is still a mystery to us today.

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Who were the Eumolpides and the Keryces families?

In order to know that, we have to know the myth.[1] Persephone was upon a hillside in Nysa, picking flowers with the daughters of Oceanus.[2] Mother Earth and her brother Zeus and Hades conspired to create the most beautiful narcissus flower to seduce Persephone’s senses so Hades could abduct her. With Persephone beguiled by it, Hades roared forth from the earth on his chariot and swept her away into his chthonic land of the dead.

Realizing her predicament, and that her father Zeus had conspired, Persephone ate nothing and paid no mind to the splendor of the dark kingdom.

HadesPerseph

Demeter searched the fields for her daughter, then the earth. After discovering the truth from Helios, She despaired and wandered the earth as a crone and ended up at the Virgin’s Well at Eleusis. There She met the four daughters of Triptolemus, who convinced Her to meet their mother Metaneira. Impressed with the “old crone,” Demeter became governess to the king’s son Demophon. When offered wine, She refused it, as she considered it the transmuted body of Dionysus, who was suckled by the maenads on the same Nysa field where Persephone had been abducted (for this reason wine was strictly forbidden during the Mysteries).[3] Instead She asked for a drink compounded of barley, water, glechon (mint or pennyroyal) and other herbs (unfortunately, the only copies of the Homeric hymn are missing 22 lines here with the rest of the formula which would become the basis of the sacred kykeon drank at the Eleusis festival). Still morose, an old woman named Iambe-Baubo cracked blue jokes until Demeter laughed and broke from Her melancholy.

Every day in secret She fed the baby Demophon ambrosia and did rituals over him, intending to make a god of him. One day Metaneira caught Demeter baptizing the child in the hearth. Enraged, she discharged the disguised goddess. Demeter threw off Her human vestments and shone forth and condemned Metaneira and humanity for their ignorance of the spirit of the holy, condemning Demophon to not only a mortal life but a short one. She demanded Triptolemus build a temple to Her near the Rharian plains. He did this and there Demeter sat, still grieving the loss of Her daughter—and refused Her duties to fertilize the crops with Her thought and substance, causing a terrible famine for all of humanity.

Now, Her husband Zeus got word of this and, angry over the mortals’ inability to praise Him properly due to the ecological disaster, like any egotistical tyrant, sent goddess after god after messenger to convince Demeter of Hades’s worthiness as husband to Persephone. Demeter sent them all packing. Finally Zeus sent Hermes to King Hades to communicate His concern for humanity’s future—and that Hades should let go of Persephone at once. Persephone was overjoyed. Hades cautioned her that she would have to return to his kingdom sometime. She agreed—“sure, whatever!” Her appetite back, Hades offered her a few pomegranate seeds, four of which she ate.

Pomegranate

Hermes swiftly returned to Zeus with the news.

Demeter was jubilant on seeing Her daughter emerge. Immediately She asked if Persephone had eaten any food while in captivity.[4] She told her mother the whole story. Demeter wept: Persephone would have to spend four months of each year with Hades beneath the earth. So Demeter spent four months in mourning, Her spirit withdrawing from the living landscape to give us winter (or, more exactly, the 4-month drought season of ancient Greece).

But always the joy of the mother-daughter reunion brought back the fertility of the earth.

Demeterreunion

King Triptolemus was the patriarch of the Eumolpides family and builder of Demeter’s temple, whose structure She revealed to him in detail. From the Eumolpides clan came the hierophant of the Mysteries; their name means “of good voice.” Thus they were the cantors of the ceremony, those who taught the crowd the chant and summoned by incantation the presences of the gods and goddesses. The hierophantides to this singer were females chosen from the Eumolpides to attend the women aspirants. The hiera (the sacred objects to be displayed in the innermost place of the Telestrion) were solely under protection of the Eumolpides family.

The Eleusinian Mysteries_13.jpg

The Keryces, another royal Eleusinian family, were subordinate to the Eumolpides. The Keryces clan supplied the hereditarily-titled dadouchos, the processional torch-bearers. From them also came the hierocceryx, the bearer of tidings who enacted Hermes’s role as messenger, making the proper initiatory decrees and often enjoining the participants’ silence during certain intervals of the journey, in honor of Demeter’s grieving silence.

The phaidantes could come from either family. They were charged with maintaining and transporting the holy statues and vessels, including the huge numbers of kraters used to distribute the kykeion substance.

There were other ranks, involving those who carried the mystic fans, spread incenses and holy waters, the spondophoroi who proclaimed the sacred 10-day war-truce, the fire watchers, the flautists and singers, and the melissae (“bees”) who most likely watched for infractions of the rules and generally mingled with the initiates, who were under the control of the nine governors (archons) the leader of whom was called the Basileus.

All the family members wore purple robes, myrtle wreaths, and diadems (as we’ll see this color may have significance with regard to special properties gleaned from the grain).

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But what was that revealed to the mystes at the climax of the ritual?

One aspect was the revelation of the true identity of Triptolemus, who spread the word throughout the world of how to properly cultivate the grain. It had to have been something awe-inspiring that involved fire, grain, and a holy, supernatural violation of the sensory world that, combined with the participants’ heavily altered states of consciousness by means of the kykeion drink, overwhelmed the witnesses (who became epoptae). Scholars Carl Ruck, Albert Hofmann, and Gordon Wasson believe the secret ingredient may have been a special local variant of ergot, a mold that grows on wheat and barley and presents as tiny purple bulbs. The Eumolpides may have found a way of diluting the rust’s toxic properties, leaving only the psychoactive lysergic acid to be mixed into the kykeion—a powerful hallucinogen.[5]

Still this leaves the hierophants’ display in the Telestrion as a cypher. Was it a vision of burning wheat that wasn’t consumed by the flames? A Demeter and Persephone bearing wheat stalks who moved, untouched, in the huge bonfire? An image of the risen goddess made of flaming wheat that didn’t burn? Were the masters of ceremony able to control forms of electromagnetism or even plasma discharges endogenous to the Eleusinian geology in some manner? We don’t know.

In any case, the Rites of the Mysteries had the deepest possible meaning for the participants. It fulfilled a deep spiritual need of the populace, to have their fear of death purged, to feel the reverence of Gaia-Demeter and Her cycles, and to revere Her back, to cohere socially and spiritually with a random group of persons of all types stripped of societal rank, to achieve greater social cohesion via a long tradition,[6] to implant the seed of faith in the Goddess of nature both literally and metaphorically.

There was no limit for an individual’s number of attendances, and some persons went many times.[7]

The Mysteries were the original “mass programming” of a society. The Eumolpides took this responsibility seriously and acted accordingly; they were caretakers of the souls and potentially the fates of the participants. No duty could be greater in Greek society, not even war.[8]

And look at us now.

As religion scholars Mircea Eliade and Rene Guenon emphasized, there has always existed the profane space of public life, with its governments and taxes and bloody conflict, then a boundary, and beyond this boundary the sacred space where ecstasies and revelations and renewals of life and spirit occurred. They emphasize that these are sacred spaces where nothing is accidental and everything contains meaning, in distinction with secular places where accident and chaos reign. The Greeks were geniuses in contextualizing both of these realms and creating psychodramas that continuously re-created both of these “worlds” and their boundaries. In the sacred space, microcosm and macrocosm mixed in a both inner and outer hieros gamos, or sacred marriage. Hierophants are always needed to preserve the continuity of the sacred, whether the shamanic initiation, the ordination of a Christian priest or Jewish rabbi, the induction of the Sufi or imam, a Buddhist monk, etc.

Over the past four centuries, the sacred has been profaned and the profane blurred into the “sacred” of the new public temple, mass media. The meaning that enlivened sacred symbols in general has vanished along with the traditions supporting them. The forms of ritual survive, severed from their metaphysical context and transpersonal meaning. The need for catharsis lives as always in the human psyche, but is now “satisfied” through movies and television, music and concerts and raves. Adolescents and teenagers often end up having to spiritually initiate themselves into adulthood through self-inflicted hardships, whether they are conscious of their motivations or not, with dangerous drugs, anti-social and anti-authoritarian power-acts, and gang hazings/actions.

This is partially because the ritual forms that once structured life-transitions have died.[9] Traditional societies still separate the young who are on the cusp of full societal membership and amplify their liminal status through harrowing rituals in the wilderness. The elders do their best to induce a near-death experience in the adolescents through psychodrama involving drugs, masks, fire, and burials. Those who not only survive these hazings but do so fearlessly are marked for leadership in the tribe. Potential shamans are also sometimes discovered in this process.

As adults, we’ve got the weekend. Thanks to the labor movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, the inhumane “free market” capitalist wage slavery was reduced from six/seven days a week to five, with two consecutive days off. Twelve-to-sixteen hour workdays were reduced to eight…By emotional need, our society has preserved the bacchanal on a weekly basis; it is a two-day celebration of not having to work for one’s right to exist and subsist. Drunkenness (which we can call, as Victor Turner put it, “anti-structural consciousness”) and the events it unleashes are celebrated. Freedom from our nasty archons and their system is celebrated.

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How are we programmed today, and what is the nature of the programming?

Television, film, radio, internet permeate the “developed” world and attempt to imprint a monoculture that merely reflects the values of capitalism, namely, a token individualism (liberty), a bogus nod to egalitarianism, “material progress” in housing, medicine, farming, entertainment delivery systems, and weaponry to protect it all.[10] Collectivism (in the Mysterious form induced in the epoptae) and capitalism cannot coexist large-scale in the population of a country like the USA. What at one time were living myths and their symbols have been converted into commodities that the Hollywood machine uses to produce thrills and chills. Very rarely are socially unconscious “collective complexes” and ideas presented;[11] the number of industry filmmakers consciously trying to resurrect/induce a feeling of uncanny wonder inside us, as a form of initiation to a greater reality, can probably be counted on one hand.

We have all been reduced to Sisyphus. Prometheus is reserved for the elite scientific class. The wonder and mystery of life has been tamed or “othered.” We are compelled to seek it out. It’s out of reach, existing only in so-called “undeveloped” traditional cultures (hence the flourishing ayahuasca and iboga tourist industries). For the majority of us, anomalous experiences for which neither psychiatrist nor priest nor scientist is equipped to counsel us may irrupt our workaday lives and cause a transformation; it is only then that the realm of the accidental/secular realm we largely inhabit is expanded and violated by the numinous/sacred.

Second, the mass media attempts to program us into a more or less permanent state of fear and vigilance. Some may think this is at least partially a government attempt to control the nation’s emotions and thinking, and there may be some truth to that. It is more certain that the economic laws of news dissemination (advertiser dollars) favors the networks leading their broadcasts with sensational and trauma/fear-inducing stories. It’s no mistake that pharmaceutical companies buy most up the advertising time on network and cable news; what they are purveying is a nice little setup for inducing mass neurosis. Foremost on their menu is catastrophe, from local fatal car accidents up to natural disasters and mass shootings. “If it bleeds, it leads the broadcast.” Terror attacks are a boon to ratings and thus advertiser revenue. The latest alarming health study is the daily bread. The goal, whether it’s inadvertent or purposeful, is to induce either mild trauma or a disorientation in the populace, making them psychologically malleable to other messages—such as the notion that the government will sincerely give you the truth, facts, assistance, protection.

To sum it all up, the populace is emotionally primed to feel helpless at this onslaught of natural disaster, terrorists, disease, etc.

Obviously, a daily diet of mass media does not create a psychologically healthy individual. With thousands of hours from birth to age 30 it creates a mildly traumatized psyche—easy material to mold. This may or may not be the “conscious program” of the networks; it certainly is for the network and print’s true masters, the government who feeds the “experts” the facts for your consumption.

We could easily trace the roots of profanation back to the Enlightenment critiques of Comte and Locke and Paine and Jefferson. Our society is Janus-faced with regard to religious or spiritual transformation. It takes a special kind of person to face the expanses of “personal freedom” after a transformation occurs and create from it a new persona. It takes an even more special person to face the void of “total freedom” and hold their consciousness/ego together enough to create a self anew from the shards of a fluxing world. Humanity is in a non-optimal cognitive passage of its evolution to live in such nihilism—or only a very few strong individuals, as Nietzsche pointed out. And Nietzsche didn’t have the producers/boosters of this scientific/media imaginary and its “only atoms and void” hucksters in mind as his Ubermensch. In a capitalist society with free-for-all religious values, prefab culture will step into the spiritual void and the entertainment-industrial-complex will fill it.[12]

wickerman

The closest thing we’ve got is Burning Man, a constellation of pathologies that is the opposite (or even an unconscious parody) of the Eleusinian Mystery, born of frivolous libertarianism, techno-utopianism/dystopianism, and “artistic freedom.” As Hunter Thompson quipped in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.” Thompson was speaking of kitschy Vegas decadence, but it applies perfectly to the Nevada salt flats 514 miles north of Sin City, 45 years later. He lived in the real Burn world every day of his life, without the make-believe trappings. The “express yourself” Burning Man ethic performs an inverted totalitarianism, seemingly “free” but fascistic nonetheless: appear different or die—you’re not welcome on the playa otherwise…Envisuate as an individual and simulate your atomistic bubble, no matter what extreme of bad/no taste, or go fuck yourself…At the end of the week, the big Man effigy is incinerated in some pseudo-mystical echo of the “cremation of Care” ritual done by the “elites” at the Bohemian Grove saturnalia, where the pasty white guys who think they rule the world torch their worries away in front of a big talking owl.[13] How technopagan!

In the past decade, the true Burners who’ve been to the Nevada playa from its 1993 beginning have complained of the Silicon Valley billionaire types showing up by the dozen, and millionaires by the hundred, co-opting the anarchist TAZ vibe, each bringing their own private entourage and cities-within-Black Rock City. Really a damn shame, innit; if you want free expression in this new society, this new TAZ, you are going to now live by their rules, and be prepared for it to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Single BM tickets now run in the thousands of dollars, and are block-bought ahead of time in private by the big-money boys (and it is 99% boys) with connections before the public tickets hit the market.

Where are the sacred rites of passage to be found? Today’s seekers make trips to South America to drink ayahuasca in both ritual and non-ritual situations by people advertising themselves as shamans (or simply guides). Many innocent people have been burned by this “industry” in many ways: financially, mentally, spiritually by charlatans. See this, this, this and especially this.

Jung, James Hillman, and many others have explored the inner worlds that seem to slumber within us and find expression in dreams, visions, and the work of artists. But something like the Eleusinian Mysteries supposedly occurs only once, historically speaking. It is described as the product of an early human “diaphany,” as philosopher Jean Gebser put it, that is, a “making clear” of the relational structure of Greek and perhaps Paleolithic consciousness to itself and embodied into a sprit-affirming ritual.

Can such a diaphany occur more than once and be encoded once again in a mass form? Gebser thought not. Is calling the Eleusinian Mysteries historically unique just a form of “chronocentrism” based upon our conception of history as a unidirectional story? The Mysteries were a religious narrative for all of humanity (despite the prohibition of non-Greek speakers and murderers, anyone else was welcome). Was the Telestrion revelation an eternal form of revelation, or was it bound to place and time and the Hellenic consciousness structure, as Gebser, Hegel, and many other historians would have it? A ritual doesn’t last for two millennia without its being a singularly profound phenomenon in human history, whose structure and content had enormous influence to this very day. Gebser stated that our “aperspectival” age, in which a diaphanous understanding of the very conditions for historical forms has freed us from those conditions, a present in which space-time has become irrelevant, has freed us. Free to invent a new kind of collective experience.

 

 


[1] The myth is far, far older than the high Greek culture: “Dionysus was not the only Greek deity whose tragic story and ritual appear to reflect the decay and revival of vegetation. In another form and with a different application the old tale reappears in the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Substantially their myth is identical with the Syrian one of Aphrodite (Astarte) and Adonis, the Phrygian one of Cybele and Attis, and the Egyptian one of Isis and Osiris. In the Greek fable, as in its Asiatic and Egyptian counterparts, a goddess mourns the loss of a loved one, who personifies the vegetation, more especially the corn, which dies in winter to revive in spring; only whereas the Oriental imagination figured the loved and lost one as a dead lover or a dead husband lamented by his leman or his wife, Greek fancy embodied the same idea in the tenderer and purer form of dead daughter bewailed by his sorrowing mother.”

(The Golden Bough, James George Frazer, pg. 405)

[2] The etymology of this place involves the inebriates associated with Dionysus and his female acolytes the maenads, pgs. 97-99.

[3] Demeter was associated with the fields of barley and wheat that were cultivated through an ancient transmutation (the cross-breeding of wild grasses); Dionysus was associated with the cultivation of the vine and its fermented transmutation into wine. Scholars have surmised that ancient Greek wine contained about 14-20% alcohol content, although they had no words for alcohol or distillation. Their great veneration for wine was due not to the intoxication alcohol alone provided, but the spices, unguents, and other herbs mixed into the fermented “syrup.” Stimulants, entheogens, or even opioids could end up in a wine mixture. Depending on the local customs, pure wine could be extremely dangerous to drink. The hosts of house or public symposia assigned a person the task of determining the amounts of water added to dilute the wine and even the length of time a toast-sip would take. Any more than four “doses/cups” of even diluted wine could bring on psychosis or sickness—hence the notorious reputations of the maenads, Dionysus’s female acolytes who would become frenzied on their retreats into the wilderness when they drank the essence of their god. See Ruck, Carl P., in The Road to Eleusis, pgs. 50-57.

[4] Eating the food of an “Otherworld” and a resulting enchantment or captivity by its denizens is a universal mytheme, one that has survived especially in European and Anglo fairy lore.

[5] See their study The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.

[6] Of course we’ll have our killjoys here saying “its true purpose then was to perpetuate the patriarchal war-machine that was Athenian society by defusing its citizens’ attitude (fear) towards death in a huge mind-control operation.” Fair enough. But I would retort that this was not its central purpose but a side effect; this ritual was so old it

[7] The 1st Century mystic philosopher Apollonius of Tyana was infamously turned away from attending because everyone thought him a sorcerer; this wandering “priest of no religion” was already so learned in various spiritual techniques that he shrugged off his expulsion, claiming he already knew everything about the Eleusinian Mysteries anyway (which could very well have been true, given his immense knowledge and well-attested ESP abilities). This blow-off, of course, did not enamor him any further to the proud Athenians!

[8] One might cynically say that the social and legal precedence of the Mysteries over concurrent Athenian military actions was due precisely to its removal of the fear of death—it could make the polis’ potential young soldiers immune to mortal terror on the battlefield.

[9] When did traditional rites of passage at puberty or in early teen years conceived as simulated “near-death experiences” or spirit journeys die off in the “West”? Mithraic cults survived into the 5th century. We could consider military induction techniques the closest our society comes to how the ancients practiced it.

[10] As originally envisioned, this freedom from want was supposed to allow people to have more time free to think, to develop themselves spiritually or culturally or artistically. As John Adams wrote to Abigail, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematicks and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”

[11] I might here note Jordan Peele’s film Get Out and its inspirations Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, and on another level Frankenstein and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

[12] This is the central thesis of Daniel Bell’s classic The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: If a capitalist society’s culture is driven by the same unfettered business ethic as its economic sphere, that culture (defined as anything unnecessary and produced “to no purpose” other than entertainment or edification) will ultimately undermine the “Puritan work character” that built America.

[13] Incidentally, Burning Man has been slagged by many as a racist event, whether by socio-economic “accident” that its type is a college-educated tech industry/liberal arts trust fund baby (minorities are simply “underrepresented” in this category) or just plain “I wouldn’t feel welcome” by non-whites.