Dionysus in Zion

By Assaf Sagiv

The new Israeli youth culture dances to an ancient tune.

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n early October of last year, the modern city of Tel Aviv became the scene of a colorful pagan spectacle. On the boardwalk overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, about 150,000 young people gathered together to take part in what the organizers called the “Love Parade.” As dozens of scantily clad performers danced atop a procession of slowly moving floats, huge crowds under the influence of ecstasy and other drugs throbbed and swayed to deafening electronic music.1 The participants, who included not only people in their teens and twenties but also children, surrendered willingly to the intoxicating mix of sound, sight and smell, a combination which elicited what one account described as a feeling of “pure, simple, tribal joy.”2 The daily Ma’ariv reported that the mass event, whose purpose was to celebrate the “spirit of openness and freedom of the end of the millennium,” proved conclusively that Tel Aviv “can look like Berlin, New York or Amsterdam, or even more so,” when it brings together “all that love, the people, the noise, the crowds, the heat, the loud music, the traffic, the colorful clothing and the variety of naked bodies of men and women, children and adults.”3
Indeed, the Love Parade vividly expressed the permissive spirit of the millennium’s end. Yet it recalled a much older spirit as well, one whose roots are to be found not in contemporary Amsterdam, Berlin or New York, but in a distant era that predates Western civilization itself. Thousands of years before the advent of “trance” parties, similar celebrations were held throughout the ancient world, involving the same combination of wild music, sensuous dancing and chemical intoxicants. In ancient Greece, for example, ecstatic festivals were held for the god Dionysus (known also by the name Bacchus). In these “Bacchanalia,” the deity’s devotees, men and women of all classes, gathered in remote locations to give themselves over completely to the god of wine and fertility.4 Wearing satyr masks, half- or wholly naked, they cast off their inhibitions and worshipped in dance and song the god whom Ovid described as “the deliverer from sorrow, sun of the thunder,... god of the wine-press, the night-hallooed....”5
To the Greeks, Dionysus represented the demonic, chaotic side of nature, which can be neither tamed nor restrained by civilization.6 In the wild cultic celebrations held in his honor, all borders were dissolved—between the sexes, between classes, between nature and culture, and between man and the gods. “The participators in these dance festivals intentionally induced in themselves a sort of mania, an extraordinary exaltation of their being,” wrote the philologist Erwin Rohde. “This excessive stimulation of the senses, going even as far as hallucination, was brought about, in those who were susceptible to their influence, by the delirious whirl of the dance, the music and the darkness, and all the other circumstances of this tumultuous worship.”7 At the climax of the event, devoted followers of Dionysus entered a kind of trance in which they lost all sense of self, becoming “empty vessels” into which the essence of the god could enter.8 Having attained a mystical union with the god, in body and spirit, they experienced a state they called eudaemonia—a joy of the divine, an indescribable feeling of grace and elevation. The “sacred insanity” of Dionysus spread among the celebrants like wildfire, turning them into a single body, swaying, turbulent, possessed by an ecstatic spirit.9
An outsider watching the drug-and-dance festivals held today, of which the Love Parade was but one example, cannot help but sense their Dionysian intensity. After a period of dormancy that lasted for centuries, the Bacchanalia have returned with a vengeance, giving birth to an entire cultural movement that has attracted millions of young followers around the world. The last decade has witnessed the rise of a new culture of ecstasy, a resurrection of the pagan intoxication via electronic “trance” music and the widespread use of mind-altering drugs. Contemporary Israel is a vital center of this new international movement, a hothouse of permissiveness in the conservative Middle East. In this riven, embattled country, the ancient fertility cults which the zealous followers of the Hebrew God sought to extirpate three thousand years ago have come to life again in the land of Israel, in mass festivals held in the heart of nature and in crowded city nightclubs. Fueled by the frenetic energies of Israel’s youth, the Dionysian spirit has cast its spell on large portions of the younger generation of the Jewish state, and they devote themselves to it with alarming enthusiasm.

Assaf Sagiv is Assistant Editor of Azure.

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