Dionysus in Zion

By Assaf Sagiv

The new Israeli youth culture dances to an ancient tune.

In 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.


To understand the link between the wild fertility rituals of Dionysus in ancient times and the mass trance parties taking place today in Goa, India, on the island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain, or along the beach in Tel Aviv, one must examine the underlying psychic forces from which both derive their power and vitality. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy, the Dionysian impulse has never been restricted to Greek culture. It is a fixed element of human nature that expresses itself through a longing to dismantle “the ordinary bounds and limits of existence” and to reach a state so intense that “everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness”10—a type of ecstasy (in Greek ekstasis, or “standing outside of oneself”), an intense experience of elevation beyond sensual pleasure, even beyond the sensation of space and time. In the ecstatic state, the individual consciousness dissolves into an unbounded sense of the absolute. Georges Bataille described the experience as follows: “The totality of what is (the universe) swallows me... nothing remains, except this or that, which are less meaningful than this nothing.... It is at this cost, no doubt, that I am no longer myself, but an infinity in which I am lost....”11
The Dionysian longing for ecstasy contains within it a deep yearning for self-annihilation, for the negation of one’s separate individual existence. The historian of religion Mircea Eliade described this impulse as the universal desire, manifest in religious and cultic practices around the world, to “return to the womb” as a prelude to being born again.12 This view of the ecstatic urge as motivated, like other states of mystical union, by the yearning for a protective fetal state devoid of worries is shared by other scholars as well. Shlomo Giora Shoham, for example, posits the existence of a deep psychological force which works against the normal development of the personality. Unlike Eliade, however, Shoham claims that this force tends not toward rebirth, but toward the negation of existence as such: “The longing not to be...,” he writes, “is constantly present and active, whether openly or in secret. I am inclined to agree with the proposition that if man were to have a switch in his body, by means of which he could end his life by simply pressing a button or pulling a lever, everyone would do so sooner or later.”13
As a primal force embedded deep within the human soul, the expressions of this longing for oblivion have accompanied human civilization from its beginnings. The ecstatic impulse played an important role, for example, in tribal societies from Siberia to southern Africa, where it was exploited for spiritual and ritual purposes. The detachment from physical reality served (and continues to serve in certain parts of the world) tribal magicians and other mediums in their communication with the world of spirits, a task requiring mastery of various ecstatic techniques. The shamanistic cultures did not see ecstasy as a type of pathological behavior, but as a heightened state of consciousness in which man touches a higher, invisible reality. The debauchery that at times characterized shamanistic rituals or ancient fertility rites was not simply a casting off of inhibitions; it expressed the terrible sense of beauty that pagans saw in nature, and the fear and awe they felt in its presence.14
Though many ancient pagan societies adopted a positive attitude towards ecstatic cults, not all did. Classical Greek culture, for example, was characterized by a more ambivalent approach, reflecting an appreciation for the danger that such phenomena posed to the social and political order. The Greek fertility religions were, for the most part, more inhibited than those developed by many of their neighbors. Widespread displays of public licentiousness were replaced by secret, mysterious rituals intended for only the select few.15 The popular cult of Dionysus was the striking exception, and the Greeks—who cultivated an entire civilization based on self-control—generally responded to it with revulsion and fear (as is expressed powerfully in Euripides’ tragedy, The Bacchae). The ecstatic religion of the god of wine was not suited for life in the polis, and its devotees therefore preferred to worship Dionysus outside the city walls. Likewise, when certain Greek city-states adopted this cult formally, they imposed restrictions on the ceremonies.16 But the tension between the Bacchic ecstasy and the cultural ethos of the Hellenic world did not generally result in violent campaigns of suppression. On the contrary: If we accept Nietzsche’s argument in The Birth of Tragedy, this very tension may have brought about some of the most sublime expressions of classical culture. Thanks to the refined, reasoned “Apollonian” element in Greek society, which served as a counterweight to the Dionysian spirit, this culture gave birth to the heights of tragic drama. As Nietzsche describes it, the power of Greek culture was rooted in the synthesis it created between these two elements—in its weaving together of Dionysian passion with Apollonian restraint.17

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