I always have been fascinated with comparative myths and religion. In particular, it is the mystery religions that intrigue me most. Among these, the cults of Dionysius and Attis have been among the most puzzling, but fascinating.
Both these cults gained enormous popularity in Rome and in fact, a number of Emperors embraced them enthusiastically. In the case of Attis, it is a little misleading to label this as the 'cult of Attis'. It actually was a religion of the Mother Goddess, Cybele and the sacrifice of Attis was a sacrifice to her.
The most important ritual in the worship of the Mother Goddess was the sacrifice of Attis either through castration or death. Originally, it probably demanded the Great Sacrifices but castration became the alternative very quickly.
Men often would castrate themselves as the culminating act of a frenzied ritual. The sacrificed parts would be thrown into the lap of the Goddess, to be buried ritually later. This sacrifice was believed to initiate a rebirth of the individual.
The Dionysian rituals always involved the Great Sacrifice, originally of human beings, but later of young animals. In the original myth, the infant Dionysius either was torn to pieces or cut to pieces by his nurses. He then was reborn.
The part of the 'nurses' was given to individuals who devoted themselves to the priesthood. It became a role for women, although the original killers were the Titans, who were male.
Even in contemporary society, most people are familiar with the tales of the maenads who ran through the mountains barefoot in religious ecstacy ultimately to tear wild animals apart with their teeth and hands.
What is a 'thrill kill' if not a kill performed in a state of ecstacy? Dionysian practices required its participants to surrender themselves to the 'madness of the god' in order to reach the state required to kill in this fashion. In like fashion, the sacrifices made in the tradition of Attis required a state of temporary madness.
Accounts of these practices invariably contain descriptions of individuals who performed these acts without knowing what they were doing. In many cases, they 'awakened' again to sanity only to be repelled or horrified by their actions.
What makes this particularly interesting is that these were not peripheral 'cults' like those of Charles Manson. These were State-recognised religions. They were believed to be 'positive' in nature as well, bringing fertility to the land and rebirth to the participants.
Christianity, with its central figure of a 'son of God' who surrendered to crucifixion, followed these other mystery religions to some extent. What is missing from Christianity, however, is the need to make the Great Sacrifice again and again. This is what distinguishes Christianity from other mystery religions.
Our culture has been influenced by Christianity to the extent that most people recoil in horror from the thought of human sacrifice, a practice known throughout the world in almost every culture. I am no different in that respect, but I believe it is impossible truly to understand a religion unless one can empathise with it to some extent or at least to attempt to comprehend the logic and compulsions that motivated its rites.
Fundamental human nature has not changed. People still are utterly fascinated with serial killers and thrill killers. What has changed radically is the manner in which we perceive their actions. They operate completely outside society now and there is no place, apart from government executions and government-sanctioned warfare, where human beings can kill and be honoured or paid to do so.
Dionysian religion did not operate in a void either. It was intended as a balance to the rites of other gods. Dionysian madness was a temporary state of 'insanity' or ecstacy and the acts committed during such a state were accepted by society as a necessary evil, as it were, only allowed in the context of religion. It was the other side of logic and control.
It is as though law and control require some balance, that civilisation can exist only if there is some place where the other side of reality can break free for a few moments. We may fancy ourselves more sophisticated and more civilised, but have all our laws and moral ethics put an end to the 'thrill kill' or the serial killer? I think that the old mystery religions recognised that there always would be two sides to human nature and they believed that by allowing individuals to participate in religious rites that recognised the lust for blood and killing, they actually could control it and keep the universe in balance.
Mel Gibson, after making 'The Passion of the Christ' made a film entitled 'Apocalypto' that explored the nature of a civilisation that performed human sacrifices on a grand scale. Religion in Meso-American civilisations involved mass human sacrifices and they were not merciful in that the beating heart was pulled from an individual's breast while that person still lived. Interestingly enough, this was a religious practice known to Odinists in Europe. The 'blood eagle' dedicated to the god Odhinn was a similar sacrifice.
Why are human beings compelled to perform acts like this? It simply cannot be dismissed as the 'perversion' of a few criminal minds. It is part of the very fabric of human nature. While contemporary individuals would like to believe that it was the fault of the ancient 'gods' who 'demanded' such sacrifices, those practices were initiated by human beings who for whatever reason believed that the forces of nature would be controlled by human and blood sacrifices.
Throughout the world, human body parts were sown into the fields with the first seeds in order to bring fertility to the land. Legislation ultimately put an end to the practice in most areas, but the belief that this sort of sacrifice had validity was difficult to erase from human consciousness. It is interesting to note that in many cases, the sacrifice had to be torn to pieces in a frenzy, much like that induced in Dionysian 'madness'.
Why is it that violent video games hold such appeal? Why is it that films about zombies and the 'living dead' command huge audiences? The translation of human beings into pieces of meat is both horrifying and sacred. Comparative mythologists have found a thread that connects all religions. That which is most horrifying often is considered most potent and 'sacred'. Taboo represents an act or object ordinarily prohibited but which is part of the most secret and sacred rites of any culture.
Certainly Nature considers us as her compost and we never shall be able to control Nature completely. Perhaps these ancient mystery rites were a reminder to human beings that existence never could be completely ordered and 'sane'.
It is more than that, however. Drugs are terrifying to many people because they fear they would 'lose control' under the influence of an hallucinagen, for example. Yet, the ancients sought this loss of control in carefully controlled rituals.
There is a difference between ordinary drunkeness and induced madness. I believe that the fundamental difference would be a conscious knowledge that one is 'possessed' by the gods, that thoughts and actions no longer are completely within control. Ordinary drunkeness has no spiritual aim. Alcohol as well as drugs were used in mystery rites for a purpose. Under the influence, an individual would be conscious of the 'presence' of the 'god'. It would be an intensely real and somewhat awe-inspiring experience. That type of experience was at the centre of many mystery cults actually.
Apart from its emotional effects and the direct interaction with an outside, powerful force while under the influence, actions performed in a state of temporary sanity possessed a special significance and were considered sacred. Beyond all this, however, the ancients evidently believed that we need to be able to lose control from time to time in order to retain true balance and sanity.