Thursday, July 19, 2007

Human Nature and 'Thrill Kills'

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.


MarcLord said...

Greetings, Hawk of Freya!

(Hello: thought I'd have some fun with this.)

I am Marc, son of travelers, adopted by Lords, sent by Fleming to visit your Blog-Halls. I come from my free-holdings, which, though small and humble, have been named Adored By Hordes.

From the beautiful and tall, thick and well-balanced outer doors which lead to this first hall, all must surely perceive that thou art mighty in the ways of minds and myths. I never doubted the great Fleming, as, though we have been acquainted but brief, his every word proves wise. Now I trust him all the more.

Knowing the ways of war, but not suited to the crush of shield-walls, I have guided armies to much plunder. In return I demanded only wenches, food for my family, and as much drink for me as want would need. No man calls me master, and now I choose the spears which me and my houses will serve.

I come seeking knowledge, and that thou hast. There are many questions. At first, by your leave, if I may ask only one: thinkest thou that Riane Eisler was right about Catal Huyuk, that it was there in which the Goddess came down to Earth and first dwelled, pure and free of her dark side?

Freyashawk said...

To be quite honest, with all the respect I have for Marija Gimbutas
and the incredible revolutionary influence of her theories, I do not believe that ancient civilisations can be simplified in this fashion. It is not Male against Female, Light against Dark, Violent Nomadic against Pacifist Agricultural communities.

The Great Mother, like Nature itself, holds both dark and light within her. It is HUMAN perception and HUMAN judgement that defines acts or events as 'good' or 'evil' for the most part. Death and decay are necessary for rebirth. When we consider existence in an ego-centric fashion, we tend to perceive death as negative. Viewed in a general way, however, it is one means by which worn-out, old 'stuff' is cleared out to make way for the new.

Riane Eisler wrote a compelling book but I don't consider it to be convincing in the ultimate analysis. She rode the wave of 'Goddess enthusiasm' like so many others, without truly dissecting the past. She was inspired by Gimbutas of course.

For evidence that myth and religion are complex, one need look no further than the Old Northern European heritage. The Vanir and the Aesir appear to be at odds, representing two separate traditions. Some would like to believe that the Van represent the ancient 'Goddess-dominated' agrarian culture and that the Aesir were invaders who came later to overturn the status quo but who ultimately made peace with the Van.

Dumezil writes at length about the Aryan influences on the North, but even he over-simplifies history, in my opinion.

We never should underestimate the ability of ancient people to travel, to think and to 'marry' old myths to new. I never was one of those who subscribed to the theory that 'cave men' were primitive people with less intelligence or culture than any other group of people, then or now.
Neolithic cultures everywhere and not only in Anatolia were very sophisticated in some respects. It all depends on your point of view as to what is considered 'sophisticated' in any case. To that extent, I agree wholeheartedly with Gimbutas and Eisler.

I would not rule out highly-developed technologically advanced civilisations either. There is too much evidence in mythology about places like Atlantis and Mu. It is possible that they wiped themselves out with a cataclysmic war or technological disaster. I neither believe nor disbelieve in that at this point.
Suffice it to say that there is a memory in the collective unconscious as well as incredibly sophisticated techniques in building for example, in ancient civilsations from Egypt to the Andes.

As some one who admires Odhinn as well as Freya, I cannot extol the virtues of 'Goddess worship' as if any other form of religion were somehow lacking. After all, the Great Goddess always demanded her share of blood sacrifice in one way or another!

MarcLord said...

Agreed, on many levels. To be clear, I'm just a piker by comparison, but have an abiding curiosity for how far the human condition extends back. Oetzi the ice mummy, the underwater temples off the coast of India, if the Neanderthals worshipped and how, it's inherently fascinating. To me. For others, not so much.

Re: Eisler, I was amused when she focused at length on the "purely decorative" butterfly-shaped axes. What sustained the culture of the most continuously successful city known to archeology is far more interesting than grinding down on pretty axes to prove they weren't used for common pagan rites. Rare is the culture which believes nature's forces need not be appeased. And we are such exceptional killers that it must be hard-wired, and a connection between that and religious ecstasy is no stretch at all.

Re: Atlantis and Mu, I don't get why more credence isn't typically given to oral traditions, both for history and mnemonic devices. They're generally reliable, unless written down by a biased recorder. In relatively self-contained, recent tribally diverse regions like New Guinea and Fiji, the oral traditions are still absolutely precise, preserved and shared more scrupulously than knowledge between our scientists. As for the decline and resurgence of sophisticated civilizations, I wrote this a while back:

Stared, chuffed, hooted and chattered at
by Neanderthals and then Cameroons,
I fled into a temple and was affixed
for syncretic centuries at its summit.

I was an idol who entered a priest;
I was worshipped and then sacrificed.
I took on the bloodied skins of Brahma
and raged through the forests of Eurasia.

For my demise, Shiva waited patiently
while Vishnu hissed and hated me;
they maintained I had done some deed
the ibis and crocodile had trembled at.

So they sealed me in sarcophagi
and left me to the yawning years.
I know the innocently smirking Sphinx
is far, far older than we think.

Freyashawk said...

I would love to publish your poem on my main page, if you would give me permission. What name would you like to give for the author?

It is quite extraordinary and it manages to capture my own belief that every religion is connected to our human past with more threads than most individuals are willing to acknowledge.

MarcLord said...

I called it Religio Organica. I'm very flattered, so permission if it was ever needed is enthusiastically granted. It borrows from a hallucinogenic visions and musings Coleridge reports in Confessions of an English Opium Eater. But the composition now could be said to be mine. I stole well.

Freyashawk said...

Thank you, Marc. I think I shall have to read 'Confessions' again. I remember that De Quincey does write about Coleridge in the book. I always liked both Coleridge and De Quincey.

On a related topic, are you familiar with Cocteau's work, 'Opium'?