The Maenad by John Collier
How do we contact the parts of ourselves that have become split off, exiled, or buried beneath layers of social control- either our own or imposed by others?
What lurks beneath the masks that we wear and how do we find ways to connect with and release those hidden parts of ourselves? Would we even want to?
Dionysus as ‘The Undivided’ god (or archetype) can lead us to the wilder, untamed parts of ourselves so that they may be reclaimed. His method of doing this is not necessarily talking things over in a rational way, he is more likely to lead us through the portals of ecstasy, dance, spiritual intoxication, passion, sensuality, sexuality, and the pulsating blood and flesh of our own body.
Dionysus is all about bringing spirit into the material world. He is after all one who can descend into the pit of Hades, come back to tell the tale, and then take his place in the abode of the gods. He is the quintessential walker of the worlds, or Shaman.
The ecstatic methods of Dionysus differ from what we have come to recognise as mainstream western analysis, or ‘talking therapies’ practiced in many a treatment room. Traditional psychotherapy tends to engage the ego- mind in a bid to reason with our scattered fragments and have them return home. This is the main aim of therapy and in psychological parlance is known as integration. Therapy like this works when feelings attached to suppressed material are finally acknowledged and felt. There may be tears, screams, anger… a whole host of strong expressions in the releasing of bottled-up emotions.
But what if we can’t coax our exiled parts back home? What if the structures of the ego are simply too hard? Or too clever? What if despite our best efforts to heal we are in fact a tough nut to crack, or we have too much conditioning for words alone to dismantle?
And what if we just sense that to reclaim all of ourselves in the most authentic and liberated way… to allow our bigness… we need more than western-style analysis… more than to be fixed so that we can operate in society even while we have an uneasy feeling that we have not brought all of ourselves to the party?
Outside the parameters of mainstream psychotherapy shamanism – which is itself a largely Dionysian practice – describes the process of becoming whole in terms of ‘soul retrieval’. Dionysus and shamanic practice are less about analysis and more about a direct route into the trapped or lost parts of ourselves. Amnesia, illness, mental disease, psychological complexes, physical illness, neurosis are all ways of describing what for the shaman is loss of soul. Dionysus can deal with collective soul loss.
In his book, ‘The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology, James Hillman exposes the limitations of analytical psychology when he says: “The analytical viewpoint tends towards divisions: consciousness from unconsciousness, cure form neurosis, individuation from collectively, even eros from psyche. The main aim may be a synthesis, but the means and methods are division. Dionysian consciousness proceeds otherwise. One of the names for Dionysus was The Undivided.”
Over and beyond analysis there are other ways to unblock psychic energy, reclaim libido and connect with the ‘Prima Materia’. There are other ways to release the ‘demons’ so that they might, in the end, become as William Blake suspects, ‘our greatest gods’. For Blake, who it could be argued was himself a Dionysian character, sexual energy is not an inherent evil, but the repression of that energy is. He says, “The preachers of morality fail to understand that God is in all things, including the sexual nature of men and women.”
But Dionysus is not only about the expression of sexual energy he is ultimately concerned with liberation of the soul… liberation from the tyranny of the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ that weigh down the human heart. And freedom from the safe-playing- small-self that would rather reject unpalatable feelings and emotions than face them. This is the same small self who, terrified to reveal his or her true nature, judges in others what it cannot tolerate in itself.
The ego fears rejection and separation from our culture and kin but with Dionysus who leads us to the group, and to the like- minded, we are not alone.
And here is the power of Dionysus- he is ultimately involved with group processes and the collective. Collective enthusiasm – some may say madness or hysteria – initiates a phenomenon much larger than the sum of its parts- you only have to watch a big football match, or the aftermath of a sports or political victory to witness this. I am thinking of the collective energy released in Paris last year after France won the world cup. I was so overwhelmed by the intensity of the celebrating, verging on frenzied crowds that I needed three days to recover (see blog post Paris, Mars, Football and Intrigue).
In ancient Greece, many indigenous cultures, and in cultures where initiation and ritual were a part of life, people bonded together in a purpose larger than themselves through the sharing of divine experience. Transformation induced in the initiates was witnessed, acknowledged and sanctioned by the wider community for the benefit of all. There was a ritualistic container to hold and transmute the strong spiritual energies that were being evoked and passed through the people, and in this way, change was affected.
When Dionysian energy is not contained within a ritualistic context there is propensity toward chaos. Examples of Dionysian energy in our modern world can be seen in the casualties of the rock world… sex, drugs and rock & roll; the acid and other casualties of the tune-in -drop-out of the 60’s; in the burgeoning pornography industry; the sex and sex trafficking industry; and in the young women who are swallowed up by unrealistic ideals of glamour and feminine allure. It can be witnessed in protests and political movements that degenerate into violence with the unspecific venting of primal rage.
Sometimes movements that start out with good intentions can quickly descend into mob mentality and stupidity… or are co-opted to do so.
The rave scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s was Dionysian in its expression, though again there was no ritual context in which to meet and hold the gods , and like many openings in human consciousness it was quickly exploited by the cold hand of capitalist economics, misuse of power, and personal interest.
Dionysian energy as wild as it is also needs containment- it is a bringing of the so called sacred and profane together – which is just a Christian way of saying heaven and earth, or body and spirit.
Today in the UK sees the beginning of this year’s Extinction Rebellion protests, to ‘shut down the heart of the government’ for the next 14 days unless demands are met. Here is an upsurge of collective energy that challenges the social order, not with remote ideas and manifestos but with active participation, group solidarity, music, celebration, and at times human bodies… I am thinking of the people who last year glued their hands to the trains in London’s financial district, Canary Wharf.
Dionysian collective uprising is often feared and maligned as mob rule – a remnant from some of the darker aspects of Europe’s past – it can instill fear into the rational order of Apollonic consciousness and therefore be subjected to further control and suppression. But the Dionysian outburst whether it be moral, or ecstatic is essentially ritualistic in its enthusiasm, it is ultimately for the higher purpose of breaking down stagnation and outmoded attitudes either in the individual or in the collective psyche.
This ‘ritualistic enthusiasm’ is a healthy expression of the human being and is not to be pathologized by an overly rigid, overly rational society imposed by those with a vested interest in maintaining a passive and docile populace.
While Dionysus may be an archetype of bottom up power, he is also a champion of the feminine… it is no coincidence that his followers were women who existed outside societal bounds of patriarchal control- women in Greece at that time were largely oppressed and controlled. The followers of Dionysus, the ‘maenads’ enjoyed rites that included wild dancing, music and ecstasy in the remote mountains, and unashamed divine intoxication … barefoot with untied hair, and wearing animal skins the women were free to unleash pent up emotions, trapped libido, psychic and sexual energy, and connect their bodies with the spirit without imposition.
It could be said that Dionysus is a bit like Lilith, the exiled shadow feminine who, repulsed with the oppressive laws of society, willingly banishes herself to the wild places to cavort with demons. But while Lilith is very much alone in her exile, the strength of Dionysus comes from the collective. It is one thing to assert and release our untamed selves in the privacy of our own fantasies and it is quite another to reveal those selves to others.
How do we meet the wild gods? How do we invite Dionysus into our lives and our collective experience in a sacred way untainted by the corruption of our post capitalist world, a world that has long separated body from spirit, and that deems mad, bad or dangerous, anything beyond the rational mind?