Dionysian Tradition

The essence of the Dionysian tradition is the affirmation of the whole self through ecstatic ritual. Patriarchal civilization takes one facet of the person--the rationally calculating ego--and identifies it with selfhood. All other aspects become either demons (as in Christianity) or subversive unconscious forces (as in modern psychologism). In the Dionysian tradition, emotions, fantasies, and sexual longings are summoned forth and embraced as inherent parts of the self.

Patriarchal civilization pits the calculating ego against other egos and views this confrontational situation as the essence of social interrelation. In the practice of the Dionysian mysteries, the essential unit is not the isolated individual but the group-in-action, which manifests its collective energy through the throbbing patterns of song, dance, and orgiastic sex among its individual participants. In these shared patterns of rhythmic energy, one's sense of self overlaps with that of others, and the felt barrier between "me" and "the world" dissolves.

In patriarchal civilizations, the ego grows at the expense of the rest of the world by taking away from others and incorporating the gain within its own boundaries. The Dionysian tradition aims at ecstasy--stepping outside the limits of one's ego. By participating in the god's rituals, individuals enter an altered state of consciousness, break through ego boundaries, and let themselves dissolve into the world.

On returning to their ordinary mental states, they sometimes find that the old boundaries of ego-definition have been stretched and altered and that they are slightly different persons. They transcend objectivity not only by giving themselves into the world but by participating in the process of their own self re-creation.

The Dionysian tradition sharply diverges from patriarchal civilization in its use of hallucinogens. In societies influenced by patriarchal values, the use of mind-altering substances is usually forbidden or stigmatized. As a result, people who seek to experiment with=

them have to maneuver around both the legal system and a network of negative value judgments, a situation that gives to these substances the aura of a tabooed self-indulgence. Drug users lack a supportive ritual context for an enlightened use of their drugs. They may also be driven by the self-destructive feelings characteristic of the patriarchal psychosis. If so, they can easily fall prey first to compulsive drug use and then to addiction. Hence patriarchal societies tend to be schizophrenic in their attitude toward such drugs: officially they have an absolute ban on their use, yet large segments of the population continue to use them compulsively and self-destructively in secret.

In the Dionysian tradition, mind-altering substances (a category into which wine was originally placed) are openly used in accepted, traditional, structured rituals aimed at self-growth. Not only does no taboo attach to such use of these substances, but an elaborate system of myth and ritual guides the user according to the cumulative experiences of generations of previous users. As a result, the extremes both of puritanical denial and of self-destructive addiction tend to be much less common. Users are given the incentives, skills, and supportive ritual context to enjoy their hallucinogens to positive effect. By way of contrast, the traditional approach of patriarchal societies--to condemn all hallucinogens regardless of type or source, to suppress information on rational drug use, to penalize any apprehended drug user--has simply not worked and in fact has often corresponded to a long-term increase in drug addiction.

The God of Escstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos, c 1988 Arthur Evans, St. Martin's Press, New York.