My point…is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. ― John Dominic Crossan
Two events in late July and early August of this year (2021) seemed very significant for me. The first, on July 28th, was the death of Roberto Calasso, best known for his 1993 retelling of Greek Myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.
It’s a difficult book, and I don’t recommend it for beginners. But in Chapter Three, I find the essence of his argument, and with it I feel a deep sense of the loss all modern people experience, even if we don’t realize it. He tells us that the connection between humans and the Gods has gone through three kinds of relationships.
1 – He calls the first conviviality. In the earliest times, humans knew the gods:
…an age when the gods would sit down alongside mortals, as they did at Cadmus and Harmony’s wedding feast in Thebes. At this point gods and men had no difficulty recognizing each other; sometimes they were even companions in adventure… Relative roles in the cosmos were not disputed, since they had already been assigned; hence gods and men met simply to share some feast before returning each to his own business.
This is how an Eskimo shaman put it a hundred years ago:
In the earliest time,
When both people and animals lived on earth,
A person could become an animal if he wanted to
And an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals
And there was no difference. All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
And what people wanted to happen could happen —
All you had to do was say it. Nobody could explain this:
That’s the way it was.
They – ancient, indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, animistic – could tell their stories and imagine their deities without forcing them into literalistic belief systems. James Hillman wrote, “The Gods don’t require my belief for their existence, nor do I require belief for my experience of their existence.” For tribal people, to explain is not a matter of presenting literal facts, but to tell a story, which is judged, writes David Abram, by “…whether it makes sense…to enliven the senses” to multiple levels of meaning.
They told many versions of their stories, because they met the beings from the Other World in specific places. Place was critical, even if time wasn’t: “This happened here, once upon a time…” There was an Aphrodite of this place, and another of that place. So stories emerged from those places, and the different versions or variants of any myth had equal value. Calasso writes, “No sooner have you grabbed hold of it than myth opens out into a fan of a thousand segments.”
Their gods were amoral. They did not set out required modes of moral or ascetic behavior. There was no end game in which humans might attain their status, reach Heaven or be redeemed. However, they did want to be entertained, and, writes Calasso, “…to be recognized.”
…the way they imposed themselves was first and foremost aesthetic…More than acts of worship, it was beauty that offered a firm link between the life of the city and that of the Olympians. Mortals and immortals communicated through beauty, without any need for ceremonies.
Later on, humans made the connection through story and ritual. As the Mayan shamans say, they fed them through sacrifice. This was a world of reciprocal relations, in which the inhabitants of each of the two worlds gave and received. Our ancestors fed them with beauty, and (according to Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel) with their tears. That is to say, the choice cuts of sacrificed animals they offered represented their deepest truths, emotions and potentials. In this imagination, the gods wanted humans to recognize the gifts they came into the world with, and to give them to the world.
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. – Pablo Picasso
In return, they would sometimes answer prayers and intercede in human events. It was a world in which humans gathered in great public festivals to honor the gods. In Classical Greece, writes Alexandra Kandanou,
It was during the Golden Age of the Athenian democracy that Eleusis, with its Mysteries, reached its utmost splendor. It was a huge, collective event. Participants shared a highly spiritual experience. It included different stages of emotional tension, frenzy and relief that would solidly bond their sense of identity as well as their sense of communion. Holding together a whole society, the Mysteries were there to make life livable. Eleusis is clearly not only a place of worship for the Greeks, but for humanity itself, a place where humans perform a ritual in deep connection with Nature…The goal of this form of spirituality…is about realizing happiness rather than redemption and salvation. “Happy is he who has seen these things before leaving this world: he realizes the beginning and the end of life, as ordained by Zeus”, writes Pindar.
The animistic world was full of the spirits of place: Nymphs, Naiads, Corybants, Dactyls and countless others. Two of the Greek gods who served as mediators between their world and ours were Hermes and his son Pan, who expressed nature as an independent, living, animistic force of generativity. But nature deprived of that connection becomes a very scary place.
2 – Among Cadmus’ many accomplishments was his invention of the alphabet. With it, the Greeks began to experience the gods “in the silence of the mind”, writes Calasso, “and no longer in the full and normal presence…”
After that remote time,
…when gods and men and been on familiar terms, to invite the gods to one’s house became the most dangerous thing one could do, a source of wrongs and curses, a sign of the now irretrievable malaise in relations between Heaven and Earth.
Tantalus invited the gods for a banquet and served his murdered son to them in a stew, setting off a multi-generational curse. A later marriage, between the mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis, led to the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan War and the deaths of thousands.
For more reasons than we can count, humans separated from the divine, and no longer performed such sacrifices. James Hillman wrote:
A cry went out through late antiquity: “Great Pan is dead!”…nature had become deprived of its creative voice. It was no longer an independent living force of generativity. What had had soul lost it: or lost was the psychic connection with nature…They had lost their light and fell easily to asceticism, following sheepishly without instinctual rebellion their new shepherd, Christ, with his new means of management. Nature no longer spoke to us – or we could no longer hear…Pan the mediator, like an ether who invisibly enveloped all natural things with personal meaning, with brightness, had vanished… When Pan is alive then nature is too, so the owl’s hoot is Athena and the mollusk on the shore is Aphrodite… When Pan is dead, then nature can be controlled by the will of the new God, man, modeled in the image of Prometheus or Hercules, creating from it and polluting in it without a troubled conscious…As the human loses personal connection with a personified nature and personified instinct, the image of Pan and the image of the devil merge.
Anticipating the advent of Christianity, humans had begun to lose the capacity for symbolic thinking and were replacing it with rigid, codified systems of belief. Now the Gods could only make themselves known by intruding into the human world. But because people no longer recognized them, they perceived such intrusions as violent, unnecessary and unwanted, rather than as invitations. In the classic stories, this is a polarized, highly gendered world, and people perceived such intrusions, literal or not, as rape. In this period, wrote Calasso,
…The image of rape establishes the canonical relationship the divine now has with a world…contact is still possible, but it is no longer the contact of a shared meal; rather it is the sudden, obsessive invasion that plucks away the flower of thought.
With deep apology to actual rape victims, I ask you to momentarily step back from the literal implications of the word rape and consider (“to be with the stars”) its etymology: “seize prey; abduct, take and carry off by force”. It is related to rapid, ravenous and raptor, the bird that seizes its prey and flies off. Going further, however, we find other words: rapt (“carried away in an ecstatic trance”) and, most notably, rapture (“spiritual ecstasy, state of mental transport…exalted or passionate feeling in words or music”). The connecting notion is a sudden or violent taking and carrying away.
In this phase, a god might not be recognized, wrote Calasso:
As a result the god had to assume the role…of the Unknown Guest, the Stranger. One day the sons of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, invited to their table an unknown laborer who was in fact Zeus. Eager to know whether they were speaking to a real god, they sacrificed a child
and mixed his flesh with that of the sacred victims, thinking that if the stranger was a god he would discover what they had done. Furious, Zeus pushed over the table…After that banquet, Zeus made only rare appearances as the Unknown Guest. The role passed, for the most part, to other gods. Now, when Zeus chose to tread the earth, his usual manifestation was through rape. This is the sign of the overwhelming power of the divine, of the residual capacity of distant gods to invade mortal minds and bodies. Rape is at once possessing and possession. With the old convivial familiarity between god and man lost, with ceremonial contact through sacrifice impoverished, man’s soul was left exposed to a gusting violence, an amorous persecution…Such are the stories of which mythology is woven: they tell how mortal mind and body are still subject to the divine, even when they are no longer seeking it out, even when the ritual approaches to the divine have become confused.
When men lost interest in the gods, they also began to lose interest in each other. The Greeks knew the stranger as xenos, from which we get xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Hillman reminded us that Pan is the root of the word panic: “…nature alive means Pan, and panic flings open a door into this reality.”With the old mesocosmic framework no longer available to us, an unfiltered look into reality quite naturally results in panic. And in 2021 we can’t ignore the other meaning of pan as a prefix: “all, every, whole, all-inclusive,” as in panorama, pandemonium – and pandemic.
Again, we need to get past the literal implications. If, in this second type of relationship, the only way the gods can enter our world – to get our attention – is through the violent emotional interruptions and penetrations that we sometimes interpret as rape, or as Carl Jung said, “…phobias, obsessions, and..neurotic symptoms”, then this still means that they may want something from us. They still want to be fed. And it’s even possible to imagine that they still care about us. It’s a dangerous world, but it does carry some potential, some vestigial memory of early and happier times, whether we refer to those times as Edenic or as a Golden Age. The Greek imagination understood this: xenos also meant “guest.”
To read a myth as prose (denotation) rather than as poetry (connotation) is a grave mistake and destroys the meaning of the story. All too often we humans do this with our religious texts. – Joseph Campbell
Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison
The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered. — Paul Shepard
The third type of relationship, sadly, no longer carries either kind of potential, conviviality or rape. Calasso called it indifference:
… the gods have already withdrawn, and, hence, if they are indifferent in our regard, we can be indifferent as to their existence or otherwise. Such is the peculiar situation of the modern world.
Man’s rational and scientistic soul may be indifferent, but it is even more exposed to that “gusting violence”. Greek myth describes the transition from phase one all the way to phase three in one short story. Zeus’ mortal lover Semele became pregnant. Enraged with jealousy, his wife Hera appeared in disguise and advised her to request that Zeus prove his divinity by revealing his immortal form. Zeus knew that humans could not survive such visions, but he had promised to honor any request of hers, and he could not refuse. Reluctantly, he obeyed, and his lightning destroyed Semele. Zeus sewed the fetus into his own thigh and later it was born as Dionysus.
Semele’s fateful decision transformed her – and us – from a condition in which she could be with Zeus in his convivial, human form to a world in which she could no longer be protected from unfiltered, absolute reality, a demythologized world. It is a world lacking any of the intermediating figures of Greek myth, especially the heroes, almost all of whom died at Troy. After the death of the last of them, Odysseus,
…What happens is mere history…man’s approach to primordial beings and places could only take place through literature.
Joseph Campbell argued that we’ve lived in such a world since Christianity began to lose potency around the 12th century A.D. I suggest, however, that in what we call the “Western World” myth (as the glue of society, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) has been slowly breaking down for a far longer period of time. What remain, exposed like archeological layers, are immensely old stories: the myths of father/son and brother/brother conflict, and the literalization of initiation ritual into the brutal socialization and sacrifice of children.
It is not that we don’t have myths; we have plenty of them, even if they are mostly unconscious (see Chapter Nine of my book). The critical fact is they no longer nurture us. Clearly, both Greek and Hebrew stories were tracking this process. And we only have one version of our primary myths; we no longer have variants associated with specific places. The Christianist myth, for example, is supposed to be universal, even if Catholicism grudgingly allows countless Virgins connected to various places. But the practice of religion, especially its mass spectacles that link it to the objectives of the modern state (why are there American flags in every church?) changed profoundly, writes Calasso: “…man now discovers that sacrifice is just as effective as a tool of social manipulation as it was to appease the gods.”
The Aqedah, the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), first written down around 1,000 B.C., illustrates this pattern. Scholars of all three “Abrahamic” religions have debated its meaning for generations, but for me, the ending – whether the act was consummated or not – is irrelevant. All that matters is that Abraham was willing to murder his son to glorify his god, or, in modern terms, to send the son off to war to die for his nation. He was willing to prioritize allegiance to an abstract principle, a belief system (religion, nationalism, patriotism, etc) over any human relationship.
In some later versions, Isaac was indeed murdered, and he came to embody the only sacrifice acceptable to God. Generally, however, the patriarchs couldn’t openly admit that they or the people they embodied were capable of such barbaric acts, so their mythmakers projected the idea of child sacrifice onto the gods – such as Moloch – of other people to justify their wars of aggression.
A thousand years later, this same God confirmed this same theme, abandoning his only son in his hour of need. When Jesus asked on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting Psalm 22. Already quite old, this lament acknowledged centuries of abuse and betrayal and the profound depression – or unquenchable desire for vengeance – they produce. Whether Hebrew or Greek, patriarchs feared rivals among their subjects or children, pursued the most terrible of initiations and slaughtered the innocent, teaching the survivors to become killers themselves. Jesus was acknowledging that Western culture had already reduced the old rituals of initiation, of the symbolic death of the child, into literal child sacrifice.
Nearly two thousand years after that, Wilfred Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, written from the trenches of Northern France in 1917, acknowledges that the fathers of modernity continue to enact this child sacrifice on a massive scale.
…When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Women, of course, have always understood this. African-American writer bell hooks writes:
The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.
We all know this in our bones. Our souls all came into this life with the old expectations intact, that we would be wrapped in protective layers of myth and community. So the idea of that long-gone, convivial relationship between men and gods is profoundly important because it reminds us that there were times when myth symbolically described macrocosmic dimensions of the world in terms that enabled people to situate themselves individually, or microcosmically. How did this happen? Ritual and other forms of culture, with their mesocosmic function, mediated between the two. By analogy, consider the atmospheric ozone layer. It mediates between living things and necessary but harmful solar radiation, allowing an appropriate flow between the worlds.
We can think of the macrocosm as the unitary dimension of experience in which all polarities are resolved. It is both transcendent as divinity and immanent as nature. We humans make up the microcosm that reflects it. But direct, unmediated experience of the macrocosm – the rush of overwhelming archetypal energies – is far too intense for humans. Consider Semele again, how she demanded that Zeus appear in his true form. With the mesocosm (his human form) removed, she was exposed to a cosmic intensity that no mortal could endure. In psychological terms, she became exposed to vast unconscious energies and went mad. In spiritual terms, the mystic (or psychedelic) vision opens up new worlds of perception, but often by destroying one’s ego boundaries or sense of self. Or in mythic terms, the birth of Dionysus results in the collapse of those walls, as they do in the story of the Bacchae by Euripides.
Culture (as true education, storytelling, poetry, all forms of art, elegant language, communal ceremony and intentional ritual) used to make up the mesocosm. It wrapped individuals and societies in protective containers of story, and its rituals produced continually creative relationships between macro- and microcosm, between this world and the other world, between society and nature, between men and women, between personal and transpersonal and between self and Other. This is what we mean by a reciprocal relationship. It involved a recognition of human capacity and the willingness to think in metaphoric, poetic terms, rather than in rigid belief systems.
The Binding of Isaac remains the foundational mythic narrative underlying Western Culture. In the context of our contemporary crises of masculinity and the environment, it speaks to a time when the wisest among us (the poets) knew that the advent of patriarchal society had – perhaps permanently – rendered these old connections.
To understand how all this broke down is to recite the history of Western culture. The Hebrews and the Greeks knew it was happening; for some of them, the transition from mythos to logos, from symbolic thinking to belief; from participation mystique to monotheism and eventually to the scientific world view may have been worth the trouble. This is not the forum to argue such an immensely complicated issue. But from then on, “the divine” would mean only one of two things: either a rationale for a rigidly ordered, clock-like hierarchy and deep suppression of feminine values, or an opiate of the masses.
Catholicism did attempt to create a working mesocosm by converting many of the old Pagan (“hill people”) deities into its vast array of saints, who could intercede between humans and God. But the Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought new emphasis on individualism and rational science over revealed truth. These changes accelerated the breakdown of the mythic containers that had provided us with meaning and identity. The mesocosm collapsed further, the veils were lifted and Western man found himself alone and alienated, desperate for authoritarian leaders, fundamentalist assurances and the distractions scapegoats and wars. Men would begin by sending their sons to die for Christ and end by sending them to kill for Christ. Eventually, they would be content to be entertained by simply watching such abominations on electronic screens.
As the religious mesocosm collapsed, secular movements (fascism and communism) motivated millions to similar extremes of sacrifice. Although religious symbols have largely lost their power, the heritage of “chosen people” and “holy war” persists in the modern psyche, which still equates the salvation of one people with the destruction of another. Although religious revivals periodically occur, they are generally characterized by grim, literal interpretations of their own myths, hatred of the body and of women, and brutal contempt for anyone who questions their basic assumptions.
Sociologist Max Weber called this condition the “disenchantment of the world.” For a deeper analysis of how our original, creative imagination devolved over time into these conditions, see my essay A Vacation in Chaos.
In the extreme, such a world evokes either of two ideological gestures. The first is that we must rush to save it – and that any level of violence we utilize is justified. For a thousand years, Christians have slaughtered their way across the globe, very often with the sincere intention of bringing God’s truth to the unenlightened. As Campbell wrote, “Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world.” C.S. Lewis wrote:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
The second gesture is to hope fervently for the total demise of this world. Now, tens of millions are obsessed with the Biblical idea of apocalypse. We can hardly minimize the actual dangers we confront. Yet to examine the fear, or, if we were honest, the anticipation that fundamentalists display, is to approach the psychic energy that drives us: the archetypal cry for initiation. At the root, apocalypse is a metaphor for the death and rebirth of the ego in the process of transformation. But it is precisely our modern literalization and inability to think metaphorically that prevents us from seeing this.
People once knew that “apocalypse” means “to lift the veil”. At the end of an age, we can see truths that have been veiled behind outdated myths. However, when an entire civilization ignores the invitation, then, in Yeats’ words, it is a “rough beast,” instead of a divine child, that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
Can we really imagine the price we have paid to live in a demythologized world? Can we even conceive of times when culture and nature together held and protected our ancestors? Few of us have any sense of just how much we have lost, how deeply diminished our lives have been. We literally cannot imagine it. Who can remember how much they have forgotten? Assuming that disconnection, alienation and constant violence are natural, we “normal neurotics” rely upon ego defenses that substitute for the old mesocosmic structures. Ernest Becker wrote that only psychological repression “…makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world.”
It is also a deeply frightening world. Social institutions rarely offer meaning, except in times of great crisis. Then, with our paranoid imaginations racing out of control, we project evil upon convenient scapegoats. And, as Benjamin Franklin noted, we exchange liberty for safety. We offer our allegiance to political leaders, upon whom we project the archetypal image of the King. The demythologized world has resulted in an unprecedented diminishment of the creative imagination. In many places, it has replaced mythical Kings who served the entire cosmos with rulers beholden to increasingly smaller circles of “us” bounded by increasingly larger circles of “them.” The logical conclusion of this process is rule by narcissists who, like George W. Bush, announced that he heard directly from God, or French King Louis XIV, who claimed to be the state.
But if we slow down, turn off the devices, breathe deeply and allow ourselves to feel, we feel exposed. The sacred, with both its awesome and terrible faces, burns us like direct, cancerous solar rays. This is a dispirited world, since we long ago rejected the mesocosmic “spirits” who connected us to this immense and incomprehensible universe. We stand exposed to old, patriarchal conditions: raw opposition between irreconcilable polarities. We speak of alienation, but tribal people would say that we are a culture of uninitiated people, who simply don’t know who we are.
So we fear – perhaps we wish – that we are at the edge of catastrophe (“to turn downward”). We veil our anxieties but know we must ultimately face a vast, ancestral grief that edges closer with each headline.
This is the condition Calasso was describing, in which modern humankind is so “indifferent” to the gods – to the vast, unseen, ancestral worlds of spirit both around us and within us that we are blind to “all the light we cannot see”. But because we cannot live without some kind of mesocosm to mediate between us and ultimate reality, we have spent the last 3,000 years fabricating poor-quality substitutes (again: fundamentalism, consumerism, nationalism, colonialism, addiction, the culture of celebrity) for the mythic and cultural forms that once protected us. Perhaps the greatest irony of this utterly un-religious situation is that tens of millions of Americans praise a God of love but practice a religion of hate.
The past two years of isolation, social distancing, fear of contagion and polarized argument have brought this condition into deep focus (a condition, by the way, that People of Color and poor people have always known). On a personal note, I realized that I had been part of a community that came together nearly every month, often in large public gatherings, for twenty-five years, to recite poetry. This was my mesocosm of community and deep ritual that had kept me sane in a mad world, and suddenly it was taken away. I’m sure you have your own tales to tell.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will ACT like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now. – Daniel Quinn, “Ishmael”
Earlier, I mentioned two events that seemed very significant to me. The first was the news of Roberto Calasso’s death, which provoked this essay. The second occurred only four days later, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Chapter Twelve of my book considers how we can rebuild the mesocosm through a return to authentic ritual, and I’ll try not to be too redundant.
Imagine that we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies. The challenge is to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Their most profound myths arose in the inconceivably distant past, as the communal dreams of their cultures, directly out of the lands they inhabited. Except for the indigenous people, Americans don’t have that luxury. But we have to start, even if it means risking cultural appropriation.
Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world. We can do this invocation in two ways. The first is to restore memory and imagination. We can replicate the original process of mythmaking and dreaming – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, for as long as necessary, until they coalesce into the world’s story.
The second thing is to engage in the rituals and do the arts that bypass the predatory and paranoid imaginations and stimulate the creativity that makes new myths. Can we imagine a society like Bali – where from childhood everyone practices dance, music, painting or sculpture so universally that they have no word for “art?” We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. The imagination, engaged by the restoration of memory, moves toward inspiration, where new life comes not from us but through us.
In the tribal world, art (as ritual) serves as a mesocosm, enacted by true “gatekeepers” who work to balance the worlds of the human community and the unseen. The same thing can happen among modern people. Healing comes through memory, both in purging grief and guilt and in creatively re-framing one’s story – what Hillman called “healing fictions.”
Mythology tells of art’s ancient connection to memory: it was Memory herself, Mnemosyne, who mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses.
Perhaps all art, as Plato said, is remembering something that already exists. Artful reconnection to memory reverses the work of Kronos, the god who ate his children, countering Time’s linear progress with the cyclic imagination of Memory, who knows both past and future. Myth, which provides the basic pattern, connects to story or memoir, which provides the details. Jung said that myth offers us two gifts: a story to live by, and the opportunity to disengage from outmoded patterns and thus re-engage in a different way with the archetypal energies from which our stories arise.
Ultimately, both individuals and cultures heal by re-membering what we came here to do. What has been dismembered gets put back together. The Stranger becomes the Guest, and his darkness becomes our blessing. It is said that Memory’s daughters, the Muses, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world rips apart.
Americans have always participated in all kinds of rituals – generally quite unconsciously. These include: rituals that confirm our status as gendered adults; rituals that exclude the Other from the polis; and rituals that reaffirm our competitive values, our consumer appetites and the means by which we appear to select our leaders. Most importantly, we participate in rituals that seal our complicity in the great secret – that we periodically need to sacrifice large numbers of our own children so that a system that satisfies fewer and fewer of us may survive. But now we can no longer afford the luxury of unconsciously colluding in our own innocence. We must choose to deliberately involve ourselves in the sacred technologies that indigenous people still offer us.
Participation in the evolving forms of ritual will facilitate emergence of the new myths. The purpose of authentic ritual is to re-establish balance, clarify intention and recover the memory in our bones. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but the spirits need to know that we are “interested” once again. Engaging in radical ritual with the intention of aligning one’s purpose with spirit is to conjure (“with the law”), or to invoke aid from the other world. This invites us into unpredictable, chaotic, creative space, into communitas. Here is where new images, insights and metaphors are born, just as adults are born in initiation.
To some extent, this happened in the 1960s, when millions of people used psychedelics precisely because they found conventional religion irrelevant. The drug/music scene was (generally) non-violent, non-hierarchical, inclusive, communal, mystical and playful. But the experience dissipated, partially because the youth movement was age-specific and not a true community. Although the times themselves remained chaotic, most participants moved on to more stable, conventional identities, even though (or perhaps because) their initiations were incomplete. “The sixties,” writes Camille Paglia, “never completed its search for new structures of social affiliation…‘do your own thing’ encouraged individualism but produced fragmentation.”
But the forms – the group ecstasy of rock music, the environmental, gay and feminist movements, the image of the Whole Earth, and the revival of Goddess-oriented paganism – remain. In addition to the thousands of practicing Buddhists in America, there are now considerable populations of neo-pagans in all urban areas, especially New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where large influxes of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia have brought their own polytheistic forms. By one estimate, the wider population of “cultural creatives” in Europe and America has grown to a quarter of the population.
But we need something more than small-group spiritual exercises or ecstatic festivals, necessary as they are. Ultimately, the collapse of our modern sense of meaning will require large-scale rituals of atonement and reconciliation.
God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion! ― D.T. Suzuki
Believe nothing. Entertain possibilities. – Caroline Casey
To the extent that it demonizes much of the psyche, religion prioritizes spirit and banishes soul. Mainstream faith simply serves the state, retaining the form without the content: convenient piety, Sunday church attendance and ceremonies of the status quo. And fundamentalism is content without form: emotional catharsis and anti-intellectualism that twists the longing for communitas into misogyny and racism. At their best, they comfort the lonely and provide a sense of community. At their worst, they legitimize existing power relations, re-affirm white privilege and demonize the Other.
By contrast, what we call radical ritual exhibits the three-part, unpredictable logic of the Hero’s initiatory journey: separation, liminality and re-incorporation. The community creates a relatively safe container through music, rhythm and invocation. However, once the spirits enter (as in Haitian Voudoun), they are in control, not humans. These rituals proceed on the assumption that problems in this world reflect imbalances in the other, and their intention is to restore that lost harmony.
Malidoma Somé writes that such reciprocity “cancels out the whole sense of hierarchy.” Successful ritual both requires and leads to a sense of community where diversity is respected and participants see exploitative or violent acts for what they are: the behavior of uninitiated people who never felt welcomed into the world.
Chapter Twelve of my book describes indigenous rituals of grief, closure, atonement, reconciliation and welcoming. What happened in New Zealand seems to have included all of these. True reconciliation (“to make friendly again”) requires two parties: the veteran or the perpetrator and his community. It acknowledges that at some level everyone involved has suffered. It assumes a sense of interconnectedness.
In southern Africa, this quality is known as ubuntu: “My humanity is bound up in yours. I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Knowing they are part of a greater whole, people who have ubuntu are not threatened by others’ good luck; indeed, they feel diminished when others suffer. Their values survive despite the dehumanizing effects of oppression. In short, they behave like initiated individuals. It was in this spirit of ubuntu that South Africa began its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the intention of achieving restorative justice, and it served as a model in other countries.
Tribal communities prefer healing to punishment. The Acholi people of Uganda resolve conflicts through the Mataput ritual (“drinking of the bitter root from a common cup.”) There are reconciliation and restorative justice traditions throughout Native America and Polynesia. In the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono tradition, the intention is simple and clear, yet profound:
Step 1: I Love You
Step 2: I’m Sorry
Step 3: Please Forgive Me
Step 4: Thank You
In American retributive or punitive justice, since the victim has suffered, so must the criminal. Offenders are accountable to the state, not to the victim. In restorative justice, however, crime is rooted in the human error of forgetting one’s purpose, rather than in sin or innate evil. So offenders are accountable to those they have harmed, rather than to an abstract concept such as the state. The first priority of the rebalancing process is healing the victim physically, emotionally and spiritually. But when everyone is interconnected, a relationship – or several – must be repaired. So the perpetrator apologizes, asks for forgiveness and demonstrates his intention to make restitution with the victim, the community and the spirits. To ritually cleanse his soul, he must face his victim, his ancestors and himself.
Creativity springs not from the center, but from the margins. Long efforts by Native Americans and Hawaiians culminated in a law that encouraged the repatriation of ancestral bones from museum shelves for final burial.
Some modern people understand. South-Central Los Angeles has suffered from generations of gang wars, with over fifteen thousand fatalities. One day in 1989, several members of one gang, heartsick at the meaningless carnage, donned the neutral color of black and marched unarmed into their rival’s territory, singing peace songs. The risk resulted in a truce that lasted several years and spread to forty cities. The gangs created their own rituals of reconciliation and agreed to cooperate for the greater goal of social justice.
Perhaps the ultimate form of reconciliation is with the ancestors and the spirits of the land. For many – such as descendants of both slaves and slave owners – this includes imaginatively healing relationships that go back through generations of epistemic trauma.
But the literal always points to the symbolic. Traditional Africans see the violence and trauma of modernity as a consequence of a broken relationship between the worlds. Spirits who haven’t been fed with grief and beauty feed on the bodies of the living. How else do we explain our fascination with the “undead” in horror movies? In this imagination, many ancestors who had helped perpetuate colonialism long ago desire forgiveness. They want their living descendants to take responsibility (not blame) for their crimes and atone for them. In America, this is complicated by the fact that most ancestors are buried very far away, and that countless people live far from their birthplaces. But, it is said, those spirits who witnessed our birth continue to watch, and attending to them can unleash vast forces of healing. Somé writes,
They know…what needs to be done. It’s up to us to tell them we’re open to receiving that knowledge so we can take the proper action, because we’re still caught in a human body…So, one way to heal the ancestors is to grieve them.
Let’s consider the story of Semele again. We remember that she was destroyed by Zeus’ thunderbolt. The descendants of Cadmus and Harmony (including Oedipus) experienced many adventures and tragedies, and those are stories for some other time. Dionysus, one of those descendants, is the most complicated of the gods, and I write in great detail about him in Chapters Two and Five.
But Semele’s narrative doesn’t end with her death. Her sisters had never believed her claim that she’d been Zeus’ lover. At the beginning of The Bacchae, Dionysus, now an adult, stands before the ruins of her tomb, still smoldering from Zeus’s lightning. Having transformed it into a shrine by causing vines to grow “copious and green” around it, he states, “I must defend my mother Semele and make people see that I am a god, born by her to Zeus”. Later, in another story, he descended to the underworld and convinced Hades to allow him to bring her to Olympus, where she took her place among the gods and where she still resides. (Yes, we alternate between past and present tenses, because this is myth, and as the Roman Sallustius wrote, “This never happened, but it always is”.)
How did Dionysus become an adult? Perhaps it was by making that initiatory descent, which would have been terrifying even to the gods, and in doing so served as a model for humans. Perhaps he stood before all the dead to grieve for never having known his mother. Perhaps he atoned for his father’s acts. It’s up to us to imagine because these stories, ultimately, are about us. I concluded my book in 2010 with this wish:
Imagine mass public rituals in which warriors and civilians, rich and poor, women and men, white and black, gay and straight, and mad and “normal” confront the impossible paradoxes and crimes of our history and suffer together. Imagine a president standing in this container, begging forgiveness from a descendent of a slave and a Native American. Imagine everyone grieving for all those who died as soldiers, victims and activists, for the extinct species and even for the forests that once covered the continent. Imagine the relief at having finally shed tears together as a mosaic of uncommon peoples, and the gratitude bordering on ecstasy with which an entire nation would dance the “second line” on its way back home.
Since then, politicians in several countries have made half-hearted gestures of apology to persecuted minorities, including Joe Biden’s designation of October 12th as “Indigenous People’s Day” (while keeping Columbus Day as a national holiday).
Until this August, however, no national leader had participated in a serious indigenous ritual or shown any genuine remorse, and that’s what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did. The Pacific Islander community had lobbied the government to apologize for the racist, anti-immigrant “Dawn Raids” it had conducted against them in the 1970s. These, like colonial policies everywhere, were actions that had resulted in multi-generational trauma.
On August 1st Ardern traveled to the Maori-dominated North Island and, before 1,000 onlookers and national TV cameras, participated in a Samoan atonement ceremony, the Ifoga, in which the subject seeks forgiveness by exposing herself to a kind of public humiliation. Islanders who had been personally victimized by those raids covered her with a traditional woven mat as she sat in a posture of supplication. Then they raised the mat and forgave her – and symbolically perhaps, all white descendants of settler colonialism. In her following speech (“The government expresses its sorrow, remorse and regret that the dawn raids and random police checks occurred and that these actions were ever considered appropriate”), she backed up the apology by announcing financial grants and educational reforms and promising immigration reforms as well. Videos of the event show how emotional and meaningful it was for many of the attendees, as well as Ardern herself. Here are two videos of the event:
How can we distinguish between “half-hearted” and “symbolic”? After all, in 2012 Barack Obama famously wept on camera after the Sandy Hook massacre – while doing nothing to impact gun control, right-wing terrorism, police violence, the defense budget or drone assassinations.
But by the summer of 2021, indigenous and persecuted groups everywhere had been clamoring for an end to the mistreatment and the false narratives, for long-overdue respect: from the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements; to the movement for reparations over slavery; to the movement to identify the victims of Spanish Fascism; to immigration advocates; to the movement to remove Confederate monuments; to inclusion of People of Color in Hollywood; to the Water Protectors; to LGBT people; to the movement to abolish the Columbus Day holiday; and other racist cultural forms; to the descendants of Native American children who’d died in Canadian boarding schools.
Was that really a ritual, a mystery that Ardern participated in? Wasn’t her gesture merely the decent thing anyone ought to make? Perhaps it’s really that simple. As poet Howard Nelson writes (My Father Went to Funerals),
It is a mystery. Maybe
the decency itself is the mystery,
or maybe we cross from the one to the other
only on a bridge of grief.
Let’s imagine that one authentic gesture can have results that reverberate outwards. Less than two weeks after the ceremony in New Zealand, on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, President Lopez Obrador asked the country’s indigenous Mexica peoples for forgiveness:
Today we remember the fall of the great Tenochtitlan and we apologize to the victims of the catastrophe caused by the Spanish military occupation of Mesoamerica and the territory of the current Mexican Republic…The conquest and colonization are signs of backwardness, not of civilization, less of justice.
Calasso explained our situation: indifference, and trouble:
To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could imagine that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories.
Since we have forgotten the old ritual relationships with the gods, with the ancestors, with Nature herself, we have also forgotten ourselves. But not all of us. I prefer to think in that subjunctive mode: What if?
California’s Yana Indians were brought to extinction by starvation and settler violence in the 1850s.
The last speaker of their language – a Yahi man known as Ishi – died in 1916. But some of their old stories were recorded. This one is a bit more hopeful:
The gods have retreated to the volcanic recesses of Mt. Lassen, passing the time playing gambling games with magic sticks. They’re simply waiting for such a time when human beings will reform themselves and become ‘real people’ that spirits might want to associate with once again.