What we can learn from the orgies of old.
Parties today are really nothing like they used to be.
To commemorate the destruction of the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet, the Ancient Egyptians held communal Festivals of Drunkenness at the beginning of their calendar year in mid-August, when the Nile is swelling.
Revelers drank to the point of passing out, only to be awoken by the beating of drums. The celebrations, which had an important religious dimension and typically took place in temples and shrines, also included dancing and public sex, in part to imitate and propitiate the flood and fertility to come.
The word “orgy,” ultimately from the Greek orgion, entered the English language in the 1560s to mean “a licentious revelry.” Today, people think of an orgy as a party involving open and unrestrained sex between strangers. But originally, orgia referred to the secret rites of Ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed, above all, at ecstatic union with the divine.
Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy, and was most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy.
The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revelers wearing masks and, well, not much else. At the back is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god mixed in with ribaldry and obscenity.
Arriving at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze is interlaced with many other mind-bending substances. Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.
The “Dionysian” impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual “Apollonian” order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes it as a primal and universal force:
Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dance we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.
By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy was intended to keep it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force.
It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles, and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner.
In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.
The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate severely restricted it, but illicit Bacchanalia persisted, especially in Southern Italy, gradually folding into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (“Free Father”), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to fold into him.
As with the Dionysian cult, the Liberalia featured a giant phallus, carted through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous Roman matron would crown the phallus with a wreath. “Depravity” also featured in other Roman religious festivals, such as the Floralia, with prostitutes dancing naked, and the Lupercalia, with naked noblemen running through the streets and whipping willing ladies with strips of goatskin.
The 4th-century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival—which, still today, involves the reversal of social norms and roles, licentiousness, and feasting ahead of the deprivations of Lent.
May Day celebrations across Europe and North America trace their origins to the Roman Floralia and corresponding Celtic traditions. In medieval times, people danced around the gigantic phallic symbol of the Maypole before descending into the fields or woods for indiscriminate sex, supposedly to fertilize the land. In 1644, the Puritans outlawed Maypoles in England, with the Long Parliament’s ordinance damning them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”
“Ecstasy” literally means “to be or stand outside oneself” (“ex-stasis”). It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Albert Einstein himself called it the “mystic emotion” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”
More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and indeed, may no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.
As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world.
Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.