The Secret History of Rock

The following guest article is by Christopher Knowles, whose latest book is The Secret History of Rock'n'Roll (Amazon US and Amazon UK). Chris blogs at his website The Secret Sun.

-----------------

Metallic Mysteries and Headbanging Hellenes

by Christopher Knowles

It's not a shocking new revelation to compare rock 'n' roll to ancient pagan rituals. Writers have been throwing the term "Dionysian" around since Elvis first showed that a white man could sing the blues. But as I discovered while writing my new book, The Secret History of Rock 'n Roll, the parallels go much, much deeper than that. The Secret History of Rock n Roll book coverSo much so that if you strip away the surface details (and get past the whole sacred/secular dichotomy), the similarities between the ancient Mystery religions and modern rock 'n' roll can be downright mind-blowing.

Never mind that old pagan place-names like the Apollo, the Orpheum, the Palladium and the Academy are still used for concert halls, or that rock's Olympians (U2, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, etc.) still act out their dramas in "arenas" and "coliseums." The ancient world had its own guitar heroes, its own pop divas, even its own heavy metal bands and headbangers. And while studying the parallels of rock to the Mysteries, I wasn't surprised to see that it's genres like punk, hardcore and metal that seem to inspire something a lot like religion to their fans. Extremism and noise did the very same thing in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Dionysus was not only the god of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, he was also the god of cross-dressing, "frenzy," and hallucination (entheogenic potions were the main course at the Mysteries of Eleusis, among others). Dionysus was also closely identified with various groups of long-haired, armored priests, whose thrashing musical performances were the headline act of Mystery rituals from Phrygia to Samothrace, from Eleusis to the Vatican Hill.

The legendary Greek historian Strabo was a student of the Mysteries and wrote extensively on these ancient headbangers, who went by various names such as the Korybantes, the Kouretes, the Dactyls, the Kabieri and the Telkhines. Strabo described them as "a kind of inspired people," who were "subject to Bakkhic frenzy" and induced "terror at the celebration of the sacred rites by means of war-dances, accompanied by uproar and noise and cymbals and drums and arms, and also by flute and outcry."

The Kouretes - who the historian Nonnus described as being "sane in their madness" - derived their name from their androgynous hair and clothing, much like any number of early heavy metal bands from the late 60s and early 70s. Strabo again:

(T)he Kouretes of Aitolia got this name because, like 'girls' (kourai), they wore women's clothes, for, they add, there was a fashion of this kind among the Greeks, and the Ionians were called 'tunic-trailing,' and the soldiers of Leonidas were 'dressing their hair' when they were to go forth to battle.

As with Little Richard in the 50s and the glam rockers of the early 70s, it seems that crossing gender boundaries unleashed something primal in these performers. And just like the metal bands of the late 70s, the Kouretes evolved from a violent androgyny to a hypermasculine image and pose.

Strabo wrote that "the war-dance was first introduced by (the) Kouretes, and that this dance afforded a pretext to those also who were more warlike than the rest and spent their life under arms, so that they too came to be called by the same name."

The Korybantes dressed in full hoplite leather armor for their performances, a few dozen centuries before Kiss and Judas Priest. Strabo described their act in terms that could just as easily describe Slayer or Iron Maiden: "(one) fills full the fingered melody, the call that brings on frenzy...stringed instruments raise their shrill cry, and frightful mimickers from some place unseen bellow like bulls, and the semblance of drums, as of subterranean thunder, rolls along, a terrifying sound."

The Korybantes and Kouretes became favorite performers at the rites of Cybele and Attis, which were presided over by a gaggle of cross-dressing eunuch priests known as the Galloi, who History records as the world's first headbangers. Sir James Frazer wrote of the Galloi in The Golden Bough:

(The) Archigallus or high priest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. Nor was he alone in making this bloody sacrifice. Stirred by the wild barbaric music of clashing cymbals, rumbling drums, droning horns, and screaming flutes, the inferior clergy whirled about in the dance with waggling heads and streaming hair.

Things got completely out of hand whenever the priests of Cybele came to town. The Galloi were known to whip up such a frenzy that devout young men would be driven to spontaneous self-castration. Frazer again: "(R)apt into a frenzy of excitement and insensible to pain, (the Galloi) gashed their bodies with potsherds or slashed them with knives in order to bespatter the altar and the sacred tree with their flowing blood."

If the sight of androgynous nutcases driven to self-mutilation sounds vaguely familiar, you might have read stories of a more recent glam rocker whose concerts often ended the same way. Erik Hedegaard took up the story in a 2005 issue of Rolling Stone:

There's the Max's Kansas City episode of 1973. Iggy was playing a gig at the famous New York club, in his customary loincloth, to an audience that included Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, scenester Bebe Buell and other heavies of the time. Broken glass littered the stage, and Iggy was crawling over it, cutting himself up maybe worse than he'd intended. Blood gushed from his face and body, and from under his loincloth. Twenty minutes into the set, his soundman asked him if he wanted to stop. He didn't. He soldiered on, a bloody mess.

Needless to say, not all of the Mysteries were quite that intense. Sure, you had your Roman Bacchants (who got so out of hand they inspired a ruthless crackdown in 186 BC) and your macho Mithraists (who were baptized in the blood of a bull while tripping their brains out in a cave) but you also had more respectable cults, like those of Demeter and Isis. They were by no means sedate, but were able to keep a lid of some of the more excessive behavior of the Dionysians or the Galloi.

What is amazing is how well thought of the Mysteries were by the intellectual giants of their time. The opinion of the Roman orator Cicero was par for the course: “Nothing is higher than these Mysteries, they have not only shown us the way to live joyfully but they have taught us to die with better hope.”

Strabo himself was inspired enough by the Mysteries to write that "music, which includes dancing as well as rhythm and melody, at the same time, by the delight it affords and by its artistic beauty, brings us in touch with the divine, and this for the following reason; for although it has been well said that human beings then act most like the gods when they are doing good to others, yet one might better say, when they are happy; and such happiness consists of rejoicing, celebrating festivals, pursuing philosophy, and engaging in music."

Advice we'd do well to follow today.

The Secret History of Rock'n'Roll is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Live's picture
Member since:
28 November 2004
Last activity:
5 years 35 weeks
Greg wrote:

Things got completely out of hand whenever the priests of Cybele came to town. The Galloi were known to whip up such a frenzy that devout young men would be driven to spontaneous self-castration.

Anything that drives someone to self-castration is wrong in so many ways. I wouldn't relate this to rock and roll as much as the peanut butter jelly time tune! XD

Try and imagine what the morning after breakfast table conversation would be like...

Sometimes we get what we need instead of what we want.

Delaiah's picture
Member since:
1 May 2004
Last activity:
18 hours 41 min

More than just a name for a Molly Hatchet album? Hmm...

I'll have to re-examine my entire music collection lyric by lyric.

Or as another notable performer sang, "Cum On Feel the Noize!"

Sancho23's picture
Member since:
24 April 2008
Last activity:
6 years 25 weeks

This is a great article, what wonderful leads you've found!

This reminds me of the conspiracy theory twaddle that John Coleman spreads about Leo Adorno being the mastermind behind the music of the Beatles. There is this:

"The 12-atonal system consisted of heavy, repetitive sounds, taken from the music of the cult of Dionysus and the Baal priesthood by Adorno and given a "modern" flavor by this special friend of the Queen of England and hence the Committee of 300."

This blows my mind because there is no source text or any sort of reference for this notion, and yet one is supposed to believe it! But this has always had the effect of causing me to ask, "What WERE the Mysteries like musically?" After seeing a good Mars Volta show I thought that certainly they would have had something to offer those Greeks tripping face on ergot (or was it the mushroom?).

SecretSun's picture
Member since:
25 August 2010
Last activity:
3 years 5 weeks

Ha! John Coleman and his Adorno theories. And yes, the mythical "12-Atonal System" (sic) - never mind that most 60s rock was based on the Gospel/Blues pentatonic scale and the 12-bar, 1/4/5 chord progression format. I guess in the pre-Internet Age you could get away with all sorts of wild theories like that.

I especially like the theory that Adorno wrote all of the Beatles' songs. Of course, the Beatles couldn't blow their noses without recording it, and hardcore fans love nothing better than listening to the tapes of the Beatles working out their songs step-by- painstaking step, or reading the exhaustive studio notes about who did what on which song for hours upon hours on end. I guess they ingeniously edited out all of the Adorno contributions! I wonder who wrote all of their music after Adorno died in 1969, particularly all of McCartney's Beatles soundalikes like 'Uncle Albert', 'Maybe I'm Amazed', and 'Band on the Run'.

Good work on the Mars Volta shout-out, too!

rahn's picture
Member since:
26 September 2011
Last activity:
5 years 31 weeks

I read many times about this book. Is their any ebook also their of this book, if their please send me the link and also check http://slipnoose.co.nr

daydreamer's picture
Member since:
21 February 2009
Last activity:
16 weeks 6 days

I must be missing something here. It seems that Christopher Knowles has just discovered human nature.

- As a side note: I can't help feeling the divine whenever I plug my Gibson in and turn it up (when I get the chance to plug it in). Though my neighbours think less of it. Grumpy people. Oh, for a new amplifier.

kamarling's picture
Member since:
26 June 2005
Last activity:
6 days 9 hours

Just by chance I happened to be browsing through the audio downloads on offer at Red Ice Radio and noticed this one:

http://www.redicecreations.com/radio/201...

Which is an online interview with Christopher Knowles on the same subject. You can also get the podcast via iTunes if you prefer.

Dave.