In an article published recently on this website, Paul Devereux laments the absence of an Eleusian-style ritual underpinning our modern Western civilization, proclaiming the "desperate need" for such a transformative rite if we are to flourish and evolve in a manner that is culturally and ecologically sustainable. "A new Eleusis," he writes, "would let badly needed light reach into the gloom of our modern civilisation’s general state of consciousness."
Yet although Devereux is correct that no such ritual currently exists on a state-sanctioned or civilization-wide level, he fails to recognise the subtle ways in which the Eleusian flame endures beneath modern society, kindled in the underbelly by a number of annual festivals at the leading edge of culture and music. These festivals provide participants with a potentially transformative experience that is analogous to the ancient Eleusian rite. Of these, we name Boom Festival and Burning Man as the paradigmatic leaders in the field.
The Eleusian mysteries were a series of ancient Greek fertility rites that occurred every September in a 10-day event that endured for almost 2000 years. The rites were open to all except murderers and were undertaken by thousands each year, including at various points, Sophocles, Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle. In the Eleusian ceremonies the myth of Dementer and Persephone was ritually re-enacted through a series of deeply symbolic rites, through theatre, music and dance, all culminating on the final night in a procession to the temple whereupon initiates imbibed a sacramental drink, the kykeon, and went through various trials until a final, and secret, revelatory event - the epopteia, the unveiling of the grand mystery - took place in a building known as the Telesterion. This was a mystery so profound that initiates were forbidden to speak directly of it.
Of the mysteries Cicero writes, "For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called 'initiations,' so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope." (Laws II, xiv, 36.) And Sophocles, "Thrice blessed are they who behold these mystical rites, ere passing to Hades' realm. They alone have life there. For the rest all things below are evil." (Frag. 719)
Eleusis was of central importance to the cohesion and endurance of Greek civilization. The mysteries provided participants with a communal experience of the profound; the rituals invoking a shared experience of a reality of beauty and meaning that lay above and beyond the mundanity of everyday life. This overwhelming experience highlighted for participants the value of interpersonal relations, and of humankind's fragile dependence upon ever-changing ecological factors. The experience offered the individual a means for personal growth and rooted society in a set of communal values that supported a rich civilization for thousands of years.
Speaking of the absence of an Eleusian event in modern life, Devereux writes: "A new Eleusis would let badly needed light reach into the gloom of our modern civilisation’s general state of consciousness. The fruits of this would be for us to know collectively, as a culture, that the nature of reality is much greater than we currently think we know. It would humble us; make us aware that we have read but the first few pages of the great book of nature. It would link us to vast realms of knowledge, and pull us back from our isolation outside the gates of Eden into the folds of a consciousness that communes with the biosphere as a whole, and perhaps even greater consciousnesses beyond. It would make our political decisions, whether regarding the environment, foreign relations, the economy, scientific endeavour or social structures more informed, more humane, more sustainable."
Yet the modern world is not without a source of such inspiration. Every year thousands of pilgrims from diverse cultures come together from distant corners of the globe to explore the boundaries of experience and to participate in communal celebrations of music and art. These festivals, undertaken in a fundamentally different spirit to Eleusis, nevertheless provide participants with an analogous set of experiences and in so doing succeed in shining light into what Devereux calls the gloom of modern civilization. We speak here not of your average beer-swilling rock festival, but of a small number of leading multi-disciplinary events that each year push the horizons of art and consciousness wider into the unknown. Of these, Boom Festival in Portugal and Burning Man in Nevada lead the field, though in vastly different ways; others include Shambhala in Canada, and Universo Paralello in Brazil.
At Boom, participants experience seven days of groundbreaking electronic music set in the context of Visionary art, indigenous architecture, organic food, and natural beauty. Set beside Lake Idanha-a-Nova in central Portugal, Boom is underpinned by a sustainability ethos based on pioneering theories of permaculture that has won it numerous international accolades, including the prestigious "Green Festival Award". At Boom no chemical products are used in the toilets or showers, residual waters are treated by the usage of biotechnology, wind and solar energy are used, buildings are constructed from the scrapped materials of other festivals, and all refuse is recycled. Participants enter temporary into a society that is based solely on sustainability, peace, and aesthetic appreciation. Talks and workshops are given by leading academics, scientists and artists, and for a short period politics, economics and social structures are left behind for a naked experience of shared humanity. Bound by the shared ritual of dance, participants adopt a way of living in harmony with the elements, under sun and under wind, as Devereux phrased it, adopting "a consciousness that communes with the biosphere as a whole."
At Burning Man, the emphasis on peace, sustainability and enlightenment, is swapped for the radical deconstruction of social realities and the championing of uninhibited free choice. No money is exchanges upon the Playa, and participants are invited to create their own reality from scratch through physical building and through the raw interactions between participants. The only rule strictly adhered to is that participants 'leave no trace', and at the end of the week the bizarre structures of the UV-lit landscape are deconstructed and the desert is returned to the same state of barren emptiness that it began. Burning Man culminates as Eleusis did in a joint ritual - in the burning of the man – a ritual that unites participants, and an event that participants traditionally have refrained from photographing or speaking about.
These festivals are certainly not consciously attempting to replicate the Eleusian ideal. They are not religious in nature, nor do they harbour any pretensions of their role in supporting Western civilization. Yet in the experiences that they provide participants, they are the 'New Eleusis' that Devereux calls for.
In a world of post-modernism, of fragmented realities and social construction, it is not possible for a unifying civilization-wide myth to arise or be sustained. Those days have passed. As ritual is the enactment of myth, neither can there be a civilization-wide unifying ritual as at Eleusis – the New Eleusis can therefore necessarily exist only in subcultures. These festivals exploit the postmodern notion that social reality is malleable and can be molded to explore the construction of something infinitely more positive and enduring than the present social form. These festivals are an annual experiment in alternate realities. Through music and art, and for those that choose, through psychoactive substances (supported at Boom by Erowid; and at Burning Man in the Entheon Village by MAPS) participants at these festivals share a communal aesthetic experience that provides the context for all other social interactions. Traditional social structures are stripped away and human interaction is recontextualised into a frame of ecological sustainability and pluralistic integration.
For some the experience is more profound and transformative than for others, many are there primarily for the sun and music, yet all who participate leave at the end of the week armed with an experience that continues to inform their social and ecological behaviour back in the normal world. Participants are invited to make personal decisions "whether regarding the environment, foreign relations, the economy, scientific endeavour or social structures" in "more informed, more humane, more sustainable" ways.
These festivals provide a glimpse of a different way of living, of radically alternative realities. Devereux's call for a new Eleusis is both prudent and pressing in a world that is socially fractured and ecologically unstable, yet instead of looking for a return to a state-wide classical-style ritual, we should be embracing and nurturing the modern forms which are translating the ancient rite into structures that will support us in the future. We should seek not to develop a singular mass-organized entheogenic rite, but to nurture the emerging cross-cultural fusions of art, music and personal exploration into ever wider and more inclusive forms. For it is these that in the decades to come will continue to enlighten, to teach us of "our barbarous and savage mode of life," and which perhaps may refine us, at long last, into a state that can rightly be called "civilization".