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. So 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.