Skip to main content



Dancing In the Streets: A History of Collective Joy


The Archaic Roots of Ecstasy

Go back ten thousand years and you will find humans toiling away at the many mundane activities required for survival: hunting, food gathering, making weapons and garments, beginning to experiment with agriculture. But if you land on the right moonlit night or seasonal turning point, you might also find them engaged in what seems, by comparison, to be a gratuitous waste of energy: dancing in lines or circles, sometimes wearing masks or what appear to be costumes, often waving branches or sticks. Most likely, both sexes would be dancing, each in its separate line or circle. Their faces and bodies might be painted with red ochre, or so archaeologists guess from the widespread presence of that colored ore in the sites of human settlements. The scene, in other words, might not be too different from the “savage” rituals encountered by nineteenth-century Westerners among native peoples of the world.

We can infer these scenes from prehistoric rock art depicting dancing figures, which has been discovered at sites in Africa, India, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Egypt, among other places. Whatever else they did, our distant ancestors seemed to find plenty of time for the kinds of activities the anthropologist Victor Turner described as liminal, or peripheral to the main business of life.

Festive dancing was not a rare or incidental subject for prehistoric artists. The Israeli archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel asserts that dancing scenes “were a most popular, indeed almost the only, subject used to describe interaction between people in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.”1 When such danced rituals originated is not known, but there is evidence that they may go back well into the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age. At one recently discovered site in England, drawings on the ceiling of a cave show “conga lines” of female dancers, along with drawings of animals like bison and ibex, which are known to have become extinct in England ten thousand years ago.2 So well before people had a written language, and possibly before they took up a settled lifestyle, they danced and understood dancing as an activity important enough to record on stone.

It is not easy to read the excitement of a danced ritual into prehistoric drawings. The figures are highly stylized; many of those cataloged by Garfinkel are little more than stick figures or silhouettes; few possess facial features or anything like a facial expression. Even the identification of them as dancers takes some interpretive work; the figures have to be using their limbs in ways not associated with normal activities: holding their arms up, holding hands in a circle, raising their legs, or leaping, for example. Yet even in these crude, two-dimensional depictions, some of the recognizable ingredients of more recent festive traditions shine through -- masking and costuming, for example. Some of the male figures wear masks in the form of animal heads or abstract designs; other dancers wear what archaeologists interpret as “costumes,” such as leopard skins. In the clearest sign of motion, and possibly excitement, some of the figures have long, flowing hair standing out from their heads, as if they are moving rapidly and tossing their heads to some long-silenced drumbeat.

Clearly, danced rituals did not seem like a waste of energy to prehistoric peoples. They took the time to fashion masks and costumes; they wantonly expended calories in the execution of the dance; they preferred to record these scenes over any other group activity. Thus anthropologist Victor Turner’s consignment of danced ritual to an occasional, marginal, or liminal status seems especially unwarranted in the prehistoric case -- and more representative of the production-oriented mentality of our own industrial age than of prehistoric priorities. Surely these people knew hardship and were often threatened by food shortages, disease, and wild animals. But ritual, of a danced and possibly ecstatic nature, was central to their lives. Perhaps only because our own lives, so much easier in many ways, are also so constrained by the imperative to work, we have to wonder why.

Anthropologists tend to agree that the evolutionary function of dance was to enable -- or encourage -- humans to live in groups larger than small bands of closely related individuals. The advantage of larger group size is presumed to be the same as it is for those primates who still live in the wild: Larger groups are better able to defend themselves against predators. Unlike most animals -- antelopes, for example -- primates are capable of mounting a group defense: mobbing the intruding predator, threatening it with branches, or at least attempting to scare it off by making an infernal racket. In the case of early humans, the danger may have come not only from predatory animals like the big cats but from other now-extinct hominids or even from fellow Homo sapiens bent on raiding. And of course, in the human case, the forms of defense would have included fire, rocks, and sharpened sticks. But the first line of defense was to come together as a group.

In his justly popular book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues for an optimal Paleolithic group size of about 150. He speculates that speech -- the gossip in his title -- may have helped bind humans into groups of that size, much as mutual grooming -- picking insects and bits of dirt out of each other’s hair -- appears to do in the case of other primates. But although it does not appear in his title, it is in fact dance that he invokes to hold these early human groups together. The problem with speech, according to Dunbar, is “its complete inadequacy at the emotional level”:

Just as we were acquiring the ability to argue and rationalize, we needed a more primitive emotional mechanism to bond our large groups . . . Something deeper and more emotional was needed to overpower the cold logic of verbal arguments. It seems that we needed music and physical touch to do that.3 In fact, he sees language as subservient to danced rituals -- “a way to formalize their spontaneity” and provide them with a “metaphysical or religious significance.” And it should be noted that while hundreds of prehistoric images of dancing figures have been found, there are no rock drawings of stick figures apparently engaged in conversation.

Dunbar is not the only one to see group dancing -- especially in lines and circles -- as the great leveler and binder of human communities, uniting all who participate in the kind of communitas that Turner found in twentieth-century native rituals. Interestingly, the Greek word nomos, meaning “law,” also has the musical meaning of “melody.” To submit, bodily, to the music through dance is to be incorporated into the community in a way far deeper than shared myth or common custom can achieve. In synchronous movement to music or chanting voices, the petty rivalries and factional differences that might divide a group could be transmuted into harmless competition over one’s prowess as a dancer, or forgotten. “Dance,” as a neuroscientist put it, is “the biotechnology of group formation.”*

Thus groups -- and the individuals within them -- capable of holding themselves together through dance would have had an evolutionary advantage over more weakly bonded groups and individuals: the advantage of being better able to mount a collective defense against any animals or hostile humans who encroached on their territory or otherwise threatened them. No other species ever figured out how to do this. Birds have their signature songs; fireflies can synchronize their light displays; chimpanzees sometimes stamp around together and wave their arms in what ethologists describe as a “carnival.” But if any other animals create music and move in synchrony to it, they have kept this talent well hidden from humans. We alone are gifted with the kind of love that Freud was unable to imagine: a love, or at least affinity, holding people together in groups much larger than two.

Of course dance cannot work to bind people unless (1) it is intrinsically pleasurable, and (2) it provides a kind of pleasure not achievable by smaller groups.4 Whatever the ritual dancers of prehistoric times thought they were doing -- healing divisions in the group or preparing for the next encounter with their foes -- they were also doing something that they liked to do and liked enough to invest considerable energy in. Practitioners of ecstatic danced rituals in “native” societies attested to the pleasures of their rituals; so can any modern Westerners who have participated in the dances and other rhythmic activities associated with rock concerts, raves, or the current club scene. As the historian William H. McNeill pointed out in his book Keeping Together in Time, there is a deep satisfaction -- even a thrill -- to the simplest synchronous group activities, like marching or chanting together. He writes of his experience as a young soldier drilling during basic training for World War II.

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.5

In fact, we tend to enjoy rhythmic music and may be so aroused by watching others dance that we have a hard time keeping ourselves from jumping in. As some Western observers of native or enslaved people’s rituals observed, dancing is contagious; humans experience strong desires to synchronize their own bodies’ motions with those of others. The stimuli, which can be auditory or visual or derived from an internal sense of one’s own muscular response to the rhythm, can, in one psychiatrist’s summary of the research, “drive cortical rhythms and eventually produce an intensely pleasurable, ineffable experience in humans.”6

Why should humans be rewarded so generously for moving their bodies together in time? We are also pleasurably rewarded for sexual activity, and it is easy to figure out why: Individuals who fail to engage in sex, or heterosexual intercourse anyway, leave no genetic trace. When nature requires us to do something -- like eating or having sex -- it kindly wires our brains to make that activity enjoyable. If synchronous rhythmic activity was, in fact, important to human collective defense, natural selection might have favored those individuals who found such activity pleasurable. In other words, evolution would have led to stronger neural connections between the motor centers that control motion, the visual centers that report on the motions of others, and the sites of pleasure in the limbic system of the brain. The joy of the rhythmic activity would have helped overcome the fear of confronting predators and other threats, just as marching music has pumped up soldiers in historical times.

We do not yet understand the neuronal basis of this pleasure, but an interesting line of speculation has opened up only recently. Humans are highly imitative creatures, more so even than monkeys and others of our primate cousins. As all parents learn, to their amazement, an infant can respond to a smile with a smile, or stick out its tongue when a parent does. How does an infant transform the visual image of a protruding tongue into the muscular actions required to make its own tongue stick out? The answer may lie in the discovery of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when an action is perceived -- when the parent sticks out his tongue, for example -- and when it is performed by the perceiver.7 In other words, the perception of an action is closely tied to the execution of the same action by the beholder. We cannot see a dancer, for example, without unconsciously starting up the neural processes that are the basis of our own participation in the dance. As the neuroscientist Marcel Kinsbourne writes:

Perceived behavior gives a leg up to more of the same in the observer, who becomes a participant . . . The rhythm of the drum drowns out independent judgment and induces a reversion to the primordial state. To cite [Walter J.] Freeman . . . “to dance is to engage in rhythmic movements that invite corresponding movements from others.” Dancers synchronize, reciprocate, or alternate -- all of which are forms of entrainment open to the infant. Entraining with others into a shared rhythm -- marching, chanting, dancing -- may trigger a primitive sense of irrational and beguiling belonging, and a shared mindset.8

It is important to point out, though, that dance does not simply merge the individual into the group in the regressive way that Kinsbourne seems to imply. This is a common Western prejudice, but as I pointed out in the introduction, dancers in existing “traditional” societies often devote great effort to composing music for the dance, perfecting their dance steps or other moves, and preparing their costumes or other body decorations. They may experience self-loss in the dance, or a kind of merger with the group, but they also seek a chance to shine, as individuals, for their skills and talents. There may even have been what evolutionary biologists call sexual selection for the ability to dance well, or at least make a good appearance at the dance -- just as there appears to have been sexual selection for males with deep voices and females with hourglass figures. The ability to dance or make music is not confined to a single sex, but we are often attracted to individuals who excel at these activities, and this could have given them a definite reproductive advantage.

In fact, the seasonal rituals and festivities of larger groups -- several hundred people from different bands or subgroups gathering at an astronomically determined time -- probably also served a reproductive function, providing an opportunity to find a mate outside of one’s close circle of kin. In this endeavor, talent at music and dance might well have been an asset. At least such a possibility is suggested by a study of young, unmarried Samburu men in Kenya in recent times.

These “odd men out,” suspended between boyhood and adulthood in an uncomfortably prolonged adolescence, regularly go into trance, shaking with extreme bodily agitation, in frustrating situations. Typical precipitating circumstances are those where one group of [such young men] is outdanced by a rival group in front of girls.9

To be “outdanced” is to risk reproductive failure, probably for the deeper evolutionary reason that the “girls” will, at some unconscious level, judge you less capable of participating in group defense.

I cannot leave the subject of evolution, though, without throwing in my own speculation about the adaptive value of music and dance. Dunbar and others emphasize their role in keeping people together in sizable groups, but they may once have served the function of group defense in a far more direct way. Like primates in the wild today, early humans probably faced off predatory animals collectively -- banding together in a tight group, stamping their feet, shouting, and waving sticks or branches. In our own time, for example, hikers are often advised to try to repel bears they encounter in the wild with the same sorts of behavior, with the arm and stick waving being recommended as a way of exaggerating the humans’ height. At some point, early humans or hominids may have learned to synchronize their stampings and stick-wavings in the face of a predator, and the core of my speculation is that the predator might be tricked by this synchronous behavior into thinking that it faced -- not a group of individually weak and defenseless humans -- but a single, very large animal. When sticks are being brandished and feet stamped in unison, probably accompanied by synchronized chanting or shouting, it would be easy for an animal observer to conclude that only a single mind, or at least a single nervous system, is at work. Better, from the predator’s point of view, to wait to catch a human alone than to tangle with what appears to be a twenty-foot-long, noisy, multilegged beast.*

This form of confrontation might well have carried over into communal forms of hunting, in which game animals are driven by the human group into nets or cul de sacs or over cliffs. Many of the game animals hunted by prehistoric humans -- like bison and aurochs -- were themselves dangerous, and to confront them required courage. In communal hunting, the entire group -- men, women, and children -- advances against a herd of game animals, shouting, stamping, and waving sticks or torches. The archaeological evidence suggests that this form of hunting goes back to the Paleolithic era and possibly predates the practice of stalking individual animals by small groups of men.10 As in collective defense against predatory animals, synchronous movement could have augmented the human group’s effectiveness -- making it appear to be a single, oversized antagonist.

Various features of the prehistoric dancing revealed in rock art are consistent with this hypothesis. The prehistoric dancing figures often sport high headgear or head-expanding masks, often in the form of animal faces; they wave branches above their heads. One can imagine danced rituals originating as reenactments of successful animal encounters, serving both to build group cohesion for the next encounter and to instruct the young in how the human group had learned to prevail and survive.

Over time, as communal hunting waned and the threat of animal predators declined, the thrill of the human triumph over animals could still be reinvoked as ritual. Through rhythm, people had learned to weld themselves into a single unit of motion meant to project their collective strength and terrify the animals they hunted or that hunted them. Taken individually, humans are fragile, vulnerable, clawless creatures. But banded together through rhythm and enlarged through the artifice of masks and sticks, the group can feel -- and perhaps appear -- to be as formidable as any nonhuman beast. When we speak of transcendent experience in terms of “feeling part of something larger than ourselves,” it may be this ancient many-headed pseudocreature that we unconsciously invoke.

The God of Ecstasy

Once we leave the realm of speculation that is prehistory and enter the historical period, beginning roughly five thousand years ago, written records and abundant works of art provide a firmer basis for understanding human cultures. We know from these writings and artifacts that danced rituals persisted into the early phases of civilization -- a condition marked by the rise of agriculture, cities, social hierarchies, and, eventually, writing. Vase and wall paintings depicting lines and circles of dancers have been found in ancient Mesopotamian, Greek, Indian, and Palestinian archaeological sites. Rural people in ancient China danced in separate lines of men and women, and observed ecstatic rituals well into historical times. As the French scholar of Chinese history Marcel Granet reported:

The festivals of the winter season had a dramatic character. Extreme excitement was general. Even in the day of Confucius, those who took part were all “like madmen” (meaning that they felt themselves filled with a divine spirit) . . . Dances, to the sound of clay timbrels, induced a state of ecstasy. Drunkenness brought it to perfection. The exorcists [a kind of shaman] wore the skins of animals. Animal dances were performed.11

In the ancient Near East, the Old Testament makes it clear that the ancient Hebrews enjoyed a robust tradition of festive dancing, usually associated with feasting and wine-drinking. In Exodus, for example, Miriam the prophetess takes “a timbrel [tambourine] in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” When the Israelite forces returned from their victory over the Philistines, “the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick” (1 Samuel 18:6). It is not clear whether the officially approved rites and dances achieved an intensity that could be called ecstatic. One historian has concluded that “orgiastic, vigorous ecstasy is alien to the Israelite prophets,” who instead experience “a calm, sometimes paralytically calm, seeing and hearing of the word of YHWH.”12 But as Garfinkel observes, the Hebrew word hag means both “festival” and to “go in a circle” -- suggesting that the primordial form of many traditional Jewish festivals was the circle dance.13

There was, without question, a tradition of collective ecstasy among the Hebrews, but it was hardly officially approved. In fact, we know of it only through its opponents, the worshippers of Yahweh who wrote the Old Testament. This was the old polytheistic religion associated with Israel’s indigenous Canaanites, centered on Mesopotamian deities like Baal and the goddesses Anat and Asherah, and featuring what seem to have been mass ecstatic rites, the nature of which we can only guess at. Idolatry, drunkenness, and sexual orgies are described or hinted at, and possibly human sacrifice; at least that seems to have been the crime committed by King Asa’s goddess-worshipping grandmother, who lost “the honor of being a great lady because she had committed a horror for Asherah.”14 How much of these charges was slanderous there is no way of knowing, but something was going on, generation after generation, that horrified Yahweh’s faithful. Centuries after Moses delivered the commandment to worship only the one God, Yahweh, the prophets were still railing against the old religious ways. The Hebrews couldn’t keep themselves from backsliding and were apparently performing the forbidden goddess-centered rites as late as the fifth century BCE.15

But it was the Greeks, the supposedly most rational and “Western” of ancient peoples, who left us the clearest evidence of ecstatic ritual behavior, verging on the dangerously disruptive. Dance, whether of the ecstatic or more stately variety, was a central and defining activity of the ancient Greek community: line and circle dances, dances of young men or young women or both together, dances at regularly scheduled festivities or what appear to have been spontaneous outbreaks, dances for victory, for the gods, or for the sheer fun of it.16 In myth, Theseus leads the young men and women he has freed from the Minotaur in a circle dance performed with “crane steps,” imitating the high-stepping wading bird.17 In Homer’s account of the heroic age, we learn that young Greeks danced “at marriages, at vintage, or simply to give vent to their youthful exuberance -- choreia [dance], the Greeks think, must come from chara, ‘joy.’”18 Achilles’ shield bore the image, not of some terrifying predator, but of a scene that must have seemed, to his homesick comrades in arms, quintessentially Greek.

There were youths dancing, and maidens of costly wooing, their hands upon one another’s wrists . . . And now would they run round with deft feet exceeding lightly . . . and now anon they would run in lines to meet each other. And a great company stood round the lovely dance in joy; and among them a divine minstrel was making music on his lyre, and through the midst of them, leading the measure, two tumblers whirled.19

Dance was a ubiquitous theme of ancient Greek art. Dancing figures commonly graced their vases, and the great dramas of classical times were musical performances in which the chorus danced as well as sang. In fact the word tragedy is derived from words meaning goat and song, and the chorus was originally composed of men dressed in goatskins to resemble the satyrs -- half men and half goat -- who danced attendance on their master, the god Dionysus.

To an extent we can only guess at today, the religion of the ancient Greeks was a “danced religion,” much like those of the “savages” European travelers were later to discover around the world. As Aldous Huxley once observed, “Ritual dances provide a religious experience that seems more satisfying and convincing than any other . . . It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine.”20 

Lillian Lawler, writing in the 1960s, leaves no doubt that ecstatic dancing was indigenous to the mainstream Greek tradition, in, for example, the worship of Artemis, goddess of childbirth and the hunt. Tympana, or kettle drums, have been found at the shrine of Artemis Limnatis in southern Greece, and this instrument, Lawler claims, was “helpful in inducing frenzy.” Dances to Artemis were known to be especially wild in Sparta -- though whether in a religious or sexual sense we do not know, only that women and girls danced wearing “only one chiton,” or the equivalent of a slip.21

Within the ancient Western world, many deities served as the objects of ecstatic worship: in Greece, Artemis and Demeter; in Rome, the imported deities Isis (from Egypt), Cybele, the Great Mother, or Magna Mater (from Asia Minor), and Mithras (from Persia). But there was one Greek god for whom ecstatic worship was not simply an option; it was a requirement. To ignore his call was to risk a fate far worse than death or even physical torture; those who resisted him would be driven mad and forced to destroy their own children. This god, source of both ecstasy and terror, was Dionysus, or, as he was known to the Romans, Bacchus. His mundane jurisdiction covered vineyards and wine, but his more spiritual responsibility was to preside over the orgeia (literally, rites performed in the forest at night, from which we derive the word orgy), where his devotees danced themselves into a state of trance. The fact that the Greeks felt the need for such a deity tells us something about the importance of ecstatic experience in their world; just as their pantheon included gods for love, for war, for agriculture, metalworking, and hunting, they needed a god to give the experience of ecstasy a human form and face.

Far more so than most of his fellow deities, Dionysus was an accessible and democratic god, whose thiasos, or sacred band, stood open to the humble as well as the mighty.22 As Nietzsche envisioned his rites: “Now the slave emerges as a freeman; all the rigid, hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has erected between men are shattered.”23 It was Nietzsche, of all the European classical scholars, who emphasized the Dionysian roots of ancient Greek drama, who saw the mad, ecstatic inspiration behind the Greeks’ stately art -- who, metaphorically speaking, dared consider not just the deathless symmetry of the vase but the wild dancing figures painted on its surface. What the god demanded, according to Nietzsche, was nothing less than the human soul, released by ecstatic ritual from the “horror of individual existence” into the “mystical Oneness” of rhythmic unity in the dance.24

Women, above all, responded to Dionysus’s call. In fact, the association between the god and his band of female devotees is so strong that it’s worth underscoring the fact that men also worshipped him, whether at village festivals to celebrate the new wine or by piously getting drunk together in honor of the god. But Dionysus had a special appeal to the women of the Greek city-state, who were ordinarily excluded from much of public life. While men plotted wars or devised philosophies, women’s activities were largely confined to the domestic sphere, and boys still young enough to be kept in the women’s quarters were said to live “in darkness,” barred from the pleasures and challenges of public life. In many Greek cities, women were not even allowed to drink wine.25

The most notorious feminine form of Dionysian worship, the oreibaia, or winter dance, looks to modern eyes like a crude pantomime of feminist revolt. In mythical accounts, women “called” by the god to participate drop their spinning and abandon their children to run outdoors and into the mountains, where they dress in fawn skins and engage in a “frenzied dance.” These maenads, as Dionysus’s female cult members were called, run through the woods calling out the name of the god, or uttering the characteristic bacchic cry “euoi,” they toss their hair and brandish their thyrsos -- sticks to which pinecones have been attached. Finally, they achieve a state of mind the Greeks called enthousiasmos -- literally, having the god within oneself -- or what many cultures in our own time would call a “possession trance.” These were not solely mythical events; in some times and places, the oreibasia was officially condoned and scheduled for every other year, in the dead of winter. Pausanias, who wrote in the second century CE, tells of a party of maenads who reached the eight-thousand-foot summit of Mt. Parnassus -- an impressive athletic achievement, especially if performed in the winter -- and Plutarch wrote of an occasion when a group of female worshippers were cut off by a snowstorm and had to be rescued.26

Dionysus was no respecter of ethnic boundaries. According to the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the worship of gods resembling Dionysus ranged over five thousand miles, from Portugal through North Africa to India, with the god appearing under various names, including “Bakkhos, Pan, Eleuthereus, Minotaur, Sabazios, Inuus, Faunus, Priapus, Liber, Ammon, Osiris, Shiva, Cerenunnus,” and, we might add, the delightfully named Etruscan analog of Dionysus: Fufluns.27 In his brilliant rendition of the Indian epics, for example, Roberto Calasso describes the Hindu god Shiva as “this stranger, this woman-stealer, this enemy of our rules and ties, this wanderer who loves the ashes of the dead, who speaks of things divine to the lowest of the low, this man who sometimes seems crazy, who has something obscene about him, who grows his hair long as a girl’s.”28 Like Dionysus, Shiva bore an association with wine, his cult being “particularly widespread in the mountains where the vine is cultivated,” according to a Greek who lived in India in the fourth century BCE.29

In India, Krishna, too, exerted a Dionysian effect on women -- especially those who worked as gopis, or cowherders, “charm[ing] them beyond caring by the sound of his flute in the forest, so that they left their homes, husbands, and families and fled to him in the night.”30 Inspired by Krishna’s example, the sixteenth-century religious teacher Caitanya built up a following of “women of . . . casteless groups, washerwomen or women of low castes.”31 “They danced ecstatically and sang; they were as if mad,” Victor Turner reported, going on to comment that “it is hard to think that there is nothing in common between the ecstatic communitas of Dionysus and that of Krishna. Indeed, Ovid’s puer aeternus [eternal boy, referring to Dionysus] came from . . . ‘Dark India girdled by the farthest Ganges.’”32 Other scholars, though, locate Dionysus’s origins in the prehistoric cultures -- Cretan and Mycenaean -- of Greece itself. The fact that he was often depicted as a horned god, or part animal, suggests that he may have been one of the older Greek gods, rather than a relatively recent import from India.

Maenadism, as the Greek women’s frenzied worship of Dionysus is called, seems not to have been inspired by the common feminine concern with fertility. This can be ruled out as an aim, the classicist E. R. Dodds argued, by the fact that the rite was observed biennially, rather than once a year, and that it was conducted in winter, on “barren mountain-tops,” rather than in the burgeoning fields of the spring that were the usual site for fertility rituals.33 Nor was there apparently anything sexual about the rites. In ancient vase paintings, the female worshippers are often depicted in the company of lascivious male satyrs, but the women fight them off with such weapons as a staff, a thyrsos, or even a “writhing snake.”34 The most famous literary account of maenadism, Euripides’ play The Bacchae, clearly refutes the notion that sex or even drunkenness was involved. Instead, an eyewitness reports to King Pentheus, who is obsessed with prurient curiosity about the maenads’ secret rites, that he came across the women sleeping: “They lay just as they had thrown themselves down on the ground -- but with modesty in their posture; they were not drunk with wine, as you told us, or with music of flutes; nor was there any love-making in the loveliness of the woods.”35

No, the single most shocking feature of maenadism -- to Euripides no less than to his readers today -- was its reputed violence. At the height of their frenzy, the women worshippers were said to catch wild animals in the woods, tear them apart while still alive, and eat them raw. There are even words in Greek to describe these actions: sparagmos, for the rending of a living creature, and omophagia, for the eating of the raw meat, torn from the bones by hand. The victims included small creatures like snakes, but also deer and bear and wolves, and, in myth or fiction anyway, sometimes even humans; the plot of The Bacchae hinges on the revelers’ mistaking their own king for a lion and tearing him limb from limb.

Such treatment of animals may have been less repulsive to the Greeks, who practiced routine animal sacrifice, than it seems to us. The potentially shocking feature of the maenads’ behavior is that they, of course, are female. Usually they are said to kill their prey by hand, but in at least one depiction (on a pyxis, a container for salves), according to Lillian Joyce, two maenads, their hair flying out behind them, “suspend a deer belly up with its head hanging limply. This is the moment before the victim will be torn into pieces. The violence of the scene is revved up to a degree by the presence of the sword, a traditionally male implement.”36

Clearly, the maenads’ animal victims did not offer themselves up willingly for capture; the women who ran off into the mountains to worship Dionysus were also hunting. Lillian Portefaix has suggested that maenadism may have been a reenactment of archaic communal hunting -- before metal weapons and the male monopolization of hunting skills -- when a group of people or women alone would chase and surround their prey, killing it with whatever implements lay at hand and perhaps eating it on the spot.37 If I am right about the origins of danced rituals in communal hunting and other confrontations with animals -- and the violence of the maenads is certainly consistent with this hypothesis -- then maenadism would seem to be a very primordial form of festival: one in which dancing, revelry, feasting, and costuming still bore traces of the collective human encounter with animals.

It may be relevant here that, in myth, Dionysus occasionally takes the form of Zagreus, the great hunter. In their reenactment of prehistoric communal hunting, his worshippers were boldly subverting the division of labor between the sexes that prevailed in historic times. The maenad was beautiful and feminine, portrayed in vase paintings with long flowing hair and sometimes an exposed breast, which a fawn might suckle at. But she was also a hunter, who had acquired male strength and usurped the male monopoly over violence. In this way, the Dionysian rites offered the kind of “ritual of inversion” that could be found in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, European carnival, and the festivities of so many other cultures, in which members of subordinate groups -- in this case, women -- temporarily take the roles of their social superiors. During Saturnalia, masters had to wait on their slaves; carnival allowed peasants to impersonate kings; and Dionysian worship gave women license to hunt.

Who was this god who could intoxicate the mighty as well as the poor, who dared to challenge the power of men over women? Modern scholars have often looked at Dionysus with the same bafflement and dismay that European travelers brought to the “savage” rites they witnessed in distant lands. In his introduction to The Bacchae, written in 1954, Philip Vellacott opined that this is not a god whom “decent people will be prepared to worship.”38 Walter Otto, in his book on Dionysus, exclaimed: “A god who is mad! A god, part of whose nature it is to be insane! What did they experience or see -- these men on whom the horror of this concept must have forced itself?”39

The facts, such as they are, about the god are first that he was beautiful, in an androgynous way, to both men and women. Euripides describes him with “long curls . . . cascading close over [his] cheeks, most seductively.”40 Cross-dressing was a part of Dionysian worship in some locales.41 Although he had occasional liaisons with women, like the Cretan princess Ariadne, he is usually portrayed as “detached and unconcerned with sex.”42 In vase paintings he is never shown “involved in the satyrs’ sexual shenanigans. He may dance, he may drink, but he is never shown paired with . . . any of the female companions.”43

As one of the few Greek gods with a specific following, he had a special relationship to humans. They could evoke him by their dancing, and it was he who “possessed” them in their frenzy. He is, in other words, difficult to separate from the form that his worship took, and this may explain his rage at those who refused to join in his revels, for Dionysus cannot fully exist without his rites. Other gods demanded animal sacrifice, but the sacrifice was an act of obeisance or propitiation, not the hallmark of the god himself. Dionysus, in contrast, was not worshipped for ulterior reasons (to increase the crops or win the war) but for the sheer joy of his rite itself. Not only does he demand and instigate; he is the ecstatic experience that, according to Durkheim, defines the sacred and sets it apart from daily life.44

So it may make more sense to explain the anthropomorphized persona of the god in terms of his rituals, rather than the other way around. The fact that he is asexual may embody the Greeks’ understanding that collective ecstasy is not fundamentally sexual in nature, in contrast to the imaginings of later Europeans. Besides, men would hardly have stood by while their wives ran off to orgies of a sexual nature; the god’s well-known indifference guarantees their chastity on the mountaintops. The fact that he is sometimes violent may reflect Greek ambivalence toward his rites: On the one hand, from an elite male perspective, the communal ecstasy of underlings (women in this case) is threatening to the entire social order. On the other hand, the god’s potential cruelty serves to help justify each woman’s participation, since the most terrible madness and violence are always inflicted on those who abstain from his worship. The god may have been invented, then, to explain and justify preexisting rites.

If so, the Dionysian rites may have originated in some “nonreligious” practice, assuming that it is even possible to distinguish the “religious” from other aspects of a distant culture. E. R. Dodds conjectured that the rites originally arose as “spontaneous attacks of mass hysteria,”45 and indeed, there are mythic accounts of manic dancing in ancient Greece unrelated to Dionysus or any other god. Lawler suggests that waves of “dance mania” may have swept through the Myceneaen culture of prehistoric Greece and relates the myth of the three princesses of Tiryns, who, when the time came for them to marry, conveniently went mad: “They rushed out of doors, and in a frenzied dance ranged over the countryside, singing weird songs, and tearing their garments, unable to stop dancing.”46 Now possibly there were such spontaneous outbreaks of “madness” predating Dionysian ritual, but something must have set them off and given them their form. One person can go “mad” spontaneously, but what was the signal that called scores or hundreds of women from their homes at the same time? Who provided the music, for example, or remembered to bring the wine?*

There is a possible historical basis for the Dionysian rite and indeed for the god himself. The classicist Walter Burkert mentions the existence, in ancient and -- earlier than that -- archaic Greece, of itinerant charismatics, men who traveled from place to place, serving as healers, priests, and seers.47 As early as the fifth century BCE, men called orpheotelestae traveled through Greece offering to cure illnesses, including mental ones, by dancing around the sick person, “not infrequently in the form of a ring-dance.”48 Dionysus arrives in the city of Thebes in the form of such a traveler, and when Dionysian worship comes to Rome about two centuries after Euripides’ time, it is brought by a wandering magician-priest. As a healer, the itinerant charismatic cured by drawing the afflicted into ecstatic dances49 -- which may well have been effective in the case of psychosomatic and mental illnesses -- suggesting that he was a musician and dancer as well as a priest. It was probably his arrival, announced by the beating of the tympana, that drew the women out from their houses and into the “madness” that was also a cure for madness.

These itinerant musicians and masters of ecstatic ritual may well have been the prototype for the god Dionysus. As one scholar writes, the god in many ways resembles a certain kind of wandering musician in our own time, one who is also capable of inspiring “hysteria” in his devotees: the “male leader of the pop group, who for all the violence of music, gestures, and words is neither traditionally masculine nor yet effeminate. To the established order he may be a threat but not to the adoring young, especially the young women.”50 With his long hair, his hints of violence, and his promise of ecstasy, Dionysus was the first rock star. 

Excerpted from DANCING IN THE STREETS: A History of Collective Joy © Copyright 2011 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Reprinted with permission by Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved.

Dancing In the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
by by Barbara Ehrenreich

  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books
  • ISBN-10: 0805057234
  • ISBN-13: 9780805057232