May 102007

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults Harvard College, 1987.


The Villa of the Mysteries, and the mural sketched above, is an increasingly important part of the origins of BDSM, and I’m even thinking of using it for the cover illustration (should there ever be a cover.) But what is it? Was it religion or pornography or something else?

The villa mural seems to depict an initiation or marriage rite of the cult of Dionysius, one of the ancient mystery cults. A mystery cult or mystery religion is what might be called a boutique religion. Instead of being a total institution one is born into, people are voluntarily and optionally initiated into them. It was also possible to be a member or even an officiant of multiple cults.

Mystery cults have initiation rituals, and initiation seems to be the main point of them, for their own sake. Victor Turner distinguished between liminal rituals, which result in significant and permanent changes in status (e.g. weddings, graduations), and liminoid rituals, which don’t have a permanent change in status (e.g. BDSM scenes, in my opinion). Turner suggests that liminoid rituals are a modern phenomenon, but Burkert describes the mystery cults as liminoid.

…there is no visible change of outward status for those who undergo these initiations. From the perspective of the participant, the change of status affects his relation to a god or a goddess; the agnostic, in his view from outside, has to acknowledge not so much a social as a personal change, a new state of mind through experience of the sacred. Experience remains fluid; in contrast to typical initiations that bring about an irrevocable change, ancient mysteries, or at least parts of their ritual, could be repeated.

[Pg. 8]

Mystery initiations were an optional activity within polytheistic religion, comparable to, say, a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system.

In the ancient world, then, mysteries were anything but obligatory and unavoidable; there was an element of personal choice, an individual decision in each case. Initiation was not inescapably prescribed by tribal or family adherence.

[Pg. 10]

Mysteries were initiation rituals of a voluntary, personal, and secret character that aimed at a change of mind through experience of the sacred.

[Pg. 11]

BDSM scenes may resemble traditional initiation rituals, but they are optional and multiple, rather than mandatory and singular.

There’s also Aristotle’s ideas of catharsis, that you can have relief via violent emotion. That’s why initiations often involve physical and emotional ordeals. In the case of the Villa, the sequence shows the woman with black wings (Demon? Angel? Likely some kind of supernatural being.) beating the female initiate with a cane or rod, and in the next segment, the nude woman dances ecstatically.

To harass novices by causing humiliation, pain, or even serious injuries is common practice in initiations, from those of Australian aborigines to those in American universities — at least until recent times. The unsettling experience has the effect of shaking the foundations of personality and making it ready to accept new identities.

[Pg. 102]

Mystery cults were about giving people the opportunity for transforming their identities and their relationship to the deity. They were all about the subjective experience, altered states of consciousness, which could be reached by fasting, drugs, dramaturgy and, most significantly for our purposes, physical ordeals. Flagellation was one of those means, and that is what seems to be depicted in the mural at the Villa of the Mysteries.

A kneeling girl, keeping her head in the lap of a seated woman and shutting her eyes, the seated woman grasping her hands and drawing back the garment from the kneeling girl’s bare back, while a sinister-looking female behind is raising a rod — these are all quite realistic details of caning. But the threatening figure wielding the rode has black wings; she is not from this world but rather an allegorical personality.

…madness is described as feeling the strokes of a whip as early as in Attic tragedy; Lyssa, as “frenzy” personified, appears with a whip in vasepainting, and in any event mania is the special province of Dionysus. Not even Aphrodite would disdain a sublime flagellum to make an arrogant girl move to her command, as Horace suggests. This would dissolve the flagellation scene into pure symbolism; at the critical moment, with a stroke, divine madness will take possession of the initiate, and the kneeling girl, changed into a true bacchant, will rise and move freely in a frenzied dance just like the other dancer next to this scene. Yet symbolism does not exclude ritual practice, and there are suggestions that one form of purification, katharsis, could in fact be flogging.

Pg. 104

So, caning or whipping could be used as a means of reaching an altered state. Even the black wings could be some kind of costume. A sudden, intense physical sensation standing in for and/or triggering a subjective spiritual/psychological event. For some people, the means to a new self is through the body. Meditation and prayer and all that is not enough for some people. They need direct, first-hand, physical experience of what’s beyond, call it the divine or the sublime or anything else. That’s what mystery cults provided then, that’s what flagellants provided in the 14th century, and it’s what evangelical movements offer now, which ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues and being “slain in the spirit” and so on. Strip away the religious elements and it’s what BDSM offers now, the direct and personal experience of a transformed self.

Since the root of a lot of this seems to be the idea of catharsis, that negative emotions like fear and hate and sorrow leave us feeling relieved, I have to look into that more. (I’m trying to pin down the 18th century concept of sensibility at the moment.)

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