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Dionysus, Live at the Apollo: The Modern Rock Concert as Ecstatic Spectacle

Bacchus figurine, Pompeii. Photo by Scarlett Messenger
Bacchus figurine, Pompeii. Photo by Scarlett Messenger

Dionysus, Live at the Apollo:

The Modern Rock Concert as Ecstatic Spectacle

A tremendous hope finds expression in this work. After all, I have absolutely no reason to renounce the hope for a Dionysian future of music.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo1

The purpose of my research is to explore how the modern rock concert is a manifestation of the ecstasy cults of of history by nature and design. Specifically, I will be looking at the Dionysian cult of ancient Greece. The aspects of this phenomenon I will discuss are the rock concert as ecstatic experience and initiation into a spiritual subculture through depersonalization and deindividuation for marginalized minorities and disaffected youth, the induction of altered states of consciousness due to hyper-stimulation and intoxication, and how the physical experience of the theater is designed to contribute to this. This image of the rock star as Dionysian figure has been nurtured by musicians, PR agents, and the media to emphasize and enhance this impression for rock music fans and perpetuate the image. Intoxication, mindless acts of destruction or violence, and hyper-sexuality have become the expected mode of behavior for rock musicians and their fans by society, and all these facets have roots in the ecstatic Dionysian behaviors of the past.

As Western Civilization has evolved, we have retained many of our primal traditions; football has taken the place of gladiatorial-style combat, weddings still contain vestiges of their fertility ritual origins, families commonly have minor rite of passage ceremonies for adolescents. At first glance, it would seem that the art of ecstatic spiritual revelation has been lost to the staid traditions of modern Christianity. Throughout known human history, music has been equated with the spiritual and the ecstatic. When exploring the earliest known human cave paintings in southern France, scientists noticed a correlation between cave chambers with paintings of what is potentially shamanistic subject matter and cave chambers with optimal acoustics for singing and chanting2. The tribes of West Africa held grueling possession rituals that involved days of constant singing, dancing, and drumming, and the hills of ancient Greece pulsed with the drunken dithyrambs of the ecstatic followers of Dionysus. But where have these traditions gone in our modern world? The answer lies hidden in plain sight – so much so that the participants themselves deliberately court the imagery of the ecstasy cult, often without fully understanding the archetype they are pursuing. The idea that the modern rock concert is a manifestation of the Dionysian cult by nature and design is not a new one. The idea has been proposed since the inception of rock music by people such as mythologist Joseph Campbell and famed essayist and music journalist Robert Christgau. Even Friedrich Nietzsche called for the resurgence of the Dionysian in music before rock music was even conceived.

In this paper, I will discuss the correlations and connections between the modern rock, pop, and dance music concert experience and the ecstatic cults of the past. I will trace the spiritual and cultural origins of the modern rock concert experience to its Dionysian ancestor and explore the practices and mechanisms behind this phenomenon. For the purposes of this paper, I have defined “rock” as any popular and alternative music genre from the 1950s to present day that were heavily influenced by American Blues, Country, Jazz, and Gospel. The focus of this research is primarily the heyday of rock and pop decadence of the late 20th century. Although all time periods of contemporary music have had pockets of Dionysian subcultures, the late 20th century provided the world with a potent combination of post-war prosperity, a large “Baby Boom” youth culture, social permissiveness, and the technology to provide global media coverage to spread rock music’s aesthetic and message. The modern rock concert is an ecstatic experience/initiation that demonstrates the core principles of a rite of passage, with separation from the outside world, a state of liminality, and reincorporation as member of a new subculture. By isolating the concert-goer in the windowless theater as a yonic/womblike experience, the subject is put into a physical environment where deindividuation, convergence, emergence, and rebirth or transformation are inevitable. The physical demands of the concert going experience contributes to an altered state of consciousness comparable to the ecstasy seen in the Dionysian cult, and relies on similar archetypes and methods of ingress to achieve these goals.

Dionysus and His Cult

In his 1872 work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the purpose of the Dionysian in art, particularly that of theater and music, was to engage the individual in what he called Primordial Unity, thereby transcending the sorrows of this world and finding solace in the universal experience:

In song and in dance man exhibits himself as a member of a higher community : he has forgotten how to walk and speak, and is on the point of taking a dancing flight into the air. His gestures bespeak enchantment. Even as the animals now talk, and as the earth yields milk and honey, so also something super natural sounds forth from him : he feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted and elated even as the gods whom he saw walking about in his dreams. Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art : the artistic power of all nature here reveals itself in the tremors of drunkenness to the highest gratification of the Primordial Unity.3 (Nietzsche 27)

Nietzsche defines the Dionysian as the raw, impulsive creative energy that originates from nature itself. It is a pure expression crude epiphany, of art without reason. The Apollonian blinds humanity from pain and suffering through asceticism and intellect. Art is constructed and considered in the Apollonian mode, not experienced. Because music flows from a place beyond language, it is inherently Dionysian in nature. When Nietzsche called for music’s return to its Dionysian origins, he is calling for the return of man to his spiritual roots. Dionysus has been the heart and soul of music since its earliest days, but to fully understand the importance of the Dionysian in music, one must first learn about the God and his followers.

Illustration 1: Caravaggio, Michaelangelo. “Bacchus (1595).” Digital image. A rather sedate but alluring version of Bacchus/Dionysus.

Dionysus, also known as the Roman Bacchus, (see Illustration 1) is the Greek god of wine and the harvest, of divine madness, fertility, theater and religious ecstasy. He is a god of epiphany and revelation. He is the youngest of the Greek gods, and was very popular among those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves and foreigners. He himself was portrayed as a foreigner or outsider, the primary focus of his rituals being a reenactment of his symbolic arrival or return from a distant place. He is usually portrayed as a beardless, sensuous, naked or half-naked androgynous young man. He carried the ithyphallic thyrsus, which is a staff made of fennel wood, with a pine-cone tip.4 He is a nature god, a lord of beast and the wild. While his mysteries were celebrated in reference to the grape harvest and other agricultural concerns, his mysteries were not celebrated in the fields or arbors like most fertility gods, rather the forests and hills outside the city were the home to his revelries.

The Dionysian Mysteries themselves were fertility rituals of ancient Greece and Rome in which revelers used intoxicants, dance, and music to induce a trance-like ecstatic state to remove inhibitions and social constraints so that they may enter a more natural or primal state of consciousness. The origins of what we know as theater today are in the cult of Dionysus. The word tragedy is from Greek tragōidia, from tragos, or “goat”, a creature sacred to Dionysus, and the word aeidein, “to sing”.5 The art of tragedy comes from the sacred hymns, or dithyrambs, to Dionysus that were performed during the Dionysian festivals. Thespis himself, the first recorded actor, was a well-known composer of dithyrambs. The art of theatricality was a large part of what the cult of Dionysus was about, with its melodramatic sensibilities and over the top histrionics. A Dionysian ritual was an act of sustained improvisation and spontaneous theater in situ.

Although there were some male devotees, the majority of the followers of Dionysus were women, called maenads or bacchae, who indulged in maniacal dancing to loud, cacophonous music played on drums, flutes, and bullroarers. They would dance through the forests of ancient Greece and Rome in great processions, called the thiasos (see Illustration 2), screaming and bellowing with divine madness, trying to achieve a state of “enthusiasmos”, or enthusiasm,6 where their souls would become momentarily freed from their earthly bodies and they would be able to commune with the god directly. That these women and their behavior were considered indecorous and unbecoming for a Greek woman was irrelevant. In the strict confines of Greek society, in particular Athenian society, women were afforded few liberties and even fewer opportunities at public life.

Illustration 2: Louvre K240, “The Procession of Dionysus,” digital image, Theoi Project, http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K12.2B.html. Dionysos rides a panther accompanied by a castanet-playing Seilenos, a flute-playing Mainas and a Satyr boy (satyriskos). The gods carry human heads hung to sticks.

Religion was the one area women were free to participate.7 The cult of Dionysus gave these women a chance to revel in excess without scrutiny. In fact, many myths surrounding the maenads revolve around the often lethal punishment of men who attempt to deny them access to their god or who spy on or disrupt their ceremonies. These were not women to be trifled with. These rites would often culminate in a frenzy of violence and destruction, with the sacramental rending of a live bull by the mob with their bare hands, known as sparagmos, and the devouring its flesh raw, or omophagia. They even decapitated and tore the tragic musician Orpheus asunder when he refused their advances and requests that he entertain them.8 Orpheus, the son of Apollo, had rejected Dionysus and turned to a life of asceticism. In turning his back on life he was literally consumed by it in its most visceral form.

Wine, Women, and Song

There are reports of the initiations and rituals of the cult of Dionysus using wooden phalluses and orgies to accomplish their ecstatic goals9, but because of the secretive nature of the Mystery religions we have no way of knowing if these reports are anecdotal or not. There was certainly an erotic component to the worship of Dionysus, as one cannot have a religion founded on the principles of fertility and ecstasy without the erotic raising its head. One of the few records we have hinting at the initiation of women into the Dionysian cult is the frescoes of the”Villa dei Misteri” or Villa of the Mysteries, in Pompeii. These frescoes show the step by step process of a female initiate as she is stripped of her old self, exposed to the mysteries of the cult, and then reintroduced to the world as a full-fledged member.

The inclusion of Eros at the culmination of the series of images (see Illustration 3) is not a coincidence, nor is the bride-like appearance of the initiate.10 Dionysus was frequently portrayed as being the object of sexual desire and adoration for both female and male dedicants, and the concept of divine wedlock or the spiritual spouse rather than the hierogamous marriage between god and goddess that is often celebrated in fertility cults, illuminates the Dionysian belief in the bond between the mortal with the immortal. Unlike love gods like Aphrodite or Cupid, Dionysus does not inspire desire in mortals for each other, he inspires desire for himself. For his devotees, his sexual nature is a divine blessing and a sacrament.

Illustration 3: Fresco of Eros from the villa of the Mysteries near Pompeii. Digital image. Eros is represented at the culmination of the initiation.

The blessedness of eroticism aside, Dionysus is first and foremost the god of wine. He is a god of intoxication, the mystery of the grape transformed into a mind-altering substance as if by magic. Wine was important to Greek culture, as a commodity, as sustenance, and as part of their spiritual practices. While it is easy to define the Dionysian as being simply about sexual titillation robed in frivolous fertility ritual as well as an excuse to get drunk and act the fool, the “earthiness” inherit in the spirit of the cult is far deeper and more disturbing. We forget that at the core of wine production is the unlovely process of fermentation and rot. In her work Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia expresses the darker aspects of this Dionysian world versus the orderly perfection of the Apollonian:

Our focus on the pretty is an Apollonian strategy. The leaves and flowers, the birds, the hills are a patchwork pattern by which we map the known. What the West represses in its view of nature is the chthonian, which means ‘of the earth’–but earth’s bowels, not its surface. […] The Dionysian is no picnic. It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the muck and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from our consciousness to retain our Apollonian integrity as persons.11 (Paglia 40)

This is the cycle of life personified. The grapes are life transformed by death into a substance that transcends the properties of its former self. As the Roman empire took over the Greek, and Christianity came to the forefront, the Dionysian traditions were co-opted and warped to conform to the staid and Apollonian ideals of the church. The bare-chested, life-affirming wine god became the perpetually dying Christ, the ritualists became spectators, and dancing and rhythmic music were shunned as sinful vices that incited lust in the heart of man.

Points Between

Christianity carried over many of the symbols and aspects of the Dionysian rituals, but with a significant decline in decadence and celebration of many of the more chthonic traits of the the earlier practice. While wine and a half-naked young man with womanish qualities was present (see Illustration 4), the focus of Christianity on abnegation of pleasure and indulgence, and the obsession with physical and spiritual purity removed much of the Dionysian and shifted Western culture further into the grips of Nietszche’s rational Apollonian aesthetic. There were sputterings in the intervening centuries of Dionysian movements and moments, but the stranglehold of Christianity and its dim view of activities such as possession, intoxication, and eroticism, limited the function of ecstasy to the Christian mystics, who tended to turn the activity inward into a more private and individual practice.

Illustration 4: Correa, Juan. “Alegoría De La Eucaristía (1690).” Digital image. Christ depicted with Dionysian symbolism.

As the age of Romanticism began to blossom in the 18th and 19th centuries, art began to rediscover the values and aesthetics of the Classical world. Artists and musicians such as Paganini, Wagner, and Verdi embraced the Dionysian as part of their ethos. Franz Liszt was a Romantic Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso in the mid-19th century whose impassioned performances and brooding good looks generated the kind of hysteria the world would later see in 20th century rock fans. Known for his flamboyant and sexualized performances, his female fans were known to literally go into a state of uncontrolled frenzy and disinhibition known as “lisztomania”. The German poet Heinrich Heine described the fervor:

“When formerly I heard of the fainting spells which broke out in Germany and specially in Berlin, when Liszt showed himself there, I shrugged my shoulders pityingly and thought: quiet sabbatarian Germany does not wish to lose the opportunity of getting the little necessary exercise permitted it… In their case, thought I, it is a matter of the spectacle for the spectacle’s sake…Thus I explained this Lisztomania, and looked on it as a sign of the politically unfree conditions existing beyond the Rhine. Yet I was mistaken, after all, and I did not notice it until last week, at the Italian Opera House, where Liszt gave his first concert…This was truly no Germanically sentimental, sentimentalizing Berlinate audience, before which Liszt played, quite alone, or rather, accompanied solely by his genius. And yet, how convulsively his mere appearance affected them! How boisterous was the applause which rang to meet him!…[W]hat acclaim it was! A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”12 (Savage 457-58)

This was not the only time this level of adoration had been cast upon a musician in history, but it was the beginning of a formula that would grow and replicate for years to come. On October 12, 1944, Frank Sinatra performed a series of short sets at New York’s Paramount theater. The plan was that fans would enter the theater, see one show, then would be rotated out for the next group of fans to come in. Because of Sinatra’s immense popularity with young teenage girls, this was seen as the only way to accommodate the near 35,000 fans waiting to see him that day. Unfortunately, the shrieking young women refused to surrender their seats. After the physical exhaustion of over 6 to 8 hours of show after show and the rising pressure of other fans standing outside all day in mounting frustration, chaos erupted. Thousands of crazed fans erupted into the streets of Times Square in a screaming wave of teenage hormones.13 Although the end result was fairly harmless and mostly seemed to serve as good PR for Sinatra, the archetype for the 20th century teen idol was born from the sexual frustrations of thousands of young women that day.

It is possible that a contributing factor to the resurgence of the Dionysian in the form of rock music is the women’s liberation movement of the 60s. Women in the first half of the 20th century and for many centuries before, lacked agency over their own lives. Often treated as property and not given full citizenship in many countries until the early 20th century, the state of women in the Western world was comparable to the conditions Athenian women lived under in ancient Greece.14 Kept from public life while sexually repressed and frustrated, the advent of readily available birth control and the sexual revolution of the late 60s afforded women new freedoms and opportunities for self-exploration. The swooning sexual hysteria of previous centuries finally had teeth, and like its Dionysian predecessor, it had a predilection for biting.

Enter the Rock Star

The archetype of the rock star of the modern age is usually portrayed as a charismatic young man, somewhat androgynous but still bristling with unquestionable male virility. He is often noted for his decadent lifestyle that includes overindulgence in drugs, alcohol, and sex. He is given divine qualities, people often speak of a performer as a “guitar god” or treat his every word or action (no matter how puerile) as a deep revelation from on high. Even in death he is given supernatural traits. Deceased rock stars such as Elvis and Kurt Cobain are rumored to still be alive and in hiding, putting them in the company of other invisible, unknowable, non-corporeal deities. The early demise of the members of the notorious “27 Club” seems to have elevated them to almost saint-like status among rock fans. Musicians such as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Jones all met their death at the age of 27. They will never grow old, never lose their potency, and will forever remain young, beautiful, and at their peak. Fans decorate their rooms with images of their idols like they are household gods, emulate their style, even go so far as to stalk them in real life. The devotion of the rock fan can be a fervor bordering on obsession, and manifests itself in very passionate ways.

Teen Hysteria

Although women are still rarely at the forefront of rock music, they have always been an indispensable part of its landscape. Much like the maenads of Dionysus, their revelries and worship are the primary pillars of the ecstatic practice, and their presence at a rock concert can set the tone for the entire proceeding. The most obvious role of women in rock is that of the teenage hysteric; as seen with Beatlemania (see Illustration 5), Justin Bieber fans, or any other of the multitude of teen heartthrobs that have washed over the public in the last 60 years. This frenzy of immature lust and devotion causes young girls and women to become disinhibited to the point of tears, screaming, tearing at their hair and clothing, a literal display of hysteria and madness brought on by nascent sexuality and over-stimulation.

Illustration 5: Daugherty, Bob. A tearful fan in Indianapolis pleads with a policeman to carry her fan button to Ringo. Digital image. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/longform/stories/beatles1964/.

Each generation has had it’s own expression of the Dionysian young rock star and his throng of ecstatic followers, from the Beatles in the 60s, David Cassidy in the 70s, Duran Duran in the 80s, The Backstreet Boys in the 90s, and Justin Bieber and One Direction in the early 21st century. Record companies capitalize on this phenomena by marketing young, attractive teen heartthrobs with questionable musical talents. These young men are groomed, coached, polished and trained to perfection and serve their masters well until both they and their fans age out of the system.


A groupie is generally considered a devoted female fan of a band or musical performer who is usually more insistent on having direct contact with the band than a typical fan. Groupies are women who tend to follow their idols from place to place, attempting to develop a sexual, intimate, personal, or almost maternal connection with the band. Groupies came to the forefront in the sexually open atmosphere of the late 60s, and although the age of AIDS effectively ended the more carefree aspects of the sexual revolution, they still persist in the shadows of music. The groupie is often seen with a certain level of derision. She is treated as the hanger-on, the “comfort girl” and concubine to the band. These women have a reputation as being promiscuous and using their sexuality to climb the social ladder to achieve vicarious rock stardom, but most actual groupies claim their motives are far more esoteric and stem from a spiritual need to be close to their idols. Many groupies in the 60s and 70s became famous in their own right for their style and brazen sexuality. Women like The Plaster Casters, who gained notoriety for getting dozens of famous rock stars to let them take plaster casts of their erect penises. This was not just an act of raw vulgarity, it was a gesture of worship, creating an actual fetish of the male fertility god the rock star represents. This tendency toward converting idol worship into lust may seem crude to our modern sensibilities, however many groupies actually report a feeling of not only female empowerment but a genuine desire to commune with the spiritual when they are engaged with their heroes.

Pamela Des Barres, known then as Miss Pamela, is a famous groupie from the 60s and 70s. She has written several books on the subject and is considered by many to be the definitive expert on the groupie experience of that era. In her book I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, she emphasizes that the connection she felt to musicians transcended something as shallow or materialistic as simple “star fucking”: “I dig musicians, I feel they have the most to offer me mentally and emotionally because they think basically along the same lines that I do; extremely creative people. Music is Life. As Captain Beefheart once said ‘God is a perfect musical note.” 15 (Des Barres 155)

Her claim that “music is life” echos the sentiments of such illustrious company as Nietzsche16 and Beethoven17. In the darkened womb of the theater, music and the mystery of life become entwined in enthusiastic and erotic ways.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Rock music is rife with double entendre and overt expressions of vulgar sexuality. Controversial album covers, simulated sex acts on stage, songs being banned or censored for sexual content are all commonplace in rock music. From Elvis’ banned pelvic swivel to David Bowie simulating fellatio on his guitar player in concert to 2 Live Crew rapping “Me So Horny” to former child star Miley Cyrus’ questionably ephebophilic “Wrecking Ball” performance, rock music seems to serve to tap into our darkest sexual fears as a society. This attraction rock has to visceral sexual expression is not dissimilar to the often vulgar gyrations of fertility rites of the past, with the proud brandishing of carved phalluses, disinhibited ecstatic dancing, and representation of sexuality as a necessary biological drive to be brought to the light of day rather than hidden from polite society. The use of sexuality in rock culture, as it was in the era of the Dionysian cult, is not truly an act of “fertility”. That is, it is not intended to grow crops or ensure fecundity in cattle. Rather it is an expression of the life force, a conduit to spiritual and physical ecstasy.

Intoxication is considered almost a default setting for the rock star and their fans. It is not uncommon for the expectation of the audience to be that the musician will be performing under the influence, and in many cases the crowd themselves have spent a considerable amount of effort “pre-gaming” for the show. Many see this as enhancing the ecstatic experience and communion with the performers. Drug and alcohol use causes the participants to lose their inhibitions and achieve an almost out-of-body state. People will chase this state of frenzy to extremes, even to the point of death. Rock concerts are notorious for their abundance of bodily fluids. Urine, blood, and vomit are commonly part of the landscape. The frequently intoxicated denizens of the floor lose control over their bodily functions and inhibitions, contributing to the chthonic and earthy energy of the experience. While these contributions are not always pleasant, they definitely help to illustrate the insensate and depersonalized state many concert goers achieve.

Theater of the Senses

Fans of rock music attending a large concert are not treated the same as fans of classical music. There is no chatty cocktail hour before the show and a place to check your hat. Rather, rock fans are treated as a potential threat, herded through security checks and body or bag searches that violate their personal space. Turnstiles and switchbacks create a physical sense of disorientation and enforce the impression that you are being controlled and told where to go. Thuggish security guards are posted throughout the venue, metal barriers ensure you can not get too close to the object of your adoration, and stepping out of line will often result in swift and often violent action on the part of security. The progressive separation of the individual from their identity and autonomy over their physical being is only the beginning of their chthonic journey. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the Dionysian experience creates a kind of sparagmos of identity:

“Here for the first time the jubilation of nature achieves expression as art, here for the first time the tearing-apart of the principium individuationis becomes an artistic phenomenon. That repulsive witches’ brew of sensuality and cruelty was powerless here; the only reminder of it (in the way that medicines recall deadly poisons) is to be found in the strange mixture and duality in the affects of the Dionysiac enthusiasts, that phenomenon whereby pain awakens pleasure while rejoicing wrings cries of agony from the breast. From highest joy there comes a cry of horror or a yearning lament at some irredeemable loss. In those Greek festivals there erupts what one might call a sentimental tendency in nature, as if it had cause to sigh over its dismemberment into individuals.” 18 (Nietzsche 21)

To encounter the divine, the individual must travel to where the divine lies. This cannot be achieved without leaving something behind. By separating the individual from their body and their identity, the subject is primed for initiation into the subculture and the experience of that which exists outside oneself.

At this point, the process of deindividuation begins. Deindividuation is a mental state of decreased self-awareness causing impulsive and disinhibited behavior19. Anonymity and complete immersion in the collective identity within the rock audience environment triggers a loss of inhibition and willingness to participate in group activities that the individual would otherwise not engage in. During the concert, audiences often act in unison, clapping, singing, or chanting, either spontaneously or at the behest of the performers. This reinforces the sense of deindividuation and solidarity among fans in much the same way military chants and rhythmic actions can create a sense of a unified front. It has been demonstrated that choir performers synchronize heartbeats as they sing, and that rhythmic chanting can accomplish the same phenomena.20 As energy levels rise in the crowd, this can cause the audience to begin acting as a swarm, frequently progressing to expressions of mass hysteria, mob violence, or uninhibited acts of public sexuality. While these acts seem unsettling, they are part of the excitatory and ecstatic experience, and there are more socially positive aspects to the experience as well.

For many young fans who feel marginalized by society, either due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or just simply being considered creative or eccentric, this sense of oneness with “the Other” can be liberating. Rock music, not unlike the Dionysian cult, has a reputation for embracing the outsider. In the critically acclaimed off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch21, Hedwig is an East German genderqueer glam rock star who is telling her life’s story to the audience. At the close of the show, Hedwig sings the song “Midnight Radio”, a virtual love song to the so-called “misfits and losers” and who find a spiritual center in the music of “strange rock and rollers”. The song ends with Hedwig, the embodiment of the androgynous, outsider, rock star archetype, passionately pleading for the crowd to “lift up their hands” as if in invocation or prayer to something so large it has become the theater space itself. This is a prime illustration of the rock concert as a transformative, unified, ecstatic experience that so many people have undergone. Esteemed mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed his personal encounter with this sense of spiritual unity at a Grateful Dead concert, even going so far as to directly compare it to a Dionysian rite:

“The Deadheads are doing the dance of life and this I would say, is the answer to the atom bomb. I had a marvelous experience two nights ago. I was invited to a rock concert. ( laughter in the audience) I’d never seen one. This was a big hall in Berkeley and the rock group were the Grateful Dead, whose name, by the way, is from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And these are very sophisticated boys. This was news to me. Rock Music has never seemed that interesting to me. It’s very simple and the beat is the same old thing. But when you see a room with 8000 young people for five hours going through it to the beat of these boys … The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… The central guitar, Bob Weir, just controls this crowd and when you see 8000 kids all going up in the air together… Listen, this is powerful stuff ! And what is it ? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course. This energy and these terrific instruments with electric things that zoom in… This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence. And when the great beam of light would go over the crowd you’ d see these marvelous young faces in sheer rapture- for five hours ! Packed together like sardines! Eight thousand of them ! Then there was an opening in the back with a series of panel windows and you look out and there’s a whole bunch in another hall, dancing crazy. This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about ! It reminded me of Russian Easter. Down in New York we have a big Russian Cathedral. You go there on Russian Easter at midnight and you hear Kristos anesti ! Christ is Risen ! Christ is Risen ! It’s almost as good as a rock concert. (laughter) It has the same kind of life feel. When I was in Mexico City at the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, there it was again. In India, in Puri, at the temple of the Jagannath- that means the lord of the Moving World- the same damn thing again. It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether its a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”22 (Richardson 144)

This description of the rapture of the crowd and the similarities to the diverse religious rites he has witnessed first hand goes along way to reinforce the idea that the rock concert fulfills a certain niche in the human psyche. There is a need for this sense of unity in the divine, not just in the inhibitory practices of solitary prayer and meditation, but in excitatory and participatory acts with our peers and cohorts. To experience the Dionysian is to experience not the god within, but the god without.

The environment of the theater space itself and how the crowd is managed are part of this exterior experience. Minimal concern for audience’s comfort on the part of the theater staff and the physical demands of the concert going experience contribute to an externalizing of the individual’s physical awareness and can lead to an altered state of consciousness. The endurance required to stand for hours on end, dehydration, overheating, deprivation of privacy and physical personal space, over-stimulation from the barrage of lighting effects, extreme noise, and non-stop close physical contact with the other participants contribute to a heightened and unavoidable state of awareness of the subject’s surroundings. Again, the loss of autonomy over one’s own body forces the individual to stand outside oneself, a literal demonstration of “ekstasis” the Greek origins of the word ecstasy. Once the audience has been stripped of their identity and pulled out of their interior world into a shared consciousness outside of themselves, the music and scenography come in to seal the unspoken spiritual covenant between audience members and performers.

By far the most important element at a rock concert is the music. The power of music to effect the human body physically is well known to anyone who has attended a live music event. However, how deep this ability goes might surprise your average rock fan. Entrainment is the use of either audio or visual stimuli to trigger the synchronization of the two hemispheres of the brain. This can have surprising effects on the consciousness and emotions in the subject. The efficacy of this practice is still being debated in the scientific community, but anecdotal evidence and early research suggests that the potential for brainwave entrainment by either intentional or accidental means is very real, and can at least contribute to altered states of consciousness. Many researchers have studied the effects of “rhythmic driving”, or the effects of rhythmic beats or noise on human physiology, and have discovered that these stimuli have a profound effect on even the most regulated systems in our bodies23. The heart rate will synchronize with the beat, respiration changes, brainwaves alter, and hormone levels will rise and fall. One of the most intriguing results of this is the synchronization of brainwaves between audience members and performers. Studies have shown that musicians who are performing together display a synchronization of brainwaves between brains, even if they are playing different notes.24 The same evidence for changes in the human brain has been seen in people exposed to repetitive visual stimuli as well, such as stroboscopic lighting

The use of stroboscopic lighting can not only create an altered sense of space and disorientation, but it can also have an effect on the brain itself. Strobe lights have been known to cause critical and sometimes serious changes in the human brain. Certain frequencies of strobing lights can trigger epileptic seizures, known as photosensitive epilepsy (PSE), although for most healthy adults the risk of this is minimal. Some people who experience PSE have been found to self-induce these seizures for the purposes of triggering trance-like states,25 however stimulation to the point of seizure is not always necessary when using light to alter brainwaves. In the 1950s, artist and writer Brion Gysin invented a psychedelic device called a Dreamachine.26 The Dreamachine is designed to deliver pulses of light at a constant frequency between 8 and 13 pulses per second. Ostensibly, this corresponds to alpha waves in the brain, and can create at state of euphoria and hallucination in the user. Similar phenomena occur in a concert environment that employs bright, flashing, or dramatic lighting. Using this and other methods of brainwave entrainment can, at the very least, alter and distort the perceptions of reality, and at the more extreme end of the spectrum it can encourage a trance-like state in susceptible or already intoxicated fans.

This potent mixture of pain, physical depletion, hyper-stimulation, and endurance combined with the subtle physiological changes the theater environment cause within the audience can lead to a state comparable to the excitatory trance states seen in other contemporary ecstasy and possession traditions such as Vodou or the pierced practitioners at Hindu’s Thaipusam festival. The audience experiences screaming, cheering, bellowing, involuntary dancing, erotic excitation, and complete immersion in the moment. By throwing in the driving rhythms and blinding spectacle of the rock concert itself, the audience is soon transformed into a reveling mob, driven by primal instinct and a spiritual hive mind. The rock star has fulfilled his role as godhead and the audience becomes the Dionysian thiasos, locked together in ecstatic celebration.

Finally, the media image of the rock star him or herself as Dionysian figure is incontrovertible (see Illustration 6). Rock stars are often photographed in a Dionysian context, with scantily clad women hanging off their shoulders, a bottle in one hand, guitar in the other. Often, prodigious drug and alcohol use is expected to be part of the public persona of the rock star. The body of work of musicians who continue to perform after going into recovery is often considered inferior by fans to the work done before the artist “cleaned up”, as the state of continuous intoxication is seen as a state of divine madness, a state of perpetual spiritual epiphany and ecstasy. To deviate from these Dionysian ideals of promiscuous sex, hard living, and self-annihilation is to “sell out” and betray the unspoken doctrine of the cult. Dionysian imagery and behavior is not only expected on stage, but creeps into the real lives of the performers. While these behaviors have their origins in life affirmation, their over-indulgence frequently leads to a decadent and unproductive lifestyle. This lifestyle often proves to be ultimately self-destructive, and a premature death locks the rock star into a state of youthful immortality, forever beautiful, eternally enshrined with the decadent gods he served in life.

Illustration : Promotional photo of Jim Morrison in 1967. Digital image. Bio. http://www.biography.com/people/jim-morrison-9415576. Jim Morrison is often used as an example of the Dionysian rock star.

The replication of ecstatic religious experience at the modern rock concert through the use of intoxication, eroticism, and hyper-stimulation, as well as the depersonalization and deindividuation of the audience members reinforces the sense of spiritual cohesion and group identity for the fans. This initiates the fan into the subculture and releases them to the world transformed. Although it may not be an ecstasy cult in name, it is by its nature and its practice an extension of the decadent and chthonic revelries dedicated to Dionysus in ancient Greece and Rome.



1Friedrich Nietzsche, Anthony M. Ludovici, Ecce Homo, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004, 73.

2Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997), 305.

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, New York: Vintage Books Knopf, Div. of Random House, 1967, 27

4 Walter F. Otto, Dionysus, Myth and Cult, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965, 85.

5Merriam-Webster., Accessed May 31, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tragedy.

6 Peter Hoyle, Delphi, London: Cassell, 1967, 76.

7 Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, New York: Schocken Books, 1975, 87-88.

8Ernest L. Abel, Intoxication in Mythology: A Worldwide Dictionary of Gods, Rites, Intoxicants and Places, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006, 127-28.

9 B. Z. Goldberg, The Sacred Fire; the Story of Sex in Religion, New York: H. Liveright, 1930, 179-84.

10James W. Jackson, “Villa of the Mysteries,” Old Stones: The Monuments of Art History, http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/timelines/rome/empire/vm/villaofthemysteries.html.

11 Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, 40.

12 Oscar G. Sonneck, “Heinrich Heine’s Musical Feuilletons,” Musical Quarterly The Musical Quarterly VIII, no. 2 (1922): 457-58.

13Jon Savage, “The Columbus Day Riot: Frank Sinatra Is Pop’s First Star,” The Guardian (London), June 10, 2011.

14 Pomeroy, 87-88.

15Pamela Des Barres, I’m with the Band Confessions of a Groupie, Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2005, 155.

16Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and R. J. Hollingdale, Twilight of the Idols ; And, the Anti-Christ, London, England: Penguin Books, 1990, 5. “Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrthum. Der Deutsche denkt sich selbst Gott liedersingend.”

17 “Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child,” Bettina Von Arnim to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, May 28, 1810. “Music is indeed the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life.” Attributed to Beethoven by von Arnim.

18 Nietzsche, 21.

19 Ed Diener, Rob Lusk, Darlene Defour, and Robert Flax, “Deindividuation: Effects of Group Size, Density, Number of Observers, and Group Member Similarity on Self-consciousness and Disinhibited Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39, no. 3 (1980): 449-59.

20Björn Vickhoff, Helge Malmgren, Rickard Åström, Gunnar Nyberg, Seth-Reino Ekström, Mathias Engwall, Johan Snygg, Michael Nilsson, and Rebecka Jörnsten, “Music Structure Determines Heart Rate Variability of Singers,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (July 9, 2013): 334.

21Hedwig and the Angry Inch, By John Cameron. Mitchell, Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Performed by John Cameron. Mitchell, United States: Fine Line Features, 2001, DVD.

22 Peter Richardson, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, 144.

23 Robin Sylvan, Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music, New York: New York University Press, 2002, 11.

24 Ulman Lindenberger, Shu-Chen Li, Walter Gruber, and Viktor Müller, “Brains Swinging in Concert: Cortical Phase Synchronization While Playing Guitar,” BMC Neuroscience 10, no. 1 (2009): 22.

25Beng-Yeong Ng, “Psychiatric Aspects of Self-induced Epileptic Seizures,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 36, no. 4 (2002): 534-43.

26Paul Cecil, Flickers of the Dreamachine, Hove: Codex, 1996.