Ecstatic experience as collective bargaining: a participant's reflection

A participant in our course reflects on the socio-political significance of Dionysian rituals as a catalyst for collective liberation and social justice. Through ecstatic experiences, particularly embraced by women in ancient times, these rituals became platforms for challenging patriarchal norms and negotiating for greater rights in a non-confrontational manner. Gathering in nature, participants transcended societal categorizations and embraced an integrative space where empowerment and connection flourished.

Imagine it is a thousand years ago, and you live in a society where the concept of communion prevails amongst individualism. You go with other people from your town to the mountains and sing and praise different gods. Here, the gathering of people has more value than the gathering of numbers.

This is what happened when Dyonisian rites were emerging and with them the notion of ecstatic experiences.

Our current perception of Dionysus is much different than what our ancestors thought of him. This mystical figure is often perceived superficially, ignoring a much more important socio-political dimension that he entails. Usually, there is this shared common interpretation, much like Sir James George Frazer writes in his paradigmatic book The Golden Bough: “The god Dionysus is best known to us as a personification of the vine and of the exhilaration produced by the juice of the grape.”

Here, the gathering of people has more value than the gathering of numbers.

This was my idea of him, in line with the public knowledge that Dionysus’ main forte was his relationship with wine, drunkenness, and wildness. He is often best known to us portrayed as the god that represents festivity, carnal desires, ritual madness, and insanity. While this may be true – to a certain extent – it neglects the deeper side of the Dyonisian rites: a pioneer movement for collective liberation.

Humanity – as we know it – operates between hierarchical rules of oppressors and oppressed, and the struggle to create a just world is as relevant now as it was in 400 BC. This justifies the importance of the Dyonisian rites that gained prominence in antiquity, in which the excess that often accompanied this ancient deity could be understood as a movement of negotiation for social justice with the centers of power.

Women were at the forefront of this movement, challenging the patriarchal conceptions of their time. According to Layne Redmond in When The Drummers Were Women: “In Crete and Greece, the maenads, female worshipers of Dionysus, used wine as a sacred intoxicant equivalent to the blood of the god, as they danced to the sound of the flute and frame drum.” Together they could rejoice for better days, drinking this special wine, mixed with psychedelic substances like seeds, plants, and mushrooms, in rituals measured by dreams and actions, dancing through the night for a higher value guided by an ecstatic experience. For to dream of equality is to take action and gather to get it.

These women with their ancient wisdom understood this, and supported by their dyonisian beliefs were some of the first vision seekers to develop communal dancing as a form of delving into other realms of consciousness, and by doing so, to realize that ecstatic experiences can be powerful grounds to create collective bargaining.

Hundreds of years ago, people were gathering for better rights, to secure dignity and respect for their peers, all through a sort of political celebration that was non-confrontational, that sought to bargain for a public space of open discussion, instead of trying to conquer it through aggressive rhetorics and measures. Pacifist at its core but highly effective in disrupting the strict power grip of the political regimes of that time. This is how, due to this realization, what started as a counterculture soon became a prominent practice in Greek society, gathering people from different societal classes and backgrounds, each trying to find a space of their own.

To find one’s space is a paramount ordeal, an effort that takes time and needs a safe and sacred ambience to be able to be discovered. Therefore, these gatherings would happen often in nature, with the main purpose of reaching an experience of ecstasy. This resulted in a communal linkage, in the sense that every participant felt connected to one another, to their natural surroundings, to a spiritual realm deeper than themselves, and confidence started to rise to maintain this collective movement that could now be established to bargain for greater social rights.

These social, religious, and cultural developments, embraced the difficult endeavor of defying the strict categories of patriarchy that were already becoming established in Greek times. In Chiara Baldini's words: “[…] these categories that are very strict: a woman is a woman, because she’s this and that. A man is a man because he’s this and that. And there’s nothing in between.” The ecstatic experience could break this categorization – for ecstasy has no boundaries – so Dionysian rituals became places of transformation, acceptance, sensibility, and sharing.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned throughout the course was that to think about Dionysus is to be challenged to reflect on the impact of the ecstatic experience, and how we should strive to preserve it nowadays as our ancestors intended: a safe and luminous space, created to empower every individual who feels weakened in their rights, to stimulate communion, and, at the same time, to celebrate the magic of being alive.

What an incredibly powerful form of collective bargaining, in which different groups of individuals, that otherwise would have no social representation, or leeway to share an opinion, can now rejoice with each other, and have a space of their own.

The Dionysiac rituals as a sort of training to recognize and accept the ambiguities of reality, to defy the categorizations made by the early forms of the patriarchal society of their time, and most importantly, to reclaim the possibilities of an integrative space, non-oppositional, non-hierarchical, non-militaristic.

Many lessons can be taken from learning about Dionysus that can be applied to today's rising socio-political world conflicts. To begin - in an ambivalent Dyonisian fashion - let us end in lesson one: Shift the paradigm and reconfigure the power that takes life away, and instead pursue the power of life itself.

Reflection by João Pedro Soares

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João Pedro Soares

João is a filmmaker, researcher, cultural programmer, and PhD student in Artistic Studies – Art and Mediations at NOVA FCSH in Lisbon.

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