Pagan Ritual at the Cube

This past Thursday our friends at the Bristol Psychedelic Society invited me to speak and coordinate a ritual as part of their event on Mythology. This event took place at the Cube Microplex, and it was sold out!

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The “Ritual Community” Gathers

It was a privilege to share some research and practical experience with such a large, enthusiastic and participatory crowd.

The myths we were discussing centered on two important Zeus festivals in ancient Attica. The first is called Diasia, and took place in the spring. For Diasia families gave toys to children and the community processed out of the city along the Sacred Way to the altar of Zeus “The Gracious” (μειλίχιος). So far it appears to have been a joyful celebration. There they sacrificed a sheep and burned its body whole in a pit in the earth, without wine, in solemnity. This shift from joy to gloominess was pretty common in ancient Greek festivals. The “fleece of Zeus” wasn’t burned; it had purifying powers, and was used in various other rituals during the year. The second festival was complementary to the first. Around early November the fleece was “escorted” from the city to the same altar of Zeus, now called “The Storming One” (μαιμάκτης). This festival may have been called Maimakteria or Pompaia, but we’re not entirely certain.

In my very short introductory talk, I used the myths, topography, and images associated with these festivals to discuss how meaning and power operate in a living mythical-ritual system. Above all, I wanted to challenge (1) naïve claims about the “purity” of Greek myths, whether we get them from literary or folkloric sources, and (2) simplistic explanations of Greek gods as “god of X.” I tried instead to show how competing and sometimes contradictory understandings and feelings co-existed and co-evolved for Diasia/Maimakteria. I particularly emphasized the following thoughts and feelings: unconditional hospitality; complicity, impurity, and the need to be relieved of this burden; abundance, enjoyment, and hope; fear and trembling. Finally, I foreshadowed the ritual we’d be recreating, noting in particular that anyone who came on stage could become the “offering” of the community (see below).

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We Welcome “The God”

I noted that the ritual didn’t aim at an “accurate reenactment” of the ancient tradition, which was neither possible  nor desirable. Instead, we’d combine ancient inspirations with modern pagan conventions.

It began with the construction of a sacred space through music (“Can’t You See the Bones Leaving?” and “The Fall” from Il Santo Bevitore’s Realm of Consciousness) and donning of ritual garments. Then the “priest of Zeus” invoked the god, who made an epiphany at the altar “outside the city” (on stage). Next the priest announced the god’s presence to the community and exhorted them to process “with trembling hearts and welcoming arms” to the altar on the Sacred Way. The priest and three “procession leaders” then led a joyous dancing procession to the altar.

When the music stopped, the priest closed his eyes and let “the spirit move him” to select the community’s offering. He crawled onto the stage, stood up, and followed his internal vision to the sacrifice. Putting his hand on her forehead, he said, “You are the offering of the community.” There was a powerful effect at this moment. This was self-evident to everyone, but especially for the “victim.” Such an experience raises several questions that are important for our larger project. For instance, what are some plausible neuropsychological and psychosocial explanations for this effect? The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in particular has conducted relevant research on ecstatic religion. What then are some metaphysical descriptions that respect those neuropsychological and psychosocial explanations, but also resist being reduced to them? Finally, given these various descriptions of what is happening, what are the resources and dangers in experiences like this for the creation of more meaningful, less distressing, more enjoyable lives?

These are huge questions, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking! Nor should we be afraid that critical analysis harms spirituality. It’s exactly the opposite: the absence of historical, ethical, and political consciousness in pagan ritual, as in other religious and spiritual activities, not only leads to naïveté, but also risks doing harm or nourishing the conditions for abuse of power. This is something I keep explicitly in mind when designing and conducting rituals, though of course I’m a fallible mortal!

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Citizens Return to the City after Diasia

The priest now called for a holy silence and invited all citizens who were medically able to sit down right where they were. He announced the community would offer this pure animal to the god, to be consumed whole in fire in this pit, without wine, in solemnity and sobriety. “Do you consent?” he asked the victim. Her manner of consent made everyone laugh, which in no way lessened the power of the ritual. He then gently led her to the sanctum circumscribed by a white rope, where Zeus, hitherto motionless, arose, wrapped her in his dark cloak, whispered reassuring words to her, laid her on the floor, and covered her in a fleece.

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Empowering the Talisman

I won’t try to summarize the rest of the ritual here, as this blog is already getting pretty long! Suffice to say there was a trance exercise involving the fleece, which was then paraded through the community, with members invited to touch it with their left hands. Some testified later that the fleece gave them a warm, good feeling. This raises another thematic question for our project, namely how objects become “empowered” or “inspirited.” Psychological and spiritual currents aren’t all in the brain, the body, or even the community! They’re also in space, time, and objects. Psychosocially this can be analyzed via extended and enactive psychology and object relations psychoanalysis; metaphysically, it can be approached via object-oriented ontology, object agency theory, or the multidisciplinary field that brings together physicists, psychologists, and parapsychologists.

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Purifying the Community

Again, it’s essential to assert that these analytical approaches absolutely don’t falsify the ritual! It’s also important to admit that they do relatively little to create the power of a ritual. When a ritual works for most of the participants — and I think this one did — this is partly because those designing it have experience and skill, and partly because those participating co-actualize the ritual with their own attitudes, experience, and skills. I’m grateful to Rhodri for embodying the god, to Heidi, Isabel, and Katie, for leading the procession, and to everyone who gave themselves to the the experience.

Tanya Lurhmann is a member of this network, and we look forward to bringing her to Bristol in 2019 or 2020 — funds allowing! I refer above to her book When God Talks BackThere’s a great article on by Nicola Cusumano about Zeus “The Gracious” in Italian, which is available on Open Access here. I couldn’t find any significant analysis of the Maimakteria festival, so I just used the ancient and Byzantine Greek sources, which are obscure. The only one you’ll easily find in English translation is Plutarch, On Restraining Rage, 458C. Just for the cognoscenti, here’s the most important testimony, from Eustathius: οἱ τὸ διοπομπεῖν δὲ ἑρμηνεύοντές φασιν ὅτι δῖον ἐκάλουν κώδιον ἱερείου τιθέντος Διῒ μειλιχίῳ ἐν τοῖς καθαρμοῖς φθίνοντος μαιμακτηριῶνος μηνὸς ὅτε ἤγοντο τὰ πομπαῖα. καὶ καθαρμῶν ἐκβολαὶ εἰς τὰς τριόδους ἐγίνοντο. εἶχον δὲ μετὰ χεῖρας πομπόν· ὅ περ ἦν, φασὶ, κηρύκιον, σέβας Ἑρμοῦ. καὶ ἐκ τοῦ τοιούτου πομποῦ καὶ τοῦ ῥηθέντος δίου τὸ διοπομπεῖν. καὶ τοῦτο μὲν οὕτως ἐξ ἱστορίας. ἄλλως δὲ κοινότερον διοπομπεῖν καὶ ἀποδιοπομπεῖν ἐφαίνετο τὸ, Διὸς ἀλεξικάκου ἐπικλήσει ἐκπέμπειν τὰ φαῦλα. (In Od. 2 p. 291)




God(s) and the Superego

Last Saturday (October 20) was this year’s first lecture in the ongoing collaboration between the University of Bristol and the Lacanian Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research (CFAR), which I co-organize with the psychoanalyst Elizabeth O’Laughlin. The speaker was Anouchka Grose, and the topic was “Self-Hate and the Superego.” This reminded me of an idea I’ve been tossing around for a while, which is the difference it would make to Freudian analyses of religion if we stopped assuming religion always involving worshipping a unitary, usually paternal, god.


For Freud, paternal authority, religion, and problems with guilt and hatred often hang together. In Totem and TabooThe Future of an Illusion, and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud posits that religion is grounded in “longing for the father.” This father is, in Julia Kristeva’s words, an “absolute ideal”; in Freud’s words, he’s the “illusionary” object of a “collective psychosis,” who guarantees that correct action will receive commensurate reward. Yet the other face of this King of Justice is that of a Cruel Tyrant. In the mists of human prehistory, Freud claims in Totem and Taboo, tyrannical fathers dominated hordes of children and wives. One group of sons, jealous of their father’s monopoly on enjoyment, killed and ate him. Thus they obtained access to pleasure, but with it came guilt, which they assuaged by imposing strict moral rules on one another and ascribing those rules to their slain father. As Jacques Lacan explores in his seventeenth seminar, this myth recalls children’s Oedipal envy and enmity for their caregivers, which they resolve by “consuming” and integrating their rivals into their own psyches. Yet this resolution is incomplete; our internalized authorities retain the scars of our childish frustrations. That is why superegos can be cruel tyrants, as Anouchka reminded us on Saturday with her clinical vignettes.

But what if we looked away from patriarchal monotheism for a moment? If we focus instead on modern paganism, we must bracket the ideal-but-cruel father. First, many pagans cultivate an array of male, female, and androgynous deities with diverse stories, traits, and associations. These aren’t just multiple faces of the father, nor does it suffice to add maternal ideals and superegos to the mix. They’re just too diverse. Second, modern pagans are generally aware that each constructs his or her own pantheon eclectically, borrowing opportunistically from various traditions. So Freud’s statement that “no one who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such” doesn’t apply here. Freud thinks followers of monotheism are deluded in a similar way to those who believe that many world leaders are “reptoids” from the constellation Draco. That’s why he calls religion a “collective psychosis.” That’s dubious for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but outright wrong for most pagans: they simply don’t believe in that sense. Their faith states can’t be split into dogmatic binaries like certainty and disbelief. (This is the same reason, I’ve argued elsewhere, reductive neuropsychological explanations can’t account for modern paganism: not because neuropsychology isn’t important, but because it ignores how post-dogmatic religion works.)

The upshot is that, although Freud’s theories about psychological development remain insightful and important, yet his application of those theories to religion largely fails when it comes to pagan polytheism. The gods, spirits, and elemental powers modern pagans cultivate are doing something else psychologically. We can try spelling this out in various ways: we can talk about archetypal states of mind, internal objects and projective identifications, the mundus imaginalis and cosmic Consciousness, extended and enactive desire and feeling, and so on. But the key point is that there’s something importantly different here, which merits exploration by engaging carefully and in detail with not only the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of modern pagans, but also their artifacts, spaces, techniques, social structures, etc. Of course, all of this can be enriched by comparing this exploration with research on the ancient paganisms which inspire modern practitioners.

You can check out Anouchka Grose here. The various Freudian works I mentioned can of course be consulted in English in the old Standard Edition, but the emerging Penguin Freud Library is generally better. Lacan’s 17th seminar, which he delivered 1969-70, can be accessed as The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. R. Grigg (Norton, 2007). Julia Kristeva is one of the most interesting psychoanalysts whom psychoanalysts habitually ignore, perhaps because nowhere in her books does she explain her original synthesis of British independent and Lacanian theory and clinical practice. So she’s more beloved by cultural critics. Her most accessible work and most sustained attention to religion is This Incredible Need to Believe, trans. B. B. Brahic (Columbia, 2009). Lastly, I can’t fail to mention again here the work of post-Jungian archetypal psychologists like Ginette Paris, Christine Downing, and James Hillman. Their work is important, and we need to engage with it much further. But it’s only one part of the pictures we should go on to paint.