By Yavin Koenigsberg
aka Aaron Smith
The supplicants arrived at the temple two hours before midnight. Many had traveled great distances to be there. The most devoted of the followers wore glossy clothing, flat shoes, and oversized baggy-pants. They carried with them the paraphernalia of their deities: glow sticks, pacifiers, and dust masks covered in vicks vapor rub. Once inside, the DJ acts as the priest who guides the revelers into drug induced trances and the rave begins. Are raves just an excuse to get high? Or are they the rebirth of the cult of Dionysos? To the cynics amongst us, raves might seem like a dangerous cancer of hedonism that is feeding off of the youth, but at its core, the American rave scene is a rebirth of pagan religions based upon music, dance, and ritualized drug use.
The cult of Dionysos was one of the Greek “mystery” religions which only revealed its secrets to its members, the Bacchae. The Bacchae are often portrayed in Greek art as wearing leopard skins over their clothing, adorning their heads with wreaths made out of snakes, and carrying a staff known as a thrysus which was decorated with vines (Lenardon, 238). During their early rise, the Bacchae were persecuted for their religious beliefs. In Euripedes’ play the Bacchae, he hints at some of the practices of the followers of Dionysos (Lenardon, 235-238). During their festivals, the Bacchae would eat, sleep, dance, and drink together in communal groups. When they would go out hunting in the woods for food, they did this communally. When they succeeded in capturing a wild deer, they would attack it as a mob and dismember the creature, devouring its flesh raw right there on the spot in an act known as sparagmos. As shown in the Bacchae, the essential characteristics of Dionysiac religion are ecstatic spiritual release through music and dance, the taking part in a communion with the other followers, and the possession of the reveler by the deity through the consumption of alcohol (p.238). Just as alcohol was an intricate part of Dionysiac religion, psychoactives are used by ravers to achieve trance-like states of mind.
The two most popular psychoactives in use among ravers are LSD (also known as Acid) and MDMA (also known as Ecstasy, XTC, E). Just like the counter-culture movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, modern ravers are using psychedelics in order to get in touch with the music. MDMA was originally developed as a drug to be used in marriage counseling due to its properties which aided in social interaction (Ecstasy Survey). MDMA works by manipulating the serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which has a number of effects in the brain. LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, mescaline, and even Prozac all work by manipulating, mimicking, or increasing serotonin levels in the brain (Clayman, p.895). Both Acid and Ecstasy are commonly used by ravers in order to enhance the experience. Sometimes they are taken in combination with each other, which is called “candy flipping”. The enhancing qualities of these two drugs enable the raver to dance for hours at a time without experiencing, or more accurately, without perceiving, fatigue. I have been to a number of raves both sober and intoxicated, and can comment that it is far easier to dance all night long while on either of these drugs than it is to attempt the feat whilst sober. For this reason, these drugs act like the fuel which powers the rave late into the night. Without them, the dancers simply would be too exhausted to maintain the level of vigor and activity which I have witnessed at various raves. Like the Bacchae who danced in honor of Dionysos while drinking wine, ravers dance to the gods of Acid and XTC. Nearly all of the music and paraphernalia associated with raving are in some way linked to these drugs and have become inseparable from the rave scene as a culture.
The paraphernalia of the rave culture reflects the need to combat the side effects of either Ecstasy or LSD. Side effects of MDMA can include jaw tightening, nausea, sweating, a dry mouth and throat, hypersensitivity, and hyperactivity (Ecstasy Survey). The effects of LSD, or mescaline and psilocybin as well, can include nausea, hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, decreased attention span, and strong hallucinations. I can personally attest to these side effects, for I have both felt them and witnessed them among myself and others. Pacifiers or blow-pops are used to stimulate salivation and to give the XTC user something to clench their teeth upon. Dust masks coated with vicks vapor rub are used to stimulate the bronchial passages and sinuses in order to lubricate the dry mouth and throat. Inhalers of Vicks vapor rub are frequently blown upon the faces of MDMA users in order to stimulate their already hypersensitive skin. This hypersensitivity among Ecstasy users often leads to group hugs, which have become a very common scene at raves. Lines of exhausted ravers will line up and massage each other’s backs in order to relieve the tension caused by hours of constant dancing. Recently at a club-rave in Washington, DC called Buzz, I witnessed a massage train that must of included at least eighteen people. The almost communal act of group massage is similar in regards to the communal practices of the Bacchae. When a rave is held out of doors, or after the rave at an “after-party” which usually takes place at someone’s house, it is not uncommon to find groups of exhausted revelers eating, sleeping, or consuming more drugs together just as the Bacchae did. While the paraphernalia of the raver reflects the side effects of the drugs, the atmosphere of the rave is constructed with the purpose of making the drug trip a safe and happy one. In ancient Greece, it was the priests and priestesses of Dionysos who were responsible for providing the right atmosphere for their celebrations. At a rave, it is the DJ who holds the most responsibility for providing the perfect atmosphere for the revelers.
If the rave could be seen as one hedonistic thriving mass, then the apex around which this mass revolves is the DJ. Many of the smaller raves are organized by the DJ’s and their friends themselves. They are the ones who bring the speakers, the lights, and most importantly the music. At a rave last October called Monster Mash, I helped a DJ who goes by the moniker Bezerker, set up a rave not far from College Park Maryland. He and his friends brought the sound system, the lights, the decorations, and even provided water for the parched ravers. When viewed from a religious point of view, it is the DJ who acts as the priest. It is the DJ who chooses when and where the celebration will take place. It is the DJ who manipulates the mood of the evening through his or her choice of music for the evening. In addition to being the aural focus at a rave, the DJ is often the visual focus. In clubs such as the Nation (where Buzz is held), or the Edge (where Bionic Buddha was held) in Washington DC, or at Club Paradox in Baltimore, the DJ is located in a raised booth that has the effect of placing the DJ above everyone else, thus giving him or her the impression of being that much closer to divinity. Just as ancient priests and priestesses would build high altars in order to convey the image that they were closer to divinity, so too do DJ’s when they control the music from high up in the towering DJ booth at a club rave. At some of the more blatantly pagan raves, an altar or a table can be found in front of the DJ booth upon which candles, incense burners, or other images can be found. At a rave that I went to over the summer which was called Bionic Buddha II, there was a life-size statue of the Buddha covered in flashing LED’s and sequins sitting upon a table in front of the DJ booth in one of the rooms. Yet for all their glorification, the DJ is still just the person who chooses the music, and it is the music which ultimately moves the raver to dance.
Although none of the music which the Bacchae danced to has survived, we can only assume that most of it was made in order to glorify their god Dionysos. In today’s rave culture, the music is there to both glorify and magnify the effect of the drugs which the raver takes. A quick survey of the names of the artists and their songs will reveal some of the more blatant drug references. Before I begin let me make a quick clarification of the slang, “to roll”, which means to take MDMA. Let us begin with the names of the artists: Lords of Acid, Joint Venture, Marvelous Cain, The X, and the Ez-Rollers all have names which are direct drug references. What about the songs themselves? Well, there's DJ Trace’s “Miles High”, Voyager’s “Martian Chronic”, Andy C’s “Roll On”, Marvelous Cain’s “Roll That Shit”, Swift’s “Just Roll”, Dynamic Duo’s “Rolling Number”, Darkman’s “Let’s Roll”, DJ WAlly’s “Rollin’ Ballz”, and finally, Frankie Bones’ hit song, “Trip on Azid”. I can only imagine that the music sung in honor of Dionysos had as many wine references as these songs have XTC and Acid references. The glorification of psychedelics by various styles of rave music is no different than the religious glorification of a god through music. Modern groups such as the Hare Krishna movement, or even the Baptists exonerate their gods in their music through singing and dance, so why not the ravers as well?
I have attempted to show the various similarities between the rave movement and the cult of Dionysos through comparing their similarities in ritualized drug use, dance, and music, but there is one aspect which I have been reluctant to mention. Just as the cult of Dionysos was persecuted by the authorities in ancient Greece and Rome, so too are today's ravers persecuted by the so called drug war in America. In Euripedes’ play the Bacchae, the followers of Dionysos were saved from the Greek Tyrant Pentheus through the intervention of the god himself. It is unfortunate that in modern society we who choose to be a part of the rave culture have no such deity to come down and defend us from overzealous tyrants.
The American Medical Association: Home Medical Encyclopedia. Ed. Clayman, Charles B. 1989 Random House, New York. P.895.
DJ Bezerker, http://www.proad.com/bezerker.html
Ecstasy Survey Results, http://www.cia.com.au/aburton/Ecstasy/
Lenardon, Robert and Morford, Mark. Classical Mythology, 5th ed. Longman, White Plains, NY 1995. p.234-238
The Spiritual Use of Psychoactives, http://www.csp.org/nicholas/spiritualindex.html