So, in my first PantheaCon 2012 post, I covered the ever-contentious topic of transgender exclusion; and in my second, I talked about the Ekklesía Antínoou and personal specifics of certain aspects of the con’ (as well as before and after it), with a focus on the Inundation ritual. Now, I will be discussing a further event in which I was involved, which was quite enjoyable and successful, and yet also strangely challenging and stressful–not necessarily in a bad way, however, but certainly in a way that I did not really expect it to be.
The event was “A Modern Dionysian Initiation” on Saturday night at 11 PM, and it was put on by the Circle of Dionysos. You can read a bit more about it from the viewpoint of Derik Cowan (who played Dionysos–fabulously, I might add…and, last year for us, he played Antinous!) here. Like Derik, I was on stage and off before I even realized it, in many respects; but unlike Derik, I only had one song, and was literally on and off in less than three minutes, whereas he was on for at least half (if not more) of the 90-minute ritual.
“A Modern Dionysian Initiation” was a performance/ritual drama (appropriately enough!), and in it, I played Orpheus. Orpheus is an interesting character from all sorts of viewpoints, and one that I’ve enjoyed and had more than a passing interest in for many years. Senior year of undergraduate college, I even did part of a major project on different tellings of the Orpheus story, including the Middle English “Sir Orfeo,” the films Orphee by Cocteau and Black Orpheus, and the Neil Gaiman stories dealing with Orpheus from The Sandman comic series. Because Orpheus is involved with the “Orphic mysteries” and the Orphic Hymns as well–at least ostensibly–he also looms rather large in the realm of looking at ancient and late antique mysticism for a variety of reasons…including, in the context of the present blog and the Ekklesía Antínoou’s wider practices, the possibility that Herodes Attikos and Polydeukion were involved in Orphic practices to some extent or another.
And yet, playing Orpheus–both in this particular dramatic piece and just in general–was not at all a comfortable thing to be doing. While I had a long time to think about the part, and I had a really good talk over some concerns of the character with one of the writers/lyricists/stars of the drama the day before, it wasn’t really until I was explaining the character of Orpheus to one of the maenads in the ritual drama an hour or two before we performed it that I finally clicked with what the character of Orpheus was about, and why he might have some relevance to me in particular. (Hint: it’s not because he’s the best singer ever and could charm anyone and everyone AND EVERYTHING with his music!)
In the myth of Orpheus that we have, he finds true love but loses it to misfortune when Eurydike is bitten by a snake and goes the way of all flesh, with her soul ending up in Hades. (Hadrian’s loss of Antinous by drowning is comparable on certain levels, at least.) Using his amazing musical skills, he goes down to Hades, charms Cerberus to allow him safe passage through, and negotiates with the rulers of the underworld to have Eurydike back. They agree, provided that he takes her to the surface and doesn’t look back at her for the entire way until they are on the surface once again. (At this point, I’m reminded of so many things, including the practice of not looking back where offerings to Hekate are concerned; and also the Shinto myth of Izanagi and Izanami…!) Of course, Orpheus looks back at the last second, and Eurydike slips through his grasp once again, lost for good this time. In the aftermath, Orpheus cannot ever love another woman, and instead begins having relationships with males, often being credited with the innovation of male homoeroticism (though Poseidon, I think, tends to have a more secure “patent” on that practice as far as Greek myth goes, in my view!). This enrages the women of Thrace, and so some maenads eventually find him and tear him apart, leaving only his head to float out to sea, where it eventually washes ashore on Lesbos and becomes the inspiration for Sappho.
While this myth is good as far as it goes, what it says about homoeroticism isn’t particularly flattering: it’s a hopeless homoeroticism, one that is done not for its own sake, but because no woman will ever be good enough for Orpheus again, and thus it isn’t very affirmative of queerness at all. When I talked it over with my advisor on the cast, he was saying to me that no matter how much sex with men Orpheus has, it all really doesn’t matter, and he doesn’t care about any of it…We don’t have the names of any of his male lovers, to my knowledge, or any great stories of how those loves were deep and passionate and intense, they “just were.”
So, even before Orpheus loses his head–or, rather, simply becomes a head (or, dare I say, “gets a head“?!?)–he is already only living in his head, and kind of having that fact about him actualized in his remaining physical form is the ultimate result of his tragedy. And his fatal flaw, and the one that I picked out when I was explaining the story to the maenad who would later tear me up (offstage, of course), was that he was always looking back, even before he looked back at the wrong time and place and lost Eurydike for good. While I can see, in a certain sense, how memory is a very good thing, and it plays an essential role in the “Orphic plates” where the lake of Mnemosyne in the underworld is concerned, at the same time, Orpheus’ story is a story of memory gone wrong to the point that one only lives in memory and not in reality. It is this “looking back” that makes him lose the Eurydike of his future and his present when he tries to retrieve her from Hades.
There’s also a wider dimension to this, and one that I think gets overplayed in far too much spirituality and religion, including in modern paganism. The idea that if one is “in one’s head” at all is rather shunned and rejected in so much religion and spirituality. There are certain cases in which a religion or a spiritual practice asks one to give up one’s critical faculties and to not think at all…and these, I think (!?!), are often abusive and non-integrative practices. Thought is not the enemy of religion, and reason is not the downfall of spiritual experience or practice; but, it can most certainly be over-emphasized or over-used, or it can be relied upon where something else might be more appropriate or useful. Where the story of Orpheus impinges on this, I think, is in his ultimate fate. He is still a divine voice, and he has an oracular ability as a severed head; and yet, no one can be or should be “just a head.” The rest of the body must receive its due and be honored just as much as the head and all of its faculties of voice, sight, hearing, and communication, as well as divine insight and the amazing powers of thought and language. It isn’t that one must “give up” thinking or anything, but instead that thinking and feeling and moving must all work together in a more harmonious fashion in order to develop spiritually. So, Orpheus is a cautionary tale that even the amazing powers of memory and of voice and of divine insight must be tempered with all of the other faculties of the limbs of the body and their powers. It’s certainly possible to go on living as “just a head,” as Orpheus shows us, but it’s nowhere near as enjoyable.
But, remember, my bit as Orpheus was only about three minutes out of ninety. What was the rest of the show? Glad you asked!
The play itself was, in essence, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, minus a few songs, with changes lyrics and characters. Dr. Frank N. Furter was, of course, Dionysos himself; Riff Raff and Magenta were Zeus and Hera; Columbia was Semele; Dr. Scott was Apollon; Eddie was Orpheus (me!); and Brad and Janet were…well…Brad and Janet, two pagans who wandered into the wrong ritual…but, it turned out they were actually Hermes (Janet) and Aphrodite (Brad). Pan was also there as a kind of chorus leader, and there were also maenads…and, the audience, in all of its raucousness, also played an essential role. I’ve heard in certain sections of queer studies that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the first and most important queer texts there is, because it is interactive–one doesn’t just go and watch the film, one participates in it and is part of the performance. This was most certainly the case in this “Modern Dionysian Initiation.” So many modern pagans and geeks of all sorts know RHPS so well, and the show itself is such a Dionysian experience (or, at very least, orgiastic!), that adapting it to this context was tremendously excellent.
Oh, and I should mention: there was no “Rocky” as such–it was a gigantic dildo, because it represented Dionysos’ vow to Prosymnos. Though, it was sort of a character on its own as well…it was certainly noticeable on stage!
So, when it came time, and Rocky/Prosymnos had just been revealed and sung about, the music started for me, and out I came, singing:
What ever happened to Saturday night?
You dressed up sharp and you felt all right…
It didn’t seem the same since cosmic light
Came into my life–I though I was divine…
Eurydike was the one for me;
When we were together it was ecstasy.
A snakebite on her ankle soon after we wed–
She’s in the underworld down in the land of the dead.
EU-RY-DI-KE, bless my soul!
I really love cocks in my hole!
(Repeat x 3)
I went down to Hades, get my true love back,
They said she could return if I stayed on track;
I couldn’t help myself, I tried to catch a quick glance–
They took her back to Hades ’cause I blew our one chance.
After that I left straight life behind,
Seduced all the boys and made ‘em all mine;
Some say I was the first to introduce pederasty–
For stealing all their men the women wanna lambast me!
EU-RY-DI-KE, bless my soul!
I really love cocks in my hole!…
And, as the chorus repeated for the last time, I was just repeating “EU-RY-DI-KE!” over and over again, as the maenads were circling around looking more and more fierce and hungry, until by the end, I was just shrieking it out and screaming, and had become something of a maenad myself in my madness from grief. Being “in one’s head” isn’t just about being stuck in thought, it’s also about being stuck in negative emotional states, I think, including madness…it’s amazing how being “out of one’s head” can also keep one trapped in one’s head, I think.
Oh, and I should also mention: when I came in and was singing about all of this, in between the first verses and the chorus and the second verses and chorus, I went up to Dionysos, took away Rocky/Prosymnos, and was playing with it, and in fact did my saxophone solo on the giant dildo. (It was far too big to fit in my mouth, dear friends–I’m not that talented!) So, this got across all sorts of things: Dionysos resenting me for taking away his new and dedicated toy, but also the excessive aspects of the Orphic cultus in comparison to “traditional” Dionysian practices, whether that was in one direction or another in terms of physical and sexual excesses. So, there was a further meta-level to the story as well…which just goes to show how damn well the entire thing worked!
At the end, with the “floor show,” Dionysos emerged in a drag masterpiece, but also with horns, and he was truly an ecstatic vision that was like a crackling and thunderous rift through the fabric of the sex-time continuum. I wish you all could have seen him…and Zeus and Hera, who also looked amazing…and everyone in the cast, really. It was fantastic to behold, and it was great to see Hayden (who was playing Zeus) react to certain things backstage, as it was sort of his “dream” to do this as a performance at PantheaCon in a Dionysian context. It worked damn well!
At the end, we all emerged, and a spirited final version of the “Time Warp” followed, which was a great way to end. Indeed, time was very strange for the whole thing–I found myself still rehearsing my lines backstage half an hour after I had performed them…and it took me a little while to get out of that bad Orphic head-living, looking-back mindset. May I leave it all behind me as much as possible now, and into the future…
The ribbon given out to the cast members for this said “Madness Takes Its Toll.” Indeed, indeed!
So, I think I can confidently say “a good time was had by all” in this, and even if people didn’t pay attention to the very accurate mythological aspects of this version, or didn’t have an ecstatic experience themselves in witnessing this ritual drama, and didn’t come away with the catharsis one should have after such a performance, I think they had fun–and, oftentimes, that’s good enough, innit?