Ecstatic visions of intense bliss, clarifying revelations upon the ultimate meaning of life, deep connection with the Whole, feelings of profound unity with the others and with Nature, a surprising premonition of doing “something sacred”… these are just some of the “mystical experiences” which can quite commonly (and often unexpectedly) originate, with various degrees of intensity, on a good dancefloor. Such experiences create what we might call the “religiosity” of raving. But how can this “religiosity” be interpreted, understood and integrated into this modern and apparently de-sacralised world?
From the study of comparative religions we know that dancing to repetitive beats over a long period of time and use of mind-altering substances have long been included in religious celebrations by many different cultures. For thousands of years in all corners of the planet, men and women realised that through ritual dancing and ingestion of sacred plants, they could have the most mysterious and magic of experiences: they could abandon the profane world of daily routine and journey into an Other reality, which they saw as the world of the mysterious forces governing the whole universe, the realm of the super-human, the Divine.
What we now call ecstatic trance dancing and use of entheogens (a term recently coined to refer to substances able to manifest the “god within”) are in fact two “techniques of ecstasy” able to induce a trance or ecstatic state (from Latin transire: “to go over or across”, and from Greek ek-stasis: “to exit from a certain status”). This temporary change in perception, or altered state of consciousness, has always been considered a sacred moment for it provides the experience of dissolution of one’s usual identity, as if a superhuman entity - a spirit or a god - took possession of the body. This way, the Other reality was lived “from the inside”, by becoming the Other reality.
Such profound moments not only hold life-changing potentials, for they can affect the entire world view of those who experience them, but they are also recognised by anthropologists as the possible beginning of the concept of sacred itself: the moment in which our ancestors became aware of the distinction between the profane world of daily life and the mysterious world of “the sacred”.
As a result, through the millennia, people’s visions and revelations developed into many different belief-systems and mythologies, which provided a meaning for such ineffable and unspeakable experiences and the possibility to integrate them into ordinary life.
For example, for our ancestors of the Palaeolithic Age, to enter in a trance probably resulted in feeling pervaded by pure animal instincts, as it could be the case of the amazing “Dancing shaman”, painted 15.000 years ago in the cave of Le Trois Frères in South of France, depicting a man impersonating many different animals. For him to become the Other might have meant to have a personal experience of the super-human powers of the animals as a way to increase his own hunting skills necessary for his survival.
Thousands of years later, as humans developed a more articulated spiritual imaginary, the techniques of ecstasy were integrated into a more structured reality, evolving an incredible variety of visions and interpretations of the Other that were re-arranged into more complex belief-systems.
For example, in the many possession rituals of African origin (like the Haitian voodoo, or the Moroccan Gnawa, still performed today) participants could become the “horses” to be ridden by the different spirits populating their imaginary (including, for the Songhay tribe of Niger, the spirits of the white European colonisers, which were invoked as a way to “steal” their secret powers). While in Asia and America the trance state was mainly used by one specific person in the community, the shaman, a healer or “master of spirits” who would use various techniques of ecstasy to journey into the realm of the spirits of nature and put them into contact with the rest of the community.
Also in Europe, we have a very strong tradition of religious use of the techniques of ecstasy. For example we know of the ritual use of various entheogens by the Northern peoples, while in the south, during the Hellenistic period, flourished the so called Mystery Religions. They included the sacred dances in honour of Dionysus, the “God of Wine and Ecstasy”, and the Mystery of Eleusis, which were rituals reputed to involve the ingestion of the same active principle as LSD, as argued by Albert Hoffman. The Mystery Religions were Hellenised versions of more ancient rituals and they became so popular and widespread that their practice was exported and kept alive also by the Roman Empire.
Such beliefs and practices from all over the world are generally referred to as Ecstatic Religions, for thecentrality of the “techniques of ecstasy” in their rituals. But they are not “religions” in the modern, institutional sense of the word, but rather cults that, because of the radicality of the experience they provided, were often pushed to the margins of more official and institutionalised religious practice.
The common trait linking all of these cultic practices is the sacredness granted to the vital and instinctual energies, drawn from the deepest layers of the psyche, which manifest during the altered states. Therefore, as humans developed more complex structures of civilisation and had to learn to keep their instincts under control, the Ecstatic Religions, were true liberation rituals with therapeutic potentials, both at individual and collective levels, providing a ritualised and periodical release of all those impulses that were otherwise un-manifestable during everyday life.
But there was a “problem”: such practices required a social context able to grant a very high degree of religious and spiritual freedom, since the beliefs obtained “from the inside”, the truths coming from the “god within”, hold over the believer a power which represent a challenge to institutional authorities. And this, later on, became a huge problem.
As Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire and the clergy imposed their absolute control over people’s religious beliefs, the techniques of trance and ecstasy of pagan origins began to be regarded as unacceptable forms of freedom and were conveniently identified as encounters with the Devil. This is how the Other eventually became Satan, the techniques of ecstasy were demonised and prohibited, natural instincts were repressed and hundreds of thousands of people devoted to trance dancing and use of entheogens (all ingredients of the famous “Witches’ Sabbath”) were brutally tortured and burnt, in the name of a god who had lost all contacts with the vital forces of nature.
The resulting trauma was so devastating that the concept of the sacredness of the altered state of consciousness virtually disappeared from the western world.
From this perspective, the phenomenon of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s and its subsequent evolution into Psytrance and Electronic Dance Music Cultures in general, could appear as spontaneous re-enactments of the ancient techniques of ecstasy in a post-modern, cross-cultural context. So this could create the possibility of regaining possession of one of the most powerful tools that humans have to acquire a more fundamental and complete vision of themselves and the universe. In other words we might be witness to the opportunity to re-sacralise life and nature.
But if spirituality is to be judged by its fruits and if Terence McKenna is right in stating that “a planet brings forth an opportunity like this only once in its lifetime”, the successful seizing of such an occasion largely depends on the ability of modern trancers to formulate and act upon a set of shared beliefs and thus become aware of which game they are playing.
Chiara Baldini 2010
For more info:
Eliade, Mircea: “Shamanism and the techniques of ecstasy”
De Heusch, Luc: “La transe et sous entours”
Durkheim, Emile: “Elementary forms of religious life”
Lapassade, Georges: “Essai sur la transe”
St. John, Graham: “Neotrance and the psychedelic festival”
St. John, Graham (edited by): “Rave culture and religion”