Rock and Roll and Ancient Mythology
By Sean Casteel
There is nothing new under the sun. So it says in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. And author Christopher Knowles has taken that profound truism and created a marvelous prism through which to view both ancient mythology and its links to the rock and roll music of the postmodern era.
Knowles’ book is called “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” published late last year by Viva Editions, and it’s worth tracking down on Amazon or at a local bookstore. It begins with a 90 page crash course in ancient mythology designed to bring people new to the subject up to speed. His basic concept, so clever that one is tempted to call it a literary “conceit,” is explained thusly:
“In order to understand rock ‘n’ roll,” Knowles writes, “you have to go back – all the way back – to the earliest days of human civilization. The drugs, the drums, the noise, the wild costumes, the pyrotechnics, the controversy, and the outrage of 20thcentury rock ‘n’ roll are waiting for you there, in temples filled with your horny, blissed-out ancestors who believed that if they got out of their heads and away from the ego, they could actually meet the spirits that their neighbors could only talk about.”
Ancient cults, Knowles continues, organized themselves around specific archetypes, and those same archetypal themes would reemerge largely intact in the rock era, among the various subcultures and genres that evolved out of a musical form itself derived from the pounding music of ancient cults.
“Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t just another form of music,” he goes on. “It’s an indelible part of the human experience. It may well be the oldest form of cultural expression in human history. It didn’t simply spring up like some Atom Age mutant in the 1950s; it simply shook off the dust of centuries of repression, took on a new incarnation, and picked up where it left off.”
One of the earliest cults that Knowles makes reference to is nowadays called “The Mysteries,” a form of worship that is thought to have begun in the Neolithic Age, around 9000 to 4500 B.C.E., and is one of the oldest forms of cultural development known to humanity. It centered around what was at the time the new science of agriculture, and the rituals of the Mysteries were designed to appeal to the grain gods of the Underworld by acting out their myths, which celebrated the cycles of planting, growth and harvesting. The earliest distinct Mysteries were practiced in Egypt, and the beliefs spread through Asia and into the Mediterranean Basin and eventually throughout the known world.
As the religion progressed and evolved, it came to require strict discipline and study, though it also offered a direct connection to the gods without a priest as middleman. Its rituals included songs and dances, usually fast and wild, with crashing drums and screaming flutes, which Knowles says is an ancient form of rock ‘n’ roll. Simple pyrotechnics, like specially treated torches created to give off a strange effect, made for a kind of “light show.” In some of the wilder incarnations of the Mysteries, such as the Roman Bacchanalia, public sex often broke out. Sounds a little like the first Woodstock in 1969, doesn’t it?
In part two of “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Knowles continues to expound on his basic theme by saying, “Throughout the Classical Age of Rock, certain genres and subgenres would evolve into virtual cults, many of which bear a startling resemblance to the cults of the ancient gods. But this wasn’t ‘religion,’ as the word is commonly understood; this was a return to the raw, experiential roots of human culture. But ironically, many of the cults would come to develop their own doctrine and dogma, even their own languages and dress codes. Many of these continue to survive to this day – punk, skinhead, metal-head, hippie – long after their original inspiration has been forgotten. Their longevity is a testament to the power of archetypes to manifest themselves in ways that are easily grasped by successive generations.”
One of the most powerful ancient archetypes of a certain genre of rock music was the god Apollo, who was the god of prophecy, music and arts, and healing.
“Most importantly,” Knowles writes, “Apollo was himself the ultimate rock god. ‘The Homeric Hymn To Pythian Apollo’ depicts him as an ancient cross between Hendrix and Bowie, ‘clad in divine perfumed garments . . . at the touch of the golden key his lyre sings sweet.’ When Apollo did his act for the Olympians, ‘the undying gods think only of his lyre and song.’ Another Homeric hymn to Apollo reports that ‘the sweet-tongued minstrel, holding his high-pitched lyre, always sings both first and last’ to the gods.”
Just as there is an Apollonian school of the ancient Mysteries, there are, according to Knowles, a group of rock stars who embody the old Apollonian archetype.
“The artists of the Apollo archetype,” he explains, “serve up heroic, populist music for the masses. These are the superheroes of rock ‘n’ roll, the gods of the arenas and stadiums. The sunny aspects of Apollo are reflected in the predominant use of major keys and up-tempo rhythms. The Apollonian archetype often trades in political and religious moralism, serving up its sing-along anthems with a social conscience.”
In this grouping of rock stars, Knowles includes Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Elton John, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Journey, Blondie, The Police, U2 and Green Day. He writes a summary of the various artists’ careers and fills in some detail to further his arguments as to why these particular rockers correspond to the Apollonian ideal. It may not be airtight scholarship, but it is very interesting nonetheless.
A kind of diametric opposite of the Apollonian idealism is the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine and the harvest. Knowles says that a lot of writers misuse the term “Dionysian,” and confuse it with “hedonism,” or “living for pleasure.” The Dionysian cult instead had a religious method and meaning, but its wild excesses would make today’s rock shows look like a church picnic, jokes Knowles. Dionysus had a band of female followers, “groupies,” if you will, called “Maenads,” and the god boasted to a mortal Theban tyrant named Pentheus that he had “driven these women from their homes in a frenzy” and that they now “live in the mountains, out of their minds.” The Maenads would dance and scream to the music of Dionysian rituals, which included the loud beating of drums.
And who has Knowles consigned to the Dionysian school of rock? Who are the true party animals of our present day? In Knowles’ opinion, that would be The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, The Beastie Boys, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns n’ Roses.
Jim Morrison, the late poet laureate of The Doors, took the mythological bull by the horns with the song “The End,” which climaxes in a spoken-word passage in which Morrison tells the story of a modern Oedipus who “takes a face from the ancient gallery” and murders his family before raping his mother. One may recall that at the end of the ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus tears out his own eyes in remorse. The great myths sometimes take bloody, frightening turns as their stories unfold and the chips fall into place. “The End” is not exactly a Dionysian party song, but there is a definite co-opting of a story that began in ancient Greece and eventually filtered down to Sigmund Freud and his theories regarding psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind.
The female side of the mythological continuum is also represented in “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The archetype of the nurturing Earth Mother and its embodiment in the Eleusinian Mysteries is said to be fulfilled by Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, Heart, Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar, Courtney Love and Sleater Kinney.
The darker, more witchlike aspects of the female personality can be seen manifested by Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Cocteau Twins. The witchy women owe a debt to the mysteries of Isis, an Egyptian goddess who first began showing up in sacred texts around the third millennium B.C.E. Isis festivals made for a great night out, Knowles writes, complete with torchlight processions and entertainers as well as loud music, dancing, and endless barrels of beer. Knowles says that scholars still argue about whether temple prostitutes and sacred sex were common in shrines to Isis, but sexually explicit icons have been found in her cult centers excavated by archeologists.
In a chapter called “Princes of Darkness,” Knowles makes the mythological connection between rock bands that trade on wickedness and the darker gods of the ancient pantheon, such as Pluton, the Underworld god of bounty and riches who became a model for the early Christians, who overlaid their beliefs onto Pluton and similar overseers of Hades and created the notion of Satan as we know him today. From its inception, the new religion of Christianity had its disgruntled followers who rebelled against church discipline, thus creating the “black mass.”
“Some rock ‘n’ roll bands would latch on to the Plutonian archetype,” Knowles explains, “as a way to shock and provoke the mainstream. This trend first became explicit in the late Sixties as influences from Satanism and black magic became fashionable in some quarters. There was a highbrow kind of Plutonian energy that traded in art and sexual transgression, as well as a more sensationalistic, lowbrow stream that wallowed in horror and gore.”
Knowles adds that groups under the Plutonian influence would shock parents and the mainstream media to a degree not felt since the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of these bands should be easy enough to guess: The Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke, Throbbing Gristle, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, as well as Marilyn Manson and the exponents of genres Knowles calls “Devil Music,” “Thrash and Grindcore,” and “Death Metal.”
This has been just a brief survey of only parts of what Knowles offers in “The Secret History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” One can no doubt find other personal favorites and see how their star aligns with the ancient gods and mysteries. For example, Neil Young is said to embody the woefulness of the story of Orpheus, while Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel are descendants of Hermes, the messenger of the gods who was also the patron of writing, among other things. In addition, Hermes was a “psychopomp,” one who escorted the dead to the Underworld.
“Hermetic artists focus on technique and equipment,” according to Knowles, “using the studio itself as a musical instrument. Hermetic bands are usually driven by artistic concerns more than commercial ones, and they often compete with one another to expand the formal constraints of form, technique and technology.”
Knowles has done an excellent job of throwing light on the origins of mankind’s myths and their rebirth in the rock ‘n’ roll era, with stories and concepts that transcend time and continue to exert their powerful hold on the nature of what people are. Our “collective unconscious,” according to the term’s originator, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is inevitably tied to our primitive beginnings and we have never really advanced beyond the same spiritual and mythological archetypes that governed the spirit of ancient man – an ancient man who loved to rock out to loud drums and lyres in a manner that is quite obviously familiar to us all in the 21stcentury. It was ever thus.
[If you enjoyed this article by Sean Casteel, visit his website at www.seancasteel.com Casteel is the author of several books on UFOs and spirituality, to include “UFOs, Prophecy and the End of Time” and “The Excluded Books of the Bible,” both of which can be purchased on Amazon.com or from his website.]
If you would like more information or to purchse this book, simply click on its title: The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll