"What have we become America?
Soldiers on the Great Frontier!
Run from yourself,
from your friends, from ya--
Run for your life,
for your friends, for ya--
American, merica, meri--
Oh Illinois, Illinois, Illi-- "
I'm just posting a couple essays really quickly, then I must get back to my finals stuff. I was supposed to go watch a play tonight in SD, but they sold out, which means I'll probably have miss work and go Sunday afternoon. Ugh. The only reason I have to go is because I have to write an essay on it for a class.
This one was written a couple of nights ago. I believe I started at around 7pm and finished at 4am. Is it an incredibly compelling, thoroughly in-depth analysis of an ancient literary work? No. Is it a ten page term paper, filled with copious amounts of research and ramblings? No. Actually, it's a pretty crappy essay overall. So what the heck took me so long? Youtube. I'd write a couple of sentences, and then go on a Youtube SNL skit rampage. Write a couple more, then search for when Lindsay Lohan hosted (Debbie Downer, haha), or Drew Barrymore (the "luvah" hot tub skit). Curse the internet! Curse my weak willpower!
All Hail the Vile Visionaries!
In Alexander the Quack Prophet, Lucian's chronicle of Alexander's life as a self-proclaimed soothsayer of divinity during the Roman Empire is both absorbing and alarming. While some of the more disquieting parts are quickly attested by historians to be the exaggerations of a “master narrative at work,” what might be most disturbing is how plausible those events are in this day and age (Lucian 268). Reading Lucian’s account of Alexander produces startling parallels to modern society’s horrors of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. When a charismatic and commanding individual chooses to control people over profoundly personal areas such as religion and faith, at first the results can be satisfying for both the deceiver and the believers. However, once a swindler is in possession of such power, oftentimes the heady influence is too tantalizing not to utilize, leaving a devastating trail of misuse and manipulation.
Alexander began his profession as a spiritual huckster innocuously enough, by realizing that “what both the fearful and hopeful needed and wanted the most was knowledge of the future” and seeking to capitalize on it (Lucian 272). Using fanfare, faking spasms of madness, and implementing elaborate hoaxes, Alexander established himself as the new and true oracle, the messenger of a fearsome god, situated for the masses to enjoy and be enlightened. Even the skeptical author acknowledged that one “can’t be too hard on those poor people…for being taken in” (Lucian 277). After all, those who wish to be fulfilled in their ignorance by holy schemes end up just as content as the unscrupulous ones who profit from it.
The career of James Warren “Jim” Jones started just as harmlessly, even honorably, by establishing the People’s Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana during the 1950s. It was structured as an interracial community, almost unheard of at the time, destined to help the lowliest of society’s members. Preaching to a mixed congregation, his quest for racial equality gained awareness and adulation. In 1965, Jones and eighty followers moved to Redwood Valley, California, where he predicted they would be safest when the inevitable nuclear war would occur and destroy most of the world. He also started claiming to be the reincarnation of Jesus and performed supposed miracles to attract new members, all the while acquiring more praise for opening and operating care centers for the elderly and mentally challenged youth.
If left at these particular outcomes, both Alexander and Jim Jones could not possibly be criticized harshly, if at all. Although the ancient augur was exploiting the susceptibility of the people, those who fell victim to his antics “raised a cry to heaven, welcomed the god, congratulated the city, and…began praying their hearts out” (Lucian 276). Alexander, albeit crooked and false, raised hope and happiness in such hearts, and made those who could afford his prophecies feel directly blessed by the gods. Reverend Jim Jones, despite his delusions of grandeur and an imminent apocalypse, managed to uphold righteous values and establish many admirable institutions to aid needy citizens. Unfortunately, being elevated to such positions of power, both men quickly demoralized their authority in detrimental ways.
Alexander set his sights on subjugating Rutilianus, one of “the most influential and important personages in the city” (Lucian 283). With the support of this significant man, Alexander was hailed as a divine oracle, and brazenly delved into a life of “ruining young women and sleeping with young boys” (Lucian 288). Those who dared to dissent or express disbelief were subject to spiteful prophecies and potential bodily harm, as one man was “barely saved from being stoned to death” (Lucian 290). Lucian himself was nearly murdered after displaying his contempt in an encounter with the man. Alexander even had the gall to send a instructions in a prophecy for the war in Germany, one that accounted for “the destruction en masse of close to twenty thousand men” (Lucian 291).
As for Jones, he also traveled down a ruinous path after achieving astonishing sway over his supporters. Those who left the group spoke Jones as a man who practiced sodomy, stole from his followers, severely punished members, and prepared them for mass suicide with practice drills. Amidst scrutiny by the IRS and journalists, Jones decided to move the People’s Temple to Guyana, creating a refuge for his people called Jonestown. Nearly one thousand members left for Jonestown in 1977. The horrifying conclusion occurred November 18, 1978, when a Congressman was departing after an investigation and attempted to take several members who wanted to leave with him. The Senator and four others were gunned down and killed by Jonestown residents who had followed them. Back at the settlement, Jones declared that the time for mass suicide was at hand. 909 people died, including Jim Jones, either by willingly drinking poison, by being injected with it, or by being shot. One third of the dead were children.
Thus, individuals who take advantage of vulnerable devotees can at first seem to do little harm to those preyed upon, and their actions may even be cast in a positive light. People who are spiritually swindled still reap enough fulfillment from their beliefs to offset the monetary or liberty loss sustained, or else they would not be so easily duped. But all too frequently, the rush from dominating the disciples grows into brutal mishandling of great power. At this point, the person in charge can cause devastating damage to both individuals and to the fabric of the society in which it takes place. For this reason alone, one should wish that the Alexanders and Jim Joneses of the future will be regarded with as much skepticism and repugnance as Lucian holds towards his quack prophet.
And if you're actually read it, and it piqued your interest on Jonestown, a documentary came out this year on it with high critical acclaim. Want to watch it with me? It should be out on DVD soon. Holla! This next essay is the one I knocked out in two hours the next morning, so it is definitely crap. But that's ok, because seriously, the teacher doesn't ask for much.
The Current Dionysian Culture
Deliberating the relevance of Pagan culture in contemporary times seems an almost nonsensical task considering that many Dionysian concepts are already deeply entrenched in the modern way of life. The notorious symbolisms and representations of Dionysus, ranging from the reverence of wine to the open sexual orgies, still hold a captive audience and many pursuers. But the ideas and values of Dionysus that are not so easily recognized, startling concepts that can only be found upon closer inspection of the nature of this significant and intriguing deity, are the ones that stay even more relevant to current society.
Dionysus embodies dissolution of all boundaries, a force that revels in intoxication and orgiastic pleasures despite the constraints of society. Such an outlook is still fascinating in today’s world, if only to be used as a warning lesson for those who wish to follow in his path. The application now is how those who seek the same routine of unrestrained gratification will end up damaging themselves. His existence of excess serve to remind us mortals that such a lifestyle as his is only befitting for the gods.
Readers of The Bacchae by Euripedes will find the depiction of a chillingly callous Dionysus, fueled by revenge and manipulating events so that his cousin Pentheus has his head torn off by his own mother. Even then, the motives and themes in the tale stay valid. It is the injustice done to his mother Semele, and his need to be worshipped as the god he is, that causes Dionysus to go on such a destructive rampage. Mothers are still held in high esteem, and those who hurt others in vengeance for their mothers’ sakes are often cast in a more sympathetic light. As for his requirement to be respected, the notion is substantial to all individuals, since admiration from our peers, when it is deserved, validates us as human beings.
Also important is the indistinct gender of Dionysus. An effeminate man, Dionysus could be considered as beautiful as any of the Maenads, which were his female worshippers. According to the myths, even though he eventually married Ariadne and fathered a few children, he also loved dearly Ampelos, an exquisite male youth. The ancients adored all aspects of Dionysus, including this one, although in today’s mores it would be deemed appalling and unpardonable. Perhaps if the perceptions from these portrayals of Dionysus as having a hazy masculinity and being bisexual were more highly regarded today, we would have more love and fewer attempts at dictating sexual preference, as well as be more tolerant to humanity as a whole.
When it comes to a more spiritual subject, one might be surprised to find that Dionysus symbolizes the theme of rebirth and renewal. After all, he was “twice-born,” having been extracted from his mother’s body upon her death and sewn into the thigh of his father, Zeus. In some myths, Dionysus dies each winter and is reborn in the spring. This cyclical revival is prevalent in many religions, from the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christianity, to the reincarnation of the soul believed by Hindus. The idea of having a second chance is a constant fixation for even those who do not feel the opportunity arises after death.
Likely the most essential of the Dionysian concepts, especially in current events, is the deity’s ultimate celebration of nature. Dionysus lives and breathes nature, from relishing wine from the vine, dwelling in the outskirts of towns among the wilderness, to frolicking with leopard and panthers. In a time such as ours when the Greenhouse Effect is no longer a far-off theory supported by tree huggers, when countless species (and soon glaciers) are going extinct, the Dionysian thinking of venerating nature could be rather handy for the human race. Embracing the environment and respecting the natural world is a Dionysian belief that is necessary, if not crucial, to our continued existence.
Thus, Pagan culture, specifically the Dionysian culture, remains truly relevant in this day and age. Just approaching a handful of the extended concepts that construct Dionysus are enough to substantiate the significance to current society. People encounter and struggle with Pagan views every day without even acknowledging it. Through the potential glut of solely pursuing pleasure, seeking revenge for loved ones, craving respect from others, exhibiting an ambiguous sex, loving without gender bias, the notions of rebirth and renewal, and the absolute adoration of nature, Dionysian concepts subsist. They have persisted this far, and will undoubtedly be ingrained into the way of life of generations to come.