“Steps Toward A Dionysian Naturalism: Making the Earth Sacred in a Time of Ecological Disaster, Part 2” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series.

Nietzsche and the Dionysian Religion of the Future

As will be seen, Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German writer and thinker of the 19th century, has shaped this project in numerous ways.  While many people know Nietzsche as the atheistic and nihilistic author of The Anti-Christ, who proclaimed “God is dead”, the truth is that Nietzsche was a deeply spiritual man who prophesied a “new Dionysian religion of the future”.  Nietzsche believed that the death of the Judeo-Christian God was a spiritual event needed for humanity to advance to a higher state of being, a Superman.  The ultimate goal of the “death of God” is not atheism or nihilism, but the “re-evaluation of all values”.  In a sense, the old god must die so that society can take a new form.

A central tenet of Nietzsche’s thought is that the prevailing myths of modernity–progress, reason and moral order–are decadent and are supported by values which are life denying.  Nietzsche first articulated the contrasting pairs Apollo-Dionysus in his book, The Birth of Tragedy.  Dionysus was the Greek god of ecstasy, whose worshipers—the female Maenads and the male Satryrs–celebrated each year on Mount Parnassus, with four days of ecstatic frenzy, filled with dance, trance, entheogenic intoxication and love-making.  Dionysus over time became for Nietzsche a symbol for the affirmation of life.

A sacred general economy has guided the movement of humanity through the struggle to survive.  On the one side we have order, law and creation–represented by the Greek god Apollo.  On the other side we have chaos, transgression and destruction–represented by the Greek god Dionysus.  On the one side we have Apollo who represents beauty, permanence and perfection; on the other side we have Dionysus who represents tragedy, intoxication and reverie.

Modern humans have become debased by absolute adherence to order and stability.  Through this Apollonian triumph we have lost our essential meaning and have become things.  The de-sacralization of nature we find in modernity is intrinsically linked to that most Apollonian of economic systems–industrial capitalism.  How we yearn to return to the immediacy of life at the edge of chaos.  How we yearn to dance again with Dionysus!

Nietzsche prophesied the advent of a “new form of divinity”.  The Dionysian religion of the future will supposedly worship a Pagan god that affirms life.  It will be immanentist and pantheist, and not offer an “afterlife”, but rather direct our focus to the here and now.  Nietzsche fought against nihilism and sought to build a higher form of humanity.  As noted, the “death of God” was a spiritual event which would allow the true affirmation of life.  Nietzsche placed great importance on the meaning of suffering in Christianity compared with a life-affirming “tragic” perspective.  Tragic humans affirm “even the harshest suffering: he [sic] is sufficiently strong rich and capable of deifying to do so”.  The Christian view sees suffering as an objection against life, and life-negating.   Nietzsche asks his readers if he has been understood when he boldly lays out the contrasting perspectives offered:  “Dionysus versus the Crucified”–either we can create a new life-affirming Dionysian religion or we can remain with the old life-denying Christianity.

Nietzsche believed that in moments of Dionysian ecstasy are to be found the supreme affirmation of life.  In our “primordial being’, the subjective mind is dissolved, and our bonds with nature is reconciled.  Ecstasy releases us from the ruling mythology and into a realm of ego-less becoming.  This shamanic use of techniques of ecstasy to transform consciousness and to change worldviews might be something useful for us to consider as we seek to re-sacralize the natural world.

The “Dionysian”

The modifier “Dionysian” situates my particular form of naturalism and carries with it multiple meanings:

  • The Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece were a well-known ecstatic religion based upon entheogenic (hallucinogenic) consumption.  Ecstasy is a divine gift which lifts us out of ordinary reality and allows us to more fully understand our relation to the universe.  Modern humans have excluded the experience of divine ecstasy from our lives and a gnawing emptiness leaves us craving for deep fulfillment and wholeness.  We mistakenly attempt to fill this void with material things, because we have forgotten the sensuous world of Dionysus.
  • Dionysus was often associated with the harvest of the grapes and is the youthful god of vegetation.  Thus, Dionysus is associated with fertility and represents the continual re-birth of nature in the spring.
  • Dionysus represents moments of rapture in which every cell in your body spontaneously shouts for joy.
  • Dionysus was a well-known shapeshifter who manifested himself in diverse forms.  Thus, he represents the ongoing and unpredictable changes of nature.
  • As one of the “Horned Gods” of Old Europe, Dionysus represents the male energy involved in the fertilization process.  But this is no “he-male” form of masculinity, and, in fact, Dionysus is the “Divine Androgyne” and represents a “gender-bending” form of masculinity.  Moreover, in ancient Greece the rituals of Dionysian religion often employed transvestite practices.
  • Dionysus was the one who brings madness and so the term “Dionysian” invokes a notion of “sacred madness”.  The ecstatic frenzy that took place during the archaic rituals involved a temporary insanity.  The trance state the participants entered were the result of wine, song, erotic union, as well as mind-altering substances.  Dionysus represents the irrational wisdom of our senses and an intuitive way of seeing the world.
  • The term “Dionysian” invokes the transgressive states of consciousness at the heart of ecstatic religion.  Related to the notions of sacred madness and ecstatic frenzy are the association of “Dionysian” with sexual orgies and intoxication.
  • One of Dionysus’s epithets is “the Liberator” and some claim that he appears whenever revolution and revolt break out.  The ancient followers of Dionysus often included men who have nothing to loose and women who cannot stand being locked at home any more (Ginette Paris 1990 Pagan Grace). Women, slaves and foreigners were among the chief participants.

To be continued …

The Author: Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

My name is Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. I am a Santa Barbara-based social justice educator, activist and writer. I teach in the BA Program in Liberal Studies at Antioch University Santa Barbara, a program which promotes “praxis for social justice” in every class. I am also a social worker with a passion for helping our neighbors on the streets transition into permanent housing and self-sufficiency, especially those beset by mental health challenges and addictions. I see this work as a ministry and I enjoy joining with others from diverse faiths and secular backgrounds in these efforts to build community locally and sustainability globally.

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