By Michael H. Brown
HISTORY OF MODERN ROCK AND HEAVY METAL IS TIED BY AUTHOR TO ANCIENT ‘MYSTERY’ RELIGIONS
How far back does rock, rap, and “pop” music go?
As far back, it seems, as there have been rituals.
That may mean to the Mystery religions of ancient Egypt, according to author Christopher Knowles, who has written The Secret History of Rock and Roll.
Knowles argues that what we think have been “revolutionary” trends — such as rock music — are actually a resurrection of age-old occultism and “ancient culture startlingly similar to our own.”
Their archetypal themes, he says, “would re-emerge 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 these ancient cults.”
Did that “pounding” beat of the 1950s and 1960s — the drums, the frenzy, the wild adulation — really reflect back on Mystery occult religions and shamanic states known across many cultures? And did it infuse our societies with darkness, as it did in ancient Egypt and then in the Roman era, leading to their falls?
“Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t just another form of music,” says Knowles. “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 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.”
Where it left off was with pagan gods, earth mothers, temple prostitutes, ancient transvestites, and users of hallucinogenic drugs many centuries ago — the many through history who sought transcendental experiences without resorting to God.
Most historians peg the time-frame for the Mysteries as beginning at the end of the Neolithic (of “stone”) Age, coinciding with the advent of agriculture between four and nine thousand years ago.
In fact, it was the incredible pervasiveness of paganism — of evil — that Christ specifically said He had come to break as the main part of His Mission.
One can trace ritualism — including strange animal costumes — back further, to Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon times. The earliest mysteries were practices in Egypt, followed by Greece, which called them mysteria, bakchoi, or orgia (from which comes the word “orgy”).
In our time it has mushroomed, as it has periodically. It was been subdued after medieval times and the plague but is now back at full throttle, if not more so, with musicians and their audiences openly using hand signals linked to ancient deities like Horus (most doing so unknowingly). It isn’t to condemn all modern music — some of which seems beautiful. It is to take a closer look at the origins and fruits of much of it.
“Just as in the Aquarian Age of the Sixties, some Mystery cults were relatively socially acceptable (think the Beatles) and some were seen as a sign that the world was going to hell in a hand basket (think the Rolling Stones),” writes Knowles, a secular author from New Jersey.
Fascinating is the link between music and drug use (once better known, especially in witchcraft, as pharmakeia), sexual promiscuity (“saturnalia”), gender confusion, homosexuality, the occult, and rebellion. Evil goddesses like Hecate were associated with ghosts, magic, and psychoactive substances.
“Most importantly,” says Knowles, “Apollo was himself the ultimate rock god. The Hometic 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.”
There was Dionysus. There was Cybele.
“Some people think that heavy metal is a relatively recent musical development, created in the late Sixties by hairy, working-class Brits mangling old blues licks with their amps cranked up to 11,” writes the author.
“Not exactly. The technology may have evolved, but when you peel away the superficial elements you discover that heavy metal is nothing more than an unconscious 20th-century revival of the Korybantes, the noise-crazed madmen of the ancient Mysteries. These warrior priests performed their insane racket in full hoplite armor, clanging their swords and shields in time to the beat of drums and lyres, literally screaming their songs until their throats were raw.”
As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun.
Periodically, paganism resurfaces. When it does so in a big way, there are repercussions. It was paganism that Christianity supplanted. The very site of the Vatican was a spot once used for the sacrifice of bulls. In other cases, shrines to female deities have been replaced by those dedicated, instead, to the Blessed Mother. It long has been the role of Christianity to replace occultism, which is now resurfacing ominously.
While the exact prehistory goes back further, some ancient Greeks believed that the legendary singer/lyricist Orpheus (see “Orphic mysteries”) first brought the secret rites to their country. Over time, Orpheus would be credited with a whole lot more besides, including the creation of music itself. He would be described, as Knowles quotes one scholar as saying, as “a wizard who at first collected money from his music, together with his soothsaying and his celebration of the orgies connected with the mystic initiatory rites.”
There was a magical property, it was said, to his lyre. The Mysteries of Cybele (whose arrival was associated with the appearance of two suns) and another called Attis spread across the Roman Empire by a fierce army of cross-dressing eunuch priests, whose fast, loud, and wild music and bloody rituals “eerily prefigure the glam and glitter movements of the late Sixties and early Seventies, as well as later spin-offs like punk, new wave, and hair metal,” says Knowles.
Roman legions took Zoroastrian divinities like Mithras to the farthest corners of the known world, where remnants of the Mysteries became especially popular in northern Europe, particularly Germany and Britain. The blood-and-fire cults commonly used caves and basements for their worship.
“The Liverpool area of England was used as a military base by the Roman Legion long before it was even established as a city,” adds the book. “And there is one famous cellar of a uniquely Roman style in a building on the corner of Temple Court and Matthew Street. In point of fact, this cellar is identical in construction to a typical Roman Mithraeum: a long half-pipe-shaped space complete with arches, columns, and a curved ceiling, made entirely of brick. In the 1950s, the cellar was converted to a nightclub. You might have heard of it — it’s called the Cavern Club. Apparently, some group named the Beatles made their name there.”
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