On Cult and Culture
Cult is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds on cult, and cult feeds off culture. Our society today lacks a cult, and as a result our culture wearies itself in empty innovation.
In ancient Athens, in the fifth century BC, you had two main festivals. In March-April, you had the Dionysia, where playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes competed for the prize of best tragedy and best comedy. For about 30 years, Athenians were treated to new performances of some of the greatest plays that would ever be written. In 431 BC, for example, Euripides’ Medea only came third, behind tragedies by Sophocles and Euphorion. The plays were mirrors held up to Athenian society, reflecting and exploring its deepest fears, desires and foibles.
Then, in September-October, people from all over Greece made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, outside Athens, to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient fertility rite in which participants apparently took some kind of hallucinogenic, and felt they journeyed to the underworld and were reborn as immortal children of Demeter. Cicero considerd the Mysteries the greatest of all the gifts bestowed by Greek culture. They were practiced for over 2000 years, until they were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD, who thereby banished psychedelics from western culture for the next 1500 years, the spoil-sport.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were the central cult of Greek society. And the Dionysia was the central cultural or artistic event. Cult and culture were intimately connected. Both the Mysteries and the Dionysiac festival of theatre performed an important therapeutic role for Athenian culture. According to Aristotle, both were cathartic - they helped to 'cure' Athenians of emotional problems and make them whole. Both cult and culture helped people to remove their social masks, forget external reality and enter trance states, and there explore and heal the emotions, tensions and conflicts within their psyches, ultimately connecting them with the deepest part of their nature - the divine. At their best, both cult and culture cultivate the god within us.
So both cult and culture performed a similar therapeutic role. And culture also fed off cult for ideas, symbols and characters. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides often ‘riffed’ on the sacred (and secret) rites of the Mysteries. The final scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, for example, is soaked in the symbolism and ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. So is the final scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Euripides’ Bacchae, meanwhile, explores and reflects on the rites of the maenads, the female worshippers of Dionysus.
But culture, while it draws on the ideas, characters and symbols of cult, is very different to it. The nature of cult is that it is secret, sacred, and ritualized - the ritual must stay the same for centuries and millennia. Any sudden innovation is fervently resisted. Culture, by contrast, is a public performance. It strives for originality and innovation. It mixes the grand and solemn with the humorous and irreverent. It is created by an artist, who seeks fame and success and is not bound by the same moral taboos as a priest. Culture draws from cult, but in a way that is somewhat risky and transgressive - Aeschylus supposedly died in a freak accident as a punishment from the gods for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries in his Eumenides.
Cult, then, is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds off cult.
Consider how much rock & roll feeds off religion, from band names (The Cult, Jesus And Mary Chain, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Reverend Black Grape, Young Disciples, Judas Priest) to song names (I am the Resurrection, The Cross, Jesus Walks, Take Me To The River, Great Balls of Fire, Hallelujah, Congregation, Take Me To Church etc etc). Rock tunes also rip off church tunes - the first great R&B song, Ray Charles’ ‘I gotta woman’ was a riff on the church anthem ‘It must be Jesus’ , starting a trend for secular gospel that continued through Elvis, U2 and Pharrell Williams. Think how often house music has sampled revivalist preachers, ever since Brian Eno and David Byrne started the craze in 1981 with their pioneering sampler album, My Time In the Bush of Ghosts (have a listen).
But cult also feeds off culture - it slowly incorporates some of the cultural innovations introduced by culture. Look, for example, at how western churches in the 1950s and 1960s began by condemning rock & roll as the Devil’s music, and then began to incorporate it, until now many of the biggest churches have in-house rock bands.
The problem with western society since around 1900, I would suggest, is we have lost our central cult - Christianity - and it hasn’t been replaced by any new cult which grips our emotions and imagination. All we have is a culture that has, particularly since Modernism, been gripped by restless innovation and transgression. But, in the absence of cult, this innovation and transgression feels increasingly empty and meaningless.
For culture to regain its vitality, we need to re-establish cult. I don’t know how to do this, but until that happens our culture will be trivial and diminished, distracting itself from its own exhaustion with cars and explosions.