The History and Psychology of the Orgy

Orgies gave people a much-needed break.

Posted Jul 29, 2017

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The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow contains the Myth of the Destruction of Mankind. Displeased with the mounting rebelliousness of mankind, the ageing Sun God Ra sends his daughter Hathor to wreak revenge. Hathor takes the form of the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet and rampages up and down the Nile Valley, killing every man, woman, and child in sight. With mankind on the verge of extinction, Ra takes pity, and floods the fields with beer dyed red with ochre. Mistaking the beer for blood, Sekhmet drinks to intoxication and falls asleep—to arise in the benign form of Hathor, the goddess of joy, love, and fertility. To commemorate this event, the Ancient Egyptians held communal Festivals of Drunkenness at the beginning of their calendar in mid-August, when the Nile is swelling. Revellers drank to the point of passing out, to be awoken by the beating of drums, symbolizing the transformation of Sekhmet into Hathor. The revels, which had an important religious dimension and typically took place in temples and shrines, also included dancing and public sex, in part to imitate and propitiate the flood and fertility to come. 

The word ‘orgy’, which ultimately derives from the Ancient Greek orgion/orgia, entered the English language in the 1560s to mean ‘any licentious revelry’. Today, people think of an orgy as a party involving open and unrestrained sex between diverse people with no or little prior knowledge of one another. But originally, orgia referred to the secret rites of the Ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed above all at ecstatic union with the divine. 

Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy, and was most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revellers wearing masks and, well, not much else. Closing the parade is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god stirred in with ribaldry and obscenity—giving rise to an early form of theatre and comedy. Having arrived at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze may have been interlaced with other entheogens (substances that ‘generate the divine from within’). Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping. 

The ‘Dionysian’ impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual ‘Apollonian’ order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes it as a primal and universal force: 

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles, and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner. In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective. 

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BC, the Roman Senate severely restricted it through the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’)—which can still be read today. According to the Roman historian Livy, the decree led to more executions than imprisonments, with many committing suicide to avoid indictment. Illicit Bacchanalia persisted, especially in Southern Italy, but gradually folded into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (‘Free Father’), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to merge into him. Like the Dionysian cult, the Liberalia featured a giant phallus, carted through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous matron placed a wreath on top of the phallus. ‘Depravity’ featured in many Roman religious festivals such as the Floralia, with naked dancing prostitutes, and the Lupercalia, with naked noblemen running through the streets and whipping willing ladies with strips of goatskin. 

The 4th century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival, which, still today, involves reversal of social norms and roles, licentiousness, and feasting ahead of the deprivations of Lent. But one doesn’t have to wait for Carnival to have an orgy. In the summer of 2017, as reported in the Italian and international press, the police broke up a drug-fuelled gay orgy at the Vatican—the problem in this case being with the drugs rather than the orgy per se

May Day celebrations across Europe and North America trace their origins to the Roman Floralia and corresponding Celtic traditions. In mediaeval times, people danced around the gigantic phallic symbol of the Maypole before descending into the fields or woods for indiscriminate sex, supposedly to fertilize the land. In the Anatomie of Abuses (1583), the puritan Philip Stubbs inveighs against these traditions: 

What clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smooching and slobbering one of another, what filthy groping and unclean handling is not practised in the dances … I have heard it creditably reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.

In 1644, the Puritans outlawed Maypoles in England, with the Long Parliament’s ordinance damning them as ‘a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness’. 

‘Ecstasy’ literally means ‘to be or stand outside oneself’. It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Albert Einstein called it the ‘mystic emotion’, and spoke of it as ‘the finest emotion of which we are capable’, ‘the germ of all art and all true science’, and ‘the core of the true religious sentiment’. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom

Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse: Should I Get Married? and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook.

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

References

Nietzsche F (1871): The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Ian Johnston.

Livy, History of Rome 39.18.

For example, Lapin T (2017): Vatican cops bust drug-fueled gay orgy at home of cardinal’s aide. Nypost.com, 5 July 2017.

Stubbes P (1583): The Anatomie of Abuses, p107.

Einstein A, as quoted in Barker P and Shugart CG (1981): After Einstein: Proceedings of the Einstein Centennial Celebration, p179. Memphis State University Press.

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