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After weeks of living under a lockdown meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, many of us are complaining we’re losing our grip on reality. What we really mean is we’ve lost control—of our jobs, certainly of our government, our children, eating habits, routines, and feelings—and we’re reacting to those losses in sometimes unpredictable ways, like dancing, playing make believe and dress-up, or singing across balconies at our neighbors. We have wild, frightening dreams and drink heavily to alter our consciousness. A friend of mine ritually howls at the moon with her neighbors. Someone somewhere is likely scheduling a primal scream session on Zoom right now.
But for how long can we hold on, and how do we make it through till then? Perhaps it helps to remember we aren’t the first humans in history to flip out. In fact, “losing it” played a part in some of the earliest religions that shaped Western culture. Our ritualistically frenzied forebears, the Greek maenad and Viking berserker, are complicated figures from history and myth that embody the dichotomy of the primal versus cultured, the violent and restrained, straddling that distance that exists within all of us, and which we have good reason at times to traverse. In their stories, we find opportunities to renew independence, but accept marginalization. We also uncover cathartic frenzy that could restore our humanity, or violently take it away.
A ritualistic form of frenzy can be found in the tale of the wild-haired maenad, a symbol of liberation—especially for women. Clad in animal skins, she worships in the deep forest and mountains, keeping to the “old ways,” by dancing to ensure crop growth, foraging for food, and sleeping in the open. A cultic devotee of the wine-god Dionysus, the maenad is the prime example of a spiritual enthusiast, characterized by worship in the form of possession by a god “or inspired by a divine afflatus,” as Lewis Hyde puts it. In Greek literature, the maenads are called to frenzy by Dionysus himself and achieve ecstasy partly by drinking lots of wine. Once “mad”—meaning altered consciousness—they can engage in violent, orgiastic behavior, tearing apart humans and animals alike with their bare hands.
In Euripides’s disapproving play on Dionysian madness, The Bacchae, it’s self-destructive to resist the god’s call to unravel. In her analysis, Brown Emerita Professor Ross S. Kraemer warns, “those who struggle against the god invoke a second level of possession far more dangerous than the first. It is insane to be sane, sane to be insane.” From the perspective of the present global health and economic crisis, “it is sane to be insane” sounds prescient; one must be divorced from reality to pretend our current crisis is anything other than what it is, as our president has done. We are already outside ourselves and changed in ways that may be irreversible. Resisting that reality is equally self-punishing. So if you find the call to get drunk and cut loose a tough one to resist right now, imagine the point of view of the maenad, who would see that resistance as not only futile, but counter-productive. If you want to experience the spirit of liberation, she’d say, you have to let go.
For the maenads, the ritual cult of Dionysus also offers an escape from Greek patriarchy. In “The Maenad in Early Greek Art,” scholar Sheila McNally states, “There is no question women played a prominent role in Dionysian religion. The mysteries might have renewed women’s sense of their significance: a kind of ‘consciousness-raising.’ The men might then be thought to view the ‘raving’ of the bacchante as some today do the ‘craziness’ of liberated women.” Such “craziness” is really a frenzy of rage induced by oppression. Yet McNally argues there’s no ancient work of art that serves as a feminist poster for maenads. Instead, these images depict an “[…] escape from consciousness into another sort of existence,” a kind of inner journey that enables the adoption of an entirely new identity, like high-stakes roleplaying. “Madness” for the maenad is an altered state of awareness, one that embodies both woman and animal, a marginalized yet liberated existence.
The dichotomy of the maenad’s free-wheeling nature-love and violence mirrors the duality in the story of her chthonic wine-god, who both blessed and destroyed man (blame it on the alcohol). Just as the vine bears grapes and then withers, so is Dionysus a god of rebirth, represented at once in the three stages of human life. In Greek myth, he is torn apart, a physical death as well as a metaphoric one. Then he comes back to life, like the vine. “He was more than a suffering god,” writes famed classicist Edith Hamilton, “He was the tragic god.” Yet his cultic celebrations are largely cheerful fertility rituals, complete with phallophoria, where villagers parade through the streets waving phalluses. Fertility and revelry are juxtaposed against suffering and death to represent the circle of life. Though Dionysian worship may seem like an exercise in excess, through these rites, the balance of Nature is maintained.
The maenads’ spirituality offers an opportunity to buck gender roles by abandoning the loom to frolic in the woods, suckling animals instead of babes, a grotesque exaggeration of performative womanhood within a patriarchal society. Hence the appeal of Dionysus to marginalized women, such as the widowed or childless; in their surrender to the divine, they are transformed from outsiders into dangerous, unpredictable, and avidly sexual figures who can roam freely. By unleashing the animalistic nature within, they shed the artifice of polite, confined womanhood to liberate the raw, unmitigated, and powerfully “real” self. Right now, it’s hard not to find that appealing.
The maenad’s Viking brother cuts a darker figure, however. The Vikings value wisdom and honor, but they also plunder their way to Constantinople while creating one of the most intimidating fighters in history, the marauding berserker. In some accounts, berserkers are impervious to iron and fire, capable of turning into an animal, or dulling swords with a look. They endear themselves to royalty and nobles, but are otherwise a threat to those around them. University of Minnesota linguist Anatoly Liberman sums it up: “In legendary sagas, they are elite troops, and in the family sagas, they are represented as plundering, raping gangs.” From our modern perspective, the berserker is the epitome of toxic masculinity: violent, impulsive, and seemingly without empathy. He represents our deepest fears that extreme circumstances—such as, say, a world-wide pandemic that ends civilization—will force us to discover, to our horror, our propensity for violence.
Like most Vikings, berserkers are well acquainted with the apocalypse. They are devotees of Odin, the complex leader of the Norse pantheon who, as Edith Hamilton explains, “had the responsibility more than all the other gods together of postponing as long as possible the day of doom, Ragnarok, when heaven and earth would be destroyed” and sink into a boiling sea. The inevitable end of the world as the Vikings knew it is set to begin with the death of the tree of life, Yggdrasil, which plays a key role in Odin’s resurrection. The god gives up an eye, falls on his sacred spear, then hangs himself upside down from the sacred ash tree for nine days and as many nights. His sacrifice increases his power.
Ragnarok isn’t actually the end of all consciousness, but only a few gods (not Odin, and not any of the other original creators) will go on to make the world anew, plus two humans. That’s it. This raises the question: what if the apocalypse is not the end of just the body, that touchstone of our reality, but the soul as well? What if the end, unlike the Christian vision of Armageddon, eliminates any possibility for resurrection, transformation, or transcendence? It’s a terrifying thought for those who believe in some kind of eternal consciousness, predicated upon an eternal soul. For those who have lost loved ones, it’s devastating. Nevertheless, as we imagine the demise of our known reality, we should remember Ragnarok is both an ending and a beginning, a creation story of the future. Put another way, the myth reassures us we are living in the prequel. The best is yet to come.
It appears paradoxical that Odin, a wise, cultured, and intellectual god responsible for postponing the end of the world, is the cultic deity of the savage berserker, intent upon destruction and death. But Odin isn’t a peace-loving god for civilians. He accepts human sacrifices and enjoys causing strife, the characteristic human quality of any war god. Likewise, the berserker is a monster of mythic proportions. In his article “The Berserk Style in Post-Vietnam America,” author and UMASS Amherst Professor Emeritus Kirby Farrell describes the contemporary berserk warrior as existing in a “godlike state” that is “outside of culture, beyond any protective bonds. He is out of his ordinary mind, outside the magic circle of everyday reality. In the wisdom of slang, he is ‘beside himself’ or ‘out of it.’ We say he has ‘lost it.’ ” It is the very inability to reconcile humanity with inhumane action that induces his frenzy. Like the maenad, the berserker transcends into another form of existence, one that is “crucially ambiguous,” imbued with chaotic madness, while also signifying “exceptional valour and stamina.” This renders the line between legendary hero-warrior and murderer rather blurry. (Just look at famed Odysseus).
The very things that define us as humans—our compassion and freethinking—are ritually destroyed in the trained warrior, whose purpose is to end life on command. Going berserk is a rebellion against that imposed order: “Stripped of psychic defenses, the berserker plunges into reckless emergency action,” Farrell writes, a maelstrom which may also paradoxically ensure his physical survival, even if his sense of self is irrevocably altered. In the werewolf, a mythological being believed to have derived in part from the berserker, his compulsive transformation eclipses reason and turns the human into a raging creature with magical strength and a penchant for gore. He is cursed. Farrell references My Lai and other horrific massacres as he describes berserk warriors “running amok,” killing indiscriminately, while mutilating and cannibalizing their victims. What we fear most when we contemplate giving ourselves over to frenzy is surrender to an inner monster we cannot cage or hide from those around us, who will never look at us the same way again. In this scenario, we equate our true nature with violence, as if killers are all born, never indoctrinated.
Unlike the maenad, who is set free by marginalization, once unhinged, the berserker must transform in order to achieve the pinnacle of masculine ferocity, where he commits terrible deeds, and is then marginalized from a society that fears him. Though this may increase or preserve his god-like power, he will suffer the consequences as a man. It may come as no surprise that in AD 1015, Erik Jarl “outlawed” berserkers in Norway. In 1123, anyone in Iceland who “went berserk” faced banishment.
Not for the first time, we fear our humanity—what it means to be humane—is at risk. Keeping a lid on baser instincts and passions is what makes us civilized, we tell ourselves. But a beast has no compass. The calculating moves of beings driven by intellect lead to large-scale cruelty and destruction.
Our world has been blindsided by a pandemic experts predicted years ago, the damage exacerbated by the administration of an incompetent tyrant. Cooped up with our own thoughts, we’ve shed the artifices of clothing, haircuts, and rote politeness. Now there’s no escape from who we really are, for better or worse. We fear our own Ragnarok is upon us, with one crucial difference: the story of Ragnarok spells out the end of the world in excruciating detail, while promising a new one. But there are many possible and equally terrifying outcomes to the predicament we find ourselves in, none guaranteeing a future, causing scientific projections and predictions to feel like prophecies of doom. The only sure thing about the future is that it is uncertain. Nevertheless, history shows us humans have marched on through wars and plagues before, collectively orchestrating atrocities along the way. It’s not the sound of our own howl we should fear, that barbaric yawp, as spiritual enthusiast Walt Whitman put it. If we desire catharsis, not destruction, accept the risk of marginalization and commune with the wolf within, we embrace the possibility of transcendence. Gods know, we have the time to try.