Thursday, April 15, 2010

Personal Mythology: Dionysus, A Night Of Drumming (cont)

(For the other posts in the personal myth series, click.)

I was at a festival in the middle-of-nowhere, which we generally refer to as Pennsyltucky. It was a festival held on grounds tended by a Pagan commune, and we were several days into it. As is often the case at events like this, there was a fire circle, surrounded by sand, and an area where drummers often congregate. This particular night was young. There was a slight chill in the air for summer, but faint. Also the kind of pregnancy you can feel before an enormous storm hits. The leaves were turning up. The fire was low, there were a few people huddled about the fire in conversation, and one or two people idly tapping on their drums. I sat down behind an assortment of goat skin drums, lashed together by ropes. I began playing with mallets, hesitantly at first.
    Now, I don't want to cut the flow of the narrative, but I feel the need to interject that I don't feel that anything that happened after this was the result of some incredible talent on my part - rhythm comes pretty naturally to me, and I've played bass for over a decade, but I'm no exceptional drummer by any stretch of the imagination.
    Things started to coalesce every so slightly. More people joined the circle. Those who had been sitting stood up and began swaying around the fire. There was the distant rumbling of thunder, echoing off the hills that surrounded us.

    More joined, and still more. Pretty soon we had a full assortment of percussive instruments, and dancers ecstatically dancing. The skies opened. Lightning forked horizontally, leaping from one cloud to the next. I completely left my body, there was just the trance, the drumming, the dancing. Ecstacy. The fire weathered the sheets of water that poured from the sky, though much clothing was lost in the process. (It poured even more the second year I came to this festival, but that's neither here nor there.)
    Occasionally I'd come to my senses and try to stop playing. My hands felt like they were on fire; they were swelling, bleeding, and cracking. However, every time I tried to stop, the entire circle would lose cohesion. The dancers would get lost. The other drummers would lose their center. I don't know how, but I was somehow at the center of this storm. I let go and dove into the trance. Hours of screaming, hooting, dancing, bleeding... The storm blew past, one of several that struck that weekend. I knew I couldn't stop until it was time to stop.
    The power peaked in the early hours of the morning, as the sky glowed a deep electric blue-purple. I had been drumming for countless hours, surrounded by fellow drummers, playing to incite the frenzy of the dancers stomping in the sandpit around the fire. I was pushed beyond exhaustion. My hands were slick with blood and the skin was sloughing off like a snakes. I was pouring sweat, and I felt healed. I thought, maybe I'll never see any of these strangers again, maybe if we met on the street somewhere, a couple years on, we wouldn't even recognize each other, but for that moment, we were family, and we had come home.
    Eventually, the horizon turned pink, and the sun crested the hills, cutting through early morning fog. Finally, the drumming came to a natural stop. I wandered into the circle, collapsed on the ground, and found myself rolling around in the wet sand with beautiful girls, kissing. We laughed hysterically as the sun broke through the clouds completely. The laughter came in waves. I felt like they knew. We didn't exchange a single word.
    It is a rare occasion where you really test your boundaries and see just how far you can go. Or where you find the drive and energy inside yourself to become the backbone of something bigger than you, and help nurture a vibe that goes far beyond your petty concerns, your feelings of superiority or inadequacy. Weeks later, my shredded hands were still healing. I still have some small scars, reminders of that magical night.

   I felt cleansed, re-connected with everything. I felt the precise opposite of how much modern culture makes me feel. At the time I was working a freelance contract, so I had no cubicle to return to. I can't even imagine what that would have been like, if I did. Like returning to prison, to hell or at least purgatory. A sleep-walking, zombie-life.
    I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that I channeled something of Dionysus that night; though of course it could have been anyone. At the same time, it is quite obvious that anyone who stood outside the circle, (circle as a frame of mind as well as, or perhaps more importantly than, the physical circle we stood within), would simply have seen a bunch of lunatics beating drums and a lot of naked or half-naked people dancing around the fire. There's nothing magical or divine about that. As we have explored in previous essays and articles, almost ad nauseum, both are true.
    All of these ideas are central to understanding the significance of the Dionysus symbol, though hopefully I explore that more successfully in my fiction than I could here. A modern interpretation of this symbol factors heavily into my second novel, Fallen Nation, and the screenplay adaptation that I recently completed with Jason Stackhouse. Dionysus also plays a role in the script that I worked on with John Harrigan of the Foolish People for the filmed immersive event Y. I think that, perhaps, my artistic work that deals with him may give a stronger sense of the symbol than I can share in this format. I hope you check those out and come along for the ride.

(Attached in podcast enclosures for those subscribed to the feed are two tracks I recorded for subQtaneous where I played all or most of the drums. Of course, in a studio setting, there are a lot of ways I can and do "cheat." But I still felt like sharing. For those not subscribed to the feed, feel free to explore the music sections on


  1. Anonymous11:16 PM

    "Things started to coalesce every so slightly."


  2. Great writing. There really are no words for the experience you mentioned, but you wrote beautifully about it nonetheless.

    Eagerly awaiting the book...



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