Roman fresco from the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii depicting Pentheus being torn apart by maenads (Wikimedia Commons)

In The Bacchae of Euripides, the god Dionysus shows up in the city of Thebes well disguised as an effeminate shaman. Behind him dances and writhes his band of Asian female followers, called maenads, or Bacchae. The god of revel and wine has come to punish the Thebans, to smite the city for its obstinate refusal to recognize his divinity and embrace the ecstatic. He has put the females in a frenzy, forced them into an inebriated lunacy on the mountaintop where they engage in an orgy of sensuality and violence. The young King Pentheus, cocksure and irreverent, locks up the god and attempts to reclaim his city from the belly of this madness. But Pentheus—poster boy for law, civility, restraint—cannot match the tectonic might of Dionysus. Tricked by the god’s cunning, mind-warped by his magic, Pentheus dresses as a maenad and dashes off to the mountaintop to spy on the debauchery that has infected his land. The king is then literally ripped to pieces by the women—including his own mother, Agave—who mistake him for a fawn. Agave returns to the destroyed palace clutching her son’s severed head, and when calm is at last restored, the Thebans are left to digest the demolition they have brought down on themselves.

Euripides, the most progressive of the extant Athenian tragic playwrights, crafted in The Bacchae not a conservative tract against impiety but an admonitory paean to the necessity of ecstasy. From the Greek ekstasis, “ecstasy” means “standing outside of.” It is a separation from the common, or, in the Hellenic religious understanding, a hiatus from cognition in celebration of the visceral and mystical. Dionysus does not demolish Thebes and its king; Thebes and its king demolish themselves in their flight from ecstatic experience. The great Greek scholar Walter F. Otto has given us this description of Dionysus: “God of ecstasy and terror, of wildness and of the most blessed deliverance—the mad god whose appearance sends mankind into madness.” The Bacchae pits sobriety and rationality against intoxication and disorder, the superego against the id, the Apollonian against the Dionysian. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche lauds Euripides for his willingness to acknowledge the truth in ecstatic destruction. For Nietzsche, ecstasy is always destructive, but that destruction is a cleansing by flame. He cherished the Hellenic worldview not only because it was opposed to what he saw as the pitiful weaknesses of Christianity—a worldview for censorious losers, he thought—but because it balanced placidity and ecstasy, moderation and madness. The Theban urbanites have banished the wilderness from themselves, and when the bill comes due, it’s a big one.

Euripides of course would have been very familiar with the Dionysian Mysteries, an intense dancing and drumming ritual that evolved in Crete between roughly 3000 and 1000 BC. The celebrants brought to their mountain party hallucinatory herbs and many rhytons of wine. They sought to shuck the nettlesome cloak of civility and propriety in order to commune with the earthly and the animal. Some scholars will tell you that the cult spiked their wine with opium from poppy plants, which would go a long way toward explaining their ecstatic visions. They considered their multi-hued inebriation a kind of liberating possession by Dionysus. The British anthropologist I. M. Lewis, an impressive authority on religious ecstasy, defined it as “a seizure of man by divinity.” Ecstasy means that we are holy, that the gods are with us—that we ourselves might be godly.

Christianity came to shun the irrational animals in us, favoring instead the lily-white spirit, and prudish Plato advocated the shackling of passion (and the banishment of its spokesmen, the poets). But as Euripides makes clear in The Bacchae, there are devastating consequences when we shun our agrestal nature. It is no coincidence that the bacchanal takes place on the mountain instead of in the city, or that the women mistake Pentheus for a fawn: their primal impulses, which civilization had stripped from them, have been restored.

In his story “Uncle Fred Flits By,” P. G. Wodehouse refers to “sober ecstasy,” but Wodehouse, being Wodehouse, knows there’s no such thing. In the story, he means that apparent contradiction literally: ecstasy without alcoholic aids. And he intends the hyperbole of “ecstasy” too: an instance of a word employed with deliberate excess for comic effect, a move Wodehouse mastered early. Authentic ecstasy has intoxication, literal or figurative, as either its cause or its effect.

Ecstasy is a more complicated concept than, say, beauty or love because in general use it has morphed from its original Dionysian or daemonic meaning and been denuded of its religious kick. It has become synonymous with euphoria or rapture, bliss or exaltation, all of which have their related religious applications. The subtitle of one self-help-y Jungian study, Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy, further complicates the definition, since joy now means nothing more than a spate of strong happiness when in truth it contains its own religious significance quite apart from ecstasy. It pays to remember that the distance between enjoyment and joy is the distance between Hallmark and Horace. The difference in conception is one of intensity (unlike happiness, genuine ecstasy must be spiritual), duration (happiness has staying power, ecstasy does not), and purpose (ecstasy aspires to transcendence, happiness simply to the opposite of unhappiness).


All documented religions have some element of the ecstatic, of congregants or clergy pursuing an elevated state outside of quotidian experience: not only the Dionysian cults of antiquity, but Haitian voodoo priestesses, Native American shamans, Kabbalists, Sufi mystics, or the more recent Charismatic movement, an offshoot of Pentecostalism. In the mystical tradition of Christianity, ecstasy is very tightly bound to the Holy Spirit and means the suppression or liberation of one’s senses that occurs in the presence of holiness or divinity. The paradoxical nature of the mystical experience is the Holy Spirit’s simultaneous enhancing and weakening of human faculties, and the ecstasy stems from this paradoxical abracadabra. The hope or notion is that a temporary ecstasy—there is no other kind—can create a permanent solidity of spirit capable of a heightened nexus to God.

When the old gods no longer turn us on, we make new ones.

The sixteenth-century Catholic mystic St. Teresa of Ávila, influenced by Augustine’s Confessions, details in her own autobiography the various stages of ecstatic experience, a wisdom she gleaned from an illness that nearly killed her. Her bouts of post-illness ecstasy convinced her that she’d obtained an enduring oneness with God. In his Arthurian masterwork Idylls of the King, Tennyson speaks of “holy virgins in their ecstasies,” a suitable tag for St. Teresa, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Rose of Lima, and the coven of their seeking kin.

Sir Thomas Browne’s line in Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, “Ready to be any thing, in the ecstasy of being ever,” is an apt summation of the mystic’s transcendent experience. This is what the believer seeks in ecstasy: the sense of kinship with a reciprocal cosmos governed by a benevolent God or, for the Dionysian cults, with a wilderness resistant to taming. Ecstasy is at bottom escapist, a respite from the world of getting and having, of degradation and decay. It’s also an avenue for enlargement of the soul and enhancement of the sensory. There’s a section in Centuries of Meditations by the seventeenth-century English mystic Thomas Traherne in which he anticipates Wordsworth when writing about a stretch of the greenest trees he’d ever seen: the trees “transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things.” The strange, the wonderful, the ravishment.

The most consequential use of “ravish” in English poetry comes in John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10” (by Helen Gardner’s reordering), in the closing lines: “Take me to You, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” In Donne’s dark night of the soul enacted in the “Holy Sonnets,” in the yearning and intensity of his religious melancholy, we hear the thrum of ecstasy that borders on the mystical. Feeling betrayed by God, terrified of the despair that would mean his damnation, Donne, in his pleadings, is able to approximate a religious ecstasy. (And let’s remind ourselves here that although Donne converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism for the sake of his safety and career, he remained in mind and spirit a Catholic, which is exactly what you’d expect: once Catholicism gets its hooks into you, it’s got you for life, whether you realize it or not.) If it seems contradictory that divine betrayal, religious melancholy, and doctrinal despair can create the necessary conditions for ecstatic feeling, one need only remember this bit from Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love: “Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing about ecstasy at all.”

Ecstasy always contains an erotic element. The Judeo-Christian architecture that helped erect American society began to collapse after the First World War, as the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud made it impossible for us ever to see with the same innocent eyes again. A value system that sought to comprehend the cosmos in conflict with human yearning became obsolete in the face of so much unhinged slaughter and such revolutions of thought. And when the old gods no longer turn us on, we make new ones. If you want to see the erotic in the ecstatic, watch the footage of those wailing girls in Elvis Presley’s audience in the mid-1950s, or the spirit-possessed horde that greeted the Beatles at JFK Airport in 1964. See Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and you see eros incarnate. And today, the Beliebers, the Swifties, the K-Pop berserkers: it’s the same. Rock and pop gave us new churches to worship in, new deities to pray to—but then again, music is an old avenue to ecstasy, to embrace of the ether, the Other. As the incomparable James Brown sings, “Rock my soul.” And that about covers it. The seekers among us will have their ecstasy, whether it’s from Crete or Galilee, from Tupelo, Mississippi, or Liverpool, England.


Or from a laboratory. When Timothy Leary went batty in the 1960s with his explorations of LSD as a boulevard to the spirit world, he was only attempting to tap into the ancient shamanic practice of ingesting hallucinatory plants or herbs to aid in transcendence. The counterculture movement, prompted in part by the nervous breakdown of Judeo-Christian creeds, saw itself as flipping a middle finger at the walking dead of suburbia. In 1967, when Leary uttered his immortal line “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” he thought he was slipping into the leopard-skin garb of Dionysus and advocating for our release from self-imposed shackles, our deliverance into fresher modes of comprehension. The fact that it was a political statement, however adolescent and impractical, is all the more to the point, since part of what Dionysus destroys in Thebes is the political armature that keeps the ecstatic contained. Leary landed himself in prison, just as Pentheus imprisons Dionysus in The Bacchae. I. M. Lewis puts it this way: “The religious enthusiast, with his direct claim to divine knowledge, is always a threat to the established order.”

The drug MDMA, known primarily as “ecstasy,” was one of the alterations of choice in the New York club scene of the early 1990s. Its very name promised jubilation to kids too depthless to know that nothing as divine as ecstasy can be had in a pill. When maenads danced naked with wine or Native American shaman ingested peyote, they understood that those substances were only part of the process, that the real work of reaching ecstasy involved release, a willed estrangement from the self. They respected—and, more to the point, feared—the temporary nature of ecstatic states.

Ecstasy might be foremost the province of religion, music, and dance, but it is also the province of literature. Byron, Shelley, Blake, and their kin, our poetic satyrs, are visionary because they stretch after the sublime. In a Christendom beginning to crumble, this Romantic cartel welcomed back the gods and knelt at the altar of imagination; unafraid of fervor, they made religion of their art. Walt Whitman, our minister of the American secular sublime, writes: “Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sunrise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send forth sunlight from myself.” Lolita begins in ecstasy—“fire of my loins”!—and doesn’t let up for three hundred pages. The sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins revealed his ecstatic strains in certain of his sonnets. His lines, packed with crashing consonants, with metric exuberance, sound like no other verse in English: “Pitched past pitch of grief, / More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.” When he writes, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” he offers his own personal, particular endorsement of the ecstatic. What is ecstasy if not the grandeur of God? In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche argues that “for art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.”

Do we seek ecstasy for its high, because quotidian life is all too lacking and humdrum, because normality seems never to be fulfilling enough? Because we are in every molecule a questing clan thrilled by mystery and the mystical? Saul Bellow asked this in 1951: “Can there ever be a time when ecstasy will be the daily spirit and men and things set in diamonds?” No, alas. Never. A civilization in the daily throes of authentic ecstasy would be a civilization singed by its own flames. Nothing would get done. But in moments, in those sacred places we make for ourselves, Dionysus will not be denied. He will break free from the dullness of our routines, from the institutions that keep us buying and obedient. Dionysus does not obey, and he still summons us in the ecstatic night.

Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents

William Giraldi is the author of five books; his newest is a novel, About Face.

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