The Dionysian element

23 07 2009

above: a penitente crucifixion in New Mexico in the 1930’s

The Dionysian element has to do with emotions and affects which have found no suitable religious outlets in the predominantly Apollonian cult and ethos of Christianity. The medieval carnivals and jeux de paume in the Church were abolished relatively early; consequently the carnival became secularized and with it divine intoxication vanished from the sacred precincts… intoxication, that most direct form of possession, turned away from the gods and enveloped the human world with its exuberance and pathos. The pagan religions met this danger by giving drunken ecstasy a place within their cult. Heraclitus doubtless saw what was at the back of it when he said, “But Hades is that same Dionysios in whose honour they go mad and keep the feast of the vat.” For this very reason orgies were granted religious license, so as to exorcise the danger that threatened from Hades. Our solution, however, has served to throw the gates of hell wide open.

– Carl Jung, Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy

When I read this, I thought, not quite, at least on the periphery of the Catholic world. The phenomenon of tarantismo, now extinct, went on for long enough in southern Italy to be filmed, as I have linked to before. There is also the question of the Jansenist convulsionaries of Saint Medard, who gave the Hindu sadhus a run for their money in their day. But less exotically, there seems to have always been a “Dinoysian” element to Catholicism that modern Catholics of all stripes now seem to detest. From the bloody Spanish crucifix to the eyeballs of St. Lucy on a platter, from the mock battles between angels and demons in my mother’s village in Mexico to an ox crapping on the floor of a church in Italy, the riotous religious sub-consciousness is an endangered species in the Catholic world. When Vatican II came, it was the first to go. One wonders if there are any teeth to Jung’s dire prophecy.