Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Ancient and Primitive Connection

An applicant asked me recently, “Sir, if you don't mind me asking, I was wondering if you would explain to me Bacchanalian celebration and Dionysian initiation. I am vaguely familiar with the celebration and the gods, but not as it would relate to slave training.”

To translate this into a broader BDSM context he is asking “What do primitive cults have to teach us today?”

Though it is true that my educational and religious background, beginning in early childhood and proceeding along right into seminary and Christian ministry, colors (to say the least) my kinky life, my more recent studies of primitive societies, ancient mystery cults and Jungian psychology have shown incredible similarities between those three topics and what it is that we do (WIITWD).

Of course WIITWD varies from group to group, scene to scene and locale to locale. Nevertheless the basic similarities such as hedonism, altered states and sadomasochism remain wherever kinky people play or Leathermen work or whatever appellation you want to use.

So whereas in most public play spaces alcohol is forbidden, there are a few where it is not. Therein lies at least one Bacchanalian connection. Its use is significantly more tolerated and even at times welcome in private activities, as is the use of recreational drugs. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

There, I’ve gone and said it. Yes, there is some illegal drug use in our subculture but that is merely a reflection of the greater society in which we live. One of the few things more prevalent than illegal drug use in America is the hypocrisy that denies its prevalence. But I digress.

So then what are some of those similarities? Fertility rites; initiatory practices; worship; theater that leads to catharsis and/or an altered state; altered states themselves; inspiration aka revelation; bonding; and the transference of cultural values, to name the ones that come to mind most quickly.

Fertility rites

Though there is a minority in the BDSM community who deny that their BDSM is sexual in nature, for most of us kink and sex are inseparable. Now I admit that most of us don’t have sex in order to procreate so fertility in its strictest definition may not be appropriate. On the other hand, if we understand the word in a broader context, then it applies, as in developing a fertile imagination or freeing us to become more creative.

We can also simply look upon the physical similarities between what happens in the dungeon and what might happen in ancient and/or primitive fertility rites. My readings suggest a great number of similar events. Might we not learn from those rites in order to improve and perfect our own?

Initiatory practices

The same can be asked about rites of initiation. It is probably true that initiatory rites, in that they are generally more trauma-producing, sadistic, and physically dangerous, are even better examples for our instruction and edification.

It is my opinion that whipping, needle play, and impact play may be found, in one degree or another in many cultures that initiate. Even the Roman Catholic sacrament of Confirmation involves the Bishop slapping the face of the initiate, though the slap is only the shadow of a real one.

Our initiations are generally not recognized as such but certainly have the effect that the ancient and primitives ones have, namely, greater bonding with the community and a sense of personal achievement that leads to “adulthood” within that community.

We can also look at the more recent (within the past 60 years) practices in the Gay SM subculture of Leather clubs. Though in many ways the practice has declined, men who joined such clubs usually had to undergo a period as a pledge (six months to a year) during which they were taught and tested. That experience ended with an initiatory experience, such as the bestowal of a vest, being tied to a motorcycle and being pissed on by the members of the fraternity. Hence the phrase, earning your leathers. Welcome to the club!


OK. Many of us don’t want to mix religion with our sex. It is my conviction that sex and spirit, and therefore spirituality, cannot be separated, pretend as we might that such is not the case. Look at the face value of our language. Cock worship? Goddess worship? What do they mean if they don’t mean worship? Differentiate as much as you like between the worship of God in the traditional Judeo-Christian sense and the worship of the dominatrix or the master in the BDSM sense you still have those similarities .

You can, and many do, make those distinctions but I wonder if at some point the distinctions don’t get blurred. When the newly-wed man says to his bride “I adore you,” does that make God jealous? I don’t think so, but maybe. Is adoration akin to worship? I think so, as is praise and devotion.

Theater that leads to catharsis and/or an altered state

It may appear dismissive to call WIITWD “theater” but if we recognize it as the best of what theater has to offer, then I think the name applies. When the actor’s acting is excellent, he or she ceases to “act” but becomes the character being portrayed. When the cast is excellent, the script well-done, theater-goers find themselves transported, perhaps even transfixed by what happens on stage. That is when true catharsis takes place and the play becomes not merely a show but a deeply meaningful experience and a close identification with what is happening on the stage.

Altered states themselves

What we most closely share with ancient and primitive societies is the experience of having our consciousness altered, subspace if you will. I came to this conclusion when I realized that a childhood experience after taking communion, my experience as a Pentecostal believer, and a very powerful SM scene all had the same result on my consciousness. I was transported, albeit only temporarily, into a powerful realm of light and peace, perhaps infinity, the void, or bliss.

Inspiration aka revelation

Our best experiences lead us to various forms of intuited knowledge, most often of oneself but in other areas as well. Much of what we learn, of course, is experiential, but there are times when we transcend the physical to discover the infinite and eternal.

Bonding and the transference of cultural values

Just as primitive societies rely on initiatory experience to both celebrate and induce changes in a member’s place in that society, so does our “play” in the dungeon create deep inter-personal bonds and deeply transmit the unique social values of WIITWD. We can, you’ll admit, talk about a flogging all we want. It still remains that experiencing the flogging is the only true way to experience its possible life-changing effect.

Those, my friends, are the reasons I see that knowledge of whatever our Dionysian and Bacchae ancestors did has some thing, if not a lot of things, to add to what it is that we do. We may not know much about their actual rites and ceremonies, but I bet they’d feel right at home in any BDSM party that we’d host.

Have a great week.


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