THE CULT OF THE LIZARD KING
by Delia Morgan
I. The Rock God:
Jim Morrison -- rock star, poet, prophet, electric shaman, and god incarnate.
The lead singer of the 1960’s acid rock band known as The Doors,
Jim Morrison identified himself very strongly with Dionysos. The Doors
were the first group to really do rock concerts as ritual, as a means of
taking the audience on a psycho-religious trip. They took their name
from Aldous Huxley's quote (here paraphrased) that "When the Doors of
perception are cleansed, we will see things as they truly are --
infinite." Morrison described their mission in terms of trying to
"Break On Through" to a bigger reality: "There are things that are
known, and things that are unknown, and in between are the Doors."
Morrison, with his "Greek God" beauty, his fiery passion and dark
mysterious persona, has been considered a Dionysos incarnate. He
certainly tried to bring something like shamanism and Greek drama to
rock music and to the stage; he tried to shock people out of their
complacency and into a terrifying and liberating ecstasy. Since his
death at a young age in 1971, a cult has grown around him; many people,
myself included, sense his presence as a guiding force, build altars to
him, etc. There was even a "First Church of the Doors" at one time.
Morrison himself was, by all accounts, a man as brilliant as he was
daring. At a young age he had read extensively on shamanism and ancient
mythology, including James Frazer's "The Golden Bough" (much of which is
about Dionysos); he was also quite taken with Friedrich Nietzsche's
passionate vision of Dionysos as portrayed in "The Birth of Tragedy."
One of the last books he had been reading before his death was Jane
Ellen Harrison's voluminous and challenging "Prolegomena to the Study of
Greek Religion" which is also mostly about Dionysos. It seems to me that
Morrison let himself be completely possessed by Dionysos, until the man
and the god were irrevocably merged; he carried the torch of his mythic
Dionysian vision all the way to his death.
Unfortunately, most people never quite 'got' what he was trying to do at
the time, which was religion. Rock critics called him pretentious for
taking himself so seriously; few of them knew enough about myth and
religion to put the pieces together. Ray Manzarek's recent book "Light
My Fire" is a personal history of the Doors, and also talks about
Morrison as Dionysos.
Here are just a few quotes from Morrison’s songs and poetry where the
dark and Dionysian mystic slips through:
"I call upon the dark hidden gods of the blood..."
"Where is the wine we were promised, the new wine...?"
"We could plan a murder, or start a religion..."
"I promised I would drown myself in mystic heated wine..."
"Let us reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages;
celebrate symbols from deep elder forests..."
"I am a guide to the labyrinth."
II. Perspectives on the Morrisonian mythos:
Some perceptive authors and music critics at the time caught
on to the Dionysian element in Morrison’s philosophy and in his
performances; others have come to realize this in retrospect.
(Still others never caught on, and can’t understand what all
the fuss is about.)
The following excerpt from a Doors website makes explicit
the Doors’ connection to Pagan spiritual sentiment:
During the late 1960's bands sang of love and peace
while acid was passed out. But for The Doors it was
different. The nights belonged to Pan and Dionysus, the
gods of revelry and rebirth, and the songs invoked their
potent passions-- the Oedipal nightmare of "The End,"
the breathless gallop of "Not to Touch the Earth," the
doom of "Hyacinth House," the ecstasy of "Light My
Fire," the dark uneasy undertones of "Can't See Your
Face in My Mind," and the alluring loss of consciousness
in "Crystal Ship." And as with Dionysus, The Doors
willingly offered themselves as a sacrifice to be torn
apart, to bleed, to die, to be reborn for yet another night
in another town.
The pagan/Dionysian theme is expanded upon by Danny Sugerman
in the following excerpts from the introduction to the famous
biography of Jim Morrison, titled “No One Here Gets Out Alive.”
by Danny Sugerman
"Though the favorites of the gods die young, they also live eternally
in the company of gods."
-- Fredrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
An account of initiation into the mysteries of the goddess Isis
survives in only one in-person account, an ancient text that translated
reads: "I approached the frontier of death, I saw the threshold of
Persephone, I journeyed through all the elements and came back, I saw at
midnight the sun, sparkling in white light, I came close to the gods of
the upper and the netherworld and adored them near at hand. " This all
happened at night. With music and dance and performance. The concert as
ritual, as initiation. The spell cast. Extraordinary elements were
loosed that have resided in the ether for hundreds of thousands of
years, dormant within us all, requiring only an awakening.
Of course, psychedelic drugs as well as alcohol could encourage the
unfolding of events. A Greek musicologist gives his description of a
Bacchic initiation as catharsis: "This is the purpose of Bacchic
initiation, that the depressive anxiety of people, produced by their
state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared away through melodies and
dances of the ritual."
There is a strange tantalizing fascination evoked by fragments of
ancient pagan mysteries: the darkness and the light, the agony and the
ecstasy, the sacrifice and bliss, the wine and the ear of grain
(hallucinogenic fungi). For the ancients it was enough to know there
were doors to a secret dimension that might open for those who earnestly
sought them. Such hopes and needs have not gone away with time. Jim
Morrison knew this. Morrison was the first rock star I know of to speak
of the mythic implications and archetypal powers of rock 'n' roll, about
the ritualistic properties of the rock concert. For doing so, the press
called him a pretentious asshole: "Don't take yourself so seriously,
Morrison, it's just rock 'n' roll and you're just a rock singer."
Jim knew they were wrong, but he didn't argue. He also knew when the
critics insulted him they demeaned his audience. Jim knew that music is
magic, performance is worship, and he knew rhythm can set you free. Jim
was too aware of the historical relevance of rhythm and music in ritual
for those transforming Doors concerts to have been accidental.
From his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jim took solace and
encouragement in the admonition to "say yes to life." I never believed
that Jim was on a death trip as so many have claimed, and to this day
still find it difficult to judge the way he chose to live and die. Jim
chose intensity over longevity, to be, as Nietzsche said, "one who does
not negate," who does not say no, who dares to create himself. Jim also
must have been braced to read the following Nietzsche quote: "Saying yes
to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life
rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of
its highest types-this is what I call Dionysian, that is what I
understood as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in
order to get rid of terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a
dangerous effect by its vehement discharge, but in order to be oneself
the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity. "
It was Jim's insatiable thirst for life that killed him, not any love of
III. Morrison today
Why, among all stars in that infamous rock-n-roll heaven, is Jim Morrison
uniquely qualified as an avatar of Dionysos? It's no doubt true that various
worthy and charismatic figures in rock-n-roll have gained something of a
fanatical cult following. Visions of Elvis, etc. One recent translation of
Euripedes' play "The Bacchae" even put Elvis on the cover. But, really, it
should have been Jim.
Morrison was, as far as I know of, the first or only rock performer to
actually identify with Dionysos, and to express (sometimes subtly)
the stated intent of trying to bring back the old pagan
religions. He was also the only one to do serious research on the cult
of Dionysos, and to attempt to recreate the cathartic experience of
Greek tragedy as a ritual on the stage. He forged a connection between
shamanism and Dionysiac cult: the shaman, by going on a spirit journey,
could heal the tribe; then the rock performer, by making the presence of
Dionysos manifest, and by bringing the audience with him, could create
a healing breakthrough for both himself and the spectators/participants.
He was brilliant, and possibly mad.
He was also the performer who (in my view) best expressed the enigmatic,
mysterious qualities of Dionysos himself - the paradoxical juxtaposition
of sweetness and violence, ecstasy and agony, deep masculinity and
androgynous beauty, orgasmic chaos and graceful precision. Etc., etc.
I have no doubt that the spirit of Dionysos permeated the world of rock
music in the 60's, and even somewhat today. But it remains that Jim
Morrison alone gave himself to Dionysos, entirely and without
reservation, to the very end; and all for the purpose of bringing back
Dionysian religion to a world without a clue.
And since his death, he has become a real and guiding presence for many
devotees; in other words – a god. Doors fans have built altars and web
shrines, conducted rituals in his honor and written poems about their spiritual
encounters with Jim. He was certainly a powerful force in my own
pagan awakening. This point came home to me, in many ways over the
years; I'll relate one.
One evening, I was sitting on the couch reading Jane Ellen Harrison's
"Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion," a book which deals
extensively with the religion of Dionysos. I was at the section where
she describes how the dead hero becomes transformed into a god. I got
very excited, and was scribbling notes in the margins, about how I saw
this process of heroic deification as applying to Jim Morrison. (Snakes
figured largely into this process, as they did in the cult of Dionysos;
and Doors fans know all about Jim and "the ancient snake.")
Suddenly, for no reason, I had a strong urge to turn on the television.
(I almost never watched it; my roommate did.) When I did so, there was a
program about the history of rock music, and they were doing a short
segment on Jim Morrison. Then they interviewed the Doors keyboardist Ray
Manzarek, on the subject of Jim's death and/or possible continued
existence. Ray said (paraphrased): "Jim isn't here on earth anymore.
Dionysos returned to Olympus, and he's sitting up there laughing at us."
This statement, coming right after my reading the same idea in
Harrison's book (and my relating it to Morrison), seemed like a
remarkable coincidence to me at the time. I'm sure it was Jim who
prompted me to turn the TV on at that moment. A few years later, I
learned that (according to Jim's girlfriend, Wiccan priestess Patricia
Kennealy) that Harrison's book on Greek religion was the very same one
that Jim was reading just before he left for Paris, where he died a few
"Calling on the Gods...
Cobra on my left, leopard on my right..."
- Jim Morrison, from the album "The Soft Parade"