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:

 

http://www.elektra.com/rock_club/doors/bio.html

 

        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.”

 

http://www.thedoors.com/beta/mythos.htm

 

DOORS MYTHOS

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

 

<snip>

 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

death.

 

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

months later.

 

===================================================

 

"Calling on the Gods...

Cobra on my left, leopard on my right..."

       

                - Jim Morrison, from the album "The Soft Parade"