The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Building a Mystery

SecretHistoryRockNRollSite editor’s note: The following is excerpted from The Secret History of Rock ’N’ Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music by Christopher Knowles (Viva Editions, October 2010). Used with permission.

I like to think of the history of rock & roll like the origin of Greek drama. That started out on the threshing floors during the crucial seasons, and was originally a band of acolytes dancing and singing. Then, one day, a possessed person jumped out of the crowd and started imitating a god.

—Jim Morrison

Most historians believe that the Mysteries began at the end of the Neolithic Age (also known as the New Stone Age, roughly 9000 to 4500 BCE), making them one of the earliest cultural developments known to humanity. Coinciding with the development of agriculture, the rituals were designed to appeal to the grain gods of the Underworld by acting out their myths, which celebrated the cycles of planting, growth and harvesting. The earliest distinct Mysteries were practiced in Egypt, which depended on the yearly flooding of the Nile to fertilize its soil. This process was at the center of all the various (and often contradictory) regional cults that made up what we now generically refer to as “Egyptian religion.” From Egypt, the Mysteries migrated into western Asia and the Mediterranean basin, and eventually to the farthest frontiers of the known world.

The Mysteries were known by many names in Greece, including mysteria, teletai, bakchoi, and orgia (where the modern word orgy comes from). Adjectives like “unspeakable” or “forbidden” were often added, intensifying their mystique. Mysteries are generally distinguished from other cults by a number of features. The initiates worshipped “suffering gods,” and experienced their various deaths and dramas through ritual theater and music. Myths were retold and often acted out on those agricultural themes. These cults practiced secret initiations which were not to be shared with outsiders, sometimes on pain of death or more often, imprisonment.

The Mysteries were usually centered on a single god, but they were not technically monotheistic. Instead they were henotheistic, meaning they recognized the existence of other gods but focused their energy on one. Most importantly, the Mystery religions weren’t about dogma—they were about experience. Music and dance were essential to the rituals themselves, which usually took place at night. And most importantly, sexual symbols—or practices—were a crucial part of the process.

The gods of the Mysteries were usually believed to have come from faraway lands. Foreign gods have always had an exotic appeal, a kind of cosmic variant on the “grass is always greener” adage. This was especially true in the days before the rise of mass communications, but the same process repeated itself in the Victorian era and the Sixties. At its core, religion has always been about escape.

Most of the Mystery religions were decidely countercultural, offering a direct, personal relationship to a god, without a priest as middleman. Their voluntary nature was radical for its time, reflecting an overall trend toward individualism in Classical Greece. But even with their wild rituals, the Mysteries required a high degree of discipline and loyalty. These weren’t hippie stoners as we would understand them—as with the Central American shamans, the actual Mystery ritual would be the climax of a long period of study, sacrifice, and self-purification.

Less is known about the actual rituals themselves.  But songs and dances were performed, usually fast and wild, with crashing drums and screaming flutes—rock ’n’ roll, in other words. Simple pyrotechnics were often used (torches, sometimes treated with chemicals for different effects) and spontaneous rutting often broke out among the wilder cults such as the Roman Bacchanalia. As the eminent German historian Walter Burkert wrote, Mystery festivals were designed to be “unforgettable events casting their shadows over the whole of one’s future life, creating experiences that transform existence” (which brings us back to that one concert that changed your life). The initiates fully expected to meet their gods in the flesh, and by all accounts, they usually weren’t disappointed. The Greek philosopher Proclus wrote that the gods didn’t always take human shape, but would “manifest themselves in many forms, assuming a great variety of guises; sometimes they appear in a formless light, again in quite different form.”

Like Christianity sometime later, Mystery religions were based around concepts of death and resurrection. The Mysteries prepared believers for their death and descent to the Underworld, where one’s favorite god would be present to lend a hand. That was part of the pitch; an inscription at the Mystery temple Eleusis declared, “Beautiful indeed is the mystery given to us by the blessed Gods: Death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing.”

Aside from the usual nocturnal gatherings, Mystery cults also ran more conventional temples for the uninitiated, which were remarkably similar—if not nearly identical—to liturgical Christianity, offering communion and holy water (imported from the Nile), and preaching doctrines such as salvation, resurrection, and judgment of the dead.

This uncomfortable similarity is the reason early Christian fathers went on the warpath against the Mysteries in their writings, calling their gods demons and their goddesses the whores of Hell. (See Revelation 17:5: “Mystery, Babylon the Great.”) But even when the Church became the official cult of state and began literally wiping out the competition, it took a very long time to stamp out the Mysteries. In fact, the Church opted instead to simply absorb many of their rituals, beliefs and practices.

Ancient historians have cited books and scriptures used in the Mysteries, yet very few of them seem to have survived, other than as fragments. But there’s an extensive record of secondary material detailing the Mysteries’ beliefs, practices and influence, which gives a clear picture of the history and power of this remarkable movement.

Excerpted from The Secret History of Rock ’N’ Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music by Christopher Knowles (Viva Editions, October 2010). Used with permission.

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  • Tchoutoye

    In album review terminology, “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is half killer, half filler.

    The first half of the book is really good, a nice overview of the main known mystery cults. The fact that it’s written from the perspective of a rock fan helps to make the all too dusty topic of ancient mystery cults accessible to rock audiences at large, always a laudable endeavour.

    It’s a shame however that the book is spoiled by the second half, in which Knowles descends into complete silliness by mapping the rock pantheon of the last half century into somewhat contrived categories such as New Apollos (rock stars, but acceptable enough to be son-in-laws) New Dionysians (hedonic rock), New Eleusinians (women in rock), New Worshippers of Isis (weird women in rock), New Korybantes (metal), Mithraic Rock (militant punk), New Plutonians (shock rock/death metal) and New Orpheans (grunge and emo). While pointing out specific traits that contemporary popular music has in common with ancient mystery cults can be insightful, Knowles’ resulting listomania is a classicist’s version of a teenage party pastime gone out of hand.
    - And what about Tina Turner?
    - Eleusinian!
    - Good call!

    Knowles has a slightly old fashioned notion of what is rock & roll, in the sense that he focuses almost entirely on white musicians (with the exception of a few black musicians that crossed over to white audiences, like Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Bad Brains), which is a pity considering the West African roots of Rock & Roll and the fact that the book does have a chapter on the mysteries of the African Yoruba in the first half of the book. Likewise, the ecstatic, drug influenced dance/rave music of the last quarter century, with its overtones of archaic tribalism, should have been given more attention.

    • Secretsunck

      Yeah, I’ve been running into a bit of this. The problem here is that the book was not written for elitists and musical esotericists, it was written for a more general rock audience who are interested in the prehistory but will want to see how the bands they are familiar with fit into the grand scheme of things. It isn’t just about categories, it’s about the evolution of the genres and how the social and cultural influences fed into that process. I’ve done a few appearances on mainstream rock radio and they’ve gone, um, gaga for the book. I’ve also had people tell more they’re more interested in the second half of the book than the first.

      As to this Tchoutoye’s last two criticisms, I specifically address them in the introduction to the second half.
      Rock may have roots in West Africa, but it also has roots outside of it as well.

  • Anonymous

    The first half of the book is really good. It’s a shame the book is spoiled by the second half, in which Knowles descends into complete silliness by mapping the rock pantheon of the last half century into contrived categories such as New Dionysians (hedonic rock), New Eleusians (female rock), New Korybantes (metal) , Mithraic Rock (militant punk), New Plutonians (shock rock) and whatnot. The endeavour seems like the classicist’s version of a teenage party game gone out of hand.

  • Secretsunck

    Yeah, I’ve been running into a bit of this. The problem here is that the book was not written for elitists and musical esotericists, it was written for a more general rock audience who are interested in the prehistory but will want to see how the bands they are familiar with fit into the grand scheme of things. It isn’t just about categories, it’s about the evolution of the genres and how the social and cultural influences fed into that process. I’ve done a few appearances on mainstream rock radio and they’ve gone, um, gaga for the book. I’ve also had people tell more they’re more interested in the second half of the book than the first.

    As to this Tchoutoye’s last two criticisms, I specifically address them in the introduction to the second half.
    Rock may have roots in West Africa, but it also has roots outside of it as well.

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