There is no denying that for many people ceremony and ritual create meaning and wellbeing for themselves and their community. One of the most effective secular mechanisms that produces these kinds of results is the music festival. Festivals are a lot more than just a party. They change lives and they are a vehicle for cultural transformation. In making and attending festivals we are taking part in a modern version of a very ancient ritual. As a culture we are missing a beat if we do not set about creating these events consciously.
The original transformational festival, possibly the mother of all ‘life changing’ gigs, was the annual festival of Eleusis in ancient Greece. Check this quote from Roman philosopher Cicero about the Eleusinian Mysteries:
“For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called "initiations," so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.” Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36.
This means that in Cicero’s considered opinion the Eleusinian Mysteries were more important than democracy, philosophy, mathematics or religion. They changed culture. They set the direction for culture. The mysteries showed the Greeks how to live a better life and how to die without fear.
What in the Dickens was actually going on here? Why were the shenanigans at Eleusis so exciting? We know that the great and good would travel from across the Empire to attend. It seems like every important figure from the times was an initiate including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Plutarch, Hadrian and Julia. But its wasn’t just the upper class who attended, pretty much anyone could be initiated. Women were an critical part of the festival as it focussed on Demeter and Persephone and the rites were administered by priestesses but unfortunately the records about female attendees are a lot more sparse than those about the men.
The festival was annual and every four years there would be a ‘special’ event in late summer which would last for 10 days. No one really knows what took place because it was a closely guarded secret event and the details were not written down at the time. It’s pretty hard to keep a good gig secret but there was a death penalty for blabbing the details to the uninitiated. Did you catch that? A death penalty, for discussing the festival’s secrets with anyone who hadn’t already attended.
Despite this threat we do have a bit of an understanding about the scaffolding of the event. It focussed on the divine feminine, there were sacred objects, offerings made to the Gods, processions took place and at the peak of the festival, an all-night feast and dance event where revellers would drink the kykeon; a sacred drink that was most probably made from herbs and ergot impregnated barley.
As Cicero put it, the mysteries demonstrated how to live happily as well as how to die with hope. The festival peaked between c. 1600 BCE and 392 CE but was observed overall for at least 2000 years.
Two millennia is a long run for any gig. Not bad ancient Greece, not bad…
What now for us? How do we create our own Eleusinian Mysteries? For a start we know that a good festival can change your life. If you’re reading these words it’s highly likely that you’re a festival convert and at some point in time a really good gig probably changed the way you think or even the way you choose to live. Festivals are reflective of the culture they exist within and at the same time are instruments for changing culture, even if it is changing person by person. To quote Kronnie Cupcake, festivals are brilliant for “spitting individuals back at the system”. Festivals also seem to act like some sort of virus; finding a new host brain at the gig and infecting it with ideas like “I like this, I want more, I’ll put on a party like this…” and the cycle continues.
Probably one of the best tools in the culture hacker’s toolbox are events that increase a sense of belonging and wellbeing and for this the strength of shared meals shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s a reason why cultures gather together to eat as part of a celebration, it’s nourishing and binding. The act of sharing food is loaded with meaning and significance. By emphasising the importance of food you create an opportunity for people who aren’t performers or artists to meaningfully contribute to your event. The effect on the event will be palatable. Food should also be a focus in the pack-in and pack-out as well. When you feed your team they can focus on their key skills - the reason you employ them. It’s actually dumbfounding when this doesn’t happen; promoters please feed your crew, the rewards will be significant.
Another sure fire way to change culture is by embracing the youth and showing them alternative ways to enjoy themselves. We need to inspire and actively encouraging young people to safely participate in our events, to break the mould from the mainstream, to make music, art and to make their own events.
In New Zealand we are fortunate to live within an amalgamation of different cultures, each off which have unique insights into how to celebrate life and how to live together in a cohesive and meaningful way. If your festival isn’t actively engaging with iwi you really should take a good look at your event and ask yourself why. Many events in Aotearoa now have significant partnerships with tangata whenua and embrace elements of tikanga Māori such as pōwhiri, enabling attendees to engage with Māori culture in a way that is meaningful and celebratory. Many festival management teams now also take an active kaitiaki role with regard to the event whenua and communicate messages around environmental sustainability and respect for the natural environment.
Festivals have become part of the way that we celebrate life together but in many ways the celebration is not done consciously. Aristotle compared the experience of seeing a show with the experience of being a participant in the celebrations at Eleusis. At a show, the spectator is transported beyond their normal reality for a time and entertained, but in participating in the ritual of the Mysteries the participant gets so much more, they are transformed and undergo, according to Aristotle, physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing. You get so much more from participating than from observing.
Event organisers should also be mindful of the critically important concepts of ‘set and setting’. Dr Roland Griffiths from Johns Hopkins University is one of the world’s leading authorities in psychedelic studies. He has posited that any one of us has the ability to have deeply ecstatic and transformative experiences and that these are “biologically normal”. We’ve got the hardware and the software necessary to become profoundly connected to the world around us. All that is needed is to start the programme by creating the right setting and having the right mindset. We have the opportunity to be so much more than we are today and the way that we will get there is with intention. If we come to an event with the right mind set and if the setting of the event is supportive, the community has the capacity to move together towards events that are truly transformative for our culture in New Zealand as a whole.
Consider for our boozing for a second. Anyone who has grown up here will have been exposed to our friendly isles' enthusiastic drinking culture. Unfortunately, some nasty shit comes hand-in-hand with ethanol-based partying and our track record with violence in general and violence against women specifically is deplorable and can be directly linked to alcohol. Clearly, this is a part of our culture that needs to change and we all need to work together to make that happen. Events that de-emphasise alcohol consumption may be a way forward. This is a hard ask for gigs that rely on the bar take for income, but it is a challenge that we should all consider.
Entertainers, artists, promoters and anyone else with a voice has a responsibility to lead by example and show how we can live together and change the world through positive action. Be thoughtful of the language used in marketing and the messages at your event because this discourse sets intention. Your marketing and comms programme will directly influence the outcome of your event, not just in the numbers of people that attend, but also in the expectations of the people who attend.
Saying that, it’s just ideas and words and surely those things are harmless... Right?
See you on the dancefloor.
Jamie Larnach, Dastardly Bounder.