Mænadism in Religion

MÆNADISM literally means the peculiar madness of the initiated in the mysteries of Dionysos. Relatively, it signifies all intoxicating, will-destroying excesses of religious fervor in which “the multitude” have taken part. The word is here used in this latter signification. It is a remarkable fact in the history of religion that men of widely differing creeds and countries have agreed in attaching a spiritual value to hysteria, chorea, and catalepsy on the one hand, and to a frenzy of cruelty and sensuality on the other. Diseased nerves and morals have often been ranked as the highest expression of man’s faith and devotion. The individual in the superexalted mental and physical state becomes a prophet, a Pythoness, an ecstatic, or a medium,” according to the age in which he or she lives. When the exaltation is still further heightened by the sympathetic force of numbers, it leads to Bacchantic revels, Oriental orgies, and nervous epidemics, than which there is nothing stranger in the records of human feeling. The distinction between the various phases of Mænadism is less in the actual demonstrations than in the interpretation given to them. The African feticheeress, or voudoo, and the Turkish dervish, during their mystic ceremonies, both fall into convulsions. But one thinks thereby to attain magical ascendency; the other hopes to see God face to face. The Bacchante and the mediæval Christian both danced, like the Arab Zikr, in frantic fury until their strength deserted them. But while by the dance the former voluntarily honored a divinity, the latter involuntarily obeyed a devil.

Mænadism in the beginning was the outgrowth of that desire for excitement which is instinctive in human beings. When Victor Hugo declares that a hell where one is bored is more terrible than a hell where one suffers, he expresses in definite language that which has been vaguely felt by all men, savage or civilized ; and indeed even by beasts and insects, who manifest a susceptibility to the feeling of ennui and a necessity to indulge in superfluous activity. Ants interrupt their labors to engage in sham battles. Birds occasionally sing and flutter, as if in an ecstasy of delight. Horses, dogs, and cats romp like children, and the fiercest wild animals have been seen to race and struggle in evident play. In man the instinct is still stronger, because the loss of liberty entailed by social life limits his occasions of gratifying it, thus adding to its original force that of restrained emotion. As striving after knowledge of the unknown gives the impetus to scientific study, so it seems as if the desire for something beyond ordinary relaxations is a stimulus to elevate human ideals of pleasure. Religion at first provides for both these cravings. Myths and doctrines are the result of the intellectual need, and sacred feasts of the emotional. The majority of men, sheeplike, accept without questioning the beliefs and amusements supplied for them. Greek Dionysiacs, Roman Saturnalia, Hindu Holi, and mediæval Fêtes des Fous have been sufficient outlet for those who only need a Bacchanalia of fun in order that, according to Schlegel, “ once the fit is over, they may for the rest of the year apply themselves to serious business.” But there are a few independent individuals who, because they will not be led, but must lead themselves, push inquiry to its extreme and exhaust emotion in all its possible variations. With them the general festival is exchanged for the special orgy, just as occultism replaces the doctrines of the multitude. They develop religious fervor to a degree which is as far above the capacity and comprehension of common men as the passion of the toreador when in the arena is removed from the calm of the shepherd watching the same bulls on the hill-side. A natural barrier separates them from their fellow-mortals; and when they join together into an order apart, to give free expression to their devotional feelings, Mænadism really begins.

This occurs at a very early stage of culture. Already among the higher savage tribes, where “ existence is all a feeling, not yet shaped into a thought,” there are mystic brotherhoods and sisterhoods. whose superiority consists, not in moral virtues nor spiritual knowledge, but in keenly sensitive emotional temperaments, and in the superior endurance of pain by piety. Savages, like children, usually expend the force of their feelings in muscular activity. As Tylor says, “ They dance their joy and sorrow, their love and rage, even their magic and religion.” To some this corporeal excitement is as intoxicating in its effects as alcohol or hashish would be, and causes a temporary cessation of volitional power, so that their movements become wholly automatic. Knowing as little of the reasons of their convulsive conduct as a child does of the man who pulls the wires during a puppet performance, they attribute it to supernatural interference. Deeply impressed by the consciousness of occult forces in nature, they are stirred to the very depths of their being when they themselves seem animated by like mysterious agents. They feel that subtle relation between themselves and the external world which later, developing into well-defined thought, becomes the philosophy which represents man as the microcosm or mirror of the universe. In all countries where men are ignorant of the laws of physiology and psychology, the delirium and hallucinations produced by mental aberration pass for divine revelations, and the contortions and spasms of nervous affections for supernatural manifestations. To-day, in the East, idiots and epileptics are believed to be inspired saints, and are respected accordingly. Even in Greece insanity was considered a divine malady. The suspension of will, the highest human function, which the Western man of modern times would regret as the greatest of all misfortunes, savages deliberately seek as the supreme point of perfection. While those who are permanently disordered must remain unconscious of their supernatural powers, the partially affected, who live as it were on the border-land of disease, can in their lucid intervals devote their energies to cultivating and increasing them. The ardor which illuminati at a later period bring to study and to thought, primitive children of light spend upon abnormal sensations and emotions. A long and painful apprenticeship is required of aspirants to the mystic orders. Life in the wilds and woods, far from all other human beings, silent intercourse with nature, strange diet, impressive ceremonial, and strict discipline add still further to their natural excitability. Finally, when the time comes for the celebration of the mystic rites, the initiated are told to relinquish all self-control. Yielding to delirious impulses without inquiring into their why and whither, they are worked up to a pitch of frenzy more like an apotheosis of human passion than an expression of religious devotion. The orgy in this its crudest development is worship of emotion, in which there is as yet no ideational motive.

Just as the monastic life is the highest realization of Catholic ideals, so Mænadism with savages represents the culminating point, beyond which religious enthusiasm cannot go. But for this very reason it is at first well-nigh inseparable from witchcraft and sorcery. Religion in its primitive form is pure magic, and consequently it values prayer and ritual in proportion to their magical efficacy. The gris-gris laden Vodun-vi, or feticheeresses of Dahomey, by their unearthly dances excite themselves to convulsive contortions and wild tearing of flesh. But even as they dance they work their mystic spells, as their voudou sisters still do in America. The Shamans in Siberia and the medicine men of certain North American Indian tribes sway their bodies to and fro, and writhe in pious spasms, to produce that orgasm which sweeps before it all consciousness and thought, but which, in so doing, gives them command over the spirits, and powers akin to those of Joshua in the valley of Ajalon. The devil-dancers of Ceylon pirouette and chassé to frighten away the demons, an end which their hideous movements are well calculated to accomplish. The Yezedis, by their frantic leaps and twirls and cruel flourishing of daggers, so terrible to behold that the usually dauntless Lady Hester Stanhope fainted at the sight, implore the miraculous intervention of Sheitan, or Satan, their lord and master. Repellent and ridiculous as these ceremonies appear to us, they are serious and sacred enough to those taking part in them. The wild, blood-shot eyes of Shamans during the final ecstasy ; the mad transports of the young Dahoman witches as they follow their arch-Hecate through the intricate measures of their dance ; the indifference of the Yezedi devil-worshipers to gaping wounds and loss of blood, — all equally attest the genuine earnestness of these mystics. Their ends are sordid ; but where religion does not look beyond the present, and prayer which does not better man’s temporal condition has no meaning for him, then those measures by which spirits are forced into bestowing their favors, or removing their curses, constitute the most perfect forms of religious worship. But the mysticism which is conformable with savage standards of conduct is irreconcilable to higher degrees of civilization. Feasts and orgies continue because, notwithstanding more elevated ideals of morality, men still crave excitement, and enthusiasts still require extraordinary channels for their piety. A growing sense of æstheticism may cause a change in the accessories of ritual. Drums made of skulls and deafening gongs and whistles are perhaps replaced by lutes, cymbals, and double pipes, and rude, spasmodic laughter and savage screams are softened into rhythmic invocation and hymn-singing. Just as the actual intoxication of two men of equal constitution will not differ because one drinks from fine Venetian glass and the other from coarse earthenware, so the delirious orgasm of orgiastic worship is the same, whether inspired by discordant drum beating or by soft Lydian airs. But — and herein lies the essential difference — mystics who have passed beyond the primitive period of religious development make their emotional transports a means to something higher, and not an end in themselves. The growth of sympathy in men’s relations to their fellow-beings elevates their conception of the duties of humanity to divinity. They are convinced that the object of prayer and sacrifice is not merely to reap benefits for themselves, but to pay respect to deity. Therefore, all religious rejoicings, however earthly in tone or however rapturous, must not only be a cultus of feeling, but must contribute definitely to the greater glory of a supernatural being. The orgies of the civilized nations of antiquity were invariably connected with earth and generative deities, probably because they were survivals of dances and debauches which had flourished long before there was a systematized belief in Bacchus or Mylitta. While arbitrary feasts must have perished with the special circumstances that created them, those which were associated with natural phenomena could be adapted to the new culture by converting their vague sympathy with nature into worship of definite deity.

It is chiefly by the orgiastic worship of the Greeks that we know how Mænadism passed through this stage of development. The dancing of the maidens of Shiloh and the frenzied prayers of the priests of Baal, when, in their contest with Elijah, they leaped upon the altar, and “ cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them” (1 Kings xviii. 28), were evidently Mænadic rites, but the only record of them is a passing allusion in the Bible. The Teutons, Celts, and Northmen of pagan Europe had their spring and autumn, their midsummer and midwinter festivities, to the turbulent nature of which, quaint customs, such as May-day dances and Saint John’s fires, long attested, but of which next to nothing is actually known. The mysteries of Oriental races were guarded with such jealous care that few but the initiated ever learnt what took place in the inner shrine. There was, unfortunately, no Louis Jacolliot in ancient times to watch unseen the sacred midnight revels, and then give a glowing description of them to the unilluminated. Besides, Mænadism in the East was merged at a very early period into a still higher phase of mysticism. But, though the fate of Pentheus awaited the curious Greek who dared to pry into the secret rites, there are sufficient data recorded of the religious orgies in Greece to show that before they came under foreign influence they were esteemed as the best possible testimony of human respect and love for divinity. The enthusiasm which kindles in the devout an ardent desire to realize their ideal of perfection by imitating, in weak, human fashion, the supernatural attributes and actions of the being worshiped was the inspiration of Hellenic mystics. Their excesses, so incomprehensible in themselves, were explained to be either pious commemoration of incidents in a god’s career, or an expression of gratitude for gifts bestowed upon mortals by the powers above ; and to prevent human criticism — their weak points being well recognized — they were ascribed to a divine origin. The Corybantic fury of the priests of Cybele, when, dancing to the sound of shrill fife, leathern drum, and “ wild bells’ clashing ring,” they scourged each other and mutilated themselves, typified the mad deeds of the fair young Atys after he had been bereft of his reason by the “ great mother of the gods,” because of his infidelity to her. By the strange midnight rites of the Eleusinian festivals, by the sudden changes from darkness and mournful cries to light and joyful hymns, the faithful were acting with true dramatic feeling the wanderings of Demeter in search of Persephone, and the final reunion of mother and daughter. The Mænads, in their dances through mountain and forest, and in their fury of lasciviousness and animalism, either celebrated the joy which filled the radiant Dionysos when the vines bloomed in summer and bore fruit in autumn, or bemoaned the madness and desolation which befell him through the wrath of Hera, when, at the first chill of winter, his vines withered and died. But there was still another motive to Bacchantic revels.

The Greeks were not a drink-loving people, like the Northern nations. At a drinking bout, the gods of Olympus would have been completely outdone by the heroes of roaring Valhalla. But since they believed that Dionysos gave them the juice of the grape, they also thought the delirium it produced was wrought by him. Their arguments were not unlike those of Omar Khayyam : —

“ Why, be this juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a snare?
A blessing we should use it, should we not?
And if a curse, —why, then who set it there ? ”

Intoxication was a blessing, because God-given ; but instead of concluding, with the Persian poet, that it should be the chief occupation and end of life, it was held to be a duty sacred to Bacchus, the maddening god, “ whom swords and blood and sacred rage delight.” It was a common saying among the ancients that the Greeks never were intoxicated save at their holy festivals. It is no wonder that Dionysos later became the god of liberty. Those who were consecrated to him were exempted from observance of all human laws and restrictions. Once the Bacchantes had donned the sacred fawn skin and crowned themselves with ivy, had wreathed the serpents in their hair and raised aloft the mystic thyrsus, they knew no guide but the impulse of the moment. Maddened with wine, they did not hesitate at any pleasure, however dissolute ; nor were they daunted by any crime, however cruel. This explanation for the madness of the Mænads gives us the keynote to those darker orgies held in honor of generative and phallic deities. The rites of the Asiatic Mylitta and Ashtaroth, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Samothracian Cabiri were as nameless as those with which modern Tantrikas and Sivaite Brahmans celebrate their mysteries. At those shrines where a sin was a prayer and vice became virtue, human sensuality was typical of certain divine functions, just as intoxication with Bacchantes was a recognition of the heavenly origin of the soulstirring drink. It is difficult for Christians, with their doctrines of original sin and the necessity of penance and mortification of the flesh, to realize that these practices were religious ceremonies. The orgies were pleasurable in themselves, and were sometimes abused by hypocrites ; or, as Pythagoras expressed it, “ Many carry the thyrsus, but few are inspired with the spirit of the god.” But had self-gratification been the sole object, and had insincerity been the rule, and not the exception, then these shameless indulgences would have perished because of their own unwortliiness. Their fundamental cause, though an unconscious one, was physical passion but that which made them possible as sacred ceremonies was an honest, if mistaken, desire of pious enthusiasts to exhaust every conceivable expression by which finite creatures can declare their recognition of the infinite. So well did the enlightened understand that to the vulgar these rites would seem like emancipation from moral restraints, instead of the freedom of a devout soul sanctified by divinity, that none were admitted to the inner sanctuary until they had passed through many and severe tests, and then they were sworn to eternal secrecy.

If magical powers were sometimes obtained during the orgies; if the Bacchantes with a stroke of their thyrsi could make water leap from the rocks, wine spring from the earth, and their wands distill great heaps of honey, these marvels were no more the object sought than the miracles of Moses were his main mission when he led the Israelites through the desert. But there were other wonders worked in man during his delirium, which finally became of main importance. Hallucinations producing pleasurable sensations are common symptoms of ecstasy, whether this be the result of physical disease or of mental and sensual excitements. The sincere worshiper, during his orgy, was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions. He heard sounds to which ordinary ears were deaf, and saw those things to which ordinary eyes were blind, and even while so seeing and hearing was filled with ineffable rapture. As soon as more attention was given to the soul and its future than to the body and the present, these subjective sensations were supposed to be due to the free activity of the soul of the inspired mystic, which, illuminated with divine wisdom and inflamed with divine happiness, overpowered his consciousness of physical existence. Had all races considered religion from the objective stand-point of the Greeks, esoteric doctrine would perhaps never have reached such prominence. It was through the influence of Oriental thought that Eleusinian celebrants were brought to believe that their rites united them in intimate communion with Demeter herself, and that Bacchantes imagined that by their debauches they were initiated into the real meaning of life and death. In the East, where men despised life because it was so easy to sustain, and loathed their bodies, which were a hindrance to a continual state of Kheyf, prayers and ceremonies were valued according to their effect upon the spirit. This indifference carried to its extreme taught not only the delusion but the evil of matter, and that the one truth and good is being per se. Since in the orgiastic ecstasy, as in hashish dreams, all calculations of time and space are lost sight of, the ecstatic thought, while in that state, to fathom the mystery of eternity, and to feel in the accompanying pleasure the pure joy of release from the prison-house of flesh. The delirious orgasm, explained by this higher mysticism. which is still the belief of Oriental philosophers, is the escape of the vital principle in man from the dark chrysalis of matter into the divine light of absolute knowledge. It is the merging of the finite into the infinite, whether the conception of the latter be the Buddhist’s Nirvâna, the Hindu Yogi’s Samâddi, or the Mohammedan’s Allah. Probably originating in India, this doctrine was the inspiration of Egyptian, Persian, and cabalistic mystics, and it passed into the West through Neoplatonism, reappearing in Gnostic beliefs and Baphometic fire-baptisms of Freedom and Prudence, and having its votaries to-day among those Western occultists who look upon the manifestations of spiritualism as only the initial stage to that perfect wisdom and power which the soul can reach. The spiritual supremacy must be gained, at any price. Men who seek to see God face to face care little as to the nature of the methods employed, provided these be efficacious.

“ It heeds not whence begins our thinking,
If to the end its flight is high.”

The end here sanctifies the means, even if these be wine, women, and song, as in Persian Sufism. Hence, this belief has authorized solemnities, varying from silent meditation and prayer to the most outrageous sensualities. Pious ejaculations and bodily contortions, sacred hymns and rhythmic movements, contemplation and hashish fantasies, are all equally holy, if they can succeed in intoxicating the soul. The Yogi tortures his body until he exhausts it, or else, like the monks of Mount Athos, fixes his eyes upon it until he forgets it. The Buddhist, by thorough abstraction, conquers perception, sensation, and thought. The Neoplatonist freed his spirit by prayer, music, and dialectics. But there are still other men, who cannot excite within themselves the spiritual orgasm without recourse to physical and sensual stimulants. No people have ever understood the subtle link between religious emotion and physical sensation as well as Persians. At once the most mystical in their philosophy and the most voluptuous in their pleasures of all men, they have made sensuous raptures the mediums to spiritual ravishment. There are certain sects of Sufis, such as the Ahlavis, who in their sacred orgies realize the erotic and bacchanalian excesses which, when sung by Hafiz, are piously supposed to be allegorical. The heavenly delirium is wrought by a very earthly wine-cup, and the losing of identity in boundless love is obtained by exhausting every conceivable caprice of human passion. The secondary importance which this mysticism awards to ritual is signally illustrated by the different orders of dervishes. While all are imbued with Sufism, their ceremonies vary from corporeal excitement, which is probably a direct inheritance from Corybantes, to silent, Buddha-like contemplation. The Rufâ’ees are stimulated by juggler tricks with sword and fire and acrobatic feats. Persian dervishes revel in the fancies of a hashish-created fairy-land. Mehlevees, or dancing dervishes, best known to Europeans, spin and turn in graceful or wild measures, which symbolize the harmonious action of natural forces, to the sound of their beloved flute and drum, wherein they hear the music of the spheres. Kâdirees, with hands resting on each other’s shoulders, sway their bodies to and fro in spasmodic regularity. But to Nakshibendes the recital in chorus of the Iklas, their sacred prayer, one thousand and one times is more intoxicating than drugs and physical movements ; while Melaneeyoons, sitting in solemn silence meditating upon the divine spirit, have no stimulus beyond the magnetic-like current of sympathy which passes from one to the other. Yet all, from first to last, when in the glow of " endless ecstatic fire,” imagine themselves in that state of Noor, or ecstasy, in which the soul either rests, filled with heavenly quiescence and delight, or else, loosened from its body, wanders far and wide, and even into Paradise, as did the spirit of the great prophet.

There is another side to Mænadism entirely distinct from that already considered. As delirium is in one case quieted by an opiate, but in another excited by it, so the spiritual exaltation which with some men is the result of the physical excitement is with others the cause of it. Neophytes with the dervishes are not allowed to join in the dancing and spinning, or howling; but they become so agitated by the words of the sheik who prepares them for initiation that involuntarily they contort their bodies in movements closely corresponding to those of the regular ritual. The religious enthusiasm which in its intensity instinctively seeks relief in bodily activity, though this may not be lawfully ordained, has never reached such an extreme as it did in Europe during the early and mediæval period of Catholicism ; nor is it difficult to understand why this should have been. Though Christianity incorporated into itself the great festivals of paganism, it substituted the asceticism of the cloister for its orgies. That the latter did survive among a minority, who clung to the old religion, there can be no doubt. The favorite accusation which the early Christians hurled at heretics, and which the latter returned with good interest, was that they celebrated midnight feasts as profligate as those of pagans. Gnostics and orthodox alike were declared to steep themselves in sensuality during their sacred mysteries. Rumors of wild orgies were continually set afloat throughout the Middle Ages. Waldenses were accused of practices which vied in cruelty and sensuality with the rites of Moloch, and Montanists of transports equaling those of the Mænads. As late as the thirteenth century an Irish priest was reported to have led the maidens of his parish in a Bacchanalian dance in honor of the " god of the gardens.” Devil-worshipers, when they met for the Sabbat, on the Brocken and other mountain tops or lonely haunts, were supposed by a complete rebellion against Christian morality to express their allegiance to Satan. But, notwithstanding these survivals, legitimate orgiastic worship had no place in Catholicism. At the same time, men too young, hardy, and vigorous for the indifference to life of Buddha, and too ignorant for the metaphysics of Plotinus, were bidden to sacrifice earthly interests to obtain spiritual salvation, Man’s every thought and action was referred to its influence upon the life to come. Never was Carlyle’s afterwarning, “ Beware of fixed ideas ! ” so sadly needed. The effort to impose a creed whose mainspring was Neoplatonism, and whose ideal of worship was entirely spiritual, upon races hardly advanced beyond barbarism was as though an attempt had been made to suddenly transform Pan and his satyrs into Artemis and her nymphs. Just as the hoofed heels and horned heads of the brute deities would have to peep out again before long, so semi barbarous Europeans were forced occasionally to express their emotions by physical turbulence in unison with their natural instincts, but which, because of their dominant idea, always bore a religious meaning. Their restrained feelings found outlets in crusades and mammoth pilgrimages, in inquisitions and persecutions of Jews, and, worse still, in the unparalleled extravagances of nervous epidemics. Europe became one great bedlam, filled to overflowing with prophets who received but too much honor in their own country, and with devil-possessed victims. Dervishes did not turn and spin in the sanctuary, but energumens, of whom the Russian Yourodevoy are the modern representatives, twisted and writhed at the threshold. There was no priesthood of Cybele ; but when Italy was suddenly aroused to a realization of sin, or when Central Europe was terror-stricken with the ravages of the Black Death, there arose, as if by magic, long processions of penitents, seeking to avert wickedness and disease by Corybantic dances and mutual flagellations. They marched from city to city, clothed in sombre penitential garments, their faces masked, and carrying triple iron-pointed scourges, with which they wounded themselves well-nigh unto death, that they might by their example preach the necessity of chastening the body and bringing it into subjection. Troops of men, women, and children fell into the ranks, and mothers held up their newly born infants to the lashes of the holy brotherhood. Town and country, forest and mountain passes, resounded with their hymns of praise and thanksgiving, and streets and highways were reddened with their blood. And with it all raged unbounded sensuality. There were no Bacchantes to revel in honor of a laughing wine-god, but for two centuries the inhabitants of one half of Europe bounded and jumped with the preternatural energy of madmen in a tragic, devil-inspired dance. High and low, laity and clergy, nobles and peasants, danced in church and market-place, through crowded cities and quiet villages. From far and near they flocked at the sound of trumpet, drum, and bagpipes, garlanded and bedecked as if for a feast, yet bearing the bandages with which, when their fury was at its zenith, they had to swathe themselves, in order to moderate the physical convulsions. Epilepsy, hysteria, agonies as if of death, and only too clear evidence of crime and brutality, to which their frenzy sometimes led, could not daunt the dancers. Neither did they succumb before the powers of medicine and exorcism. Like a great storm, which nothing can stay until all its violence be spent, the dancing mania lasted until exhausted by its very vehemence.

Prayer instead of wine was the inspiring stimulant of new sisterhoods, but it fired them with an intoxication as fierce and intemperate as that of Greek Mænads. The history of the convents during the Middle Ages reads like a canto borrowed from Dante’s Inferno, interpolated with revelations from a madhouse. Tortures of hellish ingenuity are mingled with humorous freaks, grim as the laugh of an enslaved Caliban. Poor nuns toiling to impossible ideal heights are hurled pitilessly back into very actual depths. Now, in the reaction from spiritual excesses, the sisters of an entire community mew like cats, bite like dogs, and crow like cocks ; again, they burst into uncontrollable paroxysms of laughter, climb trees with incredible velocity, and vie with each other in gymnastic feats. But beneath this comedy-like surface is the unspeakable tragedy of human minds and hearts unhinged and broken by the terrors of witchcraft and sorcery, and the everpresent dread of incubi and succubi, evils born of too much faith. Terrible as were the imaginary passions of Mænads in the legend of Pentheus, they were surpassed by the reality in the stories of Louis Garfride and Marie de Sains.

These nervous epidemics did not cease with mediævalism, although since that period they have never been so widely spread nor of such long duration. While the Reformation roused religious fervor to fever heat, the general diffusion of ideas and interests resulting from the invention of printing and the revival of learning diverted much of its intensity into mental channels. It was only among the most fanatical that the old evils reappeared. Some of the reformers believed that the time had arrived for the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh ; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The inspiration of the Holy Ghost, which had hitherto been declared the guide of the church, was now supposed to be not only possible, but necessary, to each individual. In place of one Pope, all became equally God’s vicegerents. The workings of the Spirit, being supernatural, could not be judged by natural standards, and hence monomaniacs could declare their insane ravings divine revelations, and men and women afflicted with hysteria or epilepsy could proclaim their convulsive actions manifestations of the power of the Holy Ghost, without incurring the charge of insanity or blasphemy. Phenomena which Catholic fanatics had believed to be signs of diabolical possession were by the new enthusiasts thought to be evidence of the outpouring of the Spirit. Western prophets, unlike Eastern mystics, were physically agitated by their spiritual illumination. The mental equilibrium of Anabaptists, the “ bastards of the Reformation,” was entirely destroyed by the new freedom, and, like soldiers suddenly let loose in a conquered city, they plunged into an abyss of crime and delirium. Men proclaimed themselves Kings of Sion and Jerusalem, marched naked through the streets, and even to the battle-field, and romped in childish sports that they might be like little children ; the ungodly were tortured, massacred and defrauded; brothers killed brothers; strangers were murdered in broad daylight; and true believers were robbed by a crafty tailor, whose revelations were of a peculiarly practical nature. On the one hand, there was an hysterical extreme, produced by the fasting and prayer of “ self-denying spiritual Anabaptists ; ” and on the other, the sensual orgies of “ Free Brothers,” whose Sabbat-like celebrations were, they said, for Christ’s sake. And such absurdities and infamies were not only countenanced, but encouraged, because it was imagined that once a man had been illuminated by divine grace he was ever after as infallible as Catholics believe their church to be, and therefore he could do no evil.

In France, belief in the outpouring of the Spirit, aggravated by persecution and ill-treatment, converted the Huguenot inhabitants of Dauphiny, Vivarais, and Cévennes into seers and oracles. Infants of thirteen months from their cradles and gray-headed old men from the very brink of the grave preached and prophesied. Poor half-idiotic shepherds became the Davids of the new revelation, and high-born ladies suddenly awoke to a consciousness of sibylline powers. So realistic was the popular delusion that women refused to eat for fear of giving offense to the divine Being who abided within them ; parties of the faithful, meeting, blew into each other’s mouths, that the Holy Ghost might thus be passed from one to another; and troops of prophets and prophetesses marched to battle unarmed, because by the power of their breath, as if by a whirlwind from heaven, they expected to rout the enemy. The inspired were counted by thousands, and the invariable prelude to their prophetic utterances was agonizing physical suffering. “ When they were seized by the Spirit,” an eye-witness remarked of the Cévennes prophets, they all of them had fits, some of one kind and some of another, more or less.” The controversy aroused by the Jansenist revival of the doctrine of “ prevenient grace ” coming to a crisis about the time of the death of Abbé Paris, the first report of a miracle worked at his tomb at St. Médard was the signal for the appearance of a new army of prophets and wonder-workers. Royal intervention and parliamentary proclamations could not stay the fierce torrent of religious emotions. Neither was it moderated by the shafts of ridicule.

“ De par le roi défense á Dieu
De faire miracle en ce lieu! ”

was the jesting account of the wits of the day of what actually took place. But when the Convulsionnaires were shut out from St. Médard they crowded into Paris, and for over fifty years their hysterical fanaticism manifested itself, says Hecker, “in more lamentable phenomena than the enlightened spirits of the eighteenth century would be willing to allow.”

In England, a few poor illiterate Quakers, with morbid imaginations, who had forsworn whatever little color of pleasure their creed still allowed, but who could not endure its undemonstrative form of worship, announced themselves the direct inheritors of the supernatural powers of the French prophets. Mother Ann and her followers, instead of being moved at their meetings to the usual placid discourses, were made to shake and tremble like clouds agitated by a mighty wind. To them their actions appeared to be the work of that Spirit which in the latter day was to shake heaven and earth and the nations therein, and which from the time of the Apostles had manifested itself in the elect in unwonted liveliness of prayer. These first involuntary movements were the origin of the Shaker dances ; founded, according to the faithful, upon special revelation and justified by various scriptural texts, but which are one of those strange revivals which occur in the history of all development. To-day, that religion is more free from superstition and less emotional than it has ever been, Spiritualists have renewed the primitive belief in the active agency of the spirits of the dead, and Shakers practice the oldest method of religious worship. Shakerism was too crude and subversive of social life to affect the mass of Englishmen, but Methodism appealed to all classes of men. When religion was at its lowest ebb in the eighteenth century, new doctrines arose to animate it with fresh vigor. Wesley and Whitefield, whose oratory was better calculated to stimulate the emotions than the intellect, preached the necessity of rebirth or regeneration by faith alone to miners, farmers, and the hard-working members of society, to whom religion for many years had been but a name. Excitement was thus introduced to lives otherwise dull and eventless, and a sense of dignity communicated to men as destitute of social individuality as bees in a bee-hive or ants in an ant-hill. Moreover, belief in the sensible operations of the Spirit aroused in the individual an unnatural interest in his own emotional states, an evil which is obviated by those creeds which make man’s salvation as dependent upon sacraments and observance of discipline as upon consciousness of sin and change of heart. This subjective doctrine reacted with terrible force upon the nervous systems of people to whom an outlet for feeling in ideational energy was simply an impossibility. During Whitefield’s first sermon, fifteen of his hearers were driven mad. “ All upon whom God laid his hand,” Wesley naively remarked after a successful meeting, “ turned either very red or almost black.” The record of the progress of a certain phase of Methodism is one of a long series of convulsions, spasms, and agonies of soul, finding vent in screams and groans, or of poor humanity maddened in its attempt to become God-like. That the excitement of this movement never developed into an epidemic as disastrous as that of the Cévennes or of St. Médard was because the ever-increasing rationalism of the age was undermining the old ideas as to the interaction of physical and spiritual forces. From the time of Wesley to the present, there have been many revivals of the nervous phenomena. When the first enthusiasm had somewhat abated, sects of ranters and jumpers sought to counteract the growing indifference. In the early part of this century the inhabitants of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, during a period of religious agitation, were seized by the “ jerks,” a contagious nervous disease, not unlike the chorea which attacked the inmates of mediæval convents. The scenes now at camp-meetings, and in some Methodist churches, rival those of the first gatherings around Wesley and Whitefield. These manifestations must survive to a limited extent so long as men with badly balanced minds or nervous temperaments concentrate their thoughts upon religious belief which does not concern itself with works ; or so long as religion is made an excuse for the disposal of surplus emotional energy, as is often the case, for example, with negroes who join Methodist and Baptist congregations, and with whom a chance circumstance will divert the tide of religious fervor into a totally different channel.

While it is of course impossible to know what the future may bring forth, it may be safely predicted that the hysterical extravagances of Mænadism will never reappear as epidemics in the civilized Western world. It is a significant fact that the work of the Salvation Army, the great modern revivalists, has not encouraged the convulsive expressions of religious excitement. Leading in a few instances to fanaticism and folly as unfortunate as any excesses in previous ages, it has at least this merit: it requires as proof of conversion total abstinence from drink and tobacco, rather than imaginary sensations and emotions ; thus showing a keener appreciation, though to be sure a distorted one, for practical human morality than for unprofitable supernatural phenomena. Even if religion should later become the dominant idea of Europe or America, which seems unlikely from the present secularization of interests, it would not give rise to dancing or prophesying manias. Never again, unless science be completely forgotten, can nervous disorders be attributed to the immediate action of good or evil spirits. Whatever faith the future may evolve, if it be an embodiment of the ideals of the age, its saints and prophets will be those men who, instead of sacrificing their will power, will have developed it to its utmost possibility.1

Elizabeth Robins.

  1. 2 It is impossible in a short article to give the physiological or pathological causes of ecstasy and delirium in religion. The curious reader may consult the works of Carpenter, Maudsley, Calmeil, or indeed any of the physiologists of the day who have written on the action of the brain.