News Flash: rock ‘n’ roll music — that hip-gyrating, innocence-robbing, beat-driven racket that ate the world — is really an ecstatic heathen ritual.
Tell us something we don’t know.
Author Christopher Knowles aims to do just that in his new book, The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which investigates the historic correlation between the pantheistic priests of yore and the gender-blurring, mutilation-prone avatars of rock. Everyone knows that Jim Morrison was the Lizard King and David Bowie the Starman, but were you aware that the Greek god of debauchery Dionysus “was also closely identified with various groups of long-haired, armored priests, whose thrashing musical performances were the headline act of Mystery rituals from Phrygia to Samothrace, from Eleusis to the Vatican Hill”?
OK, maybe some of you did.
And there’s even more to this ancient analog of glam and metal. Knowles has some persuasive evidence that tight trousers, trashy makeup and high decibels are hardly new under the sun (which you may or may not worship). From the author’s recent blog post at The Daily Grail:
The Kouretes — who the historian Nonnus described as being “sane in their madness” — derived their name from their androgynous hair and clothing, much like any number of early heavy metal bands from the late 60s and early 70s. Greek historian Strabo:
‘(T)he Kouretes of Aitolia got this name because, like ‘girls’ (kourai), they wore women’s clothes, for, they add, there was a fashion of this kind among the Greeks, and the Ionians were called ‘tunic-trailing,’ and the soldiers of Leonidas were ‘dressing their hair’ when they were to go forth to battle.’
As with Little Richard in the 50s and the glam rockers of the early 1970s, it seems that crossing gender boundaries unleashed something primal in these performers. And just like the metal bands of the late ’70s, the Kouretes evolved from a violent androgyny to a hypermasculine image and pose.
Strabo wrote that “the war-dance was first introduced by (the) Kouretes, and that this dance afforded a pretext to those also who were more warlike than the rest and spent their life under arms, so that they too came to be called by the same name.”
The Korybantes dressed in full hoplite leather armor for their performances, a few dozen centuries before Kiss and Judas Priest. Strabo described their act in terms that could just as easily describe Slayer or Iron Maiden: “(one) fills full the fingered melody, the call that brings on frenzy…stringed instruments raise their shrill cry, and frightful mimickers from some place unseen bellow like bulls, and the semblance of drums, as of subterranean thunder, rolls along, a terrifying sound.”
Here I was thinking that Manowar were just an over-the-top metal act. Now I see that they’re astute students of history.
The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll is available now.