A review by
D.M. Murdock/Acharya S
"I like to think of the history of rock & roll like the origin of Greek drama."
"There is a story of a reporter who came up to Jim Morrison after he had recorded 'Dionysus': 'Mr. Morrison, are you trying to copy Dionysus?'
"Morrison's reply: 'No. I AM Dionysus.'"
Christopher Knowles's The Secret History of Rock N' Roll is a hit. When I first read the book's premise, which is that the musical genre of "rock and roll" is significantly based on and related to ancient mystery cults, I thought, "Interesting angle--I'm waiting to be convinced." As a scholar of ancient religion and mythology, I could sense where Knowles was going but I had not seen the specifics of his viewpoint. Cutting to the chase: Christopher presents an intriguing case for his unusual observations and thesis. Because of his scholarly research, which I found illuminating, and of his clear and concise writing style, Knowles's argument is convincing. I'm not sure every last detail represents precisely how this fascinating development may have occurred-such a feat would be impossible to accomplish-but overall the hypothesis appears to be sound. Logical enough, in fact, that one is tempted to slap one's forehead and exclaim, "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?"
Basically, Knowles's premise is that rock and roll's secret history represents "the startling evolution of rock music itself and how it has acted as an outlet for deep memetic currents that were once thought to have been consigned to history." (94) In a nutshell, rock and roll is a renewed expression of the deeply rooted ancient mysteries, such as those of Orpheus, Cybele and Attis, Isis, Mithra, the Druids, and so on. Summarizing the similarities between these religious rites and rock, Knowles remarks:
What did the Mysteries offer that other cults of the time did not? Almost exactly what rock 'n' roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A feeling of transcendence-leaving your mind and your body and entering a different world, filled with mystery and danger. A personal connection to something deep, strange, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of daily life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night. (6)
What Knowles essentially describes could be deemed an "ancient rave," loud music and drugs included.
In his quest, Christopher's citation of ancient authorities such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo and Plutarch demonstrates evidence of his thesis from ancient times, putting together many important elements from the mystery schools and doctrines. The abundant use of these ancient voices gives the thesis a certain degree of credibility, while to establish a concrete link we need to factor in modern voices within not only the music industry but also the disciplines of cultural anthropology and psychology, among others-a study that could produce an unwieldy amount of data. Fortunately, Christopher Knowles has a knack of distilling down large quantities of material, making it accessible and interesting to the average reader.
As part of his analysis, Knowles discusses the role of Christianity in the religious traditions and mysteries transmitted to us in modern rituals and rites of passage. In this regard, I found his depiction of the gospel story to be puzzlingly literal, especially in consideration of my own work, with which Christopher is familiar, and of the knowledge that the mysteries-which share so much in common with Christianity-do not revolve around a literal, historical godman. Nevertheless, I appreciated his frank account of the later rise of the Christian faith under Constantine, during which time "any bishops or clergymen who disagreed with the prevailing orthodoxy were tortured, exiled, or beheaded-sometimes all three." (59)
As further concerns the violent imposition of Christianity upon the peoples of the Roman Empire, Knowles writes (60):
"Starting in 389, Theodosius issued what are now known as the 'Theodosian Decrees,' where he banished all pagan holidays, outlawed blood sacrifice, banned pagan statues, and ordered the seizure of temple lands by the church. Theodosius also authorized the destruction of pagan landmarks like the Serapeum. Christian bishops led mobs on murderous rampages against pagans, Gnostics, and dissenting Christian factions all across the Empire. In 391, Theodosius extinguished the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta and had the Virgins disbanded. Witchcraft and divination were outlawed. The Olympian games were abolished in 393. Thousands of texts were gathered up and destroyed. Scribes were forbidden to copy pagan texts on pain of amputation or death."
This section immediately caused me to think about what we are currently seeing in the rise of Islam globally, as a much-dreaded possible return to the Dark Ages-Inquisition, torture, witch-burnings, genocide and all.
In considering the premise of a religion-rock connection vis-à-vis Christianity, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with my dear friend, author Jess Stearn, an Edgar Cayce expert who had been called the "Grandfather of the New Age" but who was nonetheless a devoted Christian. After raising up the issue of Indian yogis and the like, an exasperated Jess asked me, "What do young people get out of these gurus that they can't get out of Jesus?"
I smiled and replied, "Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll!" Jess chuckled and nodded his head in concession.
Nature Worship and Astrotheology
The gods of antiquity were recipients of the kind of adoration and adulation reserved in modern times for politicians and other celebs, including and especially rock stars in their heyday. In fleshing out this comparison, the phrase "rock and roll gods" takes on a whole new meaning, particularly when we look at the esoteric significance of the ancient myths and mysteries. As Knowles points out, the myths and mysteries were often based on nature worship, including the observations of the seasons, which also incorporated what is known as "astrotheology," i.e., the reverence of the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations.
As a freethinker who nonetheless appreciates many religious and spiritual concepts, especially those dating back thousands of years that express nature worship and astrotheology, I found myself thinking that many rockers and revelers could use a dose of the spirituality desired by their ancient counterparts. Perhaps knowing the facts in The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll could imbue more meaning and create greater enlightenment in their fêting, rather than it simply serving as an exercise in wasteful hedonism and megalomania. At least, not all the time-but that's the beauty of the mysteries: You get to express your rebellion without feeling high and dry the rest of the time. Or at least not dry-and probably still a bit hung over. But the most meaningful rock experiences are like those of the mysteries and come from deeper thinkers, some of whom Knowles discusses briefly.
Along the way, naturally, we also find discussion of the "drugs" part of "sex, drugs and rock 'n roll," with a comparison between the rampant psychedelic drug experimentation of the modern era and the evidently fairly common consumption of similar "entheogens" ("God-generating" chemicals) in antiquity, especially in mystery school initiations.
In fact, Knowles provides a thorough summary of the use of such mysterious sacraments, which are thought to constitute various psychoactive substances, depending on the time and place.
Transmission of the Mysteries
Describing events in the line of the mysteries' transmission to America, Knowles traces their influence from Egypt to the Yorubans in Africa, who then became American slaves, introducing voodoo and creating what is known as Santeria. (72) He also shows how the Druidic or Celtic mysteries may have been preserved through Masons and indentured servants from the British Isles.
Another interesting tie-in that validates Knowles's premise is the role of Jungian godly archetypes, as a number of musicians openly acknowledged their indebtedness to renowned psychotherapist Carl Jung for inspiration, including the Beatles, Peter Gabriel and the Police. (77) Although Knowles does not focus on the work of Joseph Campbell, one would not be surprised if the esteemed mythologist likewise has been influential on rock music, as he certainly has been on general pop culture and social iconography, most evidently in the form of the "Star Wars" movies and books, demonstrating the connection between ancient and modern mythology.
In the case for ancient myths and mysteries finding their way into or representing the hidden roots of modern music, fascinating facts jump off practically every page, such as that the Beatles' early Liverpudlian venue, the Cavern Club, had been a Mithraeum or sanctuary of the Perso-Roman god Mithra during Roman times. Knowles's insight about club and theater names such as Apollo, Palladium, etc., is also intriguing.
In his endeavor, Knowles uses categories of mysteries and gods to sort some of rock's individual musicians and musical groups, placing Tina Turner, for example, in the class of "Earth Mothers: The New Eleusinians" and identifying Bruce Springsteen as an "Apollo." I particularly liked the section regarding Orpheus, which had some of the more obvious correlations between the ancient and possibly modern expressions of the Orphic mysteries, at least insofar as we think of Orpheus as a folksinger crooning his love for his lost wife, Eurydice, and bemoaning their star-crossed fate. (Think Neil Young, James Taylor and Nirvana.)
Although they are classified as "R&B" and "disco," rather than "rock and roll," one group that sprang to my mind in reading this thesis associating music with the ancient mysteries was Earth, Wind and Fire, which was evidently influenced by the Egyptian religion. Indeed, a friend of mine, Kanya Vashon McGhee, states that EWF band members frequented his bookstore in Harlem called the Tree of Life during the 1970s. There, McGhee says, Earth, Wind and Fire studied the hidden meanings of religious traditions dating back thousands of years, and eventually expressed them in the album All 'N All, the cover, lyrics and melodies of which were mesmerizing for their beauty, mysticism and transcendental nature. Who can forget, for example, the song "Serpentine Fire?" The phrase itself is another name for what is called in Hindu mysticism "kundalini energy," evidently reflecting the band's interest in such yogic mysteries.
In the many examples Christopher gives he generally doesn't spend much time on why each fits into its section, which may be because of space consideration. I would have liked to see more about that factor, as concerns actual songs and their possible inspiration from the ancient mysteries, religion, spirituality, nature worship and astrotheology. Of course, one song that immediately comes to mind when discussing the mysteries-whose central figure is primarily the solar divinity-is the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun." Perhaps another volume is in order to show more detailed influences in particular songs.
In this regard, I want to know more when Knowles writes about David Bowie, for example:
"Everywhere he traveled he dragged around a massive library of occult texts which he read and reread constantly." (158)
Which books? How did Bowie's studies influence him? Where do these elements show up in his music? Peaking our interest again, Knowles later comments, "More recently, Bowie confesses to an interest in the ancient Gnostics." (235) The bizarre ancient cult of Gnosticism is itself a product of the mysteries in significant part, its roots dating back centuries before the common era, to be found in Egypt among other places.
Bowie is evidently one of the more consciously affected conduits of ancient religious rites and traditions. Concerning the musicians and their awareness of the mysteries, Knowles asserts:
"Most-nearly all-of the artists who channeled the ancient archetypes discussed here were completely oblivious to what they were bringing into the world." (260)
Whether this development was conscious or subconscious, the thesis makes for a fascinating read, especially for fans of rock and ancient pagan worship. One downside: As a scholar, I felt the lack of citations and bibliography to be unfortunate, because parts of the book truly are good enough to be cited in other works. In fact, this work is novel enough to teach me new goodies about even my own area of expertise-and that's a deed well done! In this regard, I made several notes along the way as food for further thought.
In the end, The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll is a "wish I'd read this when I was younger"-type book. Indeed, it is a well-written tome positing an unusual thesis not without precedent but uniquely expressed and detailed here in a learned yet friendly manner.
D.M. Murdock/Acharya S is the author of the controversial books The Christ Conspiracy, Suns of God, Who Was Jesus?, Christ in Egypt and The Gospel According to Acharya S. Her work can be seen in the religion part of the hit internet film "ZEITGEIST," which has been viewed over 100 million times worldwide. Murdock's books and articles on comparative religion and mythology can be found at TruthBeKnown.com, StellarHousePublishing.com and FreethoughtNation.com.