In 1995, Larry Harvey penned an article for Gnosis magazine using his nom de plume, Darryl Van Rhey. (An anagram for “ND Larry Harvey” or “Name of Larry Harvey”) Gnosis was an American magazine published from 1985 to 1999 devoted to the Western esoteric tradition.
Burning Man: A Modern Mystery
On Labor Day weekend in early September, thousands of people will converge in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Somewhere near the center of the awesome space - reputedly the largest flat expanse of land in North America - they will erect a giant effigy. The Burning Man, as it is called, will tower over a spontaneous community, a miniature civilization complete with clubs and cabarets, several radio stations, and a daily newspaper, The Black Rock Gazette. The masthead of its journal sets the tone of the ensuing weekend. “Welcome to Nowhere,” it reads “Its name is whatever you name it. Its weath is whatever you bring it. Next week it will be gone, but next week might as well be never. You are here now.”
Throughout the festival that follows, people indulge their whims and creative impulses. However they choose to express themselves - through costumes, dancer, sculpture, or the construction of elaborate theme camps - they are encouraged to do so in an environment where distinctions like “professional” and “amateur” or “ audience” and “spectator” soon become meaningless. By day the campground is a colorful community of tents and fantastic shelters with flags and banners flying in the wind. By night it is transformed into a dreamscape as artists craft light, sound, neon , and the primary element of fire into luminous spectacles.
On the final evening of the festival, participants join in a grand promenade. Dancers bearing torches lead them to the Burning Man along a pathway flanked by monumental spires. Clamor, cries, and high-pitched ululations are succeeded by a hush as the four-story figure is ignited. Then a wild pandemonium ensues as lapping flames engulf the torso in a solid sheath of fire. Mounting upward, they ignite a fuse: fountains of fireworks spout out of the giant’s head. Most animate now, at the moment of his demise, he soon shudders, and the three quarter-ton figure comes crashing to the ground.
Organizers shroud the meaning of this celebration in a cloud of calculated ambiguity. Pressed to explain their intentions, they cite a simple doctrine. “The Project,” one is told, “never interferes with anyone’s immediate experience.” Participants are urged to create their own interpretations. The weekend might be described as an avant-garde art festival, a ritual enactment of creation and destruction, or an exotic free-wheeling party. Yet to the student of religion, these rites suggest a time, a place, and a social setting that has precedents in ancient history.
Throughout the classical period of Western civilization, there existed a diverse spiritual movement that is known as mystery religion . The mystery cults, as the were called, arose within a new world order. The conquests of Alexander and subsequent spread of Roman rule through-out the Mediterranean world had greatly expanded the scope of classical civilization. Stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, it occupied a fast cosmopolitan domain, teeming with commerce and hosting the ideas of many cultures. Immense allocation of men and monies and displaced entire populations. The citizenry of the empire, uprooted and heterogeneous, now congregated in large urban centers. Within this sophisticated and self-conscious milieu, huge societal gaps separated rich from poor and urban from rural populations, and intense economic specialization further divided the classes. It was a world, in other words, remarkably like our own.
Arising from this complex milieu, the mysteries derived from diverse sources. Traditions drawn from many cultures flowed like tributary streams into the great Mediterranean basin, bringing with them the worship of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Mithra of Persia, and the Anatolian Great Mother. Yet the mystery cults had much in common. All were grafted onto the stock of agrarian fertility festivals - relics of prehistoric past - they were essential urban in character. They typically employed theatrical parades and pageants to attract a pool of individuals who might share little else in common, and they were organized as lodges. Membership within a cult implied a broad equality with fellow mystai or initiates.
Ceremonies often took the form of pilgrimages. Participants removed themselves to sacred sites. Mystai sang and danced to flutes and cymbals; others wore masks and sported strange attire. Such celebrations might take many days, and while they lasted, class distinctions were dissolved. “Persons are being initiated into the mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting,” wrote Plutarch of the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated near Athens, “but when the holy rites are being disclosed and performed, the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.”
Such initiations were performed by firelight at night in enactment of a central myth of death and rebirth. They were often the tribal traditions from which they sprang, placed a unique emphasis on personal choice. Many people probably attended the festivals simply to have fun. Intense, ecstatic, and immediate, the rites did not stress doctrinal belief, but valued outward show and inward feeling. Aristotle states the mysteries weren’t about a teaching’ they were initiations focused on direct experience.
The mystery cults, long a dominant form of worship in the late classical world, perished with the fall of Greco-Roman civilizations. Yet the modern immolation of the Burning Man, surrounded by impromptu rites of celebration, forms an arresting analogy. The parallels are striking; fire, sacrifice, pilgrimage, visionary spectacle, egalitarianism, revelry, recruitment from an urban population, direct experience as opposed to doctrinal belief and, and central to it all, a myth of death and rebirth. Organizers of this modern mystery disclaim any conscious plan to reproduce the past. Yet it might be that culture itself is responding to the changing needs of our society. As students of ritual understand, the past and present rotate on a single wheel of time. - Darryl Van Rhey
Darryl Van Rhey is a writer based in San Francisco. For further word about Burning Man call (415) 985-7471 or contact this Web site: http://www.well.com/www/tcircus/Burnman