Christopher Knowles‘s The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Rollis 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 Christopher Knowles image – 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.”
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.
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.”
As further concerns the violent imposition of Christianity upon the peoples of the Roman Empire, Knowles write:
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Whether this development was conscious or subconscious, the thesis makes for a fascinating read, especially for fans of rock and ancient pagan worship.
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.
Miguel Conner, aka “Abraxas,” is running a fascinating program with Christopher Knowles, author of The Secret History of Rock ‘N’ Roll, which I reviewed here above.
Here is Miguel’s write-up for the interview on his radio show:
In ancient times, The Mystery Religions quenched the thirst of those tired of extroverted dogmas, those seeking altered states of consciousness, a direct connection with the divine, and an escape from the bondage of ego and death.
An individual could be gripped by ecstatic cosmic energies as well as agonize alongside the gods and their celestial sacrifices.
The Mystery Religions thrived across the Greco/Roman civilization wearing the clothing of various religious cults, including Christianity, inviting men and women, philosophers and emperors to unlock the secrets of Creation itself. They were both wild celebrations for the greater life and intimate rituals of inner contemplation.
Eventually, the Mystery Religions were outlawed and extinguished by Orthodoxy, existing only in fragments within Secret Societies or the lore of hidden faiths in the borderlands.
Yet with the rise of Occultism, the birth of a more egalitarian society, and as a reaction to an existentialist world of grim threats, the Mystery Religions returned without the world even knowing they were back. The old gods took on new names and returned to the material world to impart their Gnosis. The arcane rituals were resurrected except for the addition of modern technology. And they thrived in a seemingly popular form of entertainment called Rock ‘n’ Roll.
We take a voyage into the past for the essence of Mystery Religions and how they incarnated themselves into Rock Music.
Understanding the rise of the Mystery Religions and their various schools, such as the Eleusinian, Samothrace, Mithras and various others.
How Paul of Tarsus devised a Jewish Mystery Religion, and how it might have been backed by Imperial Rome from the beginning.
The various theories on the cult of Mithras, including the reality he might have been a rework of Horus or how it was believed he was the father of Jesus by many ancients.
Understanding the fertile soil that gave rise to the Mystery Religion of Rock Music (the shamanistic vibes brought by black musicians, interest in the Occult in the sixties, a reaction to runaway wars, and much more).
How Freemasonry and Mithraism might have been a direct influence on the birth of The Beatles.
Connecting the gods of the Mystery Religions with their Rock incarnations (Jim Morrison was Dionysus, Neil Young was Orpheus, Janis Joplin was the Great Mother, etc.).
Why the rise of grunge might have been the beginning of the end of Rock Music, and how it can get back to its mystical roots.
And much more! You’ll never see Rock in the same light after this show!
Just go to http://www.thegodabovegod.com/ or http://www.aeonbytegnosticradio.com. The program is broadcast all weekend long.
Continuing with the topic, our rebroadcast is “Aeon Byte #69 – Mystery Religions” with Acharya S., author of Suns of God’ & The Christ Conspiracy.
Since perhaps mankind began, there have been those who have secretly guarded the esoteric, primordial meaning of religion: direct contact with the Divine. These clandestine cults flourished in ancient times, often franchises of greater unknown faiths, offering a journey into the mystic enigmas of the supernal.
Such Godmen as Dionysus, Osiris, Mithra and Jesus became the outer symbols of enlightenment and spiritual resurrection. Eventually many became standard religions like both Gnosticism and Christianity. And many of these Mystery Religions were not benign, but tools for exploitation for the ignorant masses.
Little is known about the Mystery Cults since their annihilation by Orthodoxy, but we bore deep into archeology, history and theology to find the true essence of the Mystery Religions.
Next week we deal with new scholarship and archeology reveals that Jesus was never the Messiah for neither the Jews, Christians or Gnostics. More than a Messiah, this mysterious individual was a kabbalist, noble, philosopher, and a creator of esoteric cults. He was widely admired throughout civilization, from Roman Emperors to Jewish revolutionaries.
He has been known as Saint Mark, Marcus the Magician, Marcion and many other names.
You’ll be surprised at the identity of the real and spiritual Messiah that shook the world 2000 years ago. Our guest will be Stephan Hermann Huller, author of ‘The Real Messiah: The Throne of Saint Mark & The True Origins of Christianity‘ and ‘Against Polycarp’.
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