Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. – Leonard Bernstein
But what about Elvis? How do we understand that 32 years after his death (when I did the research for my book), 44 countries were hosting some 525 fan clubs, and an Elvis search engine had 330 sites with over 500 books, or that fans continue to refer, humorously or not, to an “Elvis religion”? We cannot explain this away, because we are in the realm of mystery, where images are our only guides and questions are more important than answers.
Would someone else have created the same reactions? Of course, there had been and were countless talented black performers, and later, many whites. Some of these artists were and are carriers – channelers – of the most profound energies of the Earth, of duende. But it was Elvis. All we can say is that the soul of the world needed someone like him at that particular moment, an “animus man,” in Pinkola-Estes’ words, “one who acts out the unrealized soulfulness of others.” The collective consciousness dreamed up his image to carry a positive projection of Dionysus to counter the long centuries of marginalization. As in the ancient Athenian festival of the Anthesteria, the god was finally being invited to enter the gates of the city.
His art had roots in Africa, where everything originates in ritual. Although colonialism and oppression had broken down and denatured those forms, a physical energy and a wisdom that questioned the assumptions of western culture still came through. Segregationists rightly perceived that this “Devil’s music” would corrupt their children. What were they so afraid of? The simple answer is the threat of miscegenation.
On a deeper level, Elvis was questioning the image of the black American Dionysus, first among Americans and then, via television and movies, across the world. If a white man could carry such archetypal energy, then anyone could. Now consider what a threat he was. If anyone could claim this heritage of our “indigenous mind” – a mind that has reconciled with the body – then America no longer needed to demonize that mind, no longer needed to project it upon black people. And if that were to happen, then the whole edifice of American myth and American capitalism might collapse of its own foul mass of contradictions.
But the work of the soul is to move past contradiction into true paradox, to hold the tension of the opposites. Elvis reveled in paradox. His images, writes Erika Doss, were “a tangled hybrid of fact and desire.” His voice dissolved racial boundaries, and his obvious bodily comfort questioned gender norms. He was, wrote critic Marc Feeney, “astonishingly beautiful.” He had charisma (“favor, divine gift” Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite).
Perhaps more importantly, a man (at least a white man) had never seemed so loose. He wore mascara and wild clothes in wilder colors to exaggerate this ambiguity, and he drove a pink Cadillac. One critic described his onscreen persona as “aggressively bisexual in appeal.” Another placed the “orgasmic gyrations” of the title dance sequence in (the film) Jailhouse Rock within a lineage of cinematic musical numbers that offer a “spectacular eroticization, if not homoeroticization, of the male image.” A third wrote that he was “an ambivalent figure who articulated a peculiar feminized, objectifying version of white working-class masculinity as aggressive sexual display.”
Offstage he was exceedingly polite; onstage he was sullen, defiant and self-mocking. Singing both rock and gospel, he straddled the boundaries of sacred and profane music. He combined small-town values and an astonishing, urban energy. In a sense, he was both mortal and immortal, like Dionysus and the other suffering gods before him. Tim Riley writes that compared with John Wayne’s image of masculinity, Elvis was “…more complex, more open to change, less fixed on a single idea or attitude.” He personified liberation and transgression, and his clear affront to the bourgeois world gave teenagers permission to follow. Like Johnny Appleseed, wrote Cleaver, he “sow[ed] seeds…in the white souls of the white youth.”
But he also embodied transformation. As such, from his position at the border between the worlds, he beckoned especially to women, inviting them into Dionysian ritual – the madness, the pharmakon – that is both cause and cure of itself. This archetypal energy has the potential to transform the individual, the community and the nation into who or what we actually came into this world to be – but only, as in his myths, by dismembering one’s entire conception of what or who one is. As Karl Marx said, “all solid melts into air.” Elvis was the first to propose the great transformation.
The publishers of a 1998 translation of The Bacchae made this insight abundantly clear by putting Elvis’ photo, rather than a classical image, on the cover. And it wasn’t just any picture of him; it was his army induction photo. As in the play, Dionysus was (temporarily) in prison.
What are the other mythic images here? James Hillman taught that in classical myth, the gods rarely appear alone; their stories interweave:
Each cosmos which each god brings does not exclude another; neither the archetypal structures of consciousness nor their ways of being in the world are mutually exclusive. Rather, they require one another, as the gods call upon one another for help.
Commentators in the 1960s insisted on the Oedipal sources of the generation gap. But if young people dreamed of patricide, it was directed against Kronos’ insatiable appetite for his own children, and it was driven by a sense of betrayal. After all, hadn’t oracles warned Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus that their children would overthrow them? Isn’t that fear at the root of the patriarch’s reign of terror? Two myths intersected in the 1960s. The universal dream of the hero’s journey collided with a nightmare, the refusal to anoint the new kings and queens of the world. Youths demanded initiation and meaning, while elders offered the false choice of either stultifying conformity or literal sacrifice.
Americans were enacting other myths as well. In one story, the craftsman god Hephaestus vented his rage against Hera by imprisoning her in a golden chair. Perhaps he had been confining women on the “pedestal” of patriarchy? Only Dionysus could loosen him up, getting the lame god drunk and teaching him to dance, after which Hephaestus released Hera and married Aphrodite. Aphrodite! The madness of Dionysus brought the cure. Pentheus, by contrast, retreated into a masculinity so brittle that Dionysus could effortlessly crack it and release the repressed feminine energies that eventually overwhelmed him. For more on this theme, see my blog series “Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth.”
This is Elvis’ mythic significance. A unique combination of talent, ambition and overdue cultural changes waiting to be sparked created an icon. He became both a gatekeeper and a role model who loosened the boundaries of the American ego. Perhaps it would be better to speak of “the” Elvis – like “the” Christ – since his personal life is far less important than the role he embodied. One writer has argued that Jim Morrison was a conscious, thus more appropriate, carrier of the Dionysian role in America. But he appeared ten years after Elvis had already broken down the walls.
Archetypes demand to appear in their fullness, especially when we avert our gaze from their darker sides. Perhaps without Christ’s advent as a pure god of love, there would have been little need for the Western world to imagine Satan. Similarly, because millions projected only the savior image upon Elvis, he had to live out both sides of the old story. Within the Christian framework of American myth, many saw his death as a sacrifice for the world rather than as enacting renewal of the world. As with the Catholic saints, his devotees give ritual attention to his death date, not to his birthday.
Elvis, writes Pinkola-Estes, became the focus of the cultus of the dying god, “a drama in which a dried out culture requires the blood sacrifice of the king in order to…rebuild itself.” In the symbolic world, he joined the eternal scapegoats Osiris, Dionysus and Jesus. Another book cover shows a man wearing an Elvis tattoo with the words “He Died For Our Sins.”
(Religious literalists please take note: the pagan imagination encourages humor. It makes absolutely no difference to his fans if such gestures are serious or tongue-in-cheek.) In this context, his suffering, his drug-addict death and his failure to find happiness made him even more attractive to his fans. He was, so to speak, one of us.
Many of his fellow “looseners” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Morrison, Janis Joplin) died before Elvis; yet the mold had been cast in his image in 1955. Since then, many others who couldn’t hold the fullness of the archetype have followed him to the underworld. Allen Ginzburg, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey played the loosener role with somewhat more balance. Still others (Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh) literalized the darkest of Dionysus’s masked roles, leading crazed maenads on murderous rampages.
Nevertheless, Elvis has achieved immortality; in 2007 his estate earned $40 million. He remains as popular in death as in life because he served in a very real sense as America’s initiator. Ventura concludes, “It is not too much to say that, for a short time, Elvis was our ‘Teacher’ in the most profound, Eastern sense of that word.”
Religion is much more complex than we can imagine. Humorous “Elvis churches” thinly mask the inarticulate but broad conviction that some god descended and resided briefly among us. Doss argues that Americans mix and match their beliefs and practices, that his veneration is a “strong historical form of American religiosity.” Consider the vast array of relics at and pilgrimages to his sacred shrine. After the White House, Graceland remains the most popular house tour in the country, drawing over 750,000 visitors yearly. In 1997, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, 60,000 fans came, and 10,000 stood all night at his grave. Consider the many Elvis “sightings,” as if he never died — or that he had returned.
Finally, consider the thousands of impersonators who, as in the Imitatio Christi, devote their lives to him every night in nightclubs (his ritual containers) in almost every country. According to Gael Sweeney, “true” impersonators believe that they are “chosen” by The King himself to continue his work and judge themselves and each other by their “authenticity” and ability to “channel” his essence. Several radio stations feature Elvis impersonator material exclusively. In 2014, 37 years after his death, 895 impersonators gathered at a North Carolina resort to pay tribute.
Let’s take this one step deeper and imagine a story that begins to move an entire culture. The Bacchae tells us that Dionysus descended to Hades and raised his mother Semele to the divine community of Heaven. Similarly, let’s imagine that while the spirit of feminism was veiled in America, young Elvis descended to its underworld, Memphis’s black ghetto, where he discovered the blues.
The blues had power (and danger) because it tapped into the soul’s depth, where extremes of joy and grief meet each other. Hillman writes:
In Dionysus, borders join that which we usually believe to be separated by borders…He rules the borderlands of our psychic geography. There, the Dionysian dance take place; neither this nor that, an ambivalence – which also suggests that, wherever ambivalence appears, there is a possibility for Dionysian consciousness.
Elvis become a conduit for that terrible beauty. Was there some kind of terrible initiation? What did the black musicians of Memphis see in him? (We recall that Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart are cousins). Then he emerged into the light (the spotlight) precisely at America’s initiatory moment.
And unknowingly, he brought guests with him – the Goddess, and the beginning of the long memory. His eroticism, writes Doss, encouraged girls “to cross the line from voyeur to participant…from gazing at a body they desired to being that body.” Abandoning control – screaming and fainting, and eventually choosing to be sexual on their own terms – was the beginning of their revolution, long before feminism became a political movement. She quotes one woman: Elvis “…made it OK for women of my generation to be sexual beings.”
This was not the first time that American girls had gone crazy about a male singer. Ten years before Elvis, thousands of them, according to Time Magazine, had been in “a squealing ecstasy” at a Frank Sinatra concert. But Sinatra was not one to swivel his hips; he was a crooner, not a rocker. And besides, the war was still raging. The time simply hadn’t been right.
Ten years later, it became apparent that millions of girls had both deep longings and deep pockets. Quickly, the music industry responded with “girl groups.” By the early sixties, this was the one area in popular culture that gave voice to their contradictory experiences of oppression and possibility. It encouraged girls to become active agents in their own love lives. By allying themselves romantically and morally with rebel heroes, they could proclaim their independence from society’s expectations about their inevitable domestication. And even when the lyrics spoke of heartbreak and victimization, the beat and euphoria of the music contradicted them.
And the music was made by groups of girls. It was, writes Susan Douglas, “a pop culture harbinger in which girl groups, however innocent and commercial, anticipate women’s groups, and girl talk anticipates a future kind of women’s talk.” If young women could define their own sexual sensibility through popular music, couldn’t they define themselves in other areas of life? Another woman claims, “Rock provided…women with a channel for saying ‘want’…that was a useful step for liberation.” Douglas argues that “…singing certain songs with a group of friends at the top of your lungs sometimes helps you say things, later, at the top of your heart.”
The limping Hepheastus released Hera from the golden chair, with the help of Dionysus. One might argue that in the 1970s, men (unaware of their own limps) released women from the pedestal of ideal womanhood. In fact, women destroyed that golden prison themselves. Clearly, feminist demands for autonomy, equality, safety and choice were long overdue. But American women were also the first to elucidate the new (or remember the old) thinking that may inspire fundamental change at the mythic level, even if such changes happen with glacial slowness.
Cynthia Eller writes that feminism began asking why little girls had to wear pink and big girls had to wear high heels, but it “…segued naturally into one that asked why God was a man and women’s religious experiences went unnoticed.”
The women’s spirituality and pagan movements – and later, the men’s mythopoetic movement – were all outgrowths of secular feminism, which in turn had been catalyzed in that 1954 initiatory moment. Catalyze: from cata (downward) + lyein (to loosen, also the root of Lusios, Dionysus the Loosener).
Is it a stretch to suggest that this moment — some 437 years after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of a German Cathedral and began the Protestant Reformation, some 213 years after Jonathan Edwards proclaimed the First Great Awakening — was the beginning of a religious movement that might eventually usher in a new story to replace the Myth of American Innocence? Leonard Bernstein claimed that Elvis was the greatest cultural force of the twentieth century. Did Elvis lead us to the re-awakening that may re-animate and re-sacralize the world?
Perhaps that is a bit grandiose. But Dionysus asks us just how much reasonable, dispassionate discourse has achieved. “You have tried prudent planning for long enough,” says Rumi. “This is not the age of information,” writes poet David Whyte,
This is the age of loaves and fishes,
People are hungry,
And one good word is bread
For a thousand.
Here are my other essays on race in America:
— The Mythic Sources of White Rage
— Affirmative Action for Whites
— The Race Card
— The Sandy Hook Murders, Innocence and Race in America
— Hands up, Don’t shoot – The Sacriﬁce of American Dionysus
–– Do Black Lives Really Matter?
— Did the South Win the Civil War?
— The Election of 2016
— The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out