“Beyond Belief: The Cults of Burning Man”

An excerpt from the ever-increasingly-iconic Erik Davis’ 2006 essay on emergent cultic activity at Black Rock City:

Thus it is with some trepidation that I turn to one of the more vexing questions that one might ask about Burning Man: can or should we speak of the event as a sacred gathering? Even if we acknowledge the vagueness of terms like sacred, spiritual, and religious, it is still safe to say that, from the outside at least, Burning Man comes off as exceptionally profane. Ironic and blasphemous, intoxicated and lewd, Burning Man’s ADD theater of the absurd might even be said to embody the slap-happy nihilism of postmodern culture itself. Moreover, many Burners would agree with this characterization. According to my own anecdotal inquiries and observations, a good portion of committed attendees would deny that spirituality or sacred emotions have any bearing on their rollicking good times.

In matters of the spirit, however, you cannot always believe what people say. Sometimes you have to look at what they do, and what they do at Burning Man features clear parallels to some mystic fetes of yore. Take the Eleusinian Mysteries, the greatest public cult of ancient Greece. The mysteries took place annually at harvest time on the outskirts of Athens and continued annually for almost two thousand years. Initiates came from all walks of life, and made their way to Eleusis only after preparing for weeks in the city. The days leading up to the core rite featured torchbearers, pig-roasts, and Dionysian pageants. The peak of the festival took place in the secret Telestrion, where initiates witnessed a “great light.” Though we know next to nothing about it, the experience, which some believe was mediated by psychoactive drugs, seemed to provide direct insight into matters of life and death. The similarities between the mysteries and Burning Man are notable, and were certainly not lost on Larry Harvey. Writing under the pseudonym Darryl Van Rhey in a 1995 issue of Gnosis magazine, Harvey noted that, like Burning Man, the mysteries attracted a largely urban and sophisticated crowd. “Intense, ecstatic, and immediate, the rites did not stress doctrinal belief, but valued outward show and inward feeling.”[1] Though this historical resonance might sound like wishful thinking on Harvey’s part, no less august a figure than Aristotle basically concurred: “the initiated do not learn anything but they suffer and feel, experience impressions and moods.”[2]