1st Edition

Divine Mania
Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

ISBN 9781138298118
Published October 19, 2017 by Routledge
396 Pages

USD $180.00

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Book Description

‘Our greatest blessings come to us by way of mania, provided it is given us by divine gift,’ – says Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus. Certain forms of alteration of consciousness, considered to be inspired by supernatural forces, were actively sought in ancient Greece. Divine mania comprises a fascinating array of diverse experiences: numerous initiates underwent some kind of alteration of consciousness during mystery rites; sacred officials and inquirers attained revelations in major oracular centres; possession states were actively sought; finally, some thinkers, such as Pythagoras and Socrates, probably practiced manipulation of consciousness. These experiences, which could be voluntary or involuntary, intense or mild, were interpreted as an invasive divine power within one’s mind, or illumination granted by a super-human being.

Greece was unique in its attitude to alteration of consciousness. From the perspective of individual and public freedom, the prominent position of the divine mania in Greek society reflects its acceptance of the inborn human proclivity to experience alteration of consciousness, interpreted in positive terms as god-sent. These mental states were treated with cautious respect, and in contrast to the majority of complex societies, ancient and modern, were never suppressed or pushed to the cultural and social periphery.

Table of Contents





Socrates on divine mania

Mania: words and images

Mania as mental disorder: definition and characteristics

Madness in context: the importance of historicism

Alterations of consciousness between unity and diversity: aspects of methodology and terminology

The scope of this book and its sources

  1. Prophetic mania

Inspired prophecy: definitions, ancient and modern

Inspired divination in Greece

Prophetic priests

Laymen who received oracular messages in sanctuaries

Unaffiliated seers

Inspired prophets as instruments of the gods

Inspired prophecy in Greece as compared to other cultures

Prophecy in Mesopotamia in comparison to Greece

Prophecy in ancient Israel in comparison to Greece


2. Telestic mania and near-death experiences

Mystery initiations

The nature of initiate’s experience I: mania for mania’s sake or for its treatment

The Corybantic rites

Bacchic and Sabaziac initiations

The nature of the initiate’s experience II: paradosis and epopteia

The core experience in the ‘great mysteries,’ mania and alteration of consciousness

Techniques of ‘getting ready’ for the core experience of mystery initiations and mania

Mystery rites and near-death experiences


3. Bakcheia

Dionysus and individual madmen in myths

Dionysus and destructive collective mania in myth

Bakchai and bakchoi in myth, poetry and art

Bakcheia and gender

The historicity of the savage rites

The dynamics of the thiasos

Bakcheia from a comparative viewpoint

Aspects of physiology and psychology of bakcheia


4. Mania on the battlefield and on the march

Combat fury: Lyssa

Psychological injuries and combat stress: Phobos


Battlefield epiphanies


5. Nympholepsy

Nympholepsy and vatic abilities

Possession by the nymphs


6. Poetic mania

The Muses, memory, and inspiration

Music and alteration of consciousness

The nature of poetic inspiration: Plato

The nature of poetic inspiration: Aristotle

Modern poets and musicians, and their inspiration

Enthusiastic audiences


7. Erotic mania

Plato on the erotic mania

Greeks on erôs as mania

Blessings of the erotic mania?


8. The philosopher’s mania and his path to truth

Socrates’ mania

Plato’s mystical experiences

Mania and Archaic sages: Epimenides, Aethalides, and Hermotimus

Mania and Presocratic philosophers: Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Parmenides

Shamans and mystics?

Coda: Democritus the mad philosopher


Epilogue. Perspectives on the divine mania

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Yulia Ustinova is Associate Professor at the Department of General History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. Her research focuses on ancient Greek religion and its role within the society. In addition to the study of textual and archaeological sources, her approach is based on the application of results of cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, and sociology to the interpretation of historical phenomena.

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Yulia Ustinova

Associate Professor, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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"Ustinova’s book on divine mania is an excellent and highly innovative contribution to the study of Greek culture. By applying a cognitive approach, she explores embodied experiences of Greek religion. As "people are biological and cultural creatures at the same time" (p. 18), an unbridgeable dichotomy of these categories can no longer be presupposed. The book is a successful example of how the application of cognitive sciences to a historical study of Greek culture can lead to new insights into complex cultural phenomena." - Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Ustinova builds on the growing interest in cognitive science approaches to Greek religious thought. This monograph displays careful attention to philological detail and a wide range of theoretical toolkits, founded on the interdependence of humanity’s biological and cultural dimensions." - American Journal of Philology


"Yulia Ustinova’s Divine Mania is the first comprehensive overview of the source evidence for alterations of consciousness in ancient Greece... Whereas earlier generations often fell into the trap of cherry-picking “rational consciousness” in ancient Greece, Ustinova succeeds admirably in avoiding that temptation in this splendid overview of its counterpart, alterations of consciousness. Divine Mania recovers a treasure trove of rejected knowledge that gives access to some of the most important esoteric origins of Western culture." - Aries - Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism