BMCR 2018.10.19

Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

, Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. xvi, 395. ISBN 9781138298118. £96.00​.


In this excellent book, Yulia Ustinova deals with the complex concept of god-sent mania in classical Greece. As a historian of the ancient mind, she investigates certain forms of altered consciousness and states of possession, which are described in numerous ancient sources. As Ustinova points out, ancient Greek culture was once mostly studied through the prism of intellectual history. The Greeks are often praised for their rationalistic worldview and logical scrutiny, which led them from myth to logic. Accordingly, modern research excluded “the erroneous and the irrational […] from the pantheon” (p. x). In her book, however, Ustinova shows that non-rational thinking, madness, alteration of consciousness, and even near-death experiences were very common and partly institutionalized in ancient Greece. Her approach is a combination of traditional historical methods with the results of neurosciences, cognitive science, and psychology. This approach of ancient Greek religion from a cognitivist perspective opens up completely fresh and up-to-date avenues of understanding of the behavior and experiences of individuals within the context of certain cultural phenomena.1

Ustinova has organized the book in eight chapters plus introduction and epilogue. A conclusion, endnotes, and a bibliography follow each chapter. This contributes to clarity, even if occasional redundancies occur.

The book begins with Plato’s Phaedrus and his comments on mania, which form the starting point of the investigation to which Ustinova comes back several times. Socrates states that mania is not always evil, but can be a blessing, when it is sent as a gift from the gods. This divine gift of mania is inspiration, of which Socrates distinguishes four different kinds: prophecy, telestic madness, poetic madness and madness of love. Ustinova follows these categories, which roughly form the subdivision of the chapters of her book (1. Prophetic mania, 2. Telestic mania and near-death experiences, 3. Bakcheia, 4. mania on the battlefield and on the march, 5. Nympholepsy, 6. Poetic mania, 7. Erotic mania, 8. The philosopher’s mania and his path to truth). Although it has been stated that Plato’s worldview differs profoundly from that of ordinary people, Ustinova suggests that Plato’s statements reflect opinions and experiences of his contemporaries. Therefore, she tries to explore whether the concept of god-sent mania corresponds to phenomena noticed and described by other writers.

In the introduction, she sets out several methodological aspects of the book, including terminology, methodology, and the historical embedding of the phenomenon. The Greeks used several words for abnormal mental states. Due to the manifold meanings of the English word ‘madness’, Ustinova prefers to stick to the Greek terms instead. She provides an overview of the broad semantic field of words like mania, entheos, theolêptos, katochos, enthousiasmos, etc., which were used by Greek writers. The differentiation between mental disorder arising from human diseases and divine madness was a difficult task to tackle already in antiquity. Ustinova surveys the ancient sources on descriptions and definitions of madness in order to define its characteristics. In antiquity, god-sent mania was always ambivalent. Human insanity could involve behaviors similar to divine mania and was basically described with the same set of words. It was also believed that mental illness derived from a punishment of the gods. Therefore, a clear distinction cannot be made.

Ustinova is aware of the historical embedding of the phenomena, taking into account possible differences between Greek and Roman perceptions and variations from Archaic to Hellenistic times. The historical frame is an important factor when alterations of consciousness are regarded by the society as either illnesses or privileges sent by the gods. In order to explore Greek cultural phenomena involving alteration of consciousness, Ustinova first examines the historical evidence from literary, epigraphical and archaeological sources; she offers an interpretation, and only at later stages weighs her historical analysis with evidence from neurocognitive and anthropological research. She uses a cable-like method of argumentation, which means that, if there is a gap in the available records, an explanation can be sought in a different field: congruent data can be used together in an explanatory model (p. 18). The scope of the book is the late Archaic- Classical period (sixth to fourth centuries BCE). Philosophical texts, drama and myths as well as epigraphical and archaeological material are Ustinova’s sources. Only occasionally, she takes into account evidence from earlier and later periods, when it sheds light on the Greek polis society of the time under scrutiny.

The first chapter deals with prophetic mania. During Antiquity, numerous oracular methods were available in order to know the will of the gods. These methods are usually divided into two categories; interpretation of signs, on the one hand, or inspired prophecy through a medium, who serves as a transmitter of the divine truth, on the second hand. Ustinova points out that inspired prophecy was comparatively rare in the ancient Mediterranean, but was highly praised and frequently used in Greece, where it was institutionalized within oracular sanctuaries: a skilled medium could manipulate his/her own state of consciousness in order to communicate with gods or direct contact with the deity could be provided to the visitor. Apart from oracular centers specialized in professional mediation with the gods, there were also independent prophetic priests, either operating in a certain place or itinerant. As the performance of ecstatic prophecy could be a threat for social order, especially in times of crisis, Ustinova suggests that the prominent role of inspired prophecy should be interpreted as evidence of the openness of the Greek society: it was institutionalized to a certain extent, but never suppressed or cast into the cultural and social periphery (p. 87-88).

In the second chapter, Ustinova discusses telestic mania and near-death experiences as embodied religious experiences. From the sixth century BC onwards, mystery cults are attested in Greece, such as Eleusinian Mysteries, Corybantic rites, and Bacchic and Sabaziac initiations involving ecstatic elements. These cults enjoyed a great popularity and, although the membership was exclusive, Ustinova notes that the majority of adult Athenians were Eleusinian mustai (p. 115). She convincingly demonstrates that alteration of the initiate’s state of consciousness, mania, was a major element of mystery rites, which was achieved by music, dance, and the suffering of physical pain. She determines two categories of telestic mania : in the Corybantic, Sabaziac and some Bacchic rites, possession by the gods was sought, and ecstatic initiations seeking alteration of consciousness were the main purpose of the ceremony. The second category includes the much more complex Eleusinian and Orphic-Bacchic mysteries. There, at a first stage, alteration of consciousness was used as a means of attaining vision and enlightenment, the epopteia. The second stage, which was the peak of the mystery initiation, included visions or sensations of contact with the divine, out-of-body states, and even near-death experiences. Unfortunately, the sources supporting this interesting theory are very scarce. Ustinova mainly relies upon inscriptions on gold tablets yielded by graves, which refer to initiatory experience as a preparation for individual death. Furthermore, she collects other written sources and compares them with medical studies on near-death experiences to show that the phenomenon was not unknown in Greek Antiquity.

Chapter 3 sheds light on another aspect of the Bacchic rites: the collective ecstatic mania caused by Dionysus, the god of madness par excellence. After having analyzed Dionysus’ ability to inflict madness upon individuals, Ustinova discusses the bakcheia, ecstatic rites mainly celebrated by women, which are attested in myth, poetry and Greek vase paintings, but also in historical and epigraphic testimonies. The bacchants following Dionysus experienced enthousiasmos and aimed at attaining unity with the god. The rites included a wide range of alterations of consciousness and also an inversion of gender roles, when women wandered in the mountains, showed frenzy and aggressive behavior, butchering animals with their bare hands. Ustinova offers an anthropological model as an explanation for the Bacchic rites. The bakcheia were destructive and risky for the social order, but they also had therapeutic and social benefits. As the uncontrollable behavior of the bacchants was limited, rites offered a chance for women to leave their accustomed environment for a short period of time and afterwards return to the polis communities, released from their frenzy and in a happy mood.

The fourth chapter looks at mania on the battlefield, which has many faces and includes warriors’ fury, divine epiphanies and enemy’s panic. The warrior’s mania is expressed by intrepid courage, incredible force, and bestial cruelty against the enemy. It was highly valued, but also feared in archaic and classical Greece. Many written sources report on divine epiphanies of supernatural heroes or of Pan on the battlefield, when they interfere in the battle and cause panic among the ranks of the enemy. Ustinova explains these hallucinations as the result of extreme physical and psychological stress experienced by the soldiers.

Nympholepsy and panolepsy are addressed in chapter 5. Pan and the nymphs were believed to seize humans (and even animals) when they were alone in the wilderness. The seizure particularly occurred in caves, where silence and darkness cause sensory deprivation and where the human mind produces hallucinations reacting to the lack of external stimuli. Similar to the phenomenon of nympholepsy is the poetic inspiration (ch. 6), believed by the Greeks to be caused by Apollon or the Muses and experienced by poets and musicians even until modern times.

Erotic mania is discussed in chapter 7 mainly on the basis of Plato’s Phaedrus and of expressions in poetry and drama. Ustinova provides a detailed analysis of Plato’s consideration of erotic passion, but states that his philosophical thoughts were probably not supported by most Greeks, who would have considered erotic mania to be dangerous but did not necessarily associate it with a loss of perception of reality.

The final chapter, chapter 8, is devoted to the philosopher’s mania and his path to truth, giving a new insight into the development of philosophical ideas. Ustinova states that the rational argumentation and the coherent form displayed by the texts of Greek thinkers do not exclude that these men had undergone mystical experiences. While many modern scholars tend to believe that what Greek philosophers wrote stemmed from logical deliberations only, many ancient sources and statements by the ancient philosophers themselves attest that they experienced inspiration through spontaneous moments of illumination or that they were even able to manipulate their state of consciousness.

In an admirable way, Ustinova explores the complex phenomena that the ancient Greeks subsumed under the term mania. Communication with the divine through alteration of consciousness was regarded as very positive by the ancient Greeks. That is why a large number of references survived in ancient literature. Ustinova offers a synthesis of a great variety of literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources on divine mania and makes clear distinctions between the various forms it could take. A major result of her study is that mania, as a distinct cultural phenomenon, was an integral part of its social environment and displayed some features unique to the Greek culture (p. 16). The ancient Greeks seemed to be very open to ecstatic practices, unlike other cultures of the Mediterranean, where such practices never played a prominent role in the society. The practice of using methods to reach an altered state of consciousness can be traced back at least to the Archaic age in Greece. This realization sheds new light on the so-called oriental cults, which entered Greece in the Classical age. The ecstatic worship of the Corybantes, Cybele, Sabazius, and Dionysos were often regarded as foreign by scholars. As recent studies show, ecstatic features and mystery initiations were not part of these cults in their original homelands or remained marginal. Therefore, Ustinova convincingly claims: “many cultic and cultural phenomena involving states of mania were not innovations or foreign intrusions, but were venerated as part of the ancestral patrimony handed out from generation to generation: people who experienced divine mania or enjoyed its effects, were not ‘the other,’ but ‘we,’ or at the very least, ‘our wives.’ It would therefore be misleading to maintain that different kinds of consciousness alteration were merely tolerated in Greece, similar to foreign cults and dissident philosophical teachings: most practices involving mania were viewed as mainstream and actively endorsed by the communities” (p. 371).

Overall, 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. ​


1. See for example: Yulia Ustinova, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth (Oxford 2009); Jennifer Larson, Understanding Greek Religion. A Cognitive Approach (Oxford, New York 2016).