In February 1997 I had the good fortune to see Action - a work of Jerzy Grotowski's Pontedera group led by Thomas Richards - during their visit to Wrocław, the one time seat of the Grotowski Laboratory Theatre. It was worth it. We witnessed a touching mystery performance presenting the Saviour's drama and triumf in an ecstatic liturgical chorea (song-dance-recital).The work was performed in the spirit of ancient Christian gnosis, surprisingly with the help of exotic Afro-Caribbean singing and dancing techniques. Yet in spite of its moving beauty it also awoke doubts and questions.
As soon as the 15 spectators, or rather witnesses, were seated in chairs placed in three rows close to the entrance, four men and one woman entered the room singing. The corypheus was a short, barefoot Creole in his early thirties - with tightly cropped hair and a bare torso, wearing long white trousers and holding a short crooked crozier-sceptre. It was fascinating to watch how he managed to transform, through the power of ardent singing, into a radiant being. His partners - distrustful at first and reluctant, even spurning him, gradually fell under the spell of his voice, moved by it's power, magic and affection, and started accompanying him, at times even entering into a dialogue. One of them, a young, long-haired man, succumbed the most to the leader's enthusiasm singing in unison with him, (please note that enthousiasmos in Greek means "being filled by god") . And it was to him that the leader kept turning his greatest attention, treating him like a younger brother and transmitting all the energy to him.
The leader did not personify a scorned and rejected Messiah like the Simpleton (called Ciemny the Dumb One, or the Dark One in original Polish), from Grotowski's last theatre performance Apocalypsis cum figuris, but a luminous and effective resurrected Saviour, succesfully instilling his loving message. Step by step he demonstrated his birth and successive transformations to his chosen ones, striving all the time to attain greater unity with the source of inner light.
First a woman gave birth to him as a born sage - an African griot shaman poet. Protected by a field of energy created by the singing, dancing and clapping people, he underwent an inner change, constantly awaking new energy through passionate singing. In the beginning it was the energy of longing and calling a personal God and later the joy of the union. This was definitely a demonstration of the path of adoration that we know from the Gospels, which has been practised by many Christian mystics. A Hindu would call it bhakti. Such a way, also known in the Sufi and Hassidic traditions, has its pre-Christian roots in our culture in David's Psalms and Dionysian dithyrambs.
The leader, manifesting this loving power with his voice, kept awakening it in his "Younger Brother", who tried singing with him in unison. In order to achieve this they stood very close in front of one another, so that the leader could most effectively guide and "elevate" his partner with his intense vocal energy. He helped to kindle the flame and led his partner through several stages until complete attunement was reached. Next the "Younger Brother" was crucified on the floor by invisible forces and, after this ordeal, came to life and joined the singing with redoubled strength.
The sounds and energies vibrating in the leader's body became more and more exalted and the voices of the others harmonized with it, as all united in a circle pageant of the voodoo yanvalou dance creating a beautiful chorea. The synchronization of their actions was excellent and when they danced, following the leader around the room with soft, snake-like buoyant movements, it seemed as if they were floating in thin air. They resembled tai-chi adepts diffusing peaceful energy with subtle, elegant gestures. Looking completely transfixed they swam through the open door like a light-sound, leaving behind a strong feeling of heightened awareness.
It was a highly ecstatic experience. It is seldom that one experiences deepest feelings in public as people rarely succeed in striking the best chords in themselves making them resound in others. Unfortunately, in the West we had lost our native choreic forms long ago, their relics remaining in folk cultures only.
Of course it was obvious that the group was not on par with the leader, as far as singing skills go. Only the "Younger brother" stood out and entered a dialogue, the others just chimed with the corypheus. Nevertheless a unity was reached.
It must be added here that aside from Haitian and African songs, a fragment of a Byzantine, Coptic, or Ethiopian liturgies were sung along with a modern Greek song, a hymn in English and many quotes from the apocryphal Thomas’ Gospel also in English.
It is true that there were and are greater ecstatic singers, e.g. the Pakistani Sufi virtuoso Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or the Hindus: Pram Nath, Omkarnath Thakur and the Dagar brothers, the Irish soprano Noirin Ni'Rian, not to mention the Egyptian Um Khultum maestra. There are also more accomplished ecstatic dancers like the ingenious Brazilian candomble soloist Augusto Omolu. Also in Africa, Asia and South America we still have tribes in which all kinds of chorea are being cultivated since childhood as the basic ritual form. Still these are all the fruits of long traditions, whereas in the case of the Pontedera group we are dealing with people who started practising an exotic chorea pretty late, without even understanding the words of the Haitian songs and without being familiar with the cult of "the sweet serpent Dhamballah" to whom the yanvalou dance is dedicated.
Dhamballah - the serpent deity of the Fon people, close relatives of the Yoruba in Nigeria and the Caribbean, is male in character and is worshipped in the voodoo cult. He is the eternal serpent of the ecliptic entwined around the earth, as if around an egg. He is also personified by a rainbow, being the lord of the heavenly and earthly sweet waters: rains, springs, rivers and lakes. Although he rules lightnings and winds he is said to be gentle and sweet (dous) and offerings from almond sirup and sugar are given to him. His wife Ayida rules the other, "underwordly" half of the ecliptic and is also imagined as a rainbow. Dhamballah's counterpart among the Yoruba is the snake deity Oshumare, or Dani and among another neighbouring tribe - the Ewe, he is the python Dan-sho, or Dan-gbe.
The cult of the python in West Africa was widespread and human sacrifices were offered to him. He was at times the god of war, but usually he was associated with phallic fertility and prophesyzing. Often he was called to posses and the yanvalou dance served that very purpose.
Before Action the spectators were treated with tea and coffee and given fragments of Thomas’ Gospel in English to read, which were then collected right before the performance. After the performance we all met with the leader - Thomas Richards, who answered questions. The things he said were pretty obvious. He spoke about the "vibrational" quality of ardent singing, the way attention follows the voice into the unconscious mind, about the ascending and descending of the transformed kundalini serpent energy and its journey through the chakras, as well as the energy's effect on others through induction or resonance. Most people who have been singing, or chanting liturgies in harmonic choirs and meditated on sound experience these things.
I asked Mr Richards whether he ever sings vowels only, (alone or with others), and he answered no. It was an important question, because in ecstatic, or "vibrational" singing as Grotowski would have it (though this is not the most fortuitous term, since all singing, as all sound, is vibrational in character, but let's say that what is meant is a specific vibrational frequency of special intimate intensity) when the state of ecstatic oneness deepens, one of the vowels, usually "A", becomes the base, the bourdon sound with other vowels issuing from it. It is no coincidence that the phoneme "A" starts most alphabets, being the source of other vowels and dipthongs i.e. all human speech. The ancient initiated ones from Egypt, Palestine, India and Greece, including numerous Gnostics, believed that vowels are light-sounds (I feel tempted to call them phosphones), containing the hidden name of God and the core of His speech - the celestial harmony of the spheres, that may be expressed in a sacred chorea.
As we were leaving, Mario Biagini - the "Younger Brother", kindly offered me Richard's book The Edge-Point of Performance. I found in it a weighty statement that Jerzy Grotowski discovered in the Haitian songs "an organic score" originating from the craddle of our culture i.e. from Egypt, Palestine, Greece and Syria and even from the "hypothetical roots" antecedent to ancient Egypt. This really made me wonder.
Several weeks later I attended a meeting with Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards at the Polish Theatre in Wroclaw (unfortunately I could not stay till the very end and had to leave at midnight). It started with the showing of a movie presenting an earlier version of Action. The difference between the two was tremendous. In the filmed version the performers were extremely tense. One could feel something I would call overconcentration. It was visible that their actions are the result of an ardous and mechanical work executed by sheer force of will. That stiffness and tenseness differed from the fluidity and naturalness of the later version as the earth differs from the sky. Several scenes were pretty weird. One could see that they were taken from various exotic rituals. Numerous sticks of incense were offered at an altar and other offerings were made. The fact that all the performers were dressed in white, as in Haitian voodoo, enhanced the "cultic" character. As far as movement goes the best sequence was the dance of a Siamese girl preceded by a funeral rice offering accompanied by a song. The whole thing was composed from heterogenous elements selected from various cultures.
After the discussion, which disappointed me tremendously, being a vain show of the authors' conceit and pretensions to spiritual enlightenment, I searched through the texts Jerzy had published in recent years. He claimed in them, that he succeeded in opening up an old tradition and that these ancient mysteries had been carried from ancient Egypt to West Africa, namely to Ife - the holy city of the Yoruba in present Nigeria. Since the slaves brought to the Caribbean and Brazil have been abducted from West Africa this claim put me on a search. I started a query in Warsaw University libraries and consulted my findings with three professors of African studies, one professor of anthropology and religious studies, a doctor of musicology and a doctor of Egyptology. The result of my research is as follows.
Leo Frobenius - an eminent German archeologist stated in 1910, that he had found in Nigerian city of Ife traces of a Greek colony established in the 13 c.BC (!), which had been abandoned at the turn of the 8 and 9 centuries BC when all contacts with the Meditteranean region were broken. He claimed that Olokon, a Yoruba marine deity, whose bronze head had been found in a sacred grove, is the Greek Poseidon. Leo Frobenius was trying to track down the remains of Atlantis in Africa for decades and described it in a book published in Germany and France in 1949.
Four years after his discovery - i.e. in 1914, a British eminent archeologist - Sir Williams Flinders Petrie announced that Yorubas' genesis must be Egyptian as their art bears resemblance to Egyptian art. The theories of both scientists started a heated discussion under the heading of the basic unity of African culture and its origin from one source, be it ancient Egyptian, Jewish, or European. Scholars also tried to prove Yorubas' Egyptian background by comparing their cult of the divine king with the cult of the pharaoh that supposedly had inspired it. This theory of cultural diffusion was completely discredited already during the second world war. Neither did the Igbo tribe descend from the lost tribes of Israel, nor did the Yoruba, Ewe, or Fon had any contacts with the culture of ancient Egypt or Greece. It is true that the technique of smelting iron and one, or two instruments, could have reached West Africa from Egypt but not directly.
In spite of the fact that the elites of those tribes were and are enamoured by theories about their descent from the Egyptians, or the Jews, or by their supposed coming from Mecca, this is not supported by any evidence. The Yoruba priests may claim that their people trekked from the source of the Nile, but this is simply not true. Archeological evidence proves that the Yoruba had reached West Africa in the 5 c. BC from the region of Lake Chad in Central Africa, creating the so called Nok culture and only after 1300 years, around 850 AD, they founded the Ife Kingdom. Their marvellous bronze and ceramic sculptures are their own creation. What is characteristic of African art is the 1:4 ratio of the figures' head length to their body length, whereas in Egyptian and Greek art the canon was 1:7, expressing the obliging principle of "The Golden Mean". Also the resemblances between the royal cults in West Africa and the cult of the pharaoh turned out to be superficial.
Some scholars compared the rich Yoruba mythology with the Greek, as the Yorubas had a myth similar to the Atlantis tale. They also knew the image of the snake biting its own tail, like the Egyptian and Gnostic ouroboros. Still these similarities issued from archetypal symbols common to all people and not from any Greek myth influence. Others claimed that since the Yorubas were the most urbanized people in the whole of Black Africa this must have been an inspiration coming from the Greek polis (city-states). In spite of the fact that science had altogether rejected all those romantic theories they keep coming back.
It is true that in Nubia i.e. in ancient Kush, an empire ruled by brown-skinned pharaos came into being. Egypt first dominated Nubia and a thousand years later the Egyptized Nubians took over Egypt, ruling it as the 25 dynasty. It is also true that much later, between the 6 c. AD and the 15 c. AD, there were kingdoms of Monophysite Christians in Nubia (the Faras frescoes show brown-skinned bishops), but these kingdoms had no contacts with people from the Lake Chad region, or West Africa. The Egyptians and the Hamittic Nubians carried out no missionary expeditions. They did invade foreign territories establishing the cult of their gods and their pharaoh, but the subjugated slaves were able to witness only public rituals presenting the stories of Osiris, Seth, Isis and Horus, which Herodotus had called "mysteries", only because these rites reminded him of the Greek secret mysteries. The truly esoteric Egyptian mysteries were known only to a small group of priests initiating the pharaoh and no one else. It is also hard to imagine that in the Roman times of Egyptian-Hellenistic syncretism black Africans were admitted to secret initiations. Similarly nothing is known about missions of the Hamittic Nubian Christians among the people of Black Africa.
No cult of Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, or Syrian deities, nor the cult of Jesus Christ had been transmitted to West Africa during the ancient times. In the rich mythologies of the Yoruba, Fon and Ewe there is not a trace of a Man-God saviour. There are numerous gods, goddesses, and cultural heroes, great shamans and ancestors incarnating in their grandsons, but not a single one resembling a Christian Saviour. Therefore the joining together of the Jesus figure from the gnostic Thomas’ Gospel, with the Afro-Caribbean songs and dances is a purely syncretic measure, which does not mean that it did not produce a touching effect.
If any initiations from the Meditteranean region would have reached West Africa, they would have been accompanied by singing and dancing techniques, as the chorea of the given initiation would have to have been transmitted. Still there are no similarities here and the thesis about an esoteric transmission collapses. The ancient Egyptians left behind numerous frescoes and bas-reliefs picturing their dances, yet there is no dance there that would resemble the yanvalou. They awoke the serpent kundalini power with a different technique. The Egyptian priests called this power Mehenet. Its patron was the dangerous goddess Uajet, which did not resemble the "sweet" Dhamballah in the least. She was a fire spouting venomous cobra, which even after ascending as the pharaoh's ureus (representing the third eye), still struck out at his enemies.
The serpent was present in the Egyptian chorea in a different way. The Egyptians used a metal rattle called by the Greeks sistrum - the instrument of Osiris and the goddess Hathor and later of the Greco-Egyptian Isis, that is still being used in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. It was U shaped with a handle stemming from the bottom. Several small metal rods shaped as snakes, symbolising the goddess Uajet, were placed between its arms. It must be noted here that Jews had also known the sistrum and called it mna'an'im. The Bible says that these were rattled, when King David sang and danced in front of the Arc of Covenant.
In some Christian communities in Central Egypt the faithful performed liturgical dances to the rhythm of the sistra in the beginning of the 4 c. AD. In the contemporary Ethiopian Church a liturgical dance is still performed by the clerics holding long staffs to the rhythm of the drums and the sistra. This dance has an ancient origin, but it does not resemble the yanvalou at all.
The leader of Action held a short crooked sceptre, the kind the griot poets in West Africa and the voodoo priests in Haiti have. This staff may resemble the sceptre of Osiris, that the pharaohs wielded, but anthropologists believe that it is an indigenous West African creation not inspired by Egypt. Hence all speculation about its descent from the sceptres of the Egyptian gods, pharaohs and priests, as well as from serpentine staffs of Moses and Aaron, the staff of Asclepios, or Hermes' caduceus, is pure conceptualising per analogiam. Crooked sceptres may be found in lots of places starting with the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and Siberia and later in a multitude of cultures.
Aside from the sceptre the leader also held at one point a round calabash. This is the so called "asson" - the voodoo priest's rattle, another West African instrument. Usually inside there is a snake made of clay, but sometimes a real snake spine is attached to it from the outside. Asson is a magical object and is used, among other things, to wake people from trance states.
The yanvalou dance of the serpent deity Dhamballah is said to stimulate the serpent power kundalini, which according to the teachings of the Hindu tantra personifies the female power of Shakti - Shiva's consort. Kundalini is usually represented as a snake wound around the base of the human spine three and a half times. Thanks to meditative practices of visualization and mantra repetition one can goad it to ascend inside the spine passing through centres of energy called chakras up above the scull, where it unites with Shiva's eternal divine awareness .
Usually the kundalini is stimulated during immobile meditation, but there are shamanistic practices that use dancing to achieve this. Yanvalou seems to be one of those. Another one is the dance of the !Kung Bushmen from the Kalahari desert. It is called "mokoma", or "the dance of blood", as after 30-40 hours of intense dancing blood flows profusely from the nostrils. The dance consists of violent jumps accompanied by shouts but aside from the pushed back pelvis does not resemble the yanvalou. The dance of blood is said to stimulate the boiling "n'um" energy that makes visionary voyages, prophesying and healing possible. So much about the dancing and now let us take a close look at the singing.
During Action the performers sang with full voices, larynxes open to the maximum, which is common in many ethnic cultures. Only once it was a deep-throated voice that turned into a shout. Aside from Haitian and West African songs there was a hymn from an early Byzantine liturgy with a "Halleluyah", fragments of Coptic, or Ethopian liturgy and a hymn in modern Greek. The verses from Thomas’ Gospel were chanted sort of in a Coptic way. The various songs were sang in a similar high pitch and with the same technique and therefore it all fell together. Surprisingly the vocalists took short breaths only and sang almost exclusively in high register. In one of the African melodies resembling Pygmy singing there were transits from the full voice into a falsetto and back like a single yodel. Additiveness and the repetition of short questions with a suggested answer is the most characteristic feature of these songs. This is common in trance singing, that always seems to go on ad infinitum. The point is to have the repetitive chant accompany a ritual action e.g. a dance, till the very end, no matter how long it would take.
In one song there was a close duet, sort of keeping to the melody line and abandoning it, just like in folk heterophony. Almost all the chants were homophonic and were sung unisono. Only one African song was polyphonic in character with several melody lines, but was not a closed composition.
As far as the rhythm goes it was pretty simple - just a few easy beats. Some of the songs were accompanied by clapping. Only in the mentioned polyphonic chant the rhythm was a little more complex, which is surprising as the West African rhythms are some of the richest in the world. I will never forget the impression made by a voodoo beat, consisting of 8 different rhythm patterns, as we played it out at a workshop ran by the excellent Polish composer and musician Jacek Ostaszewski.
The Wroclaw University’s hall's cradle-like ceiling helped the songs very much as the reverberations deepened the feeling of sacredness. One could say that both singers extracted the maximum from those songs thanks to their ardent striving and the intimacy of energy transmission. Still the poverty of the rhythms was obvious. I think that a lot could improved here and if it is difficult for the group to travel to Senegal to learn from the master percussionist Doudou N'Diaye Rose, they should try working with Jacek Ostaszewski, who teaches clapping out more and more sophisticated rhythms in an effective way.
Musicologists claim that liturgical chanting in ancient Egypt was performed with a compressed, high voice with strong nasalization i.e. a voice resonating in the scull. Pseudo-Demetrius of Faleron wrote that the Egyptian priests had been singing "the 7 magic vowels" expressing God's name and he called it "kalophony" ("beauty-sound"). The Christian Copts, musical heirs of the ancient Egyptians, sing their liturgies exactly in such a manner. It's a choral monodic chant performed antiphonally with the accompaniment of drums and sistra. The singing has very archaic traits: there are elongations of the single vowel during several phrases with a vocalisis, when the vowel is prolonged with a concrete rhythm pattern, or with a melisma, when the vowels are prolonged during free tempo sequences. The melisma lasts from 10 to 20 seconds and some of the vocalises up to a minute. There are also tremoloes on the last sound. The New Oxford History of Music says that Coptic music is: "extraordinarily rich with great power of expression".
In spite of what one of the reviewers from the Polish monthly "Dialog" had claimed, not a single melisma was sung during Action and the chants did not resemble the traditions from which they had supposedly originated. They also did not resemble the oldest Christian liturgy, namely the Syrian one, which according to the above quoted encyclopaedia, has a "rich scale system under the influence of Persia and Arabia" but stems directly from synagogal chanting.
It is highly probable that the Syrian music of the Edessa Gnostic circles, which toward the end of 2 c. AD created Thomas’ Gospel, exerted influence on Syrian Church liturgy and descended from the same sources: first and foremost from the Jewish synagogal chant, although the Syrians chanted not in Hebrew, but in Arameic, the language that Jesus had used. Most probably it was in Arameic that the apocryphal Thomas’ Gospel - a compilation of various esoteric sayings attributed to Jesus, was written down for the first time. When the Jews in Syria were becoming more and more Hellenized it was translated into Greek in the 2 c. AD., and a century later into Coptic in Egypt where it was found in 1945.
Edessa was in 2 c. AD a great cultural centre called by the Greeks "the Athens of Syria". The Chaldean, Persian and Jewish gnoses along with Greek Hermetism and Christian gnosis flourished there side by side. Saint Thomas the Apostle was said to have been buried there and his relics have been worshipped since 4 c.. It was in Edessa that the veil of Veronica, which may have been what is now called the Shroud of Turin, was kept.
The famous Gnostic poet, composer and astrologer Bar Daisan (Bardaneus), who, among other things, composed songs and liturgical dances for two choirs, lived there during the reign of Abgar IX at the end of 2 c. AD. He composed 150 psalms, out of which only one survived. Persian music influenced him to a great degree. It must be stressed that Gnostic liturgies that appeared at that time in the Meditteranean region were created under strong influence of Oriental music. This also goes for the music composed by the Greeks.
We do know a Christian Gnostic hymn from Oxhyrinchos in Egypt. This is the so called "epainos' from 4 c. - a song in praise expressing the awe of all Creation for its Creator. Here is what the Italian eminent musicologist Pier Paolo Carapezza writes about it: "The most important words from the liturgical point of view are provided with brilliant vocalizes, as e.g. the final Amen. We are here at the beginning of Byzantine hymnody."
When one recalls how the Church fought the Gnostic churches it may be surprising to learn that its composers - monks and priests, had written their hymns to music composed by Bar Daisan! This was plagiarism on a grand scale. Also the Gnostic chorea was imitated. St. Ephraim unabashedly stole Bar Daisan's music and at the same time condemned him vehemently as a heretic in his writings. St.Ephraim also had written a hymn for a choir of dancing virgins ( the Greek parthenia chorea still around!), who danced and sang so beautifully , that , as contemporaries noted, they had evangelized more effectively from the best preachers.
Unfortunately, the later Church Fathers reduced the chorea by amputating the dance. Since then the church choirs have been singing standing immobile. Although St.Theodore of Cyrrh and St.Clement of Alexandria preached that liturgical dance imitated "the eternal dance of the angels in front of the Lord's visage" and that through dancing the blessed and the just express their desire to enter heaven, 200 years later St.Chrisosthomos - the Patriarch of Constantinople stated: "Where there is dancing there is the devil!" The Saturnine minds of Church beaurocrats feared the ecstatic rhythms and improvised vocalises, which they associated with pagan, orgiastic cults. One more example showing that the dogmatic theologians never understand the ecstatics. As a result of such policies, after several ages of competition between many kinds of liturgies, the Gregorian plainchant prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church. It is beautiful from the intelectual point of view and excellent to contemplate, but unsuitable for ecstatic dancing to say the least.
In summing up the singing I must say that in the Action chants no echoes of ancient Gnostic music may be heard. It is not rich in scales and there are no melisma or vocalises characteristic of Oriental music. Gnostic vowel names of God are not intoned. One also does not hear the echoes of one more musical tradition from the Meditteranean craddle, which had exerted the greatest influence upon the liturgies of the first Christians and Christian gnostics, namely Jewish synagogal singing. This is surprising as one of the performers wore a yarmulka and most certainly such singing would have been dearest to him.
Jerzy Grotowski has studied Thomas’ Gospel for a quarter of a century. Still it was not there that he found the singing and dancing Jesus, because he is not mentioned there. He took him from The Acts of John, a gnostic apocryph condemned at the Nicean Council in 325 AD for presenting Docetic ideas, stating that Jesus' agony on the Cross was apparent, as his body was an illusory one. This work describes how Jesus danced in a circle of a turning circle created by the apostles holding hands. He sang a hymn to the Father and after each verse the apostles answered: "Amen".
This description does not resemble dances awakening the kundalini serpent power, but rather a Greek circle chorea. In fact just before giving the dance's description the author of The Acts of John condemns "the lawless Jews, who had their law from the lawless serpent". Their successors were the gnostic sect of the Naassenes (from Hebrew nehash - serpent), also called Ophites (from Greek ophites - serpent). This school originated in Mesopotamia and spread through Syria and Transjordania, flourishing in Phrygia, specially in Edessa. This was Jewish gnosis influenced by Mesopotamian, Anatolian, Phrygian, Greek and Iranian teachings first and later by the Christian doctrine. When the Roman Empire was at its height religious syncretisms and theocrasia (the merging of gods and goddesses) developed profusely. Hippolitus the Roman, one of the Church fathers from 3 c. AD, described the cult of the Phrygian Great Goddess Kybele and her partner Attis. He quoted a Naassean hymn in which Attis was called by many names: Osiris and Dionysus-Sabasios among them. In the Sabasios cult the devotees danced with snakes in their hands exclaiming the god's name. A gilded metal snake was also passed along the bodies of the initiated under their clothes.
Many Greeks identified Dionysos-Sabasios with Zeus, what's more some of the communities of Hellenised Jews believed this Zeus-Sabasios to be the Jaahveh Sabaoth - Lord of the Hosts and Lord of the Sabath, due to a coincidental phonetic homophony. They represented him on their coins with snake coils, or with snake tails instead of feet. The Greek Gnostics called him Abraxas.
The main source of Naassean inspiration is in the Bible, which speaks of two snakes: the Edenic one from the Book of Genesis and the copper Nehushtan from The Second Book of Kings. When the Jews were crossing the desert fiery serpents started biting them and Moses ordered to hammer out a copper snake in the image of the Nehushtan and carry it as a banner, so that its sight would heal the sick. Professor Andrzej Wiercinski claims that most probably Moses imitated an Egyptian military banner of one of the provinces represented by the cobra goddess Uajet that personifed kundalini energy to the Egyptians.
Moses' copper snake was later worshipped in the sanctuary of Salomon's temple in Jerusalem for about 500 years. The Bible does not say though whether anyone danced in front of it. It was King Hezekiah who ordered it to be destroyed together with the holy groves, probably consecrated to the goddess Asherah. Jesus alluded to this serpent when he said: "Just as Moses had elevated a serpent in the desert, so it's necessary that the Son of Man be elevated". And now let me quote from two Naassene texts written by Christian gnostics:
"He who will look at the copper serpent will not be lost and he who will believe in the copper serpent will be saved. Because it is Christ. Those who had believed in him accepted life and those who did not died. What kind of faith is this?"
And a second fragment about the ascending and descending kundalini.
" The Serpent is the Son. Because just as he had brought the fatherly stigma from on high down in such a manner he will take them up, when they shall be awakened from the dream and when he brings the fatherly stigma from there to here, the stigma that have substantially come to life from the insubstantial. This is what is meant by: "I am the Way". He carries over (those stigma) to those who close the eyelids, just as oil draws to itself fire, more than the Heraclean stone (magnet) draws iron (to itself)... The Serpent will gather the people from the whole world being the true icon, the fullfilled one, equal in substance (homousion) and no one else (will be drawn by it), aside from the one that has been sent (from the divine sphere)."
( both quotations from Aion by C.G.Jung)
Jerzy Grotowski knew the Gnostic texts and was a Christian gnostic, just like C.G.Jung, whom he very much admired. He had been reading Thomas’ Gospel for a quarter of a century and took the image of the resurrected Jesus from there. It was the gnostic Jesus, who taught the divine origin of the chosen ones and the need of discerning the divine image (eikon) in oneself, it being the World of Light and the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Naassene texts Jerzy found the cult of the kundalini serpent power as Christ and in the Acts of John the image of Jesus dancing among the apostles. Being under the great impression of the organicity and effectiveness of the yanvalou voodoo dance, as soon as he heard from the Haitian and West African priests about the esoteric transmission from ancient Egypt to the the Yoruba holy city of Ife, he readily believed it. The more so that his spiritual model was Gurdjiiev, who claimed to have found "the map of antedeluvian Egypt" not far from... Edessa!
In the middle of the 70-ties Grotowski told me about his cooperation with a sorcerer (!) from the Ivory Coast by the name of Hampate Ba. In the books I studied 20 years later I found him mentioned as a scholar upholding the theory of West African cultures' Egyptian descent. It also turned out that Dr Amadou Hampate Ba was one of the best known writers in Mali. He was one of Jerzy's authorities, but the primal one was, of course, Gurdjiiev.
Gurdjiiev claimed that that the teachings of Jesus were the expression of eternal truths that had been known already to the inhabitants of Atlantis and the representatives of the oldest culture of Egypt. These teachings were said to have been protected by the Sarmang secret society, which Gurdjiiev had supposedly studied with in Central Asia. That is why Jerzy Grotowski, succumbing to his imagination, was able to "intuit the hypothetical roots" (in Thomas Richards' words) of an ancient culture preceeding the Egyptian, and discover in the Afro-Caribbean songs and the yanvalou dance "an organic score". Nevertheless, Jerzy Grotowski did not notice that, that neither Thomas’ Gospels, nor Acts of John were created by the Naasseans and thatthe latter work strongly condemned the cult of the serpent.
Thomas Richards claims that Grotowski did not interfere with the work on Action, that he had been conducting, but if Haitian, West African and Eastern Churches' songs and liturgies, as well as the yanvalou dance, are the base of the training and the text the group is working on is Thomas’ Gospel, a definite direction is given to the whole work. The result is very good - a gnostic Christian mystery about the risen Jesus teaching an ecstatic chorea came into being. It is beautiful from the artistic point of view and may be seen as a vehicle for people looking for such a spiritual way, but it is not true that this is an esoteric, ancient initiation that has been transmitted from Atlantis, or Egypt, via West Africa to Haiti. It is a fine syncretic piece of work and that's it. The yanvalou dance was created by the Fon Africans, not by the Atlantedeans, or Egyptians, just as the mokoma blood dance was created by the !Kung from the Kalahari desert in South Africa not by the Sumerians.
We constantly underrate the Black Africans. Until recently some European and American scientists claimed that the wonderful rock art from the Kalahari desert was created not by the forefathers of Bushmen such as the !Kung, but by Babilonians, Sumerians, Phrygians, Phoenicians, and even the Chinese! A similar case was made with the Zimbabwe forts and the Dogon culture. I remember from years ago the excellent lectures of the eminent Polish anthropologist Professor Andrzej Wiercinski at Warsaw University about the Como secret society of the Bambara in Mali. Wiercinski based himself first and foremost on Le fondements de la societe d'initiation du Komo by the eminent scholar Germaine Dieterlen and Y. Cisse, published in Paris in 1972.
The panorama of the Bambara spiritual culture turned out to be breathtaking. Their cosmogony equalled the Indian and the Egyptian ones, they had their own script, as well as tremendous astronomical, medical, psychological and metalurgical knowledge. The Como secret society had a highly sophisticated system of initiation and created and ran the kingdoms of Mali and Guinea that have been in existence for hundreds of years. As far as dancing goes it suffices to say that during the New Year celebrations the whole genesis of the world was danced out. For 3 days and 3 nights 33 groups of dancers, corresponding to the 33 vertebrae of the human spine and the 33 levels of initiation, danced out the whole cosmogony - every step and gesture had a meaning. All this had been created by the Bambara Como secret society without any inspiration from Atlantis, or ancient Egypt. Similarly with the Yoruba, Fon and Ewe people - their spiritual culture and art are their own creation.
To sum up, Grotowski and Richards used the voodoo songs and dance together with the hymns of Eastern Christian Churches and their own incantations of the verses of Thomas’ Gospel in order to create a mystery performance about the risen living Christ. From the artistic point of view it's very beautiful, from the spiritual point of view it is moving, but still has ways to go.
One can also look at it in the context of Afro-Christian, or Afro-Caribbean Churches that have blossomed in Nigeria, the Caribbean and Brazil. I really wonder with what resonace would Action meet with were it to be performed there.
In an even wider context of Christianity as a whole, one can assess Action as an attempt in creating an ecstatic chorea for a new Gnostic church, of which, willy-nilly, Jerzy Grotowski has become the founding father. He, himself, claimed that it was the other way around, that he had received an ancient initiation, which he passed on to Thomas Richards. I think that everybody who is interested in Grotowski's work has a right to know from whom he had received such a transmission, or from whom he had stolen it, as he did accept such a possibility in the search for truth and did speak about it in public. Was it someone from the Gurdjiiev circle, or perhaps the Haitian voodoo priest Eliezer Cadet, whom Grotowski had met in Haiti and with whom he travelled to Ife in Nigeria? Although one can deduce from vain and self-congratulatory statements made by both Grotowski and Richards during the Wroclaw meeting that they saw themselves as fully initiated teachers and their work as complete spiritual path, I can only say, that in my modest opinion, their serpent has not turned into a golden plumed phoenix yet.
It is a great pity that in the decades of working on others Jerzy Grotowski was unable to overcome his numerous character flaws. One of them, which he shared with his master Gurdjiiev, was the love of secrecy, of surrounding his person with an aura of incredible mystery. He may have believed himself to be Prometeus stealing fire from the gods, but he exhibited Lucipherian pride in the process. I think that Jerzy was, first and foremost, a trickster and that Hermes - the god of traders and thieves, patron of initiations and transactions was his guide. In Haitian voodoo Eshu acts like Hermes being: "the deity of cross-roads, a messenger and herald, an intermediary between gods and men" (from Samba with the Gods by Leszek Kolankiewicz).
Jerzy Grotowski was a man of cunning and experience whose charisma towered above his insight. He was a born leader led by the desire to discover and know and by his artistic talent, but also fired by ambition and the need to dominate. Jerzy could not stand criticism and that is why our friendship, at that time of 10 years standing, cooled down at the end of the 70-ties. It happened when I told him that, since he didn't have Sri Ramana Maharshi's deep insight, he shouldn't say in interviews that Maharshi, like Nietzsche, has reached ice-cold mountain heights and that in his teaching the senses were missing. From what we know Maharshi was a man full of compassion for all life and did not view the world of the senses as separate from what he called the Self.
Jerzy reminded me of the changeable Proteus and of the seasoned Ulysses having had the mind of a strategist, a tactician and politician and a collector and arranger of experiences, not of a poet. But it was the visionary poets who had created, before recorded history, the divine choreas. Such legendary shamans as Orpheus, Linos or Musaios expressed the divine initiation "telete" in Greek, just as their gods and muses had dictated it to them in feet(!) and strophes of the chorea. It is worth noting that the Greek word "strophe" means both a strophe of regular verse and a dance-turn. Incidentaly the Sanscrit "sloka” is both a foot of the poetic meter and a dance step. We should also remember that King David danced and sang the Psalms in front of the Arc of Covenant in his own language. I believe that only one's own songs and dances discovered in inspired poetic visionary states can produce a homogenous and organic chorea. If you are a poet you don't have to travel all over the world in order to compose a score of a mystery drama out of exotic bits and pieces, like a jig-saw puzzle, even if you are the world champion in such games and endeavours.
The author would like to thank cordially the following scholars at Warsaw University for consultations: Prof. Joanna Mantel-Necko, the late Prof. Rajmund Ohly and Prof.Stanislaw Pilaszewicz from the African Dept., Prof. Andrzej Wiercinski, the late Head of the Anthropology Dept., Dr Anna Gruszczynska from the Dept. of Musicology and Dr Zbigniew Szafranski from the Dept. of Egyptology.
Jerzy Grotowski died on 14 January 1999 and his ashes were scattered over Mt. Arunachala (India) where Sri Ramana Maharshi had lived.
(Originally published 1998.)