The famous frescoes in the Villa dei Misteri at Pompeii show initiates in the cult of Dionysus taking part in various rites including flagellation and nude dancing. Feared throughout the ancient world, the cult was associated with wine, fertility and excess; one modern authority links it with "the release of powerful irrational impulses through controlled ritual" and "unleashed communal ecstasy" - descriptions that might equally be applied to the hysterical atmosphere recalled by participants in the NOS.
Worship of Dionysus was particularly attractive to women who, temporarily freed from the oppressive cultural constraints of the ancient world, threw themselves into frenzied and overtly sexual celebrations of the god. Some sources suggest it was associated with the ritual sacrifice of animals and occasionally of humans, with hints of cannibalistic rituals. This throws new light on Mr Brain's appearance at the Greenbelt Festival two years ago when he stood on stage flanked by two writhing women in bikinis, under the projected instruction: "Eat God, Swallow God" - an injunction more usually associated, in a slightly different form, with a certain type of men's magazine.
There have been suggestions that Mr Brain himself may be in need of psychiatric treatment, but the Church's investigators should tread carefully when dealing with the forces he has unleashed. In Euripides' play the Bacchae, the king of Thebes refuses to allow Dionysus into his city and is sufficiently intrigued to follow the god up into the mountains and spy on his orgies. Unmasked by his female initiates, the king is torn limb from limb by a crowd of hysterical women which includes his own mother.
What's going on in Sheffield is a classic example of the conflict, identified by Nietzsche, between Dinonysian disorder and the Apollonian forces of reason. Two things are clear: the Apollonians don't always win. And the gulf between Christianity and paganism isn't as wide as intellectual Anglicans like to imagine.
I'M A RATIONALIST myself but I can't help discerning traces of quasi- religious ritual in the week's other big story, the outing by the tabloids of comedian, Michael Barrymore. Until a couple of weeks ago, the only Barrymore I'd heard of was the dead American actress, Ethel. So I was momentarily puzzled by headlines about someone called Barrymore coming out and how therapeutic it had been (I Could Have Ended Up Dead In A Seedy Motel Room Says Barrymore).
Now I know that Michael Barrymore is one of the most famous people in Britain, that he's a game show host given to making self-mocking jokes about homosexuality, and that he's gay. Camp Comedian Is Gay Shock? Heavens, they'll be telling us next that Liberace was homosexual. What strikes me about this completely trivial story is that for several days the tabloids and their victim have played out an almost stately pavane of accusation, denial and confession.
Newspapers are increasingly taking on the role formerly occupied in Roman Catholic countries by the Inquisition. Tabloid hacks confront sinners, put them on trial, refuse to listen to their tearful denials, extract admissions (torture by publicity) and finally administer absolution. Barrymore's language earlier this week when he "confessed" his homosexuality on a late-night radio show was strikingly penitent, even born-again: "I'll have to start again ... I feel better. I feel calm."
He might have felt even calmer if he'd simply announced, when all the fuss started, that he was gay and so what? By alternately running for cover and visiting gay pubs, Barrymore stoked the tabloids' feeding frenzy and, I would guess, made things more difficult for his wife Cheryl. Unlike the Inquisition, the tabloids depend for the success of their witch hunts on a degree of collusion from their victims; astonishingly, time and again, this is something they seem all too willing to provide.
BY CONTRAST, a cordon sanitaire has been erected around Prince William before the press has made any attempt to invade his privacy. Lord Wakeham, Chairman of the Press Complaints Council, reminded newspapers this week that William, who starts at Eton next month, "is not an institution, not a soap star, nor a football hero". The only difference between him and any other child, Wakeham remarked with masterly understatement, is that William will one day be king.
As differences go, it's about as big as you can get. It also overlooks the fact that William is already a walk-on player in that perennially fascinating soap, The War Between the Waleses. Who, after all, is responsible for propelling William into the public eye? Given the readiness of the Princess of Wales to appear en famille with her sons in Hello! magazine - showing, of course, what a relaxed, affectionate mum she is in contrast to their gauche, unprepossessing father - Lord Wakeham's strictures might have been more effective if he'd just posted them direct to Kensington Palace.
I WAS GOING to end with an apology to George O'Mahoney of Brighton, who wrote to ask, reasonably enough, what I've got against bald men after my slighting reference to them last week. But Mr O'Mahoney has distracted me with the delightful suggestion that he should "cover his chromedome" with a tea cosy when he next reads this column.
In fact, I'm so taken with this idea I'd like to commend it to other readers, follically challenged or not. Those without tea cosies might like to substitute one of those knitted lavatory-roll covers in the form of a crinolined lady.