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FRENZY . The English word frenzy comes through the Latin phrenesis from the Greek phren, meaning the midriff, the heart, the upper part of the body, the diaphragm, the lungs or pericardiumthat is, that part of the body held responsible for passions and thought. The ultimate derivation of the word is from the Indo-European *gwhren-, meaning the diaphragm, the seat of intellect, understanding, and thought. The term will be used in this entry in its restricted sense, to refer not to mental derangement, madness, or folly generally but to a seizure of violent agitation or wild excitement, to uncontrollable rage or to delirious fury.

Although "frenzy" is not an established category in religious studies, the term occurs frequently in the description of a number of religious states and activities, and its occurrence is often interpreted in religious terms. It is related to such categories as "enthusiasm," "mania," "fury," "inspiration," "intoxication," "spirit possession," and "ecstasy," and, like these states, it is characterized by a certain spontaneity, an autonomy, as if beyond the control of the individual, as if coming from without or from deep within him. In the Phaedrus (244ff.), Plato distinguishes several types of frenzy (mania ) that impart gifts to humans: the frenzy of the seer who reveals the future; that of the consecrated mystic who absolves one from sin; that of the poet possessed by the Muses; and that of the philosopher. In common parlance, however, frenzy usually has an aggressive connotation.

Three manifestations of frenzy will be considered here: frenzy as the result of combat (furor), frenzy as a symptom of certain culturally specific psychotic syndromes (amok), and frenzy as a stage of trance understood as spirit possession. The juxtaposition of these three manifestations of frenzy should not be considered synthetic. The term frenzy should, in my opinion, be used descriptively in specific contexts and not isolated as a separate and separable category of religious experience.


It has been reported in both legend and history that in the heat of battle certain warriors enter into a delirious fury, attacking anyone in their reach. Moroccan Arabs recount, for example, that Sīdinā ʿAlī, the prophet Muammad's son-in-law, whom they regard as the ideal warrior, was once in combat with the Jews. Blood flowed up to his stirrups, so great was his prowess. When he had killed all of the Jews, he turned on his own people and would have slaughtered them too, had not one of them, a beggar, asked him for a crust of bread (barakah, lit., "blessing"). This request cooled down his frenzy (ashimīyah ), for he knew that only an Arab was fool enough to beg from him in his state. Roman legend has it that after one of the Horatii had defeated three enemy brothers, the Curiatii, he turned in furor on his sister, who, in mourning for one of them, had revealed the "feminine" weakness of a lover's grief.

In an analogous Celtic tale, Cú Chulainn, the hero of the Ulster legend, while still a child defeated the three sons of Nechta, the enemy of his people, and returned to his capital still in a frenzy. There he spurned the queen, who tried to divert him by making crude sexual advances. As he was momentarily distracted, his men seized him and threw him into a vat of cold water to cool him down. From then on Cú Chulainn kept his furor in reserve for battle. Georges Dumézil suggests that this tale of initiatory combat relates to the domestication of savage frenzythe ideal of prehistoric Italic, Celtic, and Germanic warriorsand its submission to legionary discipline. To the psychoanalytically oriented, the tale is concerned with the conversion into disciplined military aggression of the warrior's uncontrolled rage toward his mother, or toward women more generally, and, by extension, toward his own weakness symbolized by women.


There are a number of culture-bound reactive syndromes, the so-called ethnopsychoses, that involve frenzied behavior. The best known of these "hypereridic rage reactions" is amok, which occurs primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia. The pengamok, the person who runs amok, usually suffers from neurasthenia, chronic illness, or a loss of a sense of social order and, with time, comes to experience an increasingly threatening external pressure that frightens or enrages him. Suddenly, as if to escape this pressure, he runs wild, attacking people, animals, and objects around him, even himself. He then falls into a stupor and awakes depressed and without any memory of his having run amok. Amok has occurred among warriors dedicated to self-sacrifice, and it has been explained as an escape from the pervasive Malay-Indonesian sense of fatalism and concern for propriety (alus ). As the occurrence of amok peaked in the nineteenth century, with Western contact, it has been regarded as a transitional reaction to modernization.

Similar hypereridic reactions have been reported elsewhere, for example, in New Guinea (wild-man behavior, negi negi, lulu ), in Malawi (misala ), and in Puerto Rico (mal de pelea ). Just as frenzied behavior occurs in certain hypermanic disorders, so it occurs in other culture-bound reactive syndromes. Ainu women of northern Japan afflicted with imu burst out aggressively or flee in panic after seeing a snake and then, within minutes, fall into catalepsy, echo those about them, and execute orders automatically. Inuit (Eskimos) suffering from piblotko, or Arctic hysteria, tear off their clothing, run around, throw things, and imitate animals. Northern Algonquian-speaking Indians of Canada who are possessed of a windigo spirit are overcome with a frenzied craving for human flesh and are said to pounce on men, women, and children and devour them ravenously. Frenzied behavior is often interpreted as spirit possession or as the result of sorcery.

Spirit Possession

Frenzy has often been associated with spirit possession. The herdsman's description of the Bacchantes, worshiping Dionysos, in Euripides' The Bacchae (ll. 677774) is a classic example. Having himself escaped attack, the herdsman watches as the possessed women attack the villagers' grazing cattle.

And then
you could have seen a single woman with bare hands
tear a fat calf, still bellowing with fright,
in two, while others clawed the heifers to pieces.
There were ribs and cloven hooves scattered everywhere,
and scraps smeared with blood hung from the fir trees.
And bulls, their raging fury gathered in their horns,
lowered their heads to charge, then fell, stumbling
to the earth, pulled down by hordes of women
and stripped of flesh and skin more quickly, sire,
than you could blink your royal eyes. Then,
carried by their own speed, they flew like birds
across the spreading fields along Asopus' stream
where most of all the ground is good for harvesting.
Like invaders they swooped on Hysiae
and on Erythrae in the foothills of Cithaeron.
Everything in sight they pillaged and destroyed.
They snatched the children from their homes. And when
they piled their plunder on their backs, it stayed in place,
untied. Nothing, neither bronze nor iron,
fell to the dark earth. Flames flickered
in their curls and did not burn them.
(The Bacchae, trans. Arrowsmith, ll. 736758)

Euripides' description has become a model in Western discourse for literary descriptions of Dionysian worship (e.g., Thomas Mann's in Death in Venice ) and indeed for scientific description of the frenzy of the spirit possessed.

In many exorcistic rites the spirit-possessed moves from a gentle, "dreamy," somnambulistic trance into a frenzied one in which he or she loses all control of behavior. Thus, in Balinese folk dramas (sanghyangs ) an entranced dancer will imitate, say, a pig, lumbering about on all fours, grunting and groveling, and then suddenly, often on provocation from the audience, he will fall into frenzy, darting, leaping, thrashing about, wallowing uncontrollably in the mud, shaking in convulsions, and struggling against those who try to pin him down. Doused with water, he grows quiet. The frenzied stage of trance possession is usually followed by torpor and exhaustion. Such frenzies, as in The Bacchae, seem to be facilitated by group participation and excitement.

See Also

Berserkers; Ecstasy; Enthusiasm; Healing and Medicine; Omophagia; Spirit Possession.


Belo, Jane. Trance in Bali. New York, 1960. A detailed description of trance (including frenzy) in Bali.

Crapanzano, Vincent. The Hamadsha: An Essay in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry. Berkeley, 1973. Discusses the frenzied state of spirit possession among Moroccan Arabs.

Dumézil, Georges. The Destiny of the Warrior. Translated by Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago, 1970. Discusses furor in Indo-European thought.

Euripides. The Bacchae. Translated by William Arrowsmith. In The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, vol. 4, Euripedes, pp. 543608. Chicago, 1959. Contains an exemplary description of frenzy.

Murphy, H. B. M. "History and Evolution of Syndromes: The Striking Case of Latah and Amok. " In Psychopathology: Contributions from the Social, Behavioral, and Biological Sciences, edited by Muriel Hammer et al., pp. 3355. New York, 1973. One of the few historical studies of amok.

Pfeiffer, Wolfgang M. Transkulturelle Psychiatrie. Stuttgart, 1971. A good discussion of amok and other ethnic psychoses.

Yap, Pow Meng. "The Culture-Bound Reaction Syndromes." In Mental Health Research in Asia and the Pacific, edited by William Caudill and Zongyi Lin. Honolulu, 1969. General discussion of ethnopsychoses, including amok.

New Sources

Simons, Ronald C., and Charles C. Hughes, eds. Culture-Bound Syndromes. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1985.

Spores, John C. Running Amok: An Historical Inquiry. Athens, Ohio, 1988.

Vincent Crapanzano (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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283. Frenzy

  1. Beatlemania term referring to the Beatles (rock musicians) immense popularity; manifested by screaming fans in the 1960s. [Pop. Culture: Miller, 172181]
  2. Big Bull Market speculation craze precipitated stock market crash (1929). [Am. Hist.: Allen, 205226]
  3. Gold Rush lure of instant riches precipitated onslaught of prospectors (1848, 1886). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 203]
  4. Klondike, the scene of wild rush for riches (1886). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 269]
  5. Old Woman of Surrey morn, noon, and night in a hurry. [Nurs. Rhyme: Mother Goose, 117]
  6. Valentinos funeral overwhelmed with grief, fans rioted. [Am. Hist.: Sann, 317327]
  7. White Rabbit agitated rabbit in a perpetual hurry. [Br. Lit.: Alices Adventures in Wonderland ]
  8. White Queen in a perpetual dither. [Br. Lit.: Through the Looking-glass ]
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frenzyjazzy, snazzy •palsy-walsy • Ramsay •pansy, tansy •Anasazi, Ashkenazi, Ashkenazy, Benghazi, Ghazi, kamikaze, khazi, Stasi, Swazi •prezzie •frenzy, Mackenzie •Bel Paese, Buthelezi, crazy, daisy, Farnese, glazy, hazy, lazy, Maisie, mazy, oops-a-daisy, Piranesi, upsy-daisy, Veronese •stir-crazy •breezy, cheesy, easy, easy-peasy, Kesey, Parcheesi, queasy, sleazy, wheezy, Zambezi •teensy • speakeasy •busy, dizzy, fizzy, frizzy, Izzy, Lizzie, tizzy •flimsy, whimsy •Kinsey, Lindsay, Lynsey •poesy •Aussie, cossie, mossie •Swansea • gauzy • causey •ballsy, palsy •blowsy, Dalhousie, drowsy, frowzy, housey-housey, lousy •cosy (US cozy), dozy, Josie, mafiosi, mosey, nosy, posey, posy, prosy, Rosie, rosy •Boise, noisy

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fren·zy / ˈfrenzē/ • n. (pl. -zies) [usu. in sing.] a state or period of uncontrolled excitement or wild behavior: Doreen worked herself into a frenzy of rage.

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frenzy mental derangement, (passing into) wild agitation of mind. XIV. — (O)F. frénésie — medL. phrenēsia, for L. phrenēsis — Gr. phrēnësis, f. phrḗn, phren- mind; see -Y3.