Mysteries
From the Greek word muein, to shut the mouth, and mustes,
an initiate a term for what is secret or concealed in a religious
context. Although certain mysteries were probably part of the
initiatory ceremony of the priests of ancient Egypt, we are ignorant
of their exact nature, and the term is usually used in connection
with certain semi-religious ceremonies held by various
cults in ancient Greece.
The mysteries were secret cults, to which only certain initiated
people were admitted after a period of preliminary preparation.
After this initial period of purification came the mystic
communication or exhortation, then the revelation to the neophyte
of certain holy things, the crowning with the garlands,
and lastly the communion with the deity. The mysteries appear
to have revolved around the semi-dramatic representation of
the life of a deity.
It is believed that these mystic cults were of pre-Hellenic origin,
and that the Pelasgic aboriginal people of Greece strove to
conceal their religions from the eyes of their conquerors. However,
it is interesting to note that for the most part the higher
offices of these cults were in the hands of aristocrats, who, it
may be reasonably inferred, had little to do with the strata of
the population that represented the Pelasgic peoples.
Again, the divinities worshiped in the mysteries possess for
the most part Greek names and many of them are certainly
gods evolved in Greece at a comparatively late period. We find
a number of them associated with the realm of the dead. The
Earth-god or goddess is in most countries often allied with the
powers of darkness. It is from the underworld that grain arises,
and therefore it is not surprising to find that Demeter, Ge, and
Aglauros are identified with the underworld. But there were
also the mysteries of Artemis, of Hecate, and the Cherites—
some of which may be regarded as forms of the great Earth
mother.
The worship of Dionysus, Trophonious, and Zagreus was
also of a mysterious nature; however it is the Eleusinian and Orphic
mysteries that undoubtedly are the most important to the
occult student, and though archaeological findings (such as
vase-painting) it has been possible to glean some general idea
of these. That is not to say that the heart of the mystery is revealed
by any such illustrations, but that these, supplemented
by what the Christian fathers were able to glean regarding
these mystic cults, give useful hints for further investigations.
Eleusis
The mysteries of Eleusis had for their primal adoration Demeter
and Persephone (the mother and the daughter).
Other ‘‘nameless’’ divinities appear to have been associated
with Eleusinian mysteries, usually signified by terms such as
‘‘the gods’’ or ‘‘the goddesses.’’ Mythological science suggests
that such nameless gods are merely those whose higher names
are hidden and unspoken. In Egypt, for example, the concept
of the concealed name was extremely common. The name of
the power of a god, if discovered, bestowed on the discoverer
control over that deity.
Dionysus is also a figure of some importance in the Eleusinian
mystery. It has been thought that Orphic influence was responsible
for his presence in the cult, but traces of Orphic doctrine
have not been discovered in what is known of the
mysteries.
A more baffling personality in the great ritual drama is that
of Iacchus, who appears to be none other than Dionysus under
another name. In either case Dionysus (or Iacchus) does not appear
to be a primary figure of the mystery.
In early Greek legends there are allusions to the sacred
character of the Eleusinian mysteries. From the fifth century
their organization was in the hands of the Athenian city, the
royal ruler of which, along with a committee of supervision, undertook
the general management. The rites took place at the
city of Eleusis and were celebrated by a hereditary priesthood,
the Eumolpedie. They alone (or rather their high priest) could
penetrate into the innermost holy of holies, but there were also
priestesses and female attendants of the goddesses.
The celebration of the mysteries was somewhat as follows in
the month of September the Eleusinian Holy Things were
taken from the sacred city to Athens and placed in the Eleusinion.
These probably consisted to some extent of small statues
of the goddesses. Three days afterward, the catechumens assembled
to hearken to the exhortation of one of the priests,
during which those who were for any reason unworthy of initiation
were solemnly warned to depart. All Greeks or Romans
above a certain age were admitted, including women and even
slaves, but foreigners and criminals could not partake.
The candidates were questioned about their purification, especially
regarding the food they had eaten. After this assembly,
they went to the seashore, bathed, and were sprinkled with the
blood of pigs. A sacrifice was offered up, and several days later
the Eleusinian procession commenced its journey along the sacred
way, its central figure being a statue of Iacchus. Many
shrines were visited on the way to Eleusis, where, upon arrival,
the supplicants celebrated with a midnight orgy.
It is difficult to know what occurred in the inner circle, but
there appear to have been two grades in the celebration, and
we know that a year elapsed before a person who had achieved
one grade became fit for election to the higher. Regarding the
actual ritual in the hall of mystery, a great deal of controversy
has taken place, but it is certain that a dramatic representation
was the central point of interest, the chief characters in which
were probably Demeter and Persephone, and that the myth of
Mysteria Mystica Aeterna Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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the lost daughter and the sorrowing mother was enacted before
an audience. Of scenic display there was probably little or none,
as excavation has proved that there was not room for it, and we
find nothing regarding scenery in the accounts presented in
many inscriptions; but the apparel of the actors was probably
most magnificent, heightened by the effect of gloom and torchlight.
Certain sacred symbols were also displayed before the eyes
of the elect. These appear to have been small idols of the goddesses,
of great antiquity and sanctity. We know that the original
symbols of deity are jealously guarded by many priesthoods.
For example, the Uapes of Brazil kept careful watch
over the symbols of Jurupari, their god, and they were shown
only to the initiated. Any woman who cast eyes on them was instantly
poisoned.
It was also stated by Hippolytus that the ancients were shown
a cut corn stalk, the symbol of Demeter and Persephone. This,
however, is debatable, as is the theory that the Eleusinians worshiped
the actual corn as a clan totem. Corn as a totem is not
unknown elsewhere, as for example in Peru, where the cconopa
or godlings of the maize fields were probably originally totemic.
But if the Eleusinian corn was a totem, it was certainly the
only corn totem known to Greece, and corn totems are rare.
The totem was usually initiated with the hunting condition of
peoples. When they arrived at the agricultural stage a fresh
pantheon usually slowly evolved, in which full-fledged gods
took the place of the old totemic deities. The corn appears as
a living thing. It is growth, and within it resides a spirit. Therefore
the deity that evolves from this concept is more likely to
be of animistic than of totemistic origin.
The neophyte was then made one with the deity by partaking
of holy food or drink. This recalls the story of Persephone,
who, upon reaching the dark shores of Hades, partook of the
food of the dead—thus rendering it impossible for her to return.
Once the human soul eats or drinks in Hades, it may not
return to Earth. This belief is universal, and it is highly probable
that it was symbolized in the Eleusinian mysteries.
M. Foucart ingeniously put forward the theory that the object
of the Eleusinian mysteries was much the same as that of
the Egyptian Book of the Dead, i.e., to provide the initiates with
elaborate rules for avoiding the dangers of the underworld,
and to instruct them in the necessary magical formula. Thus,
friendship with the Holy Mother and Daughter (Demeter and
Persephone), to the Eleusinian votary, was the chief assurance
of immortality.
Dionysiac
A great many offshoots of the Eleusinian cult were established
in several parts of Greece. The most important cult next
to the Eleusinian was the Orphic, which probably arose in
Phrygia, and which came to be associated with Dionysus, originally
a god of vegetation, who was also a divinity of the nether
world. By entering into communion with Dionysus it was believed
that immortality might be assured. His celebrations were
marked by orgies of a bacchic description, in which it was
thought that the neophyte partook for the moment of the character
and the power of the deity himself.
The rites of the cult of Dionysus were of a much more barbaric
nature than those of Eleusis. For instance, the devouring
of an animal victim was supposed to symbolize the incarnation,
death, and resurrection of the divinity. Later the Dionysiac
mysteries were somewhat tempered, but always retained something
of their earlier character. The cult does not appear to
have been highly regarded by the sages of its time.
The golden tablets relating to the Orphic mystery found in
tombs in Greece, Crete, and Italy contain fragments of a sacred
hymn. As early as the third century C.E., it was buried with the
dead as an amulet to protect the deceased from the dangers of
the underworld.
Attis and Cybele
The Phrygian mysteries of Attis and Cybele focused on the
rebirth of the god Attis, who was also of an agrarian character.
Communion with the deity was usually attained by bathing in
blood in the taurobolium or by the letting of blood.
Mithraic Mysteries
The Mithraic cult was of Persian origin, having at its center
Mithra, a personification of light worshiped in that country
some five hundred years before the Christian era. Carried into
Asia Minor by small colonies of magi, it was largely influenced
by the religions with which it was brought into contact.
For instance, Chaldean astrology inspired much of the occult
traditions surrounding the creed of the sun-god; the art of
Greece influenced the representation of Mithra Tauroctonous
that graced the temples of the cult; and the Romans gave it a
wide geographical area and immense influence.
According to Plutarch, the rites originally reached Rome
through the agency of Cilician privates conquered and taken
there by Pompey. Another source, doubtless, was the large
number of Asiatic slaves employed in Roman households.
Again the Roman soldiery must have carried the Mithraic cult
as far north as the mountains of Scotland, and south to the borders
of the Sahara Desert.
Mithraism may be said to have been the only living religion
Christianity found a need to combat. It was strong enough to
exert a formative influence on certain Christian doctrines, such
as those relative to the end of the world and the powers of hell.
Mithra was essentially the divinity of beneficence. He was
the genius of celestial light, endowing the Earth with all its benefits.
As the sun he put darkness to flight, so by a natural transition
he came to represent truth and integrity, the sun of goodness
that conquers the night of evil. To him was ascribed the
role of mediator between God and humanity. His creed promised
a resurrection to a future life of happiness and felicity.
Briefly the story of Mithra is as follows. Mithra sprang to
being in the gloom of a cavern from the heart of a rock, seen
by none but humble shepherds. He grew in strength and courage,
excelling all, and used his powers to rid the world of evil.
Of all his deeds of prowess, however, the one upon which
the cult centered was the slaying of a bull, itself possessed of divine
potentialities. From the spinal cord of the bull sprang the
wheat of the human race’s daily bread, from its blood the vine,
source of the sacred drink of the mysteries, and from its seed
all the different species of useful animals. After this beneficent
deed, Mithra ruled in the heavens, yet still kept watch over
human beings, granting the petitions asked in his name. Those
who followed him, who were initiated into his mysteries, passed
under his divine protection, especially after death, when he
would rescue their souls from the powers of darkness. In addition,
when the Earth failed in her life-sustaining powers,
Mithra would slay a divine bull and give to all abundant life and
happiness.
Among Mithra’s worshipers were slaves and soldiers, high
officials and dignitaries, who worshipped in temples,
mithraeums as they were called, built underground or in caves
and grottoes in the depths of dark forests, symbolizing the
birthplace of their god.
The rites in which they participated were of magical significance
and an oath of silence was taken by all.
In order to bring their lives into closer communion with the
divinity of Mithra, the neophytes had to pass through seven degrees
of initiation, successively assuming the names of Raven,
Occult, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Runner of the Sun, and Father.
Each of these grades carried with it symbolic garments and
masks, donned by the celebrants. The masks represented birds
and animals and seem to indicate belief in the doctrine of metempsychosis,
or perhaps they point to a remnant of totemic
belief. An almost ascetic habit of life was demanded, including
prolonged fasting and purification.
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Before the supplicants entered the higher grades, a ceremony
called the Sacrament was held where they partook of consecrated
bread and wine. Believers were also expected to undergo
dramatic trials of strength, faith, and endurance, a stoical
attitude and unflinching moral courage demanded as sign of
fitness in the participant. The drinking of the sacred wine and
the baptism of blood were supposed to bring to the initiate not
only material benefit but wisdom. They gave the power to combat
evil and the power to attain the immortality of their god.
An order of priests was connected with this cult, which faithfully
carried on the occult tradition and usages, such as that of
initiation, the rites of which were arduous; the tending of a perpetual
fire on the altars; and prayers to the sun at dawn, noon,
and evening. There were sacrifices, libations, and musical rites
including long psalmodies and mystic chants.
The days of the week were each sacred to a planet, the day
of the sun being held especially holy. There were seasonal festivals
the birth of the sun was solemnized on the 25th of December,
and the equinoxes were days of rejoicing, while the initiations
were held preferably in the spring, in March or April.
It is believed that in the earliest days of the cult, some of the
rites were of a savage and barbaric character, especially the sacrificial
element, but these, as indicated, were changed and ennobled
as the beneficence of Mithra took precedence over his
warlike prowess.
The Mithraic brotherhoods were involved with secular interests
as well as spiritual ones and were in fact highly organized
communities, composed of trustees, councils, senates, attorneys,
patrons, and people of high status and wealth. Belonging
to such a body gave the initiate a sense of brotherhood and
comradeship that was doubtless a powerful reason for the popularity
the Mithraic cult gained in the Roman army, whose
members, dispersed to the ends of the Earth, relied on such fraternal
comfort and solace.
Sources
Angus, Samuel. The Mystery Religions and Christianity. London
John Murray, 1928. Reprint, New York Dover, 1975.
Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University Press, 1987.
Cumont, F. V. M. Mysteries of Mithra. London Kegan Paul;
Chicago Open Court, 1910.
Harrison, Jane E. Prolegmena to the Study of Greek Religion.
Cambridge University Press, 1922.
Masks of Dionysus. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press,
1993.
Mylonas, George E. Eleusis and the Eleusian Mysteries. Princeton,
N.J. Princeton University Press, 1961.
Nilsson, Martin P. The Dionysian Mysteries of the Hellenistic and
Roman Age. Lund, Sweden C. W. K. Gleerup, 1957.
Ouvaroff, M. Essay on the Mysteries of Eleusis. London Rodwell
& Martin, 1817.