The Mysteries

Remains of Mithraeum in Ostia, Italy

The genesis of this post is an odd one.  I was talking to a friend about mythology the other day, and he asked what my favorite ancient Greek deity was.  Without hesitation I answered that it was Athena.  I went on to say that my favorite figure from Norse mythology was Odin, and from Egyptian, Isis.  Thus, if I’d been an ancient Greek, I’d have worshiped Athena, and so on.  I got to thinking about this a little later, and with the usual flow of stream of consciousness, where one topic leads to another that is sometimes only marginally related, I ended up with something I decided was worth blogging about–hence, the current post.

The title of this post does not refer to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or any such thing, but to a specific type of religion prevalent in the Mediterranean cultural zone from about the middle of the first millennium BC to the fifth century or so AD.  These religions were referred to as “mysteries”, usually with a qualifier (“Mysteries of Eleusis”, “Mysteries of Isis”, “Orphic Mysteries”, and so on), by the people of the time.  Scholars of religion in modern times refer to them as “mystery religions”.  In order to examine them, we need to back up a bit and look at the broader picture.

Back here we looked at the definition of “religion” and saw how the religion of Greco-Roman antiquity (as well as most other ancient religions) differed substantially from what we generally think of as religion in modern times.  Religion is typically considered to consist of three (sometimes four) aspects, the Three (or Four) C’s–Cult (how you worship), Creed (what you believe), Conduct (behavior/morality), and sometimes Community (the group of believers).  For moderns, these are typically tightly interwoven.  Because you believe certain things about God, including that He gave us a moral code, therefore you behave a certain way, worship a certain way, and belong to a certain community.

Most ancient religions, including the Greco-Roman religion, which will be the main focus here, were not like this at all.  Cult, Creed, and Conduct ran along different tracks, with little or no connection; and there was no idea of a community of believers bound by a single faith.  The cult of the gods was strictly transactional and strictly pragmatic.  The prescribed sacrifices and rituals were to be performed at the prescribed times by the priests of the town, city, or nation.  If they were done correctly, the gods would be propitiated, and they would protect the city or nation and cause them to prosper.  If the rites were not performed, the wrath of the gods would be stoked, and they might strike the city or nation with any number of catastrophes.

Belief and conduct were completely irrelevant.  If I buy, say, a toaster oven at Wal-Mart, neither the clerk nor the management nor anyone else involved gives a hoot about whether I’m a good or bad person.  The fact that I’m philosophically opposed to big-box stores and dislike having to shop at them is no skin off anyone’s nose, either.  If I have the money and give them the right amount, they give me the toaster oven, and that’s that.  I give them money, they give me stuff.  This is the essence of what the Greeks and Romans believed about their gods:  “Do ut des,” which translates as “I give so that you might give.”  Just as I give money to a store clerk in order to get what I’m buying, without morality or belief coming into the picture, so an ancient might make sacrifice to a deity for a particular purpose (e.g. to Aesculapius for healing or to Poseidon for a successful sea journey) with the expectation that, having “paid” the god or goddess for his or her services, the deity would reciprocate.

This is very hard for moderns to understand, since for us morality and belief are closely tied to worship.  Historically speaking, though, this is a relatively recent innovation that stems from Judaism and later is taken up by its successor religions of Christianity and Islam.  We’ve discussed this process before.  At that time, we saw how the ethical monotheism of Judaism and its descendants gradually supplanted the polytheism of pagan antiquity.  In this post, I want to look at a slightly different angle.

Even for the ancients, the transactional, “I give so you’ll give” mentality of religion gradually came to be unsatisfying.  The most obvious problem was that the gods were maddeningly fickle.  Say what you will about Wal-Mart; but if I go to any Wal-Mart location, pick up a ten dollar item, check out, and hand the clerk (or the automated checkout) $10.60 (tax, you know), I get to take the item home, every single time.  On the other hand, if I sacrifice to Poseidon for a safe sea journey, I may have a safe journey indeed.  Then again, my ship may sink.  Aesculapius may heal me, but then again, he may not.  The festival observed for the city’s patron god might make it prosperous; or a neighboring city might send an army, seize it, and burn it to the ground.  No matter how precisely the sacrifices were performed, there was no guarantee that they’d actually work.

On another level, the model of worship as not much different from buying something from Wal-Mart was not very emotionally satisfying.  Part of the religious impulse in human beings is a yearning for something more, something beyond the vicissitudes and heartbreaks and suffering of mortal life.  After all, Poseidon might grant you a safe journey, or Aesculapius heal you, or your city’s god might protect it; but life will continue to present you with heartache and adversity, and ultimately, sooner or later, you’ll come to the end of life.  You will inevitably die.  At that point, what good were the successful voyage, the healing, or the unpillaged city?

Finally, as civilization became more complex, people felt more alienated.  In a hunter-gatherer tribe or a small agrarian village, everyone knew everyone, and the feeling of nearness to the Divine was strong.  In a large city such as Rome (which is believed to have been the first city in human history to have surpassed a million inhabitants in population) one was anonymous, just another face in the crowd.  The ceremonies to the gods of Rome were probably equally impersonal and irrelevant to the average person.  They might keep the city safe; but how were they meaningful to the individual?

The first religious traditions to address these issues were the mystery religions, which gradually came into being perhaps as early as the 2nd Millennium BC. While many–perhaps most–of the mystery religions were of pre-Greek or non-Greek origin, they took root in Greek culture, where they were firmly established by the Classical period.  “Mystery” ultimately derives from the Greek verb μῡ́ειν, which means simply “to be silent”.  The mystery religions exemplify a new focus in the religion of classical antiquity.  Rather than being transactional and impersonal, as the traditional religious practices were, the mystery religions were non-transactional and personal.  The focus was not functional–whether the right person performed the right sacrifice correctly–but experiential.

We don’t actually know the specific details of the various mystery religions.  The reason for this is that they placed vows of silence–hence the origin of the term “mysteries”–on those who participated.  It is likely that the rites of some mystery religions were never even written down, being passed on orally.  We do, however, from indirect descriptions of some writers and some fragments that may (or may not) have been part of the liturgies of some of the mystery religions, have a fair idea of the basic format of the various mystery cults.  They could be summarized as follows:

1. Emphasis upon a single deity or (sometimes) group of deities.  Thus, the Eleusinian Mysteries focused on Demeter; the Dionysian Mysteries on Dionysus; the cult of Magna Mater on Cybele; and so forth.  It’s important to point out that this did not entail anything like monotheism.  None of the mysteries denied the existence of other deities, nor did they prohibit their worship.  An initiate of one of the various mystery schools was perfectly free to worship any deity he wished.  In fact, since most municipalities had various festivals in which worship and veneration of the local patron god or gods was essentially mandatory, it would be expected that the citizens, mystery initiates included, should participate.  Thus, while the mysteries–as we’ll see–forged a special relationship between initiates and a specific god or goddess, the initiates were not committed to exclusive worship of the deity in question.

2. Initiation.  Most traditional religious practices were affairs left mainly to priests or priestesses.  Laity might provide animals, grains, or wine for sacrifices, or participate as spectators; but there were no qualifications as to who could so participate.  By contrast, followers of the mysteries had to be ceremonially initiated into them.  In some cases, there were prerequisites for this.  To be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, it was required that the aspirant not have “blood guilt” (not have committed murder) and that he or she understand Greek. Once one was initiated, he or she could attend future rites of the mystery religion in question; but the uninitiated could not attend at all.

3. Identification with the god.  Though the details of the mysteries are sketchy, they seem to have involved a re-enactment of the myth of the deity in question.  In the Eleusinian mysteries, for example, the initiates participated in a series of processions in which they ritually recreated the actions of Demeter as she searched for her daughter Persephone, who had been abducted by Hades.  Many scholars believe that the purpose of this was to inculcate an identification between the initiates and the deity.  In short, the initiate, by achieving unity with the Divine, could take on the properties of the deity, particularly immortality.

4. Immortality is in fact a hallmark of the mystery religions in and of itself.  It is extremely important to note that the earliest forms of Greek religion had no concept of an afterlife, another notion which we erroneously think to be a prerequisite of religion. The earliest literary depiction of the afterlife in Greek literature occurs in the Odyssey, in which Odysseus travels to Hades to speak to the shade of the prophet Tiresias. “Shade” is the operative word. The dead are depicted as vague shadows with no substance and barely any self-awareness unless they drink the blood of a sacrificial victim offered to them. Over four hundred years later, Plato, in his dialogues, still felt the need to argue for the immortality of the soul, indicating that this was not the universal view even in his day. The point is that whereas the traditional Greek religion was almost exclusively geared to this-worldly concerns, with no hope of an afterlife, the mysteries provided just such a hope to the initiates.

5.  Emphasis on community.  “Community” is sometimes considered the fourth “C” of religion.  With modern religions, this is a given.  Christians feel connected to other Christians, Muslims to other Muslims, Buddhists to other Buddhists, and so on.  The classical Greco-Roman religion was not even a “religion” in the same sense as the modern faiths listed.  That is, there was no consciousness of a specific culture or people connected by a common body of doctrine and practices.  As with modern Hinduism, the Greco-Roman religion was a mish-mash of hundreds of gods and goddesses with varying and sometimes outright contradictory stories told of them, along with a dizzying number of rites, rituals, priesthoods, folk practices, and so on.  Even foreign pantheons were not seen to be really different, but were usually equated with Greco-Roman gods–e.g. Zeus=Jupiter=Thor, Hermes=Mercury=Odin, and so on.  By contrast, there was a common bond among all those who had gone through the initiation in any of the mystery religions.  Fellow initiates of Isis might not be quite like, say, a Baptist church community; but they were definitely more closely bonded to each other than any two random followers of Greco-Roman religion in general.

6. Secrecy.  As implied by the very term “mystery”–“keeping silent”–the initiates were strictly forbidden from revealing the specific practices of mysteries.  Some general things are known, as noted above.  There are some surviving artworks and fragments of verse that are thought to reference the mysteries obliquely, and the playwright Aeschylus was said to have been tried for revealing aspects of the Eleusinian Mysteries in some of his plays, though he was acquitted.  On the whole, though, the mystery religions are just that–mysteries.

The various mystery religions were popular for quite some time.  From the Greeks, the mysteries spread to Rome as it rose to power.  Members of the Roman upper class frequently were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Mithraic Mysteries, of Persian origin, were so popular among Roman soldiers as to be the semi-official religion of the Roman army.  The Romans, more dour and austere than the Greeks, did tend to look somewhat askance at the cult of Cybele, and banned the mysteries of Dionysus altogether at one time.  On the other hand, the Mysteries of Isis, imported from Egypt after it was annexed by Rome, became quite popular.  This was part of a fascination with Egyptian culture not unlike the fascination with Hindu culture in the West in the 1960’s.  In any case, Isis was so popular that her cultus was the subject of Apuleius‘ classic of Roman literature The Golden Ass.

Despite all this, there was an inherent tension with the mystery religions.  On the one hand, they spoke to people in a way and on deep levels that the religion of the state and the folk piety of the countryside simply could not.  On the other hand, by their very nature, the mysteries were limited to the minority of the population who were qualified, willing, and able to be initiated.  Despite the popularity of Mithraism and the cult of Isis, there was probably never any likelihood that either of them–or any of the other mysteries–could ever have become the religion of a majority, or even a plurality, of the Roman population.  It would seem, then that the mysteries are a historical dead end, interesting, perhaps, but irrelevant to us moderns.  This may not be the case, however.

It has been noticed, as far back as the 2nd Century AD, that Christianity (specifically in its Catholic/Orthodox forms) looks quite a bit like a mystery religion.  To compare point by point with the criteria given above:

1. Christianity focuses on one deity–God manifested in Jesus Christ.

2. Christians are initiated into the faith through the Sacraments of Initiation:  Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist–principally Baptism.

3. The narrative of the Mass of the Catholic Church, or the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, re-presents the story of the life of Christ and his institution of the Eucharist.  In receiving the Eucharist, which is taught to be the “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” of Jesus Christ, the believer is united to Christ.  In the words of Paul, “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

4. The Christian who has died with Christ through Baptism believes he will rise with him through resurrection at the last day (cf. 2 Timothy 2:11).  This promised immortality was part of the appeal of Christianity in its early days.

5. The early Church was a stronger community than anything else in Antiquity.  There were to be “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor…male and female…in Christ Jesus” (Galatans 3:28), and all Christians were to be part of one body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12).  This bond of mutual love and concern was remarked on even by ancient commenters hostile to Christianity. 

6.  In the earliest days of the Church, Sunday meetings were barred to non-Christians, partly out of fear of Roman persecution.  Those to be baptized (the Church grew principally by adult conversion at this time) were dismissed from the liturgy before the Eucharist, and thus did not know about it.  They also were not taught directly about Baptism.  These catechumens (as the ones to be baptized were known) would be baptized on the Vigil of Easter (the liturgy on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday).  They would experience of dying and rising with Christ through baptism in a particularly dramatic and spectacular way, not having known exactly what to expect.  Similarly, they would experience the Eucharist–union with Christ through the Sacrament–for the very first time later in the liturgy.  In both cases, the experience would be profoundly affecting in a way that moderns can hardly imagine.

There are two principle differences between Christianity and the mysteries, one dating to the beginning, and one developing later.  While both the mystery religions and Christianity focused on one deity, Christianity was truly monotheistic.  While a devotee of Demeter was not banned from worshiping any other deity, a Christian was to worship only God.  The other difference was in the secrecy.  In its beginning, Christianity had elements of secrecy, or at least privacy, not unlike that of the mystery religions.  This seems to have been more a matter of expediency and self-preservation than principle, though.  The New Testament is clear that the faith is for all, not for just an elite few; and as to Christian teaching, “what you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:3)

As time passed and the Church spread, Christian liturgies became increasingly public, the Sacraments were openly celebrated, and the cloak and dagger aspects of the early days of the Church were gradually abandoned.  Christianity, paradoxically, became a public mystery religion.

As time passed, the similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions became more obscure.  Partially this is because of infant baptism.  Christianity seems to have practiced this from the beginning (though this is controverted), but in the early days this was rarer than it later became.  This is partly because the Church spread mainly through conversion at first.  Secondarily, for some time it was not unusual to postpone baptism of children until adulthood to give them time to sow their wild oats (St. Augustine is a famous example of this).  Thus, in the early Church, the sense of initiation and conversion was much stronger, as it was experienced by adults.  By the Middle Ages, when the vast majority of the population was already Christian and infant baptism the norm, this sense was lost.

At the same time, the original mysteries gradually went into decline, finally being banned in 392 AD by the Christian Emperor Theodosius.  There was no longer any basis of comparison between the mysteries and the Church.  The similarities, therefore, were forgotten.

I’ve discussed before how the early Church was able to appeal to the religious needs, yearnings, and aspirations of the Roman world.  The vision of a single God who cares about us individually and who expects a high ethical standard of us, in a way that no pagan god ever did, was extremely compelling to the people of antiquity.  I think the similarity of Christianity to the mysteries is another factor in this.  As with the mysteries, a believer could become united to God, attaining immortality in the process.  Unlike the mystery religions, though, Christianity was open to all and did not require oaths of secrecy.  It was in a real sense the best of both worlds.

At this juncture, it is important to point out that there is substantial disagreement as to the extent to which the mysteries influenced Christianity, if they did so at all.  There is probably no way to settle the matter one way or the other.  That said, I inclined toward a similarity, either by some type of mutual influence, common cultural ideas, or through the providence of God in seeding praeperatio evangelica (“preparation for the Gospel”) throughout ancient cultures.  We have no way of saying; but my general principle is that on matters such as this, I don’t believe in coincidences.  It is also worth pointing out that the parallels between Christianity and the mysteries is strongest in the case of the apostolic churches, to wit, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the Assyrian Church of the East.  With Protestant churches, the parallels are not as close, though some remain.

In conclusion, then, while the mystery religions accounted for only a small percentage of the population of the ancient times, they ultimately, through the twists and turns of fate, influenced the whole world.

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“.

Posted on 09/06/2019, in religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Rudolf Steiner argued in “Christianity as Mystical Fact” in 1908, for example, that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were a completion of the ancient mystery religions. What was before performed in the sanctuaries and induced through the soul’s temporary departure from the physical body (i.e. “temple sleep”) was accomplished on the great stage of history, by Jesus, on behalf of humankind.

  1. Pingback: Religious Miscellany: Index | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: Sex and Religion! (Now that I have your attention…) | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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