views updated Jun 08 2018


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.


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 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 deadthus 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.


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.

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.


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.


views updated Jun 27 2018

460. Mystery

  1. abominable snowmen the yeti of Tibet; believed to exist, yet no sure knowledge concerning them. [Asian Hist.: Wallechinsky, 443444]
  2. Bermuda Triangle section of North Atlantic where many planes and ships have mysteriously disappeared. [Am. Hist.: EB, I: 1007]
  3. Big Foot (Sasquatch ) man ape similar to the yeti; reputed to have been seen in northwestern U.S. [Am. Hist.: Yeti in Wallechinsky, 443444]
  4. closed book medieval symbolism for the unknown. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 13]
  5. Dark Lady, The mentioned in Shakespeares later sonnets; she has never been positively identified. [Br. Lit.: Century Cyclopedia, I: 1191]
  6. E = mc2 physical law of mass and energy; arcanum to layman. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 298]
  7. Easter Islands statues origin and meaning of more than two hundred statues remain unknown. [World Hist.: Wallechinsky, 443]
  8. Eleusinian Mysteries ancient religious rites; its secrets have never been discovered. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 305]
  9. Lady or the Tiger, The Stocktons tale never reveals which fate awaits the youth who dared fall in love with the kings daughter. [Am. Lit.: Benét, 559]
  10. Loch Ness monster supposed sea serpent dwelling in lake. [Scot. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 443]
  11. Man in the Iron Mask mysterious prisoner in reign of Louis XIV, condemned to wear black mask at all times. [Fr. Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 460]
  12. Mary Celeste ship found in mid-Atlantic with sails set, crew missing (1872). [Br. Hist.: Espy, 337]
  13. Mona Lisa enigmatic smile beguiles and bewilders. [Ital. Art: Wallechinsky, 190]
  14. Roanoke fate of colony has never been established (1580s ). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 430]
  15. Sphinx half woman, half lion; poser of almost unanswerable riddle. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 258; Gk. Lit.: Oedipus Rex ]
  16. Stonehenge huge monoliths with lintels in Wiltshire, England, have long confounded modern man as to purpose. [Br. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 442]
  17. U.F.O. unexplained and unidentified flying object. [Science: Brewer Dictionary, 1112]


views updated May 23 2018

mys·ter·y1 / ˈmist(ə)rē/ • n. (pl. -ter·ies) 1. something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain: the mysteries of outer space hoping that the inquest would solve the mystery. ∎  the condition or quality of being secret, strange, or difficult to explain: much of her past is shrouded in mystery. ∎  a person or thing whose identity or nature is puzzling or unknown: “He's a bit of a mystery,” said Nina | [as adj.] a mystery guest. 2. a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, esp. a murder.3. (mysteries) the secret rites of Greek and Roman pagan religion, or of any ancient or tribal religion, to which only initiates are admitted. ∎  the practices, skills, or lore peculiar to a particular trade or activity and regarded as baffling to those without specialized knowledge: the mysteries of analytical psychology. ∎  the Christian Eucharist.4. chiefly Christian Theol. a religious belief based on divine revelation, esp. one regarded as beyond human understanding: the mystery of Christ. ∎  an incident in the life of Jesus or of a saint as a focus of devotion in the Roman Catholic Church, esp. each of those commemorated during recitation of successive decades of the rosary.mys·ter·y2 • n. (pl. -ter·ies) archaic a handicraft or trade.


views updated May 23 2018

mystery something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain; chiefly in Christian theology, a religious belief based on divine revelation, especially one regarded as beyond human understanding; an incident in the life of Jesus or of a saint as a focus of devotion in the Roman Catholic Church, especially each of those commemorated during recitation of successive decades of the rosary.

In secular reference, a handicraft or trade, especially when referred to in indentures; the practices, skills, or lore peculiar to a particular trade or activity and regarded as baffling to those without specialized knowledge.

Recorded from Middle English (in the sense ‘mystic presence, hidden religious symbolism’, the word comes via Old French and Latin from Greek mustērion, related to mystic.
mystery play a popular medieval play based on biblical stories or the lives of the saints. Mystery plays were performed by members of trade guilds in Europe from the 13th century, in churches or later on wagons or temporary stages along a route, frequently introducing apocryphal and satirical elements. Several cycles of plays survive in association with particular English cities and towns.
mystery religion a religion centred on secret or mystical rites for initiates, especially any of a number of cults popular during the late Roman Empire.


views updated May 17 2018

mystery1 † phr. in (a) m., mystically XIV; religious truth or doctrine; hidden or secret thing XIV; religious rite XVI; (after F. mystère) miracle play XVIII. — AN. *misterie (OF. mistere, mod. mystère) or its source L. mystērium — Gr. mustḗ rion secret thing or ceremony, f. *mus- as in mustikós MYSTIC.
So mysterious XVII. — F.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Mysteries ★½ 1984

A rich tourist becomes obsessed by a beautiful local girl. As his obsession grows, his behavior becomes stranger. Interesting and wellacted. The film is an adaptation of the famous love story by Nobel-laureate Knut Hamsun. Suffers from poor dubbing. 100m/ C VHS . Rutger Hauer, Sylvia Kristel, David Rappaport, Rita Tushingham; D: Paul de Lussanet.


views updated May 21 2018

mystery2 occupation, handicraft, art XIV; trade guild or company XV. — medL. misterium, contr. of L. ministerium MINISTRY, by assoc. with mystērium (see prec.).


views updated May 21 2018

mysteries the secret rites of Greek and Roman pagan religion, or of any ancient or tribal religion, to which only initiates are admitted.


views updated May 18 2018

mysteries. See miracle plays.