Greek Mystery Schools

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Greek Mystery Schools

The origin and substance of the state religion of ancient Greece was a sophisticated kind of nature worship wherein natural elements and phenomena were transformed into divine beings who lived atop Mount Olympus. Like the humans who worshipped them, the Olympians lived in communities and had families, friends, and enemies and were controlled by the same emotions, lusts, and loves. The pantheon of the gods of ancient Greece were not cloaked in the mysterious, unfathomable qualities of the deities of the East, but possessed the same vices and virtues as the humans who sought their assistance. Although the Olympians could manifest as all-powerful entities, none of them were omnipotent. Although they were capable of exhibiting wisdom, none of them were omniscient. And they often found themselves just as subject to the whims of Fate as the humans who prayed to them for their guidance.

The Olympians were worshipped by the Greeks most often in small family groups. There existed no highly organized or formally educated priesthood, no strict doctrines, no theologians to interpret the meaning of ambiguous scriptural passages. The followers of the state religion could worship the god or gods of their choosing and believed that they could gain their favor by performing simple ritual acts and sacrifices.

In addition to the state religion into which every Greek belonged automatically at birth, there were the "mystery religions," which required elaborate processes of purification and initiation before a man or woman could qualify for membership. The mystery religions were concerned with the spiritual welfare of the individual, and their proponents believed in an orderly universe and the unity of all life with God. The relationship of the mystes, the initiate, was not taken lightly, as in the official state religion, but was considered to be intimate and close. The aim and promise of the mystical rites was to enable the initiate to feel as though he or she had attained union with the divine. The purifications and processions, the fasting and the feasts, the blazing lights of torches, and the musical liturgies played during the performances of the sacred plays, all fueled the imagination and stirred deep emotions. The initiates left the celebration of the mystery knowing that they were now superior to the problems that the uninitiated faced concerning life, death, and immortality. Not only did the initiates know that their communion with the patron god or goddess would continue after death, but that they would eventually leave Hades to be born again in another life experience.

The early mystery schools of the Greeks centered around a kind of play or ritual reenactment of the life of such gods as Osiris, Dionysus, Demeterdivinities most often associated with the underworld, the realm of the dead, the powers of darkness, and the process of rebirth. Because of the importance of the regenerative process, the rites of the mysteries were usually built around a divine female as the agent of transformation and regeneration. While the initiates of the mystery cult enacted the life cycle of the gods who triumphed over death and who were reborn, they also asserted their own path of wisdom that would enable them to conquer death and accomplish resurrection in the afterlife, with rebirth in a new body in a new existence.

There is a general consensus that the most important mystery religions of Greecethe Eleusinian, the Dionysian, and the Orphic were brought to that country from abroad sometime during the closing centuries of the Prehistoric Era (c. 2000 b.c.e.). The oldest of the mysteries, the Dionysian, was probably developed in Thrace, in the eastern Balkans, and introduced to the Greeks. Once the mysteries were accepted by the Greek initiates, the passion plays of Demeter and Dionysus became popular in the sixth century b.c.e. and again in the Hellenistic Age in the fourth century b.c.e. This was when individualism was encouraged and the old gods of Olympus fell into disregard. Perhaps the time of greatest popularity for the mysteries occurred during the closing centuries of pagan worship practices and the advent of the Christian Era. The early Christian Fathers regarded the rites in the sacred groves as strong rivals for their faith, and in the Middle Ages (5001500 c.e.), the Christian clergy would declare such mysteries as satanic.

Delving Deeper

Brandon, S. G. F. Religion in Ancient History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Cotterell, Arthur, ed. Encyclopedia of World Mytholo gy. London: Dempsey Parr Book, 1999.

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Ferm, Vergilious, ed. Ancient Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. New York: Larousse, 1994.


Delphi

For centuries, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in central Greece contained the most prestigious oracle in the Graeco-Roman world, a favorite of public officials and individuals alike. The oracle was said to relay prophetic messages and words of counsel from Python, the wise serpent son of the Mother-goddess Delphyne or from the Moon-goddess Artemis through their priestess daughters, the Pythonesses or Pythia. According to myth, the god Apollo murdered Delphyne and claimed the shrine and the Pythia for himself, imprisoning the serpent seer in the recesses of a cave beneath the temple.

The historian Plutarch (c. 46120 c.e.), author of Plutarch's Lives, served for a time as high priest at the Delphic Oracle and explained why its oracles had remained popular while others had fallen into disrepute. In his opinion, the gods had declined to speak through the other oracles because their devotees had insulted them by asking too many blasphemous and trivial questions, such as advice concerning love affairs and disreputable business transactions.

Plutarch also described how the oracle worked. The priestess went into a small chamber called the adyton where she would inhale sweet-smelling fumes that issued from fissures in the rocks. The fumes, supposedly released by the serpent deep within the cave, would place the Pythia in a trance that would allow her to see the future and to make predictions. Plutarch asserted that such trance states occasionally deepened into delerium, even death.

While some researchers have touted the accuracy of the oracle at Delphi, other scholars have protested that the predictions of the Pythia were too often made in extremely ambiguous language, so that it could always be claimed that the petitioner had misinterpreted or misunderstood the true meaning of the prophecy. An oft-cited example of such ambiguity concerns the wealthy and powerful Croesus (d. 546 b.c.e.), king of Lydia, who sought counsel regarding his plans to attack Cyrus the Great (c. 600529 b.c.e.), king of Persia. The oracle told Croesus that if he went to war with Cyrus, he would thereby destroy a mighty kingdom. Encouraged by such a prophecy, Croesus went to war and was soundly defeated by the Persians. The Greek king had fulfilled the prophecy by destroying his own kingdom. In response to his bitter complaint, the Pythia reminded him that their seership had been accurate. Croesus was told that he should have thought first to ask whose kingdom would be destroyed before he set about waging war against the Persians.

The Oracle at Delphi was a major religious site for 2,000 years until it was closed by the Christian emperor Theodosius I (346?395). Later, Arcadius ordered the temple destroyed.


In the summer of 2001, Jelle de Boer of Wesleyan University in Connecticut and coworkers discovered a previously unknown geological fault passing through the sanctuary of the Temple of Apollo. According to de Boer, the fault crosses the previously known Delphi fault directly below the temple. This crossing makes the bitumen-rich limestone much more permeable to gases and groundwater. The researchers speculated that seismic activity on the faults could have heated such deposits, releasing light hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene. Ethylene is a sweet-smelling gas that was once used in certain medical procedures as an anesthetic. Although fatal if inhaled in large quantities for too long a period of time, in small doses ethylene stimulates the central nervous system and produces a sensation of euphoria and a floating feelingaccording to Jelle de Boer, just what oracles need to prompt visions.

Delving Deeper

Ball, Philip. "Oracle's Secret Fault Found." Nature News Service/Macmillan Magazines, Ltd. 17 July 2001.

Cotterell, Arthur, ed. Encyclopedia of World Mytholo gy. London: Dempsey Parr Book, 1999.

De Boer, J. Z., J. R. Hale, and J. Chanton. "New Evidence of the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle." Geology, 29 (2001): 707710.

Piccardi, L. "Active Faulting at Delphi, Greece: Seis motectonic Remarks and a Hypothesis for the Geologic Environment of a Myth." Geology 28 (2001): 65154.

Gaskell, G. A. Dictionary of All Scriptures & Myths. Avenel, N.J.: Gramercy Books, 1981.


Dionysus

Next to the Eleusinian mysteries in importance and popularity was the Dionysian, which was centered around Dionysus (Bacchus), a god of life, vegetation, and the vine, who, because all things growing and green must one day decay and die, was also a divinity of the underworld. Those initiates who entered into communion with Dionysus drank heavily of the fruit of the vine and celebrated with feasts that encouraged them to dress themselves in leaves and flowers and even to take on the character of the god himself, thereby also achieving his power. Once the god had entered into union with the initiates, they would experience a new spiritual rebirth. This divine union with Dionysus marked the beginning of a new life for the initiates, who, thereafter, regarded themselves as superior beings. And since Dionysus was the Lord of Death, as well as the Lord of Life, the initiates believed that their union with him would continue even after death and immortality was now within their grasp.

The earlier rites of Dionysus were conducted on a much lower level than those of Eleusis, and often featured the sacrifice of an animal usually a goat that was torn to pieces by the initiates, whose savagery was meant to symbolize the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the divinity. Although the cult was not looked upon with high regard by the sages and philosophers of the day, amulets and tablets with fragments of Dionysian hymns upon them have been found dating back to the third century b.c.e. These magical symbols were buried with the dead and meant to protect the soul from the dangers of the underworld.

Orpheus may have been an actual historic figure, a man capable of charming both man and beast with his music, but god or human, he modified the Dionysian rites by removing their orgiastic elements. According to some traditions, he was said to be the son of a priestess of Apollo, gifted with a melodious voice, golden hair, deep blue eyes, and a powerful magnetism that exerted a kind of magic upon all those with whom he came into contact. Then, so the legend goes, he disappeared, and many presumed him dead. In reality, he had traveled to Memphis, where he spent the next 20 years studying in the Egyptian mystery schools. When he returned to Greece, he was known only by the name that he had received in the initiation rites, Orpheus of Arpha, "the one who heals with light."

Orpheus next changed the cult of Bacchus/Dionysus and set about restructuring the spiritual soul of Greece, recreating the mysteries by blending the religion of Zeus with that of Dionysus. Orpheus taught that Dionysis Zagreus, the horned son of Zeus and Persephone, the great god of the Orphic mysteries, was devoured by the evil Titans while Zeus was otherwise distracted. Athena managed to save Dionysus Zagreus's heart while the enraged Zeus destroyed the Titans with his thunderbolts. Zeus gave the heart of his beloved son to the earth goddess Semele who dissolved it in a potion, drank thereof, and gave birth to Dionysus, the god of vegetation, whose cycle of birth, death, and rebirth reflects the cycle of growth, decay, and rebirth seen in nature.

Orpheus preached that humankind was created from the ashes of the Titans who devoured Dionysus Zagreus; therefore, the physical bodies of humans are formed from the evil of the Titans, but they also contain within them a tiny particle of the divine essence. Within this duality a constant war rages, so it is the duty of each human to repress the Titanic element and allow the Dionysian an opportunity to assert itself. The final release of the divine essence within, the redemption of the soul, is the utmost goal of the Orphic process. This process may best be obtained by the soul reincarnating in a number of physical bodies in different life experiences.


In Orphic thought, the gods Apollo and Dionysus were two representations or revelations of the same divinity. Dionysus represented the mysteries of life, the secrets of past and future incarnations, the true relationship between spirit and bodytruths that could only be accessible to the initiates of the mystery school. Dionysus was the expression of the evolving soul in the universe. Apollo personified those same truths as they could be applied to humans in their earthly existence. Apollo gave inspiration to those who would be artists, poets, doctors, lawyers, and scientists through divination, such as that which issued from his priestesses at Delphi.

One of the essential aspects of the Orphic initiation was the process of the initiate absorbing the healing light of Orpheus and purifying the heart and spirit. Among the truths that Orpheus had learned in the Egyptian sanctuaries was that God is One, but the gods are many and diverse. Orpheus had descended into hell, the underworld, and braved its challenges and subdued the demons of the pit. The disciples of the Orphic/Dionysus schools were promised the celestial fire of Zeus, the light retrieved by Orpheus, that enabled their souls to triumph over death. These things would all be enacted in the mystery play that depicted Orpheus descending into Hades and observing Persephone, the queen of the dead, being awakened by Dionysus and being reborn in his arms, thus perpetuating the cycle of rebirth and death, past and future, blending into a timeless immortality.

While other schools of reincarnation see the process of rebirth as an evolving of the soul ever higher with each incarnation, the Orphic concept introduces the aspect of the soul being gradually purged or purified through the sufferings incurred during each physical rebirth. As the soul inhabits the body, it is really doing penance for previous incarnations, a process that gradually purifies the soul. Between lifetimes, when the soul descends to Hades, it can enjoy a brief period of freedom that can be pleasant or unpleasant. Then it must return to the cycle of births and deaths. How many lifespans must the soul endure before the process of purification is completed and its final release is obtained? Plato envisioned three periods of a thousand years each as a possible answer.

According to Orphic teachings, the only way out of the "wheel of birth," the "Great Circle of Necessity," was through an act of divine grace that could possibly be obtained by the supplicant becoming immersed in the writing, ritual acts, and teachings of Orpheus and receiving initiation into the mysteries of the cult. Although there are no available texts clearly setting forth the process of initiation, it is likely that they included fasting, rites of purification, and the reciting of prayers and hymns. It also seems quite certain that the initiates would have enacted a play depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Dionysus Zagreus. In addition, records suggest that a horned bull was sacrificed and the initiates partook of a sacramental feast of its raw flesh as a holy act that brought them in closer union with the god. Once this had been accomplished, the initiates were given secret formulas that would enable them to avoid the snares awaiting the unwary soul as it descended to Hades and would ensure them a blissful stay while they awaited a sign that their participation in the Great Circle of Necessity had ended.

Delving Deeper

Brandon, S. G. F. Religion in Ancient History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Ferm, Vergilious, ed. Ancient Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife and the Soul. New York, Macmillan, 1989.

Young, Dudley. Origins of the Sacred. New York: St. Martins, 1991.


Eleusis

The sacred Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks date back to the fifth century and were the most popular and influential of the cults, and it has been said that nowhere did the ancient mysteries appear in such human, vital, and colorful form. The cult of Eleusis centered around the myth of Demeter (Ceres), the great mother of agriculture and vegetation, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the Greek underworld, the original name of the goddess of death and regeneration. The drama enacted for the initiates symbolized the odyssey of the human soul, its descent into matter, its earthly sufferings, its terror in the darkness of death, and its rebirth into divine existence. Some contemporary students of the mysteries have portrayed the myth as the story of the Fall of humankind and its Redemption as expressed in the religion of the Eleusinians. In the temples and in the groves where the mysteries were celebrated, the candidates were told that life was a series of tests and that after death would be revealed the hopes and joys of a glorious world beyond and the opportunity for rebirth.

The rites of the mysteries took place near Eleusis, a small community 14 miles west of Athens, but it was the ruler of Athens, together with a specially selected committee, who was in charge of the general management of the annual event. Although the Dionysian and Orphic rites could be celebrated at any time, the Eleusinian rites were held at a fixed time in the early fall after the seeds had been entrusted to the fields and were conducted by a hereditary priesthood called the Eumolpedie, the "singers of gracious melodies."

Sometime in the month of September, the Eumolpedie removed the Eleusianian holy objects from Eleusis and carried them to the sacred city of Athens where they were placed in the Eleusinion. Three days after the holy relics had been transported, the initiates gathered to hear the exhortations of the priests, who solemnly warned all those who did not consider themselves worthy of initiation to leave at once. Women and even slaves were permitted to join the mysteries of Eleusis, providing they were either Greeks or Romans, but it was required that all those wishing to be considered as initiates had first undergone the lesser mysteries held in Agrae, a suburb of Athens, six months before in March. After the rites of purification had been observed, the initiates bathed in the sea and were sprinkled with the blood of pigs as they emerged. A sacrifice was offered to the gods, and a procession began the journey to Eleusis, where, upon the arrival of the priests, the initiates were received by the high priest of Eleusis, the hieroceryx, or sacred herald, who was dressed in a manner suggesting the god Hermes (Mercury), holding the caduceus, the entwined serpents, as a symbol of his authority. Once the aspirants had assembled, the sacred herald led them to a sanctuary of the goddess Persephone hidden in a quiet valley in the midst of a sacred grove. Here, the priestesses of Persephone, crowned with narcissus wreaths, began chanting, warning the newcomers of the mysteries that they were about to perceive. The initiates would learn that the present life that they held so dear was but a tapestry of illusion and confused dreams. After a stern admonition that the aspirants be careful not to desecrate the mysteries in any way lest the goddess Persephone pursue them forever, they were allowed to partake of food and drink.

For the next several days, the initiates fasted and participated in cleansing rituals and prayers. On the evening of the last day of the celebration of the mystery, the candidates gathered in the most secret area of the sacred grove to attend the Rape of Persephone. The Eleusinian drama reenacted the myth of the rape, abduction, and marriage of Persephone (Kore) by Hades, god of the underworld, and her separation from her mother, Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of grain and vegetation. When, in her despair, Demeter refuses to allow the earth to bear fruit and causes a time of blight and starvation that threatens to bring about the extinction of both humans and the gods, Zeus recalls Persephone from Hades. Filled with joy at the reunion with her daughter, Demeter once again allows the earth to bear fruit. Persephone, however, will now divide her time between her husband Hades in the underworld and her mother on Earth, ensuring a bountiful harvest.

Essentially, the rites imitated the agricultural cycles of planting the seed, nurturing its growth, and harvesting the grain, which, on the symbolical level, represented the birth of the soul, its journey through life, and its death. As the seed of the harvest is planted again and the agricultural cycle is perpetuated, so is the soul harvested by the gods to be resurrected. Membership in the mysteries of Eleusis was undertaken for the purpose of the initiates ensuring themselves a happy immortality. They returned to their customary occupations as mystics, ones who had been endowed with the ability to open their inner eyes to perceive a world of light beyond the darkness of their ordinary lives.


Delving Deeper

Cotterell, Arthur, ed. Encyclopedia of World Mythology. London: Dempsey Parr Book, 1999.

Ferm, Vergilious, ed. Ancient Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Fox, Robin Lane.Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Gaskell, G. A. Dictionary of All Scriptures & Myths. Avenel, N.J.: Gramercy Books, 1981.

Young, Dudley. Origins of the Sacred. New York: St. Martins, 1991.

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