The Greek Mystery Cults

The following has been taken from Will Durant, The Life of Greece, vol. 2 of The Story of Civilization, Simon and Schuster, 1966, 188-92.

By the time of the Periclean Enlightenment the most vigorous element in Greek religion was the mystery. In the Greek sense, a mystery was a secret ceremony in which sacred symbols were revealed, symbolic rites were performed, and only initiates were the worshipers. Usually the rites represented, or commemorated, in semi-dramatic form, the suffering, death, and resurrection of a god, pointed back to old vegetation themes and magic, and promised the initiate a personal immortality.

THE ELEUSIAN MYSTERIES: Having roots in the myth of Demeter, these rites began with a formal procession, sacred song and dances, and ritual purification through bathing and fasting. The mystai, or initiates, broke their fast by participating in a holy communion in memory of Demeter, drinking a holy mixture of meal and water, and eating sacred cakes. What mystic ritual beyond this we do not know; the secret was well kept throughout antiquity under penalty of death. We do know that the ceremony was a symbolic play, and had a part in generating the Dionysian drama. Very probably the theme was the rape of Persephone by Pluto, the sorrowful wandering of Demeter, the return of the Maiden to earth, and the revelation of agriculture to Attica. The summary of the ceremony was the mystic marriage of a priest representing Zeus [or others, such as Triptolemus] with a priestess impersonating Demeter. The symbolic nuptials bore fruit with magical speed, for it was soon followed by the announcement, "Our Lady had borne a holy boy"; and a reaped ear of corn was exhibited symbolizing the fruit of Demeter's labor--the bounty of the fields. The worshipers were then led by dim torchlight into the dark subterranean caverns symbolizing Hades, and again, to an upper chamber brilliant with light, representing, it appears, the abode of the blessed; and they were now shown, in solemn exaltation, the holy objects, relics, or icons that till that moment had been concealed. In this ecstasy of revelation they felt the unity of God, and the oneness of God and the soul; they were lifted up out of the delusion of individuality, and knew the peace of absorption into deity. Later in the age of Peisistratus the legend of Dionysus was superimposed on the mysteries. But through all forms the basic ideas of the mysteries remained the same: as the seed is born again, so may the dead have renewed life; and not merely the dreary, shadowy existence of Hades (Iliad and Odyssey) but a life of happiness and peace.

THE ORPHIC CULT: Between 700 and 600 BC there came into Hellas, from Egypt, Thrace, and Thessaly, another mystic cult. Orphicism was derived from the story of Orpheus, a Thracian who surpassed all men in music and culture. He often is referred to as a musician, sometimes as a priest of Dionysus. He played the lyre so well, and sang to it so melodiously, that those who heard him almost began to worship him as a god; wild animals became tame at his voice, and trees and rocks left their places to follow the sound of his harp. He married the fair Eurydice, and almost went mad when death took her. He plunged into Hades, charmed Persephone with his lyre, and was allowed to lead Eurydice up to life again on the condition that he would not look back upon her until the surface of the earth was reached. At the last barrier anxiety overcame himself she should no longer be following; he looked back, only to see her snatched down once more into the nether world. Thracian women, resenting his unwillingness to console himself with them, tore him to pieces in one of their Dionysian revels. He left behind many sacred songs; by 520 BC these hymns had acquired a sacred character as divinely inspired, and formed the basis of a mystical cult related to that of Dionysus but far superior to it in doctrine, ritual, and moral influence.

The creed was essentially the affirmation of the passion (suffering), death, and resurrection of the divine son of Dionysus, and resurrection of all men into a future of reward and punishment. Since the Titans, who had slain Dionysus, were believed to have been the ancestors of man, a taint of original sin rested upon all humanity; and in punishment for this the soul was inclosed in the body as in a prison or a tomb. But man might console by knowing that the Titans had eaten Dionysus, and that therefore every man harbored, in his soul, a particle of indestructible divinity In a mystic sacrament of communion the ORPHIC worshipers ate the raw flesh of a bull as a symbol of Dionysus to commemorate the slaying and eating of the god, and to absorb the divine essence anew. After death, according to Orphic theology, the soul goes down to Hades, and must face judgment by the gods of the underworld; the Orphic hymns and ritual instructed the faithful in the act of preparing for this comprehensive and final examination. If the verdict was guilty, there would be severe punishment. One form of the doctrine conceived this punishment as eternal, and transmitted to later theology the notion of hell. Another form adopted the idea of transmigration: the soul was reborn again and again into lives happier or bitterer than before according to the purity or impurity of its former existence; and this wheel of rebirth would turn until complete purity was achieved, and the soul was admitted to the Islands of the Blest. Another variant offered hope that the punishment in Hades might be ended through penances performed in advance by the individual, or, after his death, by his friends. In the way a doctrine of purgatory and indulgences arose. And thus there were in Orphism trends that culminated in the morals and monasticism of Christianity. The reckless looseness of the Olympians was replaced by a strict code of conduct; a conception of sin and conscience, a dualistic view of the body as evil and of the soul as divine, entered into Greek thought; subjugation of the flesh became a main purpose of religion, as a condition of release for the soul.

The influence of the sect was extensive and enduring. Perhaps it was here that Pythagoreans took their diet, their dress, and their theory transmigration; Plato, though he rejected much of Orphism, accepted its opposition of body and soul, its puritan tendency, its hope of immortality. Part of the pantheism and asceticism of Stoicism may be traced to an Orphic origin. The Neo-Platonists of Alexandria possessed a large collection of Orphic writings, and based upon them much of their theology and their mysticism. The doctrines of hell, purgatory, and heaven, of the body versus the soul, of the divine son slain and reborn, as well as the sacramental eating of the body and the blood and divinity of the god, directly or deviously influenced Christianity, which was itself a mystery religion of atonement and hope, of mystic union and release. The basic ideas and ritual of the Orphic cult are alive and flourishing amongst us today.