During the NT and subsequent eras the most popular religious forms in the Greco-Roman world were those of the mystery religions. Some of these had been imported from Egypt and the Orient, while others were indigenous to Greece. The traditional cults of the Olympic gods were no longer perceived as able to fulfill the common person's spiritual needs, and so there was a turning to those religions that promised salvation and a blessed afterlife. Immortality could be obtained through initiation into a secret experience that was intended to save the soul after death. Aristotle said that the initiated did not learn anything so much as they felt certain emotions and were put into a certain frame of mind. Cicero could maintain that Athens had given to the world no greater institution than that of the Eleusinian mysteries. They provided a reason to live with joy and to die with better hopes. Moreover, a civilized way of life had been established through the rites, which were properly called “initiation” since they taught the beginnings of life. Women in particular responded to the promise of a brighter future, as well as to the increased recognition and participation that were theirs in the mystery cults.
The essence of the mysteries lay in their secrecy. One could incur the death sentence by revealing the mysteries through speech, pantomime, dance, or depiction. Thus it was that a complete understanding of their secrets perished with the last of their adherents. Their influence permeated ancient society so deeply, however, that the general outlines can be constructed with a considerable degree of certainty. Literally thousands of allusions to the mysteries remain in the form of literary references, vase paintings, reliefs, frescoes, inscriptions, funerary statues, and so forth. We are further aided by the confessions of certain of the church fathers who had been initiated into one or more of the mysteries, although their accounts are far from unbiased. Much religious detective work has been expended upon these ancient mysteries.
Seasonal celebrations marked the birth and death of vegetation gods and of yearly changes in the forces of nature. The mystic rites reenacted a myth concerning a divine figure who suffered some sort of violence, was mourned, and then restored to the grateful worshipers amid general jubilation. Beside the reenactment—which was usually accompanied with music, dancing, and sometimes stunning stage effects—there were acts performed, words spoken, objects revealed, a sacrifice offered, and a sacramental meal shared. Sexual symbols and activities were significantly present. Death, marriage, and adoption by the deity were often simulated, and in some cases the initiate was actually supposed thereby to attain divinity. While noise and wild tumult often accompanied the earlier stages of initiation, silence was attendant upon the ultimate unveiling of the truth. In the Mithras cult the initiate had to lay his finger on his lips, address Silence as the symbol of the living, imperishable God, and pray, “Guard me, Silence.” The culmination of the Eleusinian rites was said to be the display in complete silence of a newly reaped ear of corn. Such beatific visions guaranteed a blessed afterlife to the initiate.
There were within the mysteries successive grades of initiation in which truth might be perceived in a progressive series. On several occasions Plato likened the discovery of philosophic truth to these levels of initiation. Theon of Smyrna described five stages, the first of which was purification. The second communicated some sort of explanation of the rite and an exhortation. There followed a revelation of a sacred spectacle, after which the initiate was crowned with a garland. Then came the final stage, the happiness of knowing that one was beloved of the gods. The objective was indeed participation in the divine life.
Each of the mysteries had its distinctives, although there were great similarities and much syncretism in late antiquity. The most famous was that of Eleusis, whose cult was officially adopted by Athens. It centered upon Demeter, the Earth Mother, and her daughter Persephone, who was abducted to the underworld by its god, Hades. There she became his bride and queen of the dead. Each year she returned for nine months to her mother, who then caused the corn to grow and returned fertility to the earth. Demeter, bringing her gift of agriculture and civilization, had commanded Eleusis to establish her rites, to which anyone who spoke Greek—even women and slaves—might be admitted. The Isis cult retold the search of the sorrowing Isis for her dead husband, Osiris, who had been slain and dismembered by the wicked Set. The cult, closely associated with Egypt, celebrated the discovery of the god's scattered members and his restoration to life. Apuleius described his own initiation into the mysteries of Isis at Corinth. Wildly popular with women was the cult of Dionysus, with its altered state of consciousness and escape from home life. Usually celebrated at night, the rites featured dancing on the mountains, the use of wine and occasionally drugs, ecstatic madness, sex reversal, promiscuity, ritual shouting, the music of flutes and castanets, and in earlier times the rending and eating raw of wild animals. Certain of these rites were accessible only to female adherents, who were called “maenads,” or mad women. The cult of Mithras, often embraced by Roman soldiers, admitted only men. The male worshipers of Cybele, great mother of the gods, sometimes castrated themselves in the frenzy of her rites, and the goddess was served by eunuch priests. Both the Cybele and Mithras cults employed the practice of taurobolium, the slaughter of a bull whose blood dripped through a grate down onto the worshiper who stood beneath. The singer Orpheus, who managed to descend to the nether world and return to earth, was credited with having instituted various mysteries. Small groups adopted an “Orphic” theology, which centered on purification and the means whereby the soul might escape the prison tomb of the body and ascend to the realm of the blessed.
Christian and pagan authors alike inveighed against some of the gross and barbarous elements associated with the mysteries. Even human sacrifice on a few rare occasions may have played a part. Clement of Alexandria complained that the mysteries gave instruction in “adulterous trickery” and that they consisted of murders and burials. W. M. Ramsay has suggested that the initiate was first exposed to sordid scenes of rape and violence, later to visions of tranquility, civilization, and productivity. Especially after the advent of Christianity, the myths which related the manifold vices of the gods, as well as the more offensive practices, were spiritualized into allegories of a more sublime nature. Many features of Christianity were adopted into the mysteries of late antiquity. The concept of resurrection, for instance, is not attested in these cults until after the first century a.d.
Scholars have been quick to note the similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions. It should be noted that Christianity is based upon a historical person, while the mysteries were based upon myths of gods whose experiences were repeated yearly. The mysteries were mainly devoid of a written revelation and were constantly subject to change. Nevertheless, Christianity owed a debt to mystery religion. Church fathers such as Eusebius, Justin Martyr, and Ignatius held that the mysteries were a preparatory stage in Christian enlightenment. Just as Philo of Alexandria explained Judaism in terms of Greek mystery religion, so the apostle Paul declared that he imparted the wisdom of God in the form of a mystery (1 Cor. 2:7). Examples of mystery concepts applied to Christian truth may be found in Colossians 1:26-2:8; Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:42-49; and Philippians 3:12, 15; while 2 Peter 1:16 contrasts initiation practices with those used in Christian revelation. Here, as elsewhere, technical language is borrowed from the mysteries. While there might be such borrowings of concept and language in the NT, actual vestiges of pagan religion were vigorously denounced. There are numerous indications that many members of the congregation at Corinth were newly converted from mystery cults and still clung to old ways such as ceremonial drunkenness, fornication, participation in an idol's feast, the noisy clamor of worship, and the ritual cries of women. It was a syncretization of Christianity and mystery religion which, according to Hippolytus and others, produced the heresies known as Gnosticism.
See also Gnosticism.
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