1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mystery
MYSTERY (Gr. μυσήριν, from μύστης, an initiate, μύειν, to shut the mouth), a general English term for what is secret and excites wonder, derived from the religious sense (see below). It is not to be confounded with the other old word “mystery,” or more properly “mistery,” meaning a trade or handicraft (Lat. ministerium, Fr. métier). For the medieval plays, called mysteries, see Drama; they were so called (Skeat) because acted by craftsmen.
Greek Mysteries.—It is important to obtain a clear conception of the exact significance of the Greek term μυστήριον, which is often associated and at times appears synonymous with the words τελετή, ὄργια. We may interpret “mystery” in its original Greek meaning as a “secret” worship, to which only certain specially prepared people—οί μυηθέντες—were admitted after a special period of purification or other preliminary probation, and of which the ritual was so important and perilous that the “catechumen” needed a hierophant or expounder to guide him aright. In the ordinary public worship of the state or the private worship of the household the sacrifice with the prayer was the chief act of the ceremony; in the “mysterion” something other than a sacrifice was of the essence of the rite; something was shown to the eyes of the initiated, the mystery was a δρᾶμα μυστικόν, and δρᾶν and δρησμοσύνη are verbal terms expressive of the mystic act. We have an interesting account given us by Theo Smyrnaeus of the various elements and moments of the normal mystic ceremony: first is the καθαρμός or preliminary purification; secondly, the τελετῆς παράδοσις, the mystic communication which probably included some kind of λόγος, a sacred exegesis or exhortation; thirdly, the ἑποπτεία or the revelation to sight of certain holy things, which is the central point of the whole; fourthly, the crowning with the garland, which is henceforth the badge of the privileged; and finally, that which is the end and object of all this, the happiness that arises from the friendship or communion with the deity. This exposition is probably applicable to the Greek mysteries in general, though it may well have been derived from his knowledge of the Eleusinian. We may supplement it by a statement of Lucian's that “no mystery was ever celebrated without dancing” (De saltat. 15), which means that it was in some sense a religious drama, ancient Greek dancing being generally mimetic, and represented some ἱερός λόγος or sacred story as the theme of a mystery-play.
Before we approach the problem as to the content of the mysteries, we may naturally raise the question why certain ancient cults in Greece were mystic, others open and public. An explanation often offered is that the mystic cults are the Pelasgic or pre-Hellenic and that the conquered populations desired to shroud their religious ceremonies from the profane eyes of the invaders. But we should then expect to find them administered chiefly by slaves and the lower population; on the contrary they are generally in the hands of the noblest families, and the evidence that slaves possessed in any of them the right of initiation is only slight. Nor does the explanation in other respects fit the facts at all. The deities who are worshipped with mystic rites have in most cases Hellenic names and do not all belong to the earliest stratum of Hellenic religion. Besides those of Demeter, by far the most numerous in the Hellenic world, we have record of the mysteries of Ge at Phlye in Attica, of Aglauros and the Charities at Athens, of Hecate at Aegina; a shrine of Artemis Μρυσία on the road between Sparta and Arcadia points to a mystic cult of this goddess, and we can infer the existence of a similar worship of Themis. Now these are either various forms of the earth-goddess, or are related closely to her, being powers that We call “chthonian,” associated with the world below, the realm of the dead. We may surmise then that the mystic setting of a cult arose in many cases from the dread of the religious miasma which emanated from the nether world and which suggested a prior ritual of purification as necessary to safeguard the person before approaching the holy presence or handling certain holy objects. This would explain the necessity of mysteries in the worship of Dionysus also, the Cretan Zagreus, Trophonius at Lebadeia, Palaemon-Melicertes on the Isthmus of Corinth. They might also be necessary for those who desired communion with the deified ancestor or hero, and thus we hear of the mysteries of Dryops at Asine, of Antinotis the favourite of Hadrian at Mantineia. Again, where there was hope or promise that the mortal should by communion be able to attain temporarily to divinity, so hazardous an experiment would be safeguarded by special preparation, secrecy and mystic ritual; and this may have been the prime motive of the institution of the Attis-Cybele mystery. (See Great Mother of the Gods.)
For the student of Hellenism, the Eleusinian and Orphic ceremonies are of paramount importance;the Samothracian, which vied with these in attractiveness for the later Hellenic world, were not Hellenic in origin, nor wholly hellenized in character, and cannot be considered in an article of this compass. As regards the Eleusinia, we are in a better position for the investigation of them than our predecessors were; for the modern methods of comparative religion and anthropology have at least taught us to ask the right questions and to apply relevant hypotheses; archaeology, the study of vases, excavations on the site, yielding an ever-increasing hoard of inscriptions, have taught us much concerning the external organization of the mysteries, and have shown us the beautiful figures of the deities as they appeared to the eye or to the mental vision of the initiated.
As regards the inner content, the secret of the mystic celebration, it is in the highest degree unlikely that Greek inscriptions or art would ever reveal it; the Eleusinian scenes that appear on Attic vases of about the 5th century cannot be supposed to show us the heart of the mystery, for such sacrilegious rashness would be dangerous for the vase-painter. If we are to discover it, we must turn to the ancient literary records. These must be handled with extreme caution and a more careful scrutiny than is often applied. We must not expect full enlightenment from the Pagan writers, who convey to us indeed the poetry and the glow of this fascinating ritual, and who attest the deep and purifying influence that it exercised upon the religious temperament, but who are not likely to tell us more. It is to the Christian Fathers we must turn for more esoteric knowledge, for they would be withheld by no scruple from revealing what they knew. But we cannot always believe that they knew much, for only those who, like Clement and Arnobius, had been Pagans in their youth, could ever have been initiated. Many of them uncritically confuse in the same context and in one sweeping verdict of condemnation Orphic, Phrygian-Sabazian and Attis-Mysteries with the Eleusinian; and we ought not too lightly to infer that these were actually confused and blended at Eleusis. We must also be on our guard against supposing that when Pagan or Christian writers refer vaguely to “mysteria,” they always have the Eleusinian in their mind.
The questions that the critical analysis of all the evidence may hope to solve are mainly these: (a) What do we know or what can we infer concerning the personality of the deities to whom the Eleusinian mysteries were originally consecrated, and were new figures admitted at a later period? (b) When was the mystery taken over by Athens and opened to all Hellas, and what was the state-organization provided? (c) What was the inner significance, essential content or purport of the Eleusinia, and what was the source of their great influence on Hellas? (d) Can we attribute any ethical value to them, and did they strongly impress the popular belief in immortality? Limits of space allow us only to adumbrate the results that research on the lines of these questions has hitherto yielded.
The paramount divine personalities of the mystery were in the earliest period of which we have literary record, the mother and the daughter, Demeter and Kore, the latter being never styled Persephone in the official language of Eleusis; while the third figure, the god of the lower World known by the euphernistic names of Pluto (Plouton) and at one time Eubouleus, the ravisher and the husband, is an accessory personage, comparatively in the background. This is the conclusion naturally drawn from the Homeric hymn to Demeter, a composition of great ritualistic value, probably of the 7th century B.C., which describes the abduction of the daughter, the sorrow and search of the mother, her sitting by the sacred well, the drinking of the κυκεών or sacred cup and the legend of the pomegranate. An ancient hymn of Pamphos, from which Pausanias freely quotes and which he regards as genuine, appears to have told much the same story in much the same way. As far as we can say, then, the mother and daughter were there in possession at the very beginning. The other pair of divinities known as ὁ θεός ἡ θεα, that appear in a 5th-century inscription and on two dedicatory reliefs found at Eleusis, have been supposed to descend from an aboriginal period of Eleusinian religion when deities were nameless, and when a peaceful pair of earth-divinities, male and female, were worshipped by the rustic community, before the earth-goddess had pluralized herself as Demeter and Kore, and before the story of the madre dolorosa and the lost daughter had arisen. But for various reasons the contrary view is more probable, that ὁ θεός and ἡ θεα are later cult-titles of the married pair Pluto-Cora (Plouton-Kore), the personal names being omitted from that feeling of reverential shyness which was specially timid in regard to the sacred names of the deities of the underworld. And it is a fairly familiar phenomenon in Greek religion that two separate titles of the same divinity engender two distinct cults.
The question as to the part played by Dionysus in the Eleusinia is important. Some scholars, like M. Foucart, have supposed that he belonged from the beginning to the inner circle of the mystery; others that he forced his Way in at a somewhat later period owing to the great influence of the Orphic sects who captured the stronghold of Attic religion and en grafted the Orphic-Sabazian ἱερὸς λόγος, the story of the incestuous union of Dionysus-Sabazius with Demeter-Kore, and of the death and rendering of Zagreus, upon the primitive Eleusinian faith. A saner and more careful criticism rejects this view. There is no genuine trace discovered as yet in the inner circle of the mysteries of any characteristically Orphic doctrine; the names of Zagreus and Phanes are nowhere heard, the legend of Zagreus and the death of Dionysus are not known, to have been mentioned there. Nor is there any print within or in the precincts of the τελεστήιον: the hall of the Μύσται, of the footsteps of the Phrygian deities, Cybele, Attis, Sabazius.
The exact relation of Dionysus to the mysteries involves the question as to the divine personage called Iacchus; who and what was Iacchus? Strabo (p. 468), who is a poor authority on such matters, describes him as “the daemon of Demeter, the founder of the leader of the mysteries.” More important is it to note that “Iacchus” is unknown to the author of the Homeric hymn, and that the first literary notice of him occurs in the well-known passage of Herodotus (viii. 65), Who describes the procession of the mystae as moving along the sacred way from Athens to Eleusis and as raising the cry Ἴακχε. We find Iacchus the theme of a glowing invocation in an Aristophanic Ode (Frogs, 324-398), and described as a beautiful “young god”; but he is first explicitly identified with Dionysus in the beautiful ode of Sophocles' Antigone (1119); and that this was in accord with the popular ritualistic lore is proved by the statement of the scholiast on Aristophanes (Frogs, 482) that the people at the Lenaea, the winter-festival of Dionysus, responded to the command of “Invoke the god!” with the invocation “Hail, Iacchus, son of Semele, thou giver of wealth!” We are sure, then, that in the high tide of the Attic religious history Iacchus was the youthful Dionysus, a name of the great god peculiar to Attic cult; and this is all that here concerns us to know.
We can now answer the question raised above. This youthful Attic Dionysus has his home at Athens; he accompanies his votaries along the sacred way, filling their souls with the exaltation and ecstasy of the Dionysiac spirit; but at Eleusis he had no temple, altar or abiding home; he comes as a visitor and departs. His image may have been carried into the Hall of the Mysteries, but whether it played any part there in a passion-play we do not know. That he was a primary figure of the essential mystery is hard to believe, for we find no traces of his name in the other Greek communities that at an early period had instituted mysteries on the Eleusinian model. Apart from Iacchus, Dionysus in his own name was powerful enough at Eleusis as in most other localities. And the votaries carried with them no doubt into the hall the Bacchic exaltation of the Iacchus procession and the nightly revel with the god that preceded the full initiation; many of them also may have belonged to the private Dionysiac sects and might be tempted to read a Dionysiac significance into much that was presented to them. But all this is conjecture. The interpretation of what was shown would naturally change somewhat with the changing sentiment of the ages; but the mother and the daughter, the stately and beautiful figures presented to us by the author of the homeric hymn, who says no word of Dionysus, are still found reigning paramount and supreme at Eleusis just before the Gothic invasion in the latter days of Paganism. Triptolemus the apostle of corn culture, Eubouleus—originally a euphemistic name of the god of the under-world, “the giver of good counsel,” conveying a hint of his oracular functions—these are accessory figures of Eleusinian cult and mythology that may have played some part in the great mystic drama that was enacted in the hall.
The development and organization of the Eleusinia may now be briefiy sketched. The legends concerning the initiation of Heracles and the Dioscuri preserve the record of the time when the mysteries were closed against all strangers, and were the privilege of the Eleusinians alone. Now the Homeric hymn in its obvious appeal to the whole of the Greek world to avail themselves of these mysteries gives us to suppose that they had already been thrown open to Hellas; and this momentous change, abolishing the old gentile barriers, may have naturally coincided with, or have resulted from, the fusion of Eleusis and Athens, an event of equal importance for politics and religion which we may place in the prehistoric period. The reign of Peisistratus was an era of architectural activity at Eleusis; but the construction of the μυστικὸς σηκός was one of the achievements of the Periclean administration. Two inscriptions, containing decrees passed during the supremacy of Pericles, the one proclaiming a holy truce of three months for the votaries that came from any Greek community, the other bidding the subject allies and inviting the independent states to send ἀπαρχαί or tithe-offerings of corn to Eleusis, record the farsighted policy of Periclean Athens, her determination to find a religious support for her hegemony.
At least from the 5th century onwards, the external control and all questions of the organization of the mysteries were in the hands of the Athenian state, the rule holding in Attica as elsewhere in Hellas that the state was supreme over the Church. The head of the general management was the king-archon (archon-basileus) who with his paredros and the four “epimeletai” formed a general committee of supervision, and matters of importance connected with the ritual were decided by the Boulé or Ecclesia. But the claim of Eleusis as the religious metropolis was not ignored. The chief of the two priestly families, in whose hands lay the mystic celebration itself and the formal right of admission, was the Eleusinian “gens” of the Eumolpidae; it was to their ancestor that Demeter had entrusted her ὄργια, and the recognition of their claims maintained the principle of apostolic succession. To them belonged the hierophant (ἱεροφάντης), the high priest of the Eleusinia, whose function alone it was to “reveal the orgies,” to show the sacred things, and who alone—or perhaps with his consort-priestess—could penetrate into the innermost shrine in the hall; an impressive figure, so sacred in person that no one could address him by his personal name, and bound, at one period at least, by a rule of celibacy. We hear also of two “hierophantides,” female attendants on the older and younger goddesses. In fact, while the male priest predominates in this ritual, the women play a prominent part: as we should expect, considering that the sister-festival of the Thesmophoria was wholly in their hands.
The other old priestly family was that of the “Kerykes,” to whom the δᾳδοῦχος belonged, “the holder of the torch,” the official second in rank to the ἱεροφάντης. It is uncertain whether this family was of Eleusinian origin; and in the 4th century it seems to have died out, and the office of the δᾳδοῦχος passed into the hands of the Lycomidae, a priestly family of Phlye, suspected of being devotees of Orphism.
Turning now to the celebration itself, we can only sketch the more salient features here. On the 13th of Boedromion, the Attic month corresponding roughly to our September, the Ephebi (q.v.) marched out to Eleusis, and returned to Athens the next day bringing with them the “holy-things” (ἱερά) to the “Eleusinion” in the city; these ἱερά probably included small images of the goddesses. The 16th was the day of the ἀγυρμός, the gathering of the catechumens, when they met to hear the address of the hierophant, called the προρρησις. This was no sermon, but a proclamation bidding those who were disqualified or for some reason unworthy of initiation to depart. The legally qualified were all Hellenes and subsequently all Romans above a certain—very youthful—limit of age, women, and as it appears even slaves; barbarians, and those uncleaned of some notorious guilt, such as homicide, were disqualified. We are sure that there was no dogmatic test, nor would time allow of any searching moral scrutiny, and only the Samothracian rites, in this respect unique in the world of classical religion, possessed a system of confessional. The hierophant appealed to the conscience of the multitude; but we are not altogether sure of the terms of his proclamation, which can only be approximately restored from late Pagan and early Christian writers. We know that he demanded of each candidate that he should be “of intelligible speech (i.e. an Hellene) and pure of hand”; and he catechized him as to his condition of ritualistic purity—the food he had eaten or abstained from. It appears also from Libanius that in the later period at least he solemnly proclaimed that the catechumen should be “pure of soul,” and this spiritual conception of holiness had arisen already in the earlier periods of Greek religious thought. On the other hand we must bear in mind the criticism that Diogenes is said to have passed upon the Eleusinia, that many bad characters were admitted to commmunion, thereby securing a promise of higher happiness than an uninitiated Epaminondas could aspire to.
An essential preliminary was purification and lustration, and after the assembly the “mystae” went to the sea-shore (ἅλαδε μύσται) and purified themselves with sea-water, and probably with sprinkling of pigs’ blood, a common cathartic medium. After their return from the sea, a sacrifice of some kind was offered as an essential condition of μύησις, but whether as a sacrament or a gift-offering to the goddesses it is impossible to determine. On the 19th of Boedromion the great procession started along the sacred way bearing the “fair young god” Iacchus; and as they visited many shrines by the way the march must have continued long after sunset, so that the 20th is sometimes spoken of as the day of the exodus of Iacchus. On the way each wore a saffron band as an amulet; and the ceremonious reviling to which the “mystai” were subjected as they crossed the bridge of the Cephissus answered the same purpose of averting the evil eye. Upon the arrival at Eleusis, on the same night or on the following, they celebrated a midnight revel under the stars with Iacchus, which Aristophanes glowingly describes.
The question of supreme interest now arises: What was the mystic ceremony in the hall? what was said and what was done? We can distinguish two grades in the celebration; the greater was the τέλεα and ἐποπτικά, the full and satisfying celebration, to which only those were admitted who had passed the lesser stage at least a year before. As regards the actual ritual in the hall of the mystae, much remains uncertain in spite of the unwearying efforts of many generations of scholars to construct a reasonable statement out of fragments of often doubtful evidence. We are certain at least that something was acted there in a religious drama or passion-play, the revelation was partly a pageant of holy figures; the accusations against Aeschylus and Alcibiades would suffice to prove this; and Porphyry speaks of the hierophant and the δᾳδοῦχος acting divine parts. What the subject of this drama was may be gathered partly from the words of Clemen—“Deo (Demeter) and Kore became the personages of a mystic drama, and Eleusis with its δᾳδοῦχος celebrates the wandering, the abduction and the sorrow” (Protrept, p. 12 Potter), partly from Psyche’s appeal to Demeter in Apuleius (Metamorph. 6)—“by the unspoken secrets of the mystic chests, the winged chariots of thy dragon-ministers, the bridal descent of Proserpine [Persephone], the torch-lit wanderings to find thy daughter and all the other mysteries that the shrine of Attic Eleusis shrouds in secret.” We may believe then that the great myth of the mother’s sorrow, the loss and the partial recovery of her beloved was part of the Eleusinian passion-play. Did it also include a ἱερὸς γάμος? We should naturally expect that the sacred story acted in the mystic pageant would close with the scene of reconciliation, such as a holy marriage of the god and the goddess. But the evidence that this was so is mainly indirect, apart from a doubtful passage in Asterius, a writer of questionable authority in the 4th century A.D. (Econom. martyr. p. 194, Combe). At any rate, if a holy marriage formed part of the passion-play, it may well have been acted with solemnity and delicacy. We have no reason to believe that even to a modern taste any part of the ritual would appear coarse or obscene; even Clement, who brings a vague charge of obscenity against all mysteries in general, does not try to substantiate it in regard to the Eleusinia, and we hear from another Christian writer of the scrupulous purity of the hierophant.
It would be interesting to know if the birth of a holy child, a babe Iacchus, for example, was a motive of the mystic drama. The question seems at first sight to be decided by a definite statement of Hippolytus (Philosoph. 5, 8), that at a certain moment in the mysteries the hierophant cried aloud: “The lady-goddess Brimo has borne Brimos the holy child.” But a careful consideration of the context almost destroys the value of his authority. For he does not pretend to be a first-hand witness, but admits that he is drawing from Gnostic sources, and he goes on at once to speak of Attis and his self-mutilation. The formula may then refer to the Sabazian-Phrygian mystery, which the Gnostics with their usual spirit of religious syncretism would have no scruple in identifying with the Eleusinian. And the archaeological evidence that has been supposed to support the statement of Hippolytus is deceptive.
Finally, we must not suppose that there could be any very elaborate scenic arrangements in the hall for the representation of Paradise and the Inferno, whereby the rewards of the faithful and the punishments of the damned might be impressively brought home to the mystae. The excavations on the site have proved that the building was without substructures or underground passages. A large number of inscriptions present us with elaborate accounts of Eleusinian expenditure; but there is no item for scenic expenses or painting. We are led to suppose that the pageant-play produced its effect by means of gorgeous raiment, torches and stately figures.
But the mystic action included more than the pageant-play. The hierophant revealed certain holy objects to the eyes of the assembly. There is reason to suppose that these included certain primitive idols of the goddesses of imrnemorial sanctity; and, if we accept a statement of Hippolytus (loc. cit.) we must believe that the epoptae were also shown “that great and marvellous mystery of perfect revelation, a cut corn-stalk.” The value of this definite assertion, which appears to be an explicit revelation of the secret, would be very great, if we could trust it; but unfortunately it occurs in the same suspicious context as the Brimo-Brimos formula, and we again suspect the same uncritical confusion of Eleusinian with Phrygian ritual, for we know that Attis himself was identified in his mysteries with the “reaped corn,” the στάχυς ἄμητος, almost the very phrase used by Hippolytus. Only, it is in the highest degree probable, whether Hippolytus knew anything or not, that a corn-token was shown among the sacred things of a mystery which possessed an original agrarian significance and was intended partly to consecrate and to foster the agricultural life. But to say this is by no means the same as to admit the view of Lenormant and Dr Jevons that the Eleusinians worshipped the actual corn, or revered it as a clan-totem. For of direct corn-worship or of corn-totemism there is no trace either at Eleusis or elsewhere in Greece.
Among the δρώμενα or “things done” may we also include a solemn sacrament, the celebration of a holy communion, in whiéh the votary was united to the divinity by partaking of some holy food or drink? We owe to Clement of Alexandria (Protrept. p. 18, Potter) an exact transcription of the pass-word of the Eleusinian mystae; it ran as follows (if we accept Lobeck’s emendation of ἐγγευσάμενος for ἐργασάμενος): “I have fasted, I have drunk the barley-drink, I have taken [the things] from the sacred chest, having tasted thereof I have placed them into the basket and again from the basket into the chest.” We gather from this that some kind of sacrament was at least a preliminary condition of initiation; the mystae drank of the same cup as the goddess drank in her sorrow, partly—as we say—“in memory of her,” partly to unite themselves more closely with her. We know also from an inscription that the priest of the Samothracian mysteries broke sacred bread and poured out drink for the mystae (Arch. epigr. Mitth. 1882, p. 8, No. 14). But neither in these nor in the Eleusinian is there any trace of the more mystic sacramental conception, any indication that the votaries believed themselves to be partaking of the actual body of their divinity; for there is no evidence that Demeter was identified with the corn, still less with the barley-meal of which the κυκεών was compounded. Nor is it likely that the sacrament was the pivot of, the whole mystery or was part of the essential act of the μύησις itself. In the first place we have an almost certain representation of the Eleusinian sacrament on an archaic vase in Naples probably of Attic provenance, and the artistic reproduction of a holy act would have been impious and dangerous, if this had belonged to the inner circle of the mystery. Again, there is no mention of sacrament or sacrifice among the five essential parts of μύησις given by Theo Smyrnaeus, nor in the imaginary narrative of the late rhetorician Sopatros, who supposes the strange case of a man being initiated by the goddesses in a dream: they admit him to their full communion merely by telling him something and showing him something.
Besides the δρώμενα, then, there were also certain things said in the hall, or in the earlier stages of initiation, which we would gladly discover. Part of these were mystic formulae, one of which has been discussed already, the pass-word of the votaries. We gather also from Proclus and Hippolytus that in the Eleusinian rites they gazed up to heaven and cried aloud “rain”—ὕε—and gazed down upon the earth and cried “conceive”—κύε. This ritual charm-we cannot call it prayer-descends from the old agrarian magic which underlay the primitive mystery. What else the votaries may have uttered, whether by way of thanksgiving or solemn litany, we do not know. But there was also a certain ἱερός λόγος, some exposition accompanying the unfolding of the mysteries; for it was part of the prestige of the hierophant that he was chief spokesman, “who poured forth winning utterance and whose voice the catechumen ardently desired to hear” (Anth. Pal., app. 246); and Galen speaks of the rapt attention paid by the initiated “to the things done and said in the Eleusinian and Samothracian mysteries” (De usu part. 7. 14). But we have no trustworthy evidence as to the real content of the λόγος of the hierophant. We need not believe that the whole of his discourse was taken up with corn-symbolism, as Varro seems to imply (Aug. De civit. Dei. 20), or that he taught natural philosophy rather than theology, or again, the special doctrine of Euhemerus, as two passages in Cicero (De natur. deor. i. 42; Tusc. i. 13) might prompt us to suppose. His chief theme was probably an exposition of the meaning and value of the ἱερά, as in an Australian initiation rite it is the privilege of the elders to explain the nature of the “churinga” to the youths. And his discourse on these may have been coloured to some extent by the theories current in the philosophic speculation of the day. But though in the time of lulian he appears to have been a philosopher of Neo-platonic tendencies, we ought not to suppose that the hierophant as a rule would be able or inclined to rise above the anthropomorphic religion of the times. Whatever symbolism attached to the iepd, the sacred objects shown, was probably simple and natural; for instance, in the Eleusinian, as in Egyptian eschatology, the token of the growing corn may have served as an emblem—though not a proof—of man's resurrection. The doctrine of the continuance of the soul after death was already accepted by the popular belief, and the hierophant had no need to preach it as a dogma; the votaries came to Eleusis to ensure themselves a happy immortality. And in our earliest record, the Homeric hymn. we find that the mysteries already hold out this higher promise. How, we may ask, were the votaries assured? M. Foucart in Les grands mystéres d’Eleusis has maintained that the object of the mysteries was much the same as that of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; to provide the mystae with elaborate rules for avoiding the dangers that beset the road to the other world, and for attaining at last to the happy regions; that for this purpose the hierophant recited magic formulae whereby the soul could repel the demons that it might encounter on the path; and that it was to seek this deliverance from the terrors of hell that all Greece docked to Eleusis. This is in accord with his whole “egyptizing” theory concerning thel Eleusinia, a theory which, though Egyptian influence cannot a priori be ruled out, is not fo und in harmony with the facts of the two religious systems. And the particular hypothesis just stated is altogether wanting in direct evidence, or—we may say—in vraisemblance. There is no hint or allusion to be found in the ancient sources suggesting that the recital of magic formulae was part of the ceremony. The λόγος, whatever it was, was comparatively unimportant. And the Greek public in general, in its vigorous period when the Eleusinian religion reached its zenith, was not tormented, as modern Europe has at times been, by ghostly terrors of judgment.
The assurance of the hope of the Eleusinian votary was obtained by the feeling of friendship and mystic sympathy, established by mystic contact, with the mother and the daughter, the powers of life after death. Those who won their friendship by initiation in this life would by the simple logic of faith regard themselves as certain to win blessing at their hands in the next.
It is obvious that the mysteries made no direct appeal to the intellect, nor on the other hand revolted it by any oppressive dogmatism. As regards their psychic effect, we have Aristotle's invaluable judgment: “The initiated do not learn anything so much as feel certain emotions and are put into a certain frame of mind” (Synes. Dion. p. 48a). The appeal was to the eye and to the imagination through a form of religious mesmerism working by means that were solemn, stately and beautiful. To understand the quality and the intensity of the impression produced, we should borrow something from the modern experiences of Christian communion-service, mass, and passion-play, and bear in mind also the extraordinary susceptibility of the Greek mind to an artistically impressive pageant.
That the Eleusinia preached a higher morality than that of the current standard is not proved. That they exercised a direct and elevating influence on the individual character is nowhere explicitly maintained, as Diodorus (v. 49) maintains concerning the Samothracian. But on general grounds it is reasonable to believe that such powerful religious experience as they afforded would produce moral fruit in many minds. The genial Aristophanes (Frogs, 455) intimates as much, and Andocides (De myster. p. 36, § 31; p. 44, § 125) assumes that those who had been initiated would take a juster and sterner view of moral innocence and guilt, and that foul conduct was a greater sin when committed by a man who was in the official service of the mother and the daughter.
Besides the greater mysteries at Eleusis, we hear of the lesser mysteries of Agrae on the banks of the Ilissos. Established, perhaps, originally by Athens herself at a time when Eleusis was independent and closed her rites to strangers, they became wholly subordinated to the greater, and were put under the same management and served merely as a necessary preliminary to the higher initiation into them. Sacrifice was offered to the same great goddesses at both; but we have the authority of Duris (Athenae, 253d), the Samian historian, and the evidence of an Attic painting, called the pinax of Nannion, that the predominant goddess in the mysteries at Agrae was Kore. And this agrees with the time of their celebration, in the middle of Anthesterion, when Kore was supposed to return in the young corn. Stephanus (s.v. Ἄγρα), drawing from an unknown source, declares that the Dionysiac story was the theme of their mystic drama. Hence theorists have supposed that their content was wholly Orphic or that their central motive was the marriage of Dionysus and Kore. The theory has no archaeological or literary support except the passage in Stephanus, nor have we reason for believing that the marriage of these two divinities was recognized in Attic state ritual. The influence of Eleusis in early times must have been great, for we find offshoots of its cult, whether mystic or not, in other parts of Greece. In Boeotia, Laconia, Arcadia, Crete and Thera, Demeter brought with her the title of “Eleusinia”; and no other explanation is so probable as the obvious one that this name designates “the goddess of Eleusis,” and though there may have been other places called “Eleusis,” the only famous religious centre was the Attic. The initiation rites of Demeter at Celeae near Phlius, at Lerna in Argolis, and at Naples, were organized after the pattern of the Eleusinian. But of these and the other Demeter mysteries in the Greek world, there is little to record that is certain and at the same time of primary importance for the history of religion. The Arcadian city of Pheneus possessed a mystery that boasted an Eleusinian character and origin, yet in the record of it there is no mention of Kore, and we may suspect that, like other Demeter-worships in the Peloponnese, it belonged to a period when the earth goddess was revered as a single personality and Kore had not yet emanated from her. We know much more of the details of the great Andanian mysteries in Messenia, owing to the discovery of the important and much-discussed Andanian inscription of 91 B.C. But what we know are facts of secondary importance only. We gather from Pausanias (4. 33. 4; cf. 4. 1. 5. and 4. 26. 8; 4. 27. 6) that the rites, which he regards as second in solemnity and prestige to the Eleusinian alone, were consecrated to the Μεγάλαι θεαί, . . . the great goddesses, . . . and that Kore enjoyed the mystic title of Hagnē, “the holy one.” The inscription has been supposed to correct and to refute Pausanias, but it does not really controvert his statements, which are attested by other evidence; it proves only that other divinities came at a later time to have a share in the mysteries, such as the Μεγάλοι θεοί who were probably the Cabeiri (q.v.). It is clear that the Andanian mysteries included a sacred drama, in which women persona ted the goddesses. The priestesses were married women, and were required to take an oath that they had lived “in relation to their husbands a just and holy life.” We hear also of grades of initiation, purification-ceremonies, but of no sacrament or eschatology promise; yet it is probable that these mysteries, like the Eleusinian, maintained and secured the hope of future happiness.
The Eleusinian faith is not wholly unattested by the grave-inscriptions of Hellas, though it speaks but rarely on these. The most interesting example is the epitaph of a hierophant who proclaims that he has found that “death was not an evil, but a blessing.”
Of equal importance for the private religion of Greece were the Orphic mystic societies, bearing a Thraco-Phrygian tradition into Greece, and associated originally with the name of Dionysus, and afterwards with Sabazius also and the later cult-ideas of Phrygia. The full account of the Dionysiac mysteries would demand a critical study of the Dionysiac religion as a whole, as well as of the private sects that sprang up under its shadow. It is only possible here to indicate the salient characteristics of those which are of primary value for the history of religion.
Originally a great nature-god of the Thraco-Phrygian stock, powerful over all vegetation and especially revealing his power in the vine, Dionysus was forcing his way into Greece at least as early as the Homeric period, and by the 6th century was received into the public cults of most of the Greek communities. We can gather with some certainty or probability his aboriginal characteristics and the form of his Worship. Being a god of the life of the earth, he was also a nether divinity, the lord of the world of souls, with whom the dead votary entered into privileged communion; his rites were mystic, and nightly celebrations were frequent, marked by wild ecstasy and orgiastic self-abandonment, in which the votary became at one with the divinity and temporarily possessed his powers; women played a prominent part in the ritual; a savage form of sacramental communion was in vogue, and the animal victim of whose flesh and blood the votaries partook was at times regarded as the incarnation of the divinity, so that the god himself might be supposed to die and to rise again; finally we may regard certain cathartic ideas as part of the primeval tradition of this religion. Admitted among the soberer cults of the Greek communities, it lost most of its wildness and savagery, while still retaining a more emotional ecstatic character than the rest. But this cooling process was arrested by a new wave of Dionysiac fervour that spread over Greece from the 7th century onwards, bringing with it the name of Orpheus, and engendering at some later date the Orphic brotherhoods (thiasi). This religious movement may have started like the earlier one from the lands north of Greece; but Crete and even Egypt are supposed to have contributed much to the Orphic doctrine and ritual. Our earliest authority for the proceedings of the mystery-practitioner who used the name of Orpheus is the well-known passage in Plato’s Republic (p. 364a), in which he speaks contemptuously of the itinerant ritualists who knock at the doors of the rich, the vendors of magic incantations, who promise absolution from sins and happiness in the next world to be attained by a ritual of purification and mystic initiation. This record brings to our notice a, phenomenon unknown elsewhere in Greek religion; the missionary spirit, the impulse to preach to all who would hear, which foreshadows the breaking down of the gentile religious barriers of the ancient world. And it is probable that some kind of “Orphic” propagandise, whether through books or itinerant mystery-priests, or both, had been in vogue some time before Plato. We may fairly conjecture that it has to some extent inspired the glowing eschatology of Pindar, who describes the next world as a place of penance and purgation from ancestral or personal taint and of final reward for the purified soul, and who unites this belief with a doctrine of reincarnation. In the Hippolytus of Euripides, Theseus taunts his son with cloaking his immorality under hypocritical “Orphic” pretensions to purity, the pharisaic affectation, for instance, of a vegetarian diet (952–954). Still more important is the fragment of the Cretans of Euripides, attesting the strength of the antiquity of these mystic Dionysiac associations in Crete. The initiated votary proclaims himself as sanctified to Zeus of Ida, to Zagreus—the Orphic name of the nether-world Dionysus—and to the mountain-goddess Rhea-Cybele; he has fulfilled “the solemn rite of the banquet of raw flesh,” and henceforth he “robes himself in pure white and avoids the taint of childbirth and funerals and abstains from meat.” And—what is most significant—he calls himself by the very name of his god—he is himself Βάκχος. In spirit and in most of its details the passage accords well with the Bacchae of Euripides, which reflects not so much the public worship of Greece, but rather the mystic Dionysiac brotherhoods. Throughout this inspired drama the votary rejoices to be one with his divinity and to call himself by his name, and this mystic union is brought about partly, though Euripides may not have known it, through “the meal of raw flesh” or the drinking of the blood of the goat or the kid or the bull. The sacramental intention of this is confirmed by abundant proof; even in the state-cult of Tenedos they dressed up a bull-calf as Dionysus and reverentially sacrificed it (Ael. Nat. an. 12. 34); those who partook of the flesh were partaking of -what was temporarily the body of their god. The Christian fathers at once express their abhorrence of this savage ὠμοφαγία. and reveal its true significance (Arnob. Adv. nat. 5. 119); and Firmicus Maternus (De error., p. 84) attests that the Cretans of his own day celebrated a funeral festival in honour of Dionysus in which they enacted the life and the death of the god in a passion-play and “rent a living bull with their teeth.”
But the most speaking record of the aspirations and ideas of the Orphic mystic is preserved in the famous gold tablets found in tombs near Sybaris, one near Rome, and one in Crete. These have been frequently published and discussed; and here it is only possible to allude to the salient features that concern the general history of religion. They contain fragments of a sacred hymn that must have been in vogue at least as early as the 3rd century B.C., and which was inscribed in order to be buried with the defunct, as an amulet that might protect him from the dangers of his journey through the under-world and open to him the gates of Paradise. The verses have the power of an incantation. The initiated soul proclaims its divine descent: “I am the son of Earth and Heaven”; “I am perishing with thirst, give me to drink of the waters of memory”; “I come from the pure”; “I have paid the penalty of unrighteousness”; “I have flown out of the weary, sorrowful circle of life.” His reward is assured him: “O blessed and happy one, thou hast put off thy mortality and shalt become divine.” The strange formula ἔριφος ἐς γάλ’ ἔπετον, “I a kid fell into the milk,” has been interpreted by Dieterich (Eine Mithras—Liturgie, p. 174) with great probability as alluding to a conception of Dionysus himself as ἐρίφιος the divine kid, and to a ritual of milk-baptism in which the initiated was born again.
We discern, then, in these mystic brotherhoods the germs of a high religion and the prevalence of conceptions that have played a great part in the religious history of Europe. And as late as the days of Plutarch they retained their power of consoling the afflicted (Consol. ad uxor., c. 10).
The Phrygian-Sabazian mysteries, associated with Attis, Cybele and Sabazius, which invaded later Greece and early imperial Rome, were originally akin to these and contained many concepts in common with them. But their orgiastic ecstasy was more violent, and the psychical aberrations to which the votaries were prone through their passionate desire for divine communion were more dangerous. Emasculation was practised by the devotees, probably in order to assimilate themselves as far as possible to their goddess by abolishing the distinction of sex, and the high-priest himself bore the god’s name. Or communion with the deity might be attained by the priest through the bath of blood in the taurobolion (q.v.), or by the gashing of the arm over the altar. A more questionable method which lent itself to obvious abuses, or at least to the imputation of indecency, was the simulation of a sacred marriage, in which the catechumen was corporeally united with the great goddess in her bridal chamber (Dieterich, op. cit. pp. 121–134). Prominent also in these Phrygian mysteries were the conception of rebirth and the belief, vividly impressed by solemn pageant and religious drama, in the death and resurrection of the beloved Attis. The Hilaria in which these were represented fell about the time of our Easter; and Firmicus Maternus reluctantly confesses its resemblance to the Christian celebration.
The Eleusinian mysteries are far more characteristic of the older Hellenic mind. These later rites breathe an Oriental spirit, and though their forms appear strange and distorted they have more in common with the subsequent religious phenomena of Christendom. And the Orphic doctrine may have even contributed something to the later European ideals of private and personal morality.
Literature.—For citation of passages in classical literature bearing on Greek mysteries in general see Lobeck’s Aglaophamus (1829); and the collection of material for Demeter mysteries in L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States (1906), iii. 343–367. For general theory and discussion see Dr Jevons, Introduction to the Study of Religion; Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, iii. 127–213; Dyer’s The Gods of Greece (1891), ch. v.; M. P. Foucart, Les Grands mystères d’Eleusis (1900); Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887), pp. 264–276; Goblet d’Alviella, Eleusinia (1903). See further articles Dionysus; Great Mother of the Gods; Demeter. (L. R. F.)
- De util. math., Herscher, p. 15.
- i. 38, 3; i. 39, I.
- See Dittenberger, Sylloge, 13; Corp. inscr. att. 2, 1620 c, 3, 1109; Ephem. archaiol. (1886), πίν. 3; Heberdey in Festschrift für Benndorf, p. 3, Taf. 4; Von Prott in Athen. Mittheil. (1899), p. 262.
- Corp. inscr. att. i. 1.
- Dittenberger, Sylloge, 13.
- Or. Corinth, iv. 356.
- Daremberg et Saglio, Dictionnaire, 1, p. 1066.
- Introduction to the Study of Religion.
- This is Dr Jevons’s supposition—op. cit—on which he bases an important theory of the whole Eleusinian mysteries and their intrinsic attraction.
- Farnell, Cults. vol. iii. pl. xvb.
- Rhet. graec. viii. 121.
- In Tim. 293c; Ref. Omn. Haer. 5, 7, p. 146.
- The other formula which the scholiast on Plato (Gorg. 497 c.) assigns to the Eleusinian rite: “I have eaten from the timbrel, have drunk from the cymbal, I have carried the sacred vessel, have crept under the bridal-chamber,” belongs, not to Eleusis, but, as Clement and Firmicus Maternus themselves attest, to Phrygia and to Attis.
- Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. iii. p. 242, pl. xvi.
- See Sauppe, Mysterieninschrift von Andania; cf. Foucart’s commentary in Le Bas, Voyage archéol. 2, No. 3268; H. Collitz, Dialect-inschriften, 4689.
- Eph. arch. 1883, p. 81.
- The best account of the origin and development of the Dionysiac religion is in Rohde’s Psyche, vol. i.; for Orphic ritual and doctrine see article on “Orpheus” in Roscher’s Ausfürliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie; Miss Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, pp. 455–659, with critical appendix by G. Murray on the Orphic tablets discovered in Crete, near Rome, and in south ltaly.
- The name Ὀρφεύς first occurs in Ibycus, Frag. 10: ὀνομακλυτὸν Ὀρφήν
- Farnell, Cults, iii. 299–302.
- See Archiv für Religionswiss. (1906), article by Salomon Reinach.