Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts

Book Review: The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts   edited by Marvin W. Meyer  (University of Pennsylvania Press 1987)

The time of the mystery-religions was roughly from before 600 BC to about 400s AD. They flourished in the Hellenistic lands after Alexander’s conquests then in the days of the Roman Empire before the triumph of Christianity. Deities from Greece, Syria, Canaan, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia were celebrated. Judaism and Christianity are also examined, particularly in their more Gnostic forms as mystery-religions. The mystery phenomenon preferred private worship among closed groups rather than outward public groups. Silence was often required regarding the details of the rites so not much is known about the mysteries. Some may stretch far back into antiquity. In the Eleusinian Mysteries there were three types of observances: legomena - “things recited,” deiknymena – “things shown,” and dromena – “things performed.” The things recited may have included the “heiros logos” – or sacred account of the mythos. Dramatic performances of these mythological scenarios were likely often part of the mysteries as well.

The first explored are the Greek Mysteries of the Grain Mother and Daughter and related mysteries here from Eleusis north of Athens. These Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Kore refer to the grain as mother and the young grain as daughter. Kore is equated with Persophone, the Queen of the Underworld. Demeter may come from Crete and may be derived from the very ancient Cretan Mother Goddess. Pigs were sacrificed to the earth goddesses. When sacrificing to the powers of the earth, the cthonioi, one would pray by opening the palms toward the earth. Blood of the sacrifice and drink was offered in trenches so that it would soak down into the earth. This was most likely an agrarian festival rite meant to sow fertility and rain as well as religious salvation. Many other deities were venerated in Eleusinian Mysteries as well in relation to Demeter and Kore. In some myths Demeter mates with Zeus and bears the child Dionysus so the Bacchic rites are related although Dionysus is thought to have come from Anatolia. That there is an Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Kore attests that their worship is very old. The familiar myth of Kore being snatched by Hades (raped) and the subsequent sorrow of her Demeter was likely a key part of the mystery rites as well.

There are several types of textual sources in this book. I don’t think the subtitle, referring to them as sacred texts is quite accurate although some may be. There are plays, hymns – Homeric and Orphic, merely historical accounts, and revealing accounts by later Christians seeking to discredit them, and one novel – The Golden Ass by Apuleius – a great and funny account of a man who accidentally transforms himself into an Ass that I had read many years ago. In this form he encounters both the Mysteries of Cybele and Attis and those of Isis and Osiris. Heredotus states that the Eleusinian Mysteries were borrowed from those of Egypt. The Andanian Mysteries of Messenia included the Deities of Hagne (Kore), Hermes, and Apollo Karneios. Slaves were admitted to these rites at least in Roman times. One text examined is a sort of Rule of these Andanian Mysteries in Roman times and reads like a very boring and detailed legal document.

Next we come to the Greek Mysteries of Dionysus. The Dionysian rites are associated with the Greek Drama of Tragedy as frenzied murder and drunkenness were a part of the rites – in the case of murder whether metaphorically or actual is debatable. Dionysus was equated with the human soul, the animal life force (which is perhaps why the motif of an animal being torn with one’s bare hands and consumed raw was insinuated), and the spirit of wine and intoxicating plants. Sex was certainly a part of some of the Dionysian rites. The Orphic version has it that Orpheus was torn to pieces by the frenzied female devotees while trying to liberate his Eurydice. “According to the myth of Zagreus, it was the evil Titans who consumed Dionysus. Yet after Zeus incinerated the Titans for their wicked deed, human beings were created from the ashes. Thus human beings are bipartite, according to the Orphics: they are composed of a Titanic nature (the fleshy body) and a Dionysian nature (the immortal soul). Although the Dionysian soul is imprisoned in a Titanic body (or tomb), the soul may be delivered from its shackles by means of a life devoted to purity and realize its true Dionysian destiny.” Euripedes’ famous play, The Bacchae, from 500 BC is given as an example of the myth where the King Pentheus suspicious of the Dionysian revelry sweeping the land captures Dionysus. After Pentheus interrogates him rudely he lets him go so he can track him whereby Pentheus’s own mother and her other frenzied maenads tear Pentheus to pieces so this is the tragedy of the play. The Dionysian rites were associated with frenzy and ecstatic drunkenness but also with strange miracles, especially of fountains of water and wine arising from nowhere. Apparently around 186 BC the Bacchic rites near Rome became more violent as murders and much criminal activity was alleged and the Roman senate eventually voted to prosecute those responsible and several thousand people fled from Rome during the round-up. However, the Orphic version of the rites was much older and perhaps more sober and was attractive to Plato and likely Pythagoras as well as he was associated too with the Orphic rites of Apollo. Plato notes that the Orphic Dionysians conceived of an afterlife reminiscent of a symposia, or drinking party (in heaven there may be no beer – but wine aplenty!) A symbolic statement about the Dionysian Mysteries is, “the bull is father of the serpent, and the serpent is father of the bull.” Dionysus/Bacchus is equated with the bull. Serpents are typically cthonic/earth forces.

Next are the Anatolian Mysteries of the Great Mother and Her Lover, and the Syrian Goddess. The mountainous highlands of central Anatolia were home to the Indo-European Phrygians. Strange and ecstatic deities are thought to have come from this region including Dionysus, Sabazios, Kybele (Magna Mater) – the Great Mother of Anatolia, and her lover Attis. In 204 BC the Great Mother Cybele was welcomed into the Roman pantheon along with her eunich priests and the gory bull sacrifices. Devotees of the goddess played tambourines. In a rite they ate from drums and drank from cymbals and used a sacred vessel or dish of some sort. In the myths Attis is put in a frenzy by the offspring/alter-ego of the goddess and while mad he castrates himself with a flute under a pine tree. Apparently, some in mad, perhaps drunken too, fits emulated this act and became eunich priests of the goddess. Later there was a popular ritual of baptism by blood in a trench below a bull being sacrificed. This was apparently popular from 200 -400 AD in the Roman areas.

The Syrian Goddess was called Atargatis, or Derketo and was equated with Hera. So in the Hellenistic scheme it was Zeus, Hera, and a bearded Apollo that were celebrated. Also there were great temples to Aphrodite in Phoenicia and mourning rites for her mortally wounded lover Adonis. The bearded Apollo is equated to the Canaanite deity Baal, or Hadad. Aphrodite strongly resembles the Canaanite goddess Astarte, who is derived from the Babylonian Ishtar, who in turn is a form of the Sumerian Inanna. So one can fairly well trace Inanna to Venus. The mourning for Adonis has some similarity to the mourning for the slain Osiris. Lucian of Samasata in telling stories of the great Syrian and Phoenician temples around the city of Byblos, describes a Greek version of the story of Noah’s Arc that comes from this region. An account in - The Golden Ass – by Apuleius of Madauros – gives an account of rather unscrupulous and hypocritical priests of the Mother Goddess. The rites and practices of these goddesses as far as I can tell were a mix of religious piety – the cultivation of virtue and good habits – with rather bizarre ecstatic behavior. There was a Gnostic sect called the Naassenes that used the ideal of the eunich priests of the Goddess in a metaphorical way – so castration to them meant abstinence from sex. I am sensing that maybe some of the ideas of these cults of castration and sexual abstinence influenced the Jews of the time (in the same area) and the early Christians in their veneration of sexual abstinence and modesty and in their  disgust at prostitution and revelry.

Next we come to the Egyptian Mysteries of Isis and Osiris. “In Egyptian mythology the brother and rival of Osiris, Set, kills him, but Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, defeats Set. Thus Horus, as the mythological counterpart of the living pharoah, succeeds his dead father and ensures the triumph of continuity and order in Egyptian life. Isis, meanwhile, along with Thoth, Horus, Anubis, and Nephthys, employs her magical powers to mummify Osiris and thereby restore him from death to life.” The very old Egyptian Mysteries of this sort were without a doubt different from the Graeco-Roman versions but the essential story is the same. Osiris is also the grain-Osiris so there is a fertility/agrarian component as the slain and risen grain god. The Egyptian conception was that the sun returned to the Underworld at night and so could be greeted there. The iconography of Isis as wel las her son Horus on her lap most definitely influenced the iconography of the Virgin Mary and that of the Madonna images. Isis was a moon goddess of magic and intimately connected with the dog star Sothis/Sirius and the annual flooding of the Nile. In Egyptian myth the early earth and sky deities - Geb and Nut (Nuit) were associated with Kronos (Saturn) and Rhea – the Titans, from the Greek pantheon according to Plutarch. Re (Ra) – the sun god equates to Helios and Thoth is matched with Hermes. Set is Typhon. Isis is sometimes compared to Persephone but also to Minerva, Venus, and Diana.  Osiris has been compared to Dionysus, particularly in his aspect as a god of life-giving moisture. Set is identified with drought. Horus they sometimes saw as Apollo. In the myth Set kills Osiris then Isis finds and hides his coffined body which Set finds and cuts into pieces and hides throughout the land. Isis both mourns and sets out on a quest to find each of the fourteen parts. She finds all but one, the phallus. She makes one and mummifies him and he communicates and interacts with his family from the underworld as god of the underworld. Osiris helps teach Horus the arts of war so he can defeat Set.  Isis and Osiris are identified as the queen and king of civilized life and culture. In ancient Egypt the dead became Osiris and traversed the underworld. First the rites were reserved for royalty but later more could take on the travels.  Isis is also a love goddess of sorts. There is a rather long section given in Apuleius’ Golden Ass where he has a vision of Isis and is freed from being in the form of an Ass. He then becomes a priest of Isis and then becomes initiated in the Mysteries of Osiris. Much info is given in this account of the rites and the religious nature of these mysteries. He describes Isis as, “the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the queen among those in hell, the first among those in heaven, the uniform manifestation of all gods and goddeses.”

An examination of the Mysteries of Mithras is next. The distinctly Roman version of these mysteries thrived from about the 200s AD for about 200 years and was mainly a male order associated with the Roman army. Its origins in Persia, Anatolia, or among the Cilician pirates may not have been so significant to the Romans. The stages of initiation were related to a hero’s path to salvation and this may have been more the emphasis in Roman times more so than the astronomical mysteries related to Mithras as mover of the heavens. There is still much debate as to how strong the influence of Iranian/Zoroastrian belief structure was to these rites. A Mithras Liturgy given describes the assent through the seven planetary grades. The stages of assent are given as follows:
1)      the four elements
2)      the lower powers of the air
3)      Aion (god of infinite time) and his powers
4)      Helios, the sun
5)      the seven Fates
6)      the seven Pole-Lords
7)      the highest god, portrayed like Mithras

There are many magical words and sounds given in the liturgy, some appearing Hebrew, some Egyptian, others Graeco-Roman. The rites were performed in caves and grottos and would include the use of honey and sharing of a ritual meal.

The last section is about the Mysteries pertaining to Judaism and Christianity. The format of the various Mysteries had a strong influence on all forms of Christianity and the Gnostic sects are basically Mystery religions. Philo of Alexandria (30 BC -45 AD) gives an account of Jewish contemplative life in the cosmopolitan Egyptian city. His people he refers to as the Therapeutae – who he says live a life of contemplation, rather than the life of activity lived by the Essenes. The life of the Therapeutae involved rigorous asceticism, prayer, strong seeking for a ‘vision of God’ and ritual singing. Philo compares these (Gnostic) Jewish rites to those of the Bacchic Mysteries in terms of seeking the ecstatic experience – but more through piety and asceticism than through indulgence. There is an account of the (Gnostic) Gospel of Phillip from the Nag Hammadi Library that elucidates the Mystical version of Christ where the participants become the Christ. The mysteries follow a pattern of baptism, chrism, eucharist, redemption, and bridal chamber. The bridal chamber secret involved restoring Eve to Adam – reuniting them into their original state beyond the dualities of the world and good and evil. A section of Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks (from the end of the 2nd century AD) is given where he quite scathingly exposes the excesses of the Mysteries as fallacious. After reading this I can imagine how this document had a very strong influence on the rise of the popularity of Christianity in that in an intelligent and detailed language it brought out the worst parts of the various Pagan Mysteries and ridiculed them. Some parts such as the violence of certain rites and sacrifices were quite easy to criticize as uncivilized. Other parts were more of a tirade against non-Christian attitudes like shamelessness, indulgence, and physical ecstatic methods. Other statements were just ridicules. That Clement could get away with such statements criticizing the non-Christian sects attests to the growing power of Christianity – especially there in Alexandria. It would be another few hundred years before the Christians burned the great library at Alexandria and the great eclectic wisdom would have to go into hiding and the whole Hellenistic world would be so weakened as to fade under successive invasions and conversions.

In an epilogue the author notes that the prominent Christian theme of the dying and rising savior – indeed the central mystery of the cult – is nearly identical to several of the previous mystery cults – particularly those of the grain gods. Being re-born and rising to a new life were very common themes in most of the Mysteries. The similarities of Jesus mythos and fate to those of Baal, Osiris, Kore, Mithras, and Attis are worth examining.

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