The Function of Mystery Religions in Ancient Greek Society
Relief of Demeter / Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, Greece
By Cara Leigh Sailors / 08.2007
History Masters Thesis
Supervised by Dr. William Douglas Burgess, Jr. / Professor of History
East Tennessee State University
Most religion in ancient Greece was civic in nature, dealing mainly with the social and political relationships of each city’s people. There were, however, a few that were more spiritual in nature, those that dealt with the concept
of gaining favor in the afterlife. These are commonly called the Mystery Religions or Mystery Cults. There are
three main mystery cults of ancient Greek and pre-Greek origin. They are the Eleusian Mysteries, the Dionysian
Mysteries, and the Orphic Mysteries. Each cult represents a very different type of religious experience. None of the three are similar to each other or to the previously discussed civic religion, but they are still based on many of the same deities and myths.
Unlike the many civic cults whose main focus was securing the favor of its patron god in exchange for a service rendered, such as a fruitful harvest, a child, or some other worldly pleasure, the Mystery Religions were focused on securing a pleasant and peaceful afterlife. The Mysteries, however, were not a form of mysticism, meaning transcendence to a higher plan or deeper understanding. In the case of the Mystery Cults the “mystery” was a hidden secret, an initiation or ritual, that only cult members know and that they are forbidden to tell.
A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries, discovered in the sanctuary at Eleusis (mid-4th century BC) / National Archaeological Museum, Athens
The Eleusian Mysteries were the most prominent of the three main cults. This cult was mainly an initiatory cult that had its strongest following near Athens in Attica. Like all Mystery Cults, the Eleusian Mysteries were to be kept secret from any person not initiated into the cult. However, there were at least a few people who violated this. One, a man named Diagoras of Melos, was said to have told the entirety of the mystery in the streets of Athens in such a way as to make it seem “vile and unimportant.” Another was a Gnostic writer who Hippolytus called The Naasseni. Aeschylus was said to have shown the people all or a part of a passion-play of sorts that was not to be seen by the uninitiated. These men allow historians a written account other than just archeology and architecture on which to base their research. They provide a contemporary account of the cult and its practices, thus making the Eleusian Mysteries the easiest to study and understand.
Demeter was the chief goddess of the Eleusian Cults. As discussed earlier she was Dāo or Dā Māter, which
translates to “Earth-Mother or Corn-Mother.” She gives her name as the collective unity of one representation of the triple-goddess, that of Core, Persephone, and Hecate. Separately they are the Maid, Matron, and Crone and
together they are the Mother-Goddess Demeter. Some legends concerning Demeter confuse Core and Persephone, or make the two the same deity. It is possible that the abduction of Core/Persephone by Hades, with Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades being the male triple-god, is a representation of the subjugation of the feminine to the masculine in both society and mythology.
“Each divinity of a mystery cult has a specific myth to which he or she is intimately bound.” For the Eleusian
Mysteries the myth to which they were intimately bound is that of the abduction of Core by Hades. To summarize the myth briefly, after Core was taken Demeter, her mother, refused to let anything grow until she was returned. Hades agreed to return her only if she had never eaten the food of the dead. On her way out of the underworld, Core ate something; some myths say it was a persimmon seed. Eventually, a compromise was reached that Core would spend a portion the year with her mother and portion with Hades, as the queen of the underworld. Demeter continued to refuse to allow anything to grow while her daughter was away, thus causing the barren winter season.
Based on the two contemporary accounts and L.R. Farnell’s and Carl Ruck’s more modern theoretical reproduction, the following is a rough representation of the Greater Mysteries of the Eleusian cult. The Lesser Mysteries which took place at Athens were a prequel of sorts to the actual initiation ceremony at Eleusis. The
Greater Mysteries consisted of three basic parts: they were the “preliminary Sacrifice, the Purification, and the
Encounter with the goddesses.” The sacrificial animal was a pig. The only requirements, whether male or female and rich or poor, were to be able to meet this sacrifice and pay the priests. It is estimated that it cost on average a month’s pay. Once the sacrifice had been made the process of purification began.
Boundary marker delineating the limits of the Sacred Way in Athens, ca. 520 BCE. At the end of the 5th century BC, the original inscription was replaced by the words: ΗΟΡΟΣ ΤΕΣ ΟΔΟ ΤΕΣ ΕΛΕΥΣΙΝΑΔΣΙ, “Boundary stone of the road to Eleusis”. / Wikimedia Commons
The purification that took place on the journey to Eleusis allowed the worshiper to become “safeguarded against evil influences, purified, fasting, and inspired with that religious exaltation that fasting assists.” The journey began in Athens and “Every step recalled some aspect of the ancient myth.” The procession followed the
Sacred Road first across a bridge, where they were insulted and reviled as they crossed, and then the long road on to Eleusis for what Aristophanes describes to be a drunken revel and night of celebrating alfresco. Later, maybe a few days maybe just the next day, the group was lead in to the Telesterion to celebrate the Mysteries. Those allowed to go inside were called the Mystae, meaning those who know or those who see.
The exact time table after the entering the Telesterion is impossible to determine. It is known that there was a play or vision of some kind that all shared that was said to have changed those in attendance. There was some ritual performed in which it is likely each Mystae worked some type of grain, ate and drank a ritual meal, and was shown a sacred object. The order of events is as uncertain as what exactly each entailed. However, even if
the order and ingredients were known today, it is unlikely that it would make much difference in the understanding of the experience. “The gap between pure observation and the experience of those involved in the real proceedings remains unbridgeable.”
It is unknown what was involved in the purification before the walking of the Sacred Road; however, it is certain that fasting was a part. This fasting would have been closer to the Islamic tradition than to the Christian tradition, meaning that those on the fast were allowed to eat at night, but not during the day. The purification also required an element of sexual abstinence and ritual washing. The Lesser Mysteries were also seen as a part of
the purification process. Once the congregation was pure, they could begin they walk down the Sacred Road.
L.R. Farnell speculates that the insults thrown at the procession as they cross the bridge are ceremonial and turn
evil away from the holy procession. He extrapolates this based on other rituals of the time using insults for this
purpose. The basic assumption is based on deceiving the evil spirits in the premise that if the evil spirits think
that the procession was already corrupted then they will leave it alone. The procession was said to be lead down the Sacred Road by the god Iacchos and was to have left on the nineteenth of Boedromion, which was probably sometime in August or September. It was Iacchos who held the rambunctious party after the exhausting trek to Eleusis.
Once inside the Telesterion the order and nature of the events become much harder to discern. It was most likely that the ritual meal came before the play or apparition. Over the past forty years, scholars have suspected that a natural hallucinogen similar to LSD may have been used.  One of the main reasons this was suspected was some of the symptoms that accompanied the revelation included: “fear and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea, and a cold sweat.” The method of delivery used to administer the drug was most likely by mouth during the ritual meal, quite possibly in a drink called Kykeon.
For many years the possibility of drug use to induce visions at Eleusis was discounted on the basis that at the time the civilization was not advanced enough to refine the drug. However, that is not the case. After much research Albert Hofmann discovered that the people would have easily been able to create a drink that acted much the way LSD does. They most probably used a type of ergot, a fungus that grows on barley, mixed into the drink.
The play that took place was supposed to allow the initiate to experience the return of Persephone and her infant son, Iacchos. Then, in a ceremony not so unlike many religious services and artistic productions today that
manipulate emotion through music and lighting, the Mystae would see the return of Persephone that Demeter so longed for. The viewers would chant, the priest would chant, the music would rise at the right moment, and the light would become darker; then the ghostly form of Persephone carrying her child would appear in a bright light just as a gong sounded and the priest yelled, “The Terrible Queen has given birth to her son, the Terrible One!”
The possibility of the play being part or all of a shared drug induced vision could account for much of why the Eleusian Mysteries are so hard for us to understand today. No matter how much study and observation is put into
the matter, without taking the drug and going through the initiation it is impossible to understand what those who did experienced.
Dionysian (Bacchic) and Orphic Mysteries
Dionysian Mysteries Relief / British Museum, London
The scarcity of information on the Eleusian Mysteries makes them hard to study, but the dearth of known facts about the other two Mystery Cults of the time is depressing. Most information about the Dionysian and Orphic
Mysteries is speculation or extrapolation, based mainly on the known mythology and possible ties to other contemporary cults, such as Eleusis.
Both the Dionysian Mysteries and the Orphic Mysteries hold Dionysus as their head deity. However, he was not originally one of the Olympians. During the fifth century he replaced Hestia. Before his rise to Mt. Olympus, Dionysus was the Thracian god of the vine and ecstasy. His rise in power was representative of wine’s rise in popularity, and the spread of his cult follows the same path through Europe, Asia, and Africa as does the cultivation of the vine. He is known as the Horned One, though the animal he is associated with varies from region to region from bull to goat to stag and others.
Dionysus was also closely linked to Demeter and Persephone. In some myths he was a lover and in others he was a son, of both or of either. For the Mysteries, he was a lover who died and was reborn as his own son. One
possible reason for this connection is that Dionysus and Demeter, in addition to being the main deities of the Mystery Religions, were the main deities of agriculture, Demeter of Grains and Dionysus of the Vine.
Dionysus eventually became the god of creative ecstasy, whether art or drama, and several of the most well- known Greek tragedians were followers of Dionysus. In later years, there were many festivals held in honor of
Dionysus at which playwrights would present their works in competition. The greatest of these festivals was the Great Dionysia which the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus established.
The main source available concerning the Cults of Dionysus is Euripides’ play The Bacchae. The Bacchae,
taken from Bacchus, another name of Dionysus, tells the story of Pentheus and Dionysus. Dionysus visits Thebes and was scorned by Pentheus, a ruler there. Dionysus tries to reveal his ways to Pentheus, but the man did not understand and had the stranger imprisoned. Pentheus could not even see that the stranger he was talking to was the god himself. However, the prison could not hold them, and the doors open themselves and the chains release Dionysus and his followers of their own accord. In an attempt to catch and re-imprison the god and his followers, Pentheus agrees to follow the stranger out to the place where the Bacchic orgies are being held. Once there the women who follow Dionysus are overcome with an ecstatic madness and attack and kill Pentheus.
The Bacchae, of course, is a dramatization and not a history, but Euripides at least based his play on the actually practices of the mysteries. The Dionysian Mysteries embody the supernatural in Greek religion. His followers received divine revelation from the god as he strikes them mad with ecstasy, literally taking possession of their bodies while the soul learned secrets that were not of the tangible world. Those in this mad trance were called bacchants. This type of celebration was limited to only a few times a year because of its complete dedication
chaos; however, in a Nietzschean dichotomy, it was seen as a necessary balance to the normal Apollonian, logical and orderly, approach of the Greeks.
In fact, this dichotomy between orderly Apollo and passionate Dionysus was the basis for the second of Dionysus’ mystery cults, the Orphic Mysteries. The Orphic Mysteries take their name from a follower of Dionysus named Orpheus. Orpheus himself is somewhat of an enigma to scholars as it is not known whether he was a real man or a mythological character, or if he was supposed to be human or another manifestation of Dionysus. According to the myth of Orpheus found in the Bassarai written by Aeschylus, Orpheus was a devout follower of Dionysus. Every morning he would climb up a mount to watch a sun rise and honor it. He eventually named the sun Apollo. In some versions, this angered Dionysus who saw it as losing a follower to his brother. In his anger, Dionysus sent some of his bacchants, a group of women called the Bassarai, to kill Orpheus. They fell on him and ripped him into seven pieces. In others, it was just an insane group of women, separate from the bacchants, that Orpheus stumbled across while worshipping and those women rip him apart.
Orpheus (left, with lyre) among the Thracians, from an Attic red-figure bell-krater (c. 440 BCE) / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This myth parallels the myth of the First Dionysus, a child god who was lured into a trap by some Titans and ripped into seven pieces. The skeletal remains of the pieces were buried, but the heart was saved intact and with it Zeus was able to insure that a Second Dionysus was born. After the Titans killed and consumed Dionysus, Zeus struck
them dead and out of their ashes came man, according to an alternate theogony of Orphic origin. Orpheus’ death mirrors that of Dionysus and causes some confusion as to whether Orpheus was god or man.
The Apollonian influence had a calming effect on this cult. The Dionysian Mysteries were wild and chaotic, concerned with passion and experience; while the Orphic mysteries were philosophic, focusing on purity and
enlightenment. The Orphics believed in the immortality of the soul and transmigration and sought salvation through enlightenment. They were separatist from the mainstream Greeks, seeking to re-unite with ‘the One’, a force of unity, called the Night, that came “before”; before the creation of man, apparently, before even the creation of the gods when everything was one.
As opposed to the other types of mystery religion looked at before, the Eleusian Mysteries with their ritual initiation and the wild debauchery of the Bacchic Mysteries, the Orphic mysteries have no initiation or festival. They are instead a system, a way of life. There were three levels or types to the Orphic life: the tradition, the writings and voice, and the practice. The traditional aspect seems to be little more than iconography, while the writings and voice are philosophy.
The Orphic writings include “theologies, cosmogonies, and heterodox anthropogonies.” The practice is the way an Orphic was to live; they were to abstain from eating meat and only offer the gods sacrifices of cakes and fruit. The practice comes directly from the myth of the death of the First Dionysus. Humans were created out of the ashes of the Titans who slaughtered and cannibalized the child-god. This made humans vicariously responsible for the death of the deity. It also gave them hope, for within the Titans’ remains from whence they were created was also a remnant of the child-god. According to the Orphics, in order to rejoin the unity of the Night, humans must shed everything tying them to Titans.
Another point of divergence between Dionysus’ two followings is that the bacchants are most often referred to as women; Bacchus himself is, in this sense, always pictured with his maenads. Whereas the most well-known Orphics are men; in fact, Orphism is very misogynistic. This is most likely due to the way in which Orpheus was said to have died, being ripped apart by women.
As different as the mysteries were from the established civic religion of ancient Greece, they still remained complementary. Vernant insists that “Neither in belief nor in practices did the mysteries contradict the civic religion. Instead, they complement it by adding a new dimension suited to satisfying needs that the civic religion could not fulfill.” The revelation of the divine in the form of Persephone returning from the underworld, the Bacchic ecstasy inspired by Dionysus, or the struggle to over come the inner Titan and rejoin the Night are all attempts to satisfy the inner human desire to belong to a power greater than oneself and to insure that power gives you a pleasant and peaceful afterlife.
The mysteries were always on the fringe of Greek society, some more so than others, but those who followed the mysteries constituted a large minority. The inclusive nature of the Greeks allowed them, the mysteries, to flourish within the established system. It was the mysteries that introduced concepts such as salvation, the immortality of the soul, and transmigration of the soul into Greek society. The Mystery Religions form a link between the inclusive pantheon of the Greeks and the more modern exclusive religions of today. However, when faced with the persecution that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have faced in the past the “mysteries could not go underground because they lacked any organization. They were not self-sufficient sects; they were intimately bound to the social system of antiquity that was to pass away.”
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