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The Greek Mysteries And Christian Mysticism

The connexion between the Greek Mysteries and Christian Mysticism is marked not only by the name which the world has agreed to give to that type of religion (though it must be said that [Greek: mystêria] is not the commonest name for the Mysteries—[Greek: orgia, teletai, telê] are all, I think, more frequent), but by the evident desire on the part of such founders of mystical Christianity as Clement and Dionysius the Areopagite, to emphasise the resemblance. It is not without a purpose that these writers, and other Platonising theologians from the third to the fifth century, transfer to the faith and practice of the Church almost every term which was associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries and others like them. For instance, the sacraments are regularly [Greek: mystêria]; baptism is [Greek: mystikon loutron] (Gregory of Nyssa); unction, [Greek: chrisma mystikon] (Athanasius); the elements, [Greek: mystis edôdê] (Gregory Naz.); and participation in them is [Greek: mystikê metalêpsis]. Baptism, again, is "initiation" [Greek: myêsis]; a baptized person is [Greek: memyêmenos], [Greek: mystês] or [Greek: symmystês] (Gregory Ny. and Chrysostom), an unbaptized person is [Greek: amyêtos]. The celebrant is [Greek: mystêriôn lanthanontôn mystagôgos] (Gregory Ny.); the administration is [Greek: paradosis], as at Eleusis. The sacraments are also [Greek: teletê] or [Greek: telê], regular Mystery-words; as are [Greek: teleiôsis, teleiousthai, teleiopoios], which are used in the same connexion. Secret formulas (the notion of secret formulas itself comes from the Mysteries) were [Greek: aporrêta]. (Whether the words [Greek: phôtismos] and [Greek: sphragis] in their sacramental meaning come from the Mysteries seems doubtful, in spite of Hatch, Hibbert Lectures, p. 295.) Nor is the language of the Mysteries applied only to the sacraments. Clement calls purgative discipline [Greek: ta katharsia], and [Greek: ta mikra mystêria], and the highest stage in the spiritual life [Greek: epopteia]. He also uses such language as the following: "O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God! I am become holy while I am being initiated. The Lord is my hierophant," etc. (Protr. xii. 120). Dionysius, as I have shown in a note on Lecture III., uses the Mystery words frequently, and gives to the orders of the Christian ministry the names which distinguished the officiating priests at the Mysteries. The aim of these writers was to prove that the Church offers a mysteriosophy which includes all the good elements of the old Mysteries without their corruptions. The alliance between a Mystery-religion and speculative Mysticism within the Church was at this time as close as that between the Neoplatonic philosophy and the revived pagan Mystery cults. But when we try to determine the amount of direct influence exercised by the later paganism on Christian usages and thought, we are baffled both by the loss of documents, and by the extreme difficulty of tracing the pedigree of religious ideas and customs. I shall here content myself with calling attention to certain features which were common to the Greek Mysteries and to Alexandrian Christianity, and which may perhaps claim to be in part a legacy of the old religion to the new. My object is not at all to throw discredit upon modes of thought which may have been unfamiliar to Palestinian Jews. A doctrine or custom is not necessarily un-Christian because it is "Greek" or "pagan." I know of no stranger perversity than for men who rest the whole weight of their religion upon "history," to suppose that our Lord meant to raise an universal religion on a purely Jewish basis.

The Greek Mysteries were perhaps survivals of an old-world ritual, based on a primitive kind of Nature-Mysticism. The "public Mysteries," of which the festival at Eleusis was the most important, were so called because the State admitted strangers by initiation to what was originally a national cult. (There were also private Mysteries, conducted for profit by itinerant priests [Greek: agyrtai] from the East, who as a class bore no good reputation.) The main features of the ritual at Eleusis are known. The festival began at Athens, where the mystæ collected, and, after a fast of several days, were "driven" to the sea, or to two salt lakes on the road to Eleusis, for a purifying bath. This kind of baptism washed away the stains of their former sins, the worst of which they were obliged to confess before being admitted to the Mysteries. Then, after sacrifices had been offered, the company went in procession to Eleusis, where Mystery-plays were performed in a great hall, large enough to hold thousands of people, and the votaries were allowed to handle certain sacred relics. A sacramental meal, in which a mixture of mint, barley-meal, and water was administered to the initiated, was an integral part of the festival. The most secret part of the ceremonies was reserved for the [Greek: epoptai] who had passed through the ordinary initiation in a previous year. It probably culminated in the solemn exhibition of a corn-ear, the symbol of Demeter. The obligation of silence was imposed not so much because there were any secrets to reveal, but that the holiest sacraments of the Greek religion might not be profaned by being brought into contact with common life. This feeling was strengthened by the belief that words are more than conventional symbols of things. A sacred formula must not be taken in vain, or divulged to persons who might misuse it.

The evidence is strong that the Mysteries had a real spiritualising and moralising influence on large numbers of those who were initiated, and that this influence was increasing under the early empire. The ceremonies may have been trivial, and even at times ludicrous; but the discovery had been made that the performance of solemn acts of devotion in common, after ascetical preparation, and with the aid of an impressive ritual, is one of the strongest incentives to piety. Diodorus is not alone in saying (he is speaking of the Samothracian Mysteries) that "those who have taken part in them are said to become more pious, more upright, and in every way better than their former selves."

The chief motive force which led to the increased importance of Mystery-religion in the first centuries of our era, was the desire for "salvation" ([Greek: sôtêria]), which both with pagans and Christians was very closely connected with the hope of everlasting life. Happiness after death was the great promise held out in the Mysteries. The initiated were secure of blessedness in the next world, while the uninitiated must expect "to lie in darkness and mire after their death" (cf. Plato, Phædrus, 69).

How was this "salvation" attained or conferred? We find that several conflicting views were held, which it is impossible to keep rigidly separate, since the human mind at one time inclines to one of them, at another time to another.

(a) Salvation is imparted by revelation. This makes it to depend upon knowledge; but this knowledge was in the Mysteries conveyed by the spectacle or drama, not by any intellectual process. Plutarch (de Defect. Orac. 22) says that those who had been initiated could produce no demonstration or proof of the beliefs which they had acquired. And Synesius quotes Aristotle as saying that the initiated do not learn anything, but rather receive impressions ([Greek: ou mathein ti dein alla pathein]). The old notion that monotheism was taught as a secret dogma rests on no evidence, and is very unlikely. There was a good deal of [Greek: theokrasia], as the ancients called it, and some departures from the current theogonies, but such doctrine as there was, was much nearer to pantheism than to monotheism. Certain truths about nature and the facts of life were communicated in the "greatest mysteries," according to Clement, and Cicero says the same thing. And sometimes the [Greek: gnôsis sôtêrias] includes knowledge about the whence and whither of man ([Greek: tines esmen kai ti gegonamen], Clem. Exc. ex Theod. 78). Some of the mystical formulæ were no doubt susceptible of deep and edifying interpretations, especially in the direction of an elevated nature-worship.

(b) Salvation was regarded, as in the Oriental religions, as emancipation from the fetters of human existence. Doctrines of this kind were taught especially in the Orphic Mysteries, where it was a secret doctrine ([Greek: aporrêtos logos], Plat. Phædr. 62) that "we men are here in a kind of prison," or in a tomb ([Greek: sêma tines to sôma einai tês psychês, ôs tethammenês en tô paronti], Plat. Crat. 400). They also believed in transmigration of souls, and in a [Greek: kuklos tês geneseôs] (rota fati et generationis). The "Orphic life," or rules of conduct enjoined upon these mystics, comprised asceticism, and, in particular, abstinence from flesh; and laid great stress on "following of God" [Greek: epesthai] or [Greek: akolouthein tô theô] as the goal of moral endeavour. This cult, however, was tinged with Thracian barbarism; its heaven was a kind of Valhalla ([Greek: methê aiônios], Plat. Rep. ii. 363). Very similar was the rule of life prescribed by the Pythagorean brotherhood, who were also vegetarians, and advocates of virginity. Their system of purgation, followed by initiation, liberated men "from the grievous woeful circle" ([Greek: kyklou d'exeptan Barypentheos argaleoio] on a tombstone), and entitled them "to a happy life with the gods." (For the conception of salvation as deification, see Appendix C.) Whether these sects taught that our separate individuality must be merged is uncertain; but among the Gnostics, who had much in common with the Orphic mystæ, the formula, "I am thou, and thou art I," was common (Pistis Sophia; formulæ of the Marcosians; also in an invocation of Hermes: [Greek: to son onoma emon kai to emon son. egô gar eimi to eidôlon son]. Rohde, Psyche, vol. ii. p. 61). A foretaste of this deliverance was given by initiation, which conducts the mystic to ecstasy, an [Greek: oligochronios mania] (Galen), in which "animus ita solutus est et vacuus ut ei plane nihil sit cum corpore" (Cic. De Divin. i. I. 113); which was otherwise conceived as [Greek: enthousiasmos] ([Greek: enthousiôsês kai ouketi ousês en eautê dianoias], Philo).

(c) The imperishable Divine nature is infused by mechanical means. Sacraments and the like have a magical or miraculous potency. The Homeric hymn to Demeter insists only on ritual purity as the condition of salvation, and we hear that people trusted to the mystic baptism to wash out all their previous sins. Similarly the baptism of blood, the taurobolium, was supposed to secure eternal happiness, at any rate if death occurred within twenty years after the ceremony; when that interval had elapsed, it was common to renew the rite. (We find on inscriptions such phrases as "arcanis perfusionibus in æternum renatus.") So mechanical was the operation of the Mysteries supposed to be, that rites were performed for the dead (Plat. Rep. 364. St. Paul seems to refer to a similar custom in 1 Cor. xv. 29), and infants were appointed "priests," and thoroughly initiated, that they might be clean from their "original sin." Among the Gnostics, a favourite phrase was that initiation releases men "from the fetters of fate and necessity"; the gods of the intelligible world ([Greek: theoi noêtoi]) with whom we hold communion in the Mysteries being above "fate."

(d) Salvation consists of moral regeneration. The efficacy of initiation without moral reformation naturally appeared doubtful to serious thinkers. Diogenes is reported to have asked, "What say you? Will Patæcion the thief be happier in the next world than Epaminondas, because he has been initiated?" And Philo says, "It often happens that good men are not initiated, but that robbers, and murderers, and lewd women are, if they pay money to the initiators and hierophants." Ovid protests against the immoral doctrine of mechanical purgation with more than his usual earnestness (Fasti, ii. 35):—

  "Omne nefas omnemque mali purgamina causam
     Credebant nostri tollere posse senes.
   Græcia principium moris fuit; ilia nocentes
     Impia lustratos ponere facta putat.
   A! nimium faciles, qui tristia crimina cædis
     Fluminea tolli posse putetis aqua!"

Such passages show that abuses existed, but also that it was felt to be a scandal if the initiated person failed to exhibit any moral improvement.

These different conceptions of the office of the Mysteries cannot, as I have said, be separated historically. They all reappear in the history of the Christian sacraments. The main features of the Mystery-system which passed into Catholicism are the notions of secrecy, of symbolism, of mystical brotherhood, of sacramental grace, and, above all, of the three stages in the spiritual life, ascetic purification, illumination, and [Greek: epopteia] as the crown.

The secrecy observed about creeds and liturgical forms had not much to do with the development of Mysticism, except by associating sacredness with obscurity (cf. Strabo, x. 467, [Greek: hê krypsis hê mystikê semnopoiei to theion, mimoumenê tên physin autou ekpheugousan tên aisthêsin]), a tendency which also showed itself in the love of symbolism. This certainly had a great influence, both in the form of allegorism (cf. Clem. Strom, i. 1. 15, [Greek: esti de ha kai ainixetai moi hê graphê; peirasetai de kai ganthanousa eipein kai epikryptomenê ekphênai kai deixai siôpôsa]), which Philo calls "the method of the Greek Mysteries," and in the various kinds of Nature-Mysticism. The great value of the Mysteries lay in the facilities which they offered for free symbolical interpretation.

The idea of mystical union by means of a common meal was, as we have seen, familiar to the Greeks. For instance, Plutarch says (Non fosse suav. vivi sec. Epic. 21), "It is not the wine or the cookery that delights us at these feasts, but good hope, and the belief that God is present with us, and that He accepts our service graciously." There have always been two ideas of sacrifice, alike in savage and civilised cults—the mystical, in which it is a communion, the victim who is slain and eaten being himself the god, or a symbol of the god; and the commercial, in which something valuable is offered to the god in the hope of receiving some benefit in exchange. The Mysteries certainly encouraged the idea of communion, and made it easier for the Christian rite to gather up into itself all the religious elements which can be contained in a sacrament of this kind.

But the scheme of ascent from [Greek: katharsis] to [Greek: myêsis], and from [Greek: myêsis] to [Greek: epopteia], is the great contribution of the Mysteries to Christian Mysticism. Purification began, as we have seen, with confession of sin; it proceeded by means of fasting (with which was combined [Greek: agneia apo synousias]) and meditation, till the second stage, that of illumination, was reached. The majority were content with the partial illumination which belonged to this stage, just as in books of Roman Catholic divinity "mystical theology" is a summit of perfection to which "all are not called." The elect advance, after a year's interval at least, to the full contemplation ([Greek: epopteia]). This highest truth was conveyed in various ways—by visible symbols dramatically displayed, by solemn words of mysterious import; by explanations of enigmas and allegories and dark speeches (cf. Orig. Cels. vii. 10), and perhaps by "visions and revelations." It is plain that this is one of the cases in which Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see that a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission.

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