Dionysus, Hades and Jesus: Marriage in Death to Lords of the Underworld

One of the literary threads I hope to investigate in the future is the tie between vampirism and the ancient tradition of linking death and marriage together; many religions deal with death as an intimate reunion or marriage with a god of the underworld such as Hades or Dionysus. Much of this symbolism was later preserved in Christianity. The following is a paper I wrote recently for a PhD course on Antigone (by Sophocles)

Death, Marriage and Dionysus: The tie between Antigone, Eleusis and Christian Mysteries

The first time I read Sophocles’ Antigone I was struck by Antigone’s description of her fate as marriage to death; a description I’d previously been familiar with only as an esoteric term found in Pagan and Christian mystery religions. Early Christianity (Gnosticism) had a ritual of a Wedding Chamber and a Mock-Death which may have been linked together as one: initiates had to “die” to their lower selves in order to “marry” or merge with their higher selves. I believe these basic ideas can be traced back to earlier mysteries, but I hadn’t realized to what extent death and marriage were already linked in ancient Greek culture. I supposed, given the pervasivity of the influence of Eleusis in ancient Greece, that Sophocles may have had the cult center of Eleusis in mind when writing Antigone. After some light research, I’m convinced that he did; moreover, he may have been purposely re-creating the mystery experience in a specifically Greek context, through a play about well-known figures. This brief essay will indicate the reasons and evidence that led me to this conclusion, which I hope to investigate further in the future.

The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel declared Antigone to be not only an excellent tragedy but one of the “most sublime and most consummate works of art human effort has ever brought forth” (Steiner 4). This fascination with the play was mainly derived from Antigone’s noble, heroic death – a death that is embraced rather than resisted. When she is sent to starve slowly in a tomb, she hangs herself in a final gesture of autonomy. Although the themes are powerful, and Sophocles was no doubt an inspired writer, the fact that marriage and death were already tightly linked in ancient Greek culture is often overlooked in the literature. Moreover, the idea that a purgative/restorative function of sacrificial death and marriage was used as a powerful spiritual metaphor in ancient mystery traditions, indicating a possible interpretive function of Antigone, has also received too little attention. Specifically, I will attempt to trace the link between the founding myth of Eleusis – the rape of Persephone – which included Dionysus/Hades as the Deathly Lover, and then examine it in the light of later Gnostic exegesis.

The Myth of Persephone
Sophocles was an initiate of the mysteries of Eleusis, which began around 1500BC. Eleusis was focused around the myth of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and taken into the underworld. She was mourned by Demeter, but then is returned after a deal is struck with Hades; Persephone will spend half the year underground and half the year above. An annual cycle with three phases is thus created, including the descent (loss), the search and the ascent. At its earliest, this was probably a vegetation myth to explain the changing seasons. In late antiquity, the myth was used to justify afterlife beliefs and the hope for immortality. Once Dionysus became identified with Hades or the Lord of the Underworld (and also with the twice-born god that offered eternal life), the story of Persephone also included her return with a divine child that was begotten in the underworld.

Incidentally, this early story manifests in several other religious cults. The cult of Isis, for example, was based on the myth of the death of Osiris. Isis mourns and searches for him, before putting him back together enough to sire Horus, who is born the following year. In Christianity, Jesus dies, is mourned, and then returns. “Mary” is both his companion and mother. In the earliest forms of Christianity, the name Jesus was interchangeable with the name Sarapis – the Horus/Osiris blend that was used in the Roman cult of Isis. This theme of death and rebirth is integral to these spiritual traditions which sprouted amidst the background of the Greco-Roman empires and probably has roots in Eleusis.

Antigone, if taken at face value, does not appear to indicate a return to life or rebirth of the tragic figures that die in the narrative. However, based on the references to Dionysus or Eleusis, some scholars have claimed that a link should be inferred:
In Antigone, when Creon decides to honor the gods’ laws by burying Polynices and freeing Antigone, the chorus rejoices with a triumphal paean (joyful song) to Dionysus, calling him “King of the Mysteries!” (1243). The evocation of the god and the mention of the rites at Eleusis underscore Antigone’s premature burial and the expected joy of her return to life, the promise offered to the initiates of the Mysteries themselves. (The Power of Fate in the Oedipus Trilogy).

It is a striking fact that the Greek theatre – and through it the whole of modern theatre- should owe its birth to the myth of Dionysus. It indelibly marks the profound significance of the theatre for all time. […] The Satyrs bewailing the death of Dionysus and then celebrating his resurrection with cries of joy, a god emerging from a vat of crushed grapes in a fume of intoxication-such was the singular origin of tragedy. ( Edouard Schure 25)

And there are some grounds for this. As a high level initiate of Eleusis, Sophocles would have learned that the founding myth was a spiritual allegory, designed to be interpreted mystically. In Antigone, Sophocles includes a dance/hymn to Dionysus – which is usually sung just before the harvest, before Dionysus’ suffering begins – just before the tragic conclusion (the “wheat” is cut down). Even though the play concludes before any hint of rebirth or resurrection, one could be inferred or taught only to a select group.

Like the Eleusian Mysteries, Sophocles’ tragedies create a powerful emotional — even religious — experience: The terror of a heroic self crumbling under the blows of Fate, followed by the purging of fear and the coming of wisdom. Sophocles’ continued references to the Eleusian Mysteries indicate his high regard for their power. It may be that in his drama, Sophocles was striving to capture a comparable intense experience of dread relieved by hope and wisdom in an open, public context. For the original audience and centuries of readers, the experience of the tragedies of the Oedipus Trilogy, like a mystical ritual, gives a new birth to the human spirit and, perhaps, makes possible civilization itself. (The Power of Fate in the Oedipus Trilogy)

On Death and Marriage
The myth of Persephone had such an ancient influence on Greek culture it is difficult to determine in which direction the influence lay (did the myth inspire culture, or culture inspire the myth?) Persephone’s marriage to Hades is portrayed as rape and kidnap – he steals her out of the fields, without her mother’s permission, and brings her into the underworld. Greek marriage customs seem to be based on this same idea; that marriage always implies a forced death of the girl. The following are some of the more salient similarities.

Both the bride and corpse are covered with a white veil and sheath; both events involve a night journey to a new home, taken by a cart or chariot. The dead and the bride end up lying on a bed (Blundell 47). Blessings are given, both over the married couple and the deceased. Weddings and funerals are both a special concern of the women, and both family festivals represent initiation into another realm (Redfield 187). The purification and adornment of the bride are similar to the washing and adorning of the dead. Loutrophoroi are linked with weddings and funerals since they are used to bring water for the wedding bath and serve as grave offerings for those who died unmarried. The bride and groom, like the dead, are ritually washed in sacred water, dressed, adorned, and crowned by women. In the funeral, the mourners cut a lock of hair and leave it to be buried with the dead; they thus enact their bereavement by sending a part of their life to die with the dead. Before the wedding, brides often dedicated a lock of hair; they thus left behind them a part of their life as they set off to a new life (Redfield 190). These two ceremonies are so intertwined that if a girl died before she married, she was buried in a wedding dress so she could be the bride of Hades.

Like the tale of Persephone, the link between marriage and death is clear in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone laments that she is to be the bride only of Death. She goes to her grave and cries out,

No, Hades who lays all to rest leads me living to Acheron’s shore, though I have not had my due portion of the chant that brings the bride, nor has any hymn been mine for the crowning of marriage. Instead the lord of Acheron [river of the underworld] will be my groom. (810-816)

She also refers to her tomb as her bridal chamber (891), as does Creon and the messenger. Similar themes are found in the later Christian gospel story: just before his death, Jesus is prepared by the women; washed, adorned and crowned (or anointed – hence his title as “Christos” or “anointed one”). Antigone is prepared for death but finds unexpected “marriage” in the tomb when her betrothed, Haemon, rushes in to die with her. Their bloody embrace in the tomb is heavily symbolic of the consummation of their marriage. Likewise, Jesus is first discovered in the tomb by Mary (who was also the one who prepared him to face death). Osiris is resurrected by Isis so they can bear Horus. Persephone is kidnapped and raped by Hades to produce a divine infant. Although these instances are not exactly the same, given that they developed in geographical and historical proximity, they may well have been inspired by shared sources.

Link to the Gnostic mysteries
Although modern Christianity has left behind its early history as a mystery cult, it also had an esoteric tradition of the Wedding Chamber, which indicated both death and rebirth. Like other mystery cults, the story or hieros logos was interpreted as spiritual allegory or theology. Although this interpretive meaning was mostly kept secret, later Christian initiates spoke plainly about the redemptive function of the mythology. The Gnostic gospel of Philip, for example, claims,

When Eve was still with Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more. (GPhil 76)

Other passages from Philip speak of light and mirrors, which are common motifs found in other mysteries:

We are reborn by the Holy Spirit. And we are born by the anointed (Christ) through two things. We are anointed by the Spirit. When we were born we were joined. No one can see himself in the water or in a mirror without light. Nor again can you see by the light without water or a mirror. For this reason it is necessary to baptize with two things – light and water. And light means chrism. (GPhil 67)

We can understand this to mean that the bride and bridegroom (light and water) can be joined to create a mirror, with which to see back up to the original unity:

Rebirth exists along with an image of rebirth: by means of this image one must be truly reborn. Which image? Resurrection. And image must arise by means of image. By means of this image, the bridal chamber and the image must embark upon the realm of Truth, that is, embark upon the return. (GPhil 59)

The true meaning of the bridal chamber mystery was kept hidden from initiates of the lower levels, who were familiar only with stories and parables attributed to the savior. Secrecy was very important, because if initiates heard the truth before they were spiritually ready, it would be spoiled for them. Only those who become a bridegroom (pass through the initiation themselves) can witness the ceremony.

If a marriage is open to the public, it has become prostitution, and the bride plays the harlot not only when she is impregnated by another man, but even if she slips out of her bedroom and is seen. Let her show herself only to her father and her mother, and to the friend of the bridegroom and the sons of the bridegroom. These are permitted to enter every day into the bridal chamber. But let the others yearn just to listen to her voice and to enjoy her ointment, and let them feed from the crumbs that fall from the table, like the dogs. Bridegrooms and brides belong to the bridal chamber. No one shall be able to see the bridegroom with the bride unless he become such a one. (GPhil 102)

At higher levels, initiates could freely interpret the philosophical implications of the stories, weaving Greek and Jewish thought together freely. Substituting Christ into the role of the Logos, they explain that his role is to repair the separation that happened in the beginning of Genesis:

If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this, Christ came to repair the separation, which was from the beginning, and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation, and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed, those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him. (GPhil 70)

Just as the sun had a female companion, the moon, and the Logos had a female companion, Sophia, the stories about Jesus also incorporated a woman as his friend and companion:

As for the Wisdom who is called the barren, she is the mother of the angels, and the companion of the Savior, who is also Mary Magdalene. (GPhil 48)

Although it is difficult to prove that Gnosticism is interpretative (rather than simply a Greek or Pagan version of Christianity), the above quotes from the gospel of Philip indicates how some believers interpreted the story of Christianity using philosophy and terminology of the mystery tradition, which can be traced at least back to Dionysus and likely also to Eleusis as well.

If Sophocles’ Antigone was based in part on the myths of Dionysus and Persephone, we might expect similar themes to be present behind the text. Sophocles would have been familiar with the Dionysian idea of spiritual death, rebirth and possible immortality, as well as the cosmological idea of a separation between the male and female and the need for their reunion. The interpretation of these themes, although given much later by someone speaking of the Christian mythos, may in fact be implicit in the text. Certainly the tragic ending of Antigone shows the tomb as a wedding chamber, where something tragic and sacred occurs.

Another common theme between Antigone and Christianity is the presence of a hidden God who destroys the ruler who doesn’t believe in him. Creon, in condemning Antigone to the wilderness, says “there let her pray to the one god she worships: Death –who knows?–may death reprieve her from death. Or she may learn at last, better late than never, what a waste of breath it is to worship Death” (875-879). This is very similar to the irreligious remarks of Penthus in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Penthus refuses to believe in Dionysus, and is later brought down low by him. (Euripides also wrote a play about Antigone, in which Dionysus had a more central role and averted the final calamity). Likewise, in the Jesus story, Jesus faces trial by Pilate and later – through his death and resurrection – is vindicated.

One final comparison to point out (but will be left for future study) is the link between these Deathly Lovers and the tradition of marriage and death with the contemporary popularity of Vampirism in all its forms. Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood and other books and movies have exploded in the last decade; it is possible that they offer a psychological reaction to the common themes of forbidden romance, a powerful deathly lover, immortality, sex and blood ritualism, and magic that made these ancient stories as impactful as they are. A research project I’d like to pursue would be to trace this conceptual of Deathly Romance from Eleusis, through Antigone, Mystery Cultures, Christianity and finally to contemporary vampire romance fiction.

At any rate it is clear that the link between marriage and death was normative in Greek society and culture, and it may have roots in the myth of Persephone. Thus it is possible, given Sophocles’ familiarity with the cult of Eleusis and the higher mysteries, that he borrowed central themes from the hieros logos and recreated them into an emotional powerful play that harbored the potential for spiritual allegory. If this link can be established more firmly, it could be the foundation for a larger project exploring the shared spiritual underpinnings of a Death/Marriage connection behind Western religious literature.

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  • Anonymous

    He just want to add that the story of Persephone starts with the old tale of Helen of Troy. Agamemnon wanted to set sail from Greece to Troy, he then made a sacrifice which was to give his daughter to Hades in exchange for wind to set his ships sail. Nice piece of Greek mythology.

    Great article over all. And thank you for sharing!