“Jesus said to the 12 apostles: “You have been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those, the ones outside, everything is given in parables, so that seeing, they may see and not perceive, and hearing, they may hear but not understand.” Mark 4:11
The purpose of this chapter will be to demonstrate that Christianity was originally a mystery religion; that it had different layers of meaning, and that only the higher level initiates were given the full understanding of their faith. This understanding of early Christianity will be crucial in explaining the communicative decay which finally led to the uniquely Christian revolution of viewing the divine logos as a historical person.
In order to accomplish this task it must be shown that the concept of such a religious organization was already widely understood and practiced, that the worship of the other Jesus-similar savior figures was conducted in a similar manner, and that, although diverse, they shared some more or less basic features and rites.
I will also have to overcome the common objection that the Jews, who so scrupulously avoided pagan idolatry, would have been interested in a Jewish synthesis of Greek mystery cult tradition, as well as demonstrate convincingly how and why such a novel combination of religious traditions was achieved.
What is a “mystery religion”?
In brief, a mystery religion is a religion that keeps its inner teachings secret – even from its own members. This ‘arcanum’ or ‘secret wisdom’ is divulged to initiates step-by-step, only after they’ve gone through certain ceremonies or achieved a certain level of understanding. The ancient Greek term μυστήρια (mysteria) actually means ‘initiation’; which gives the above passage from the gospel of Mark a new meaning. You who have been initiated can understand the meaning of the parables. Nearly all early Christian texts refer to the “mysteries” of God or receiving the “mysteries” of Jesus. Later, this word will be translated into Latin as sacrament; a word still in use by Christianity.
The ancient mysteries represented a kind of esoteric initiation, based in part upon the reenactment of a (usually tragic) story of a suffering god, which promised members a deeper understanding of the universe and their role in it. This was the standard religious structure for many kinds of spiritual organization in the Greek and Roman empires for about a thousand years; it was related especially in conjunction with mythic figures who exemplified death and rebirth in some way, such as Dionysus, Osiris, Tammuz, Orpheus, Mithras, Asclepius or Attis.
The Eleusinian Mysteries and Orphic rites can be traced back to about the 7th century BC, and probably have an oriental (Eastern) origin. At the same time the wisdom of Egyptian mystery traditions was actively sought by Greek travelers. In fact, although Western philosophy attributes its birth to the early “Naturalist Philosophers” of Greece, these same philosophers admit to having gained their wisdom in Egypt, where they had become initiates of the mysteries. It is likely, in fact, that what we know as “Greek philosophy” was really just an attempt to describe the cosmology of these mysteries in academic terms.
In the 5th century BC, Proclus, head of the neoplatonic school of Athens, wrote a brief history of Geometry known as the Eudemian Summary, claiming that the tradition of seeking knowledge from Egyptian mysteries began with Thales:
Thales was the first to go to Egypt and bring back to Greece this study [geometry]; he himself discovered many propositions, and disclosed the underlying principles of many others to his successors, in some cases his method being more general, in others more empirical. Proclus
Thales later recommended the mysteries of Egypt to Pythagoras, as recorded by Iamblichus, who wrote a history of Pythagoras and his followers called On the Pythagorean Life. Born in the third century AD and student of Porphyry, Iamblichus illustrates Pythagoras as a spiritual seeker, becoming initiated into various mystery cults in order to gain wisdom.
Then he sailed on to Sidon, aware that it was his birthplace, and correctly supposing that crossing to Egypt would be easier from there. In Sidon he met the descendants of Mochos the natural philosopher and prophet [who was believed to have originated Atomism], and the other Phoenician hierophants [priest and keeper of sacred mysteries], and as initiated in all the rites peculiar to Byblos, Tyre and other districts of Syria. He did not, as one might unthinkingly suppose, undergo this experience from superstition, but far more from a passionate desire for knowledge, and as a precaution lest something worth learning should elude him by being kept secret in the mysteries or rituals of the gods. Besides, he had learnt that the Syrian rites were offshoots of those of Egypt, and hoped to share, in Egypt, in mysteries of purer form, more beautiful and more divine. Awestruck, as his teacher Thales had promised, he crossed without delay to Egypt.”
“From there [Egypt] he visited all the sanctuaries, making detailed investigations with the utmost zeal. The priests and the prophets he met responded with admiration and affection, and he learned from them most diligently all that they had to teach. He neglected no doctrine valued in his time, no man renowned for understanding, no rite honored in any region, no place where he expected to find some wonder. So he visited all the priests, profited from each one particular wisdom. He spent twenty-two years in the sacred places of Egypt, studying astronomy and geometry, and being initiated – but not just on impulse or as the occasion offered – into all the rites of the gods, until he was captured by the expedition of Kampyses and taken to Babylon. There he spent time with the Magi, to their mutual rejoicing, learning what was holy among them, acquiring perfect knowledge of the worship of the gods and reaching the heights of their mathematics and music and other disciplines. He spent twelve more years with them, and returned to Samos, aged by now about fifty-six.”47
Although not strictly historical, these passages testify to the importance and relevance of the mysteries in the third century AD, as well as the fierce competition between them. Pythagoras and his followers have the best, most complete form of the mysteries precisely because – according to Iamblichus – he’s already become a member of all the others.
Perhaps in the beginning, only those with the dedication, perseverance and intelligence were admitted into the higher mysteries. However, when these ancient practices were assimilated into the cosmopolitan societies of Greco-Roman civilization, teachers or entrepreneurs opened their own schools and actively recruited members. These schools were usually centered around highly charismatic leaders or mythical saviors, who were attributed with miraculous powers. As membership became a sign of status, some schools began charging steep fees, and became entertainment for high society clubs rather than genuine havens for wisdom.
At the zenith of the phenomenon, the ‘format’ of the mystery organization was copied again and again, based on ever-evolving spiritual promises in response to the increasingly competitive environment. It is estimated that in Athens alone there were over 600 mystery schools. Unfortunately, much of what we know about the mysteries was preserved by condemnation or criticism from external sources. Due to the secretive nature of the mysteries, we may never know exactly what was taught at the highest levels. However, we can piece together something about these groups from the clues they left.
The following list, I will argue, comprises a basic sketch.
• Code of Silence
• Hieros Logos (Sacred Story)
• Hierarchy of Initiation
• Ritual death and rebirth
• Identification with God
I will briefly expand each point before continuing.
Code of Silence
One of the key (in fact the defining) characteristics of the mysteries was their secrecy; it is also what makes academic research into the mysteries so complex. The Eleusian mysteries were so integral to Greek culture that the Law of Athens made it illegal to reveal the secret proceedings experienced by initiates.
Silence was maintained with such admirable strictness in antiquity that the inquisitive researcher can discover very little of what went on in the rituals of these religions. The only things that were committed to writing were those which might be generally published; of the rest, memory was the best vault and silence the best guardian. But the most eloquent language of the Mysteries is not verbal but symbolic. Symbols elude the limiting precision of words, a precision which pins the ideas like butterflies to a single plane, while they should be free to flutter up and down all the levels of being and of meaning. (Godwin 9)
There are basically two reasons that the mysteries evolved a code of silence. The first is mystical: the ‘truth’ of the universe is inherently a mystery; it is beyond all human comprehension and expression. As soon as you try to speak about it, you contaminate it. All that can be done is to try to hint about it, in parable or myth. To protect its doctrine from external critique, and to safeguard the spiritual progress of its own initiates, the central truths of the cult had to be kept hidden. The following passage describes how only the ‘elite’ can interpret the true meaning of the mystery stories.
Plain and naked exposition of herself is repugnant to nature…she wishes her secrets to be treated by myth. Thus the mysteries themselves are hidden in the tunnels of figurative expression, so that not even to initiates the nature of such realities may present herself naked, but only an elite may know about the real secret, through the interpretation furnished by wisdom, while the rest may be content to venerate the mystery, defended by those figurative expressions against banality. (Macrobius S. sc. 1.2.17f)
Many traditions, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter, were divided into “Higher” and “Lesser” mysteries; for the elite, the stories were spiritual metaphors to be interpreted. For everyone else, the very obscurity and complexity in the stories gave them a vestige of sacred power, which made them venerable and holy. The perplexing and enigmatic nature of the parables were designed to protect the truth, and command respect from the crowd.
What is surmised (but not overtly expressed) is more frightening…What is clear and manifest is easily despised, like naked men. Therefore the mysteries too are expressed in the form of allegory, in order to arouse consternation and dread, just as they are performed in darkness and at night. (Demetrius Eloc. 101, qtd. Burkert)
Acknowledging this dimension of participation-by-exclusion, the mysteries were used in some cultures as a political tool to control the masses while justifying the ruling classes. For example, the mysteries of Egypt were mainly reserved for those in authority.
The Egyptians do not reveal their Religious Mysteries promiscuously to all, nor communicate the knowledge of divine things to the Profane, but only to those who are to succeed in the kingdom, and to such of the Priests as are judged most fitly qualified for the same, upon account both of their birth and Education.” (Clement Alexandra – contra celsum, book 1, chap. 12, Assmann 83)
The second reason for the secrecy, I will argue, is more practical. The mysteries were, like most other religious organizations, at least in some sense a business. That is, they traded rites of initiation for sacrifices and donations, without which they could not operate. Hence, having their sacred secrets leaked would virtually destroy them. Powerful or rare mysteries not commonly available could command a higher price than others. For example, Plato remarks that myths such as the suffering of Kronos should only be told to those who make a big sacrifice in advance, not just those who offer a pig, as at Eleusis. (Plato Republic 377e f.: Citied burkert 156).
In both cases, the obvious question is “how do you communicate the incommunicable?” This is perhaps the foundational question behind the evolution of the mysteries.
Hieros Logos (Sacred Story)
The mysteries were organized around a sacred story or foundation myth. These were almost always tales of suffering gods who in some sense died and were reborn; hence they involve a process of first mourning the loss, and then celebrating the return of their savior. These stories may have originally been vegetative myths that were re-appropriated, and were re-enacted either publically in grand processions or privately in initiation ceremonies.
It has long been held that mystery myths are of a particular type, that of the “suffering god.” The appropriate Greek word is pathea, “sufferings,” and this, connected with rituals of grief, mourning, and a nocturnal setting, is the proper content of mysteria already in Herodotus. We do find the abduction of Persephone, and indeed the death of Dionysus, Attis, and Osiris. There is a sequence of mourning followed by joy in the mysteries, whether those of Eleusis, Meter, or Isis. The grief of Demeter ends with the return of Persephone, and “The festival ends with exaltation and the brandishing of torches”; at the festival of Mater Magna, the dies sanguinis is followed by the Hilaria, the day of joy; the mourning rituals of Isis end with the finding of Osiris, the water of the Nile: “We have found, we rejoice together.” (Burkert 75)
By suffering, the mystery gods appear much more sympathetic to the problems of existence, more approachable and more intimate with humanity.
Unlike the gods of Olympus, the Mystery gods have usually suffered pain, loss or death, and this gives them compassion for our own sufferings and joys. Osiris, Orpheus, Hercules, Christ, Dionysus, Attis and Adonis were all slain and resurrected. (Godwin 26)
But foundational stories of the mysteries were not things that had to be ‘believed in’; a proper experience of these stories (enhanced by ritualistic initiation) would affect a profound psychological change in the participant – which was aided by the emotionally underpinnings inherent to the tale. This process is similar to the classical idea of tragedy; the first of which was recognized as an official state cult in Athens in 534 BC in honor of Dionysus.
Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification (catharsis, sometimes translated “purgation”) of such emotions. (Poetics of Aristotle [384-322 BC])
The mystai, or initiates, had to witness a story about a tragic figure, (this was probably already a well-known cultural myth open to the public). This story was later used in the mysteries as the background that would lead into a mystical experience beyond words.
Is it not true that the mysteries were “unspeakable,” arrheta, not just in the sense of artificial secrecy utilized to arouse curiousity, but in the sense that what was central and decisive was not accessible to verbalization? There is an “unspeakable sympatheia” of the souls with the rituals, Proclus states, and much older is the well-known pronouncement of Aristotle that those undergoing mysteries (teloumenoi) should not “learn” (mathein) but should “be affected,” “suffer,” or “experience” (pathein). (Burkert 69)
Mysteries often incorporated active participation in the therapeutic process of role-play or story-telling. Consequently, this hieros logos or sacred story nearly always justified the rites and rituals that an initiate would personally have to go through later. It should be noted that the ‘suffering god’ motif does not appear to apply to Mithraism, which may have been an exception.
Hierarchy of Initiation
The mysteries attempted to convey a non-rational experience of the divine; truth was not something to be learned, but something to be witnessed. Thus initiation involved, not a sermon, but a series of grueling physical challenges and experiences designed to shock and awe initiates, perhaps into a kind of sensory overload. These included initial tests or preparations which could be significantly daunting. At the very least they might include fasting, a vow of silence, ritual bathing, dressing in specific clothing, and sacrifice or donation. A few of the rituals are mentioned in the following passage for the cult of Isis:
In the cult of Isis the rich symbolism and the conduct at her services must have been carefully mastered by her ministers. From the pages of Apuleius we gain a good picture of Lucius’ ‘father in god’ giving spiritual guidance, possessing the title of the highest Mithraic grade and called Mithras. The priest has to deal with the mysteries of the faith: the cleansing of the soul by baptism, whereby the initiate gained admission into the sacred band, the seven washings, the soul’s death unto sin and rebirth to a better and purer life, the impatient wait in the darkness of the Magaron cell and the worshipper’s apotheosis by sanctification in a resurrected Osiris.” (Witt, 91)
Rituals were often listed by initiates as steps that they’d completed, which would be understood by fellow initiates who’d experience the same process, but impossible riddles to outsiders.
I approached the frontier of death, I set foot on the threshold of Persephone, I journeyed through all the elements and came back, I saw at midnight the sun, sparkling in white light, I came close to the gods of the upper and the nether world and adored them from near at hand. (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 11:23. 6-8 (11.24. 1-4))
Although divided loosely into greater and lesser mysteries, initiates could actually face many separate levels of initiation. Each level may include specific rituals, memorization of secret passwords or magic phrases, different props, and various garments or accessories, or even a physical mark such as a brand or tattoo.
The mysteries of Mithras, for example (which as we saw above may have been blended with the mysteries of Isis) had seven levels, which probably represented the seven known planets:
The initiations are more prominent and more sophisticated in these mysteries than anywhere else, since they are multiplied to produce seven grades of initiates: Korax/corvus, the raven; Nymphus, the chrysalis; Stratiotes/miles, the soldier; Leo, the lion, Persa, the Persian; Heliodromus, the sun-runner; and Pater, the father. (Burkert 98)
After each level they would be awarded a new title as well as some external symbol of their status. An initiate at the highest level (“Father”), wore a red cap, a mantle, a ring, and carried a shepherd’s staff (this symbol is common in the mysteries, with almost all saviors given the title “the good shepherd”).
Initiates of Mithras would first be baptized and born again as infants into their new life, and then made to fast and keep a special diet in order to gain control over their bodies. Once their physical drives were in check, they would perform a ritual death, often actually dressing in death rags and being buried or sealed in a tomb. The goal of Mithraism was the unification of the lower self with the Logos, for which they used the name “Perseus”, during a ritual called the Wedding Chamber. Having completed all of the levels, initiates would be branded or tattooed with a symbol of the organization and allowed to teach. (check source)
At the highest levels was a kind of naturalistic monotheism: initiates would learn that the mythologies of gods and goddesses were pious fictions, which could be interpreted. At the center of the universe, however, remained an ‘invisible and anonymous God’ which could be experienced:
By passing the threshold between the lesser and the greater mysteries, the initiate is supposed to abrogate his former beliefs, to recognize their erroneous and fictitious nature, and “to see things as they are.” The disillusionment of the initiate is brought about by telling him that the gods are just deified mortals and that there is only one invisible and anonymous God, the ultimate cause and foundation of Being “who originated all by himself, and to him all things owe their being.” These phrases are taken from Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria, who both quote an Orphic hymn which Warburton interprets as the words by which the hierophant in the Eleusinian mysteries addressed the initiate (Assmann 98)
It is has been argued, based on ancient testimony, that the mysteries consistently produced mystical experiences, which required very little preparation, and was almost universally effective. New initiates really did experience something that transcended any normal experience they’d ever had. Thus, several researchers have posited the use of a mind-altering chemical or plant. This view is elaborated in the book The Road to Eleusis, which argues that the Claviceps purpurea mushroom was used to induce visions and a unique experience.
The experience was a vision whereby the pilgrim became someone who saw, an epoptes. The hall, however, as can now be reconstructed from archaeological remains, was totally unsuited for theatrical performances; nor do the epigraphically extant account books for the sanctuary record any expenditures for actors or stage apparatus. What was witnessed there was no play by actors, but phasmata, ghostly apparitions, in particular, the spirit of Persephone herself, returned from the dead with her new-born son, conceived in the land of death. The Greeks were sophisticated about drama and it is highly unlikely that they could have been duped by some kind of theatrical trick, especially since it is people as intelligent as the poet Pindar and the tragedian Sophocles who have testified to the overwhelming value of what was seen at Eleusis.
There were physical symptoms, moreover, that accompanied the vision: fear and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea, and a cold sweat. Then there came the vision, a sight amidst an aura of brilliant light that suddenly flickered through the darkened chamber. Eyes had never before seen the like, and apart from the formal prohibition against telling of what had happened, the experience itself was incommunicable, for there are no words adequate to the task. Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.
These are the symptomatic reactions not to a drama or ceremony, but to a mystical vision; and since the sight could be offered to thousands of initiates each year dependably upon schedule, it seems obvious that an hallucinogen must have induced it. We are confirmed in this conclusion by two further observations: a special potion, as we know, was drunk prior to the visual experience; and secondly, a notorious scandal was uncovered in the classical age, when it was discovered that numerous aristocratic Athenians had begun celebrating the Mystery at home with groups of drunken guests at dinner parties. (Road to Eleusis, http://www.telesterion.com/roadto.htm)
The ritual use of such a drug or chemical, is thus not outside the realm of possibility, and certainly helps answer some questions about the fundamental experience of the sacred initiations, as well as why the mysteries at Eleusis enjoyed continued success for almost 2,000 years.
Membership in a common mystery was an immediate bond between strangers. They could greet each other using secretive riddles and responses they had learned, and many cults probably had a secret handshake as well. Aristides comments on this fellowship as an initiate of the mysteries of Asclepius:
Neither belonging to a chorus nor sailing together nor having the same teacher is as great a thing as the boon and profit of being a fellow pilgrim to the temple of Asclepius and being initiated into the first of the holy rites by the fairest and most perfect torchbearer and leader of the mysteries, to whom every rule of necessity yields. (Aristides, t.402 (125))
Referring to initiates as a brotherhood goes back as far as the early mysteries of Eleusis and was probably used almost universally in later mystery organizations.
The term ‘brother,’ adelphos, is used even at Eleusis for those who receive initiation together. This is remarkable even if it is to be understood more in terms of a clan system than of emotional affection. Plato’s Seventh Letter refers to the uncommonly close ties of friendship that develop through hospitality and common participation in the mysteries – those of Eleusis, no doubt – although for the philosopher this kind of friendship lacks the stable basis provided only by philosophy. (Burkert 45)
This brotherhood was especially useful in the mysteries of Mithras, which began especially popular among the Roman military, and helped support bonds of solidarity between them.
Ritual death and rebirth
The central ritual of the mysteries, it appears, would be a symbolic death of the initiate, followed by a rebirth into a new life. This was intimately tied to the conception of the cult’s savior as divine intermediary, and the idea of a spiritual soul caught in a physical body. By controlling the body’s urges, and symbolically putting the animal body to death, initiates could be reborn “in” the life of their god, so that only their higher, spiritual essence remained.
The mysteries of Isis are to be accepted, the priest says, “In the form of voluntary death and salvation by grace,”… In any event, the day following the night of initiation is reckoned as a new birthday (natalem sacrorum). (Burkert 99)
The password of the Attic mysteries was pronounced in the temple “in order that one who is about to die could be admitted to the interior parts” (Firmicus Err. 18.1, cited in Burkert, 166)
This death was often a physical reenactment; initiates may have been symbolically buried, or wrapped in burial shrouds, before ‘resurrecting’ into their new life.
Firmicus Maternus describes a mystery scene in which, after days of lament in the presence of an idol lying on a litter, light is brought in and a priest anoints the throats of the mourners, saying in a whispering voice: “Be confident, mystai, since the god has been saved: you too will be saved from your toils” It is unclear to which cult he is referring, but it is evident that the fate of the initiate is modeled on the fate of the god as represented in myth and ritual, following the peripety from catastrophe to salvation. (Burkert 75)
Identification with God
As suffering, sympathetic figures, the mystery gods were more accessible. Believers could form a closer, personal relationship with them rather than one based on fear:
If one had to single out one paramount feature that distinguished all the Mystery cults from other religions, of their period, it would be that they sought a personal relationship with their gods. Consequently the attitude of their devotees to the gods was one of love rather than of fear or indifferent manipulation. (Godwin 27)
At the same time, many groups viewed their saviors as manifestations of the divine Logos, Son of God, and that they could act as intermediary to the invisible, eternal God. Moreover, it was believed that in identifying with the sufferings of their savior – such as ‘dying’ and being reborn – they could in effect give themselves over to the divine principle in themselves.
The identification of the initiate with the fate of his god has been held to be the distinguishing characteristic of ancient mysteries. (Berner1972 266f, Lohse 1974, 171-179, Colpe 1975, 381, cf n 56 (Cited Burkert 156))
Other semi-magical rituals were used to increase this bond: as we’ve pointed out previously, cults such as that of Dionysus already had a sacred meal which represented the body and blood of their god. This ritual can be inferred to have similar meaning in later mysteries, which likewise shared communal meals of mystical importance.
One such means, not in any way peculiar to Christianity, is holy communion, in which the goal of assimilation to the god on his level is furthered by assimilation of him on this plane. Dionysus was believed to be present, not merely symbolically but actually, in the wine and raw flesh which his devotees consumed. (Godwin 28)
The divinity was a spirit to be invoked, with ritualistic incantations; it could descend into an initiate’s body, ‘possessing’ them in a sense.
Come into me, Hermes, as children come into women’s wombs. I know thee, Hermes, and thou knowest me: I am thou, and thou art I… (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, I p.116, cited Godwin, 26)
The ethics of the mysteries were mostly designed to control the urges of the physical body, sometimes purposely to weaken its strength, through fasting, meditation, strenuous action or inaction. The body was viewed as a shell or prison, holding the spark of the divine logos. Constantly keeping our baser, animal nature in check would make it easier to free the divine light. Eventually we could grow into the image of a god ourselves, and become eternal.
The beginnings of salvation lie within every one of us, since they are identical with the germ of divinity which it is our nature as human beings to possess. Yet it does not follow that everyone is assured of a blessed future simply by reason of his origin. By a life of adikia or sinfulness, the divine element may be stifled and the ‘Titanic nature’ in us brought to the surface (Plato, laws 70IC – Plutarch calls it ‘the unreasonable and disorderly and violent part of us (De esu carn 996c)… The state of those who have let this happen is far worse than if they had merely been ‘finished and finite clode, untroubled by a spark.’ To misuse the divine is to use it to our own damnation. Hence the believer will try to lead the Orphic life, to which we shall come later, and which aims at the exaltation and purification of our Dionysiac nature in order that we may in the end shake off the last trammels of our earthly selves and become actually, what we are now potentially, gods instead of mortals. (156-source)
The Orphic was an ascetic, that is to say, he believed that the source of evil lay in the body with its appetites and passions, which must therefore be subdued if we are to rise to the heights which it is in us to attain. This is precept, but like all Orphic precept it is based on dogma. The belief behind it is that this present life is for the soul a punishment for previous sin, and the punishment consists precisely in this, that it is fettered to a body. This is for it a calamity, and is compared sometimes to being shut up in a prison, sometimes to being buried in a tomb. This doctrine is mentioned by Plato, and we may be eternally grateful that for once the whim took him to ascribe it, not vaguely and mysteriously to ‘the wise’, or ‘the old and sacred writings’, but expressly to the Orphics. 156
It should be stressed that the final, interpretive wisdom the mysteries is not based on faith, but an inherently rational philosophical doctrine. Ethics are understood, not as the arbitrarily commands of a tyrannous God, but as practical methods to experience truths built into the fabric of the natural universe. Thus Plutarch can say of the Egyptians:
Their sacred rites do not institute anything dissonant to reason, anything fabulous, anything smelling of superstition, but they contain in their recesses certain ethical and useful doctrines or philosophical or historical insights.” (8.353, on Isis and Osiris, cited Assmann 78)
While the mysteries helped you along in the process, they were not infallible; initiates needed to take responsibility and attempt to lead disciplined lives, in addition to initiation. The conflict between ‘grace’ and ‘work’ was recognized by Diogenes the Cynic – referring to Eleusis, he asks, “What! Is Pataikion the thief to have a better lot after death than Epaminondas, just because he has been initiated?” (cited Plutarch, de aud. Poet. 21f)
At Eleusis it is shown “how to live in joy, and how to die with better hopes.” (Cicero, De Legibus 2.36)
It should be noted that, although it can be affirmed that the central characters in these rites appeared in some sense to experience death and rebirth, and although philosophies concerning the eternal life of the soul were common and definitely proposed by certain cults (Orpheus, etc.) scholars continue debate whether the initiates of all mysteries believed in or hoped for an afterlife. Although it can be most readily inferred based on common practices, due to the secrecy of mystery organizations, it is difficult to prove. Burkert argues that
in fact, we meet with a paradox: in the perspective of “religions of salvation,” concern and doctrines about the soul should be the very center of interest; yet in the evidence there is hardly even a faint indication of this, whether in the mysteries of Eleusis, Dionysus, Meter, Isis, or Mithras. Ancient mysteries were a personal, but not necessarily a spiritual form of religion. (Burkert 87)
He continues to point out that although afterlife doctrines, specifically ‘transmigration of souls’ (reincarnation), was taught by Pythagoras or Orpheus around 600BC, and included in the mysteries, which found strong believers, it is nevertheless uncertain whether it was a central feature.
It is all the more remarkable that despite this evidence, which is concentrated in the fifth and fourth centuries, there is nothing to suggest that belief in transmigration was a basic or essential tenet of mysteries practiced. (Burkert 87)
At the same time, while there may not be definitive proof that each mystery cult interpreted their symbols in the same way, it would be most unusual if they did not; how could a mystery religion with no doctrine of eternal life hope to compete with those that very clearly did promise it?
Sophocles, speaking on the Eleusian rites, confirms that they were associated with an afterlife:
Thrice happy are those mortals who see these rites before they depart for Hades; for to them alone is it granted to have true life on the other side. To the rest all there is evil.” (Hippolytus Ref. 5.8.39f, cf cited in Burkert)
Incidentally, while worship at Eleusis focused mostly on Demeter and her daughter Persephone, it always seems as if a central concept was the birth of Persephone’s son, which was conceived while she was in Hades:
The hierophant, at night at Eleusis, celebrating the great and unspeakable mysteries beneath a great fire, cries aloud saying: The Lady has born a sacred son, Brimo has born Brimos. (Hippolytus Ref. 5.8.39f, cf cited in Burkert)
The rites of Dionysus and Orpheus (which were often mingled) believed in reincarnation, or “transmigration of souls”, and these beliefs were not later derivations, but can be found in early forms of both religious traditions:
The Orphics called this sphere of the visible universe the Circle of Necessity; Buddhists called it the Wheel of Existence. According to both, the soul can take two alternative routes when it leaves the body: it can either remain within the Wheel, in which case it will sooner or later have to incarnate in another human body; or else it can leave the system altogether and attain perpetual liberation from rebirth. Both believe, moreover, in the eventual liberation of all souls. (Godwin 37)
The same is true for the Dionysiac mysteries from at least the fifth century B.C. onward. Scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge this dimension of Dionysiac worship, on the assumption that concern about the afterlife should be seen to have developed in later epochs; but the clearest evidence is of the concentrated right in the classical period, whatever we make of the indication at the end of the Odyssey that a vase of Dionysus is to hold the bones of Achilles and Patroclus. For those who decline the rites, bad things are waiting. (Burkert 21-22)
A common metaphor (originally Egyptian) used in the mysteries is the punishment of carrying water forever in a leaky sieve; those that didn’t ‘seal up the hole’, in their lifetime, can’t carry the divine light, and will perpetually return until they remedy this situation. By the first century AD, the ideas of reincarnation and eternal life should have been more or less common; a few centuries later they would become ubiquitous, as philosophers began to interpret every myth along the same spiritual lines.
The most important myths from the point of view of the Mystery religions are those that concern the descent and ascent of the soul itself. The inclination of the Neophythagoreans and Neoplatonists was to interpret most myths as such, in their fundamental meaning. Homer’s Odyssey, for example, received such treatment from Porphyry, the whole tale being understood as the journey of a man’s soul to its true home. Such an attempt to adapt mythology to the purposes of spiritual philosophy is looked down upon by modern philosophers and dismissed as a NeoPlatonic ‘phase’. (Godwin 49)
Christians Mystery Texts
The mysteries, then, were ancient and fully established spiritual traditions, which grew increasingly varied and diverse with trend towards syncretism inspired by the Greek and Roman empires. Out of the middle of this situation sprang Christianity. Were the Christians influenced by Pagan mysteries? Absolutely. On the one hand, the gospel writers or early Christian communities could not not have been aware of the mysteries, at least in their enormous public displays, processions and feasts. Thus when we find parallel rituals, symbols or ideas, even if a connection cannot be proved, it should be assumed. This is especially the case when Christianity adopts exact mystery language and expressions:
For the Mediterranean world where Orphic and Eleusinian rites had long flourished the mysteries in later antiquity did not lose their importance. There were the public religious dramas such as those of the Phrygian Magna Mater. In the Isaic ritual an emperor like Otho or Commodus might openly take part. There were also the traditional secret orgia as a never-failing attraction. Hadrian went through two ceremonies at Eleusis, first and initiation as ‘mystes’ and then the second degree as ‘epoptes’. The importance of Hellenistic mysteries for Christianity is evident when we turn to the Pauline interpretation or to the use of the term for the knowledge that only the disciples had, or to what the fathers write about baptism as mysterion or the enlightenment (photismos) and about the creed as a symbolon (a password.)
The cities of the Roman provinces in Asia Minor were among the centers where the mystery religions flourished most in the first two centuries A.D. It was tempting to ask how much Christianity owed to these; whether, for instance, the Christian’s relation to his Savior was no akin to that which united the pagan initiate to the gods of the oriental cults. There was just enough evidence to suggest that, in the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist, the resemblances between Christianity and the mystery religions were influenced by pagan mysteries. (Frend 2)
Now it is true that some ancient Christian writers were struck by certain similarities between Christian worship and mysteries, and they denounced the latter as devilish counterfeits of the one true religion. Certain Gnostic sects seem to have practiced mystery initiations, imitating or rather outdoing the pagans, and even orthodox Christianity adopted the mystery metaphor that had long been used in Platonic philosophy: to speak of the “mysteries” of baptism and the Eucharist remained in common usage. (Burkert 3)
Note that at this point, I’m not arguing that Christianity was only a mystery religion or even originally a mystery religion; at the same time, the fact that there were communities who interpreted the story of Jesus Christ as a mystery and utilized it as such is indisputable. The writings from some Gnostic communities, which were branded as heretical and lost for centuries, clearly fall within the mystery tradition. Many of these texts have re-emerged only this century, quickly changing the traditional understanding of the early church. Although cast out of the Roman Catholic fold, these communities considered themselves to be the true followers of Christ.
The Gnostics were organized like mystery sects…Upon initiation the Gnostic received an entirely new relation to spiritual authority. Each sect had its own baptism ceremony, its passwords, its sacred meal, its “ceremonies of the Bride Chamber,” even its final instructions to the dying, how to outwit the powers the soul would encounter on its upward flight (Frend, 200).
A fragment of the Secret Gospel of Mark, one of the Gnostic texts discovered, describes Jesus performing secret initiation rites. Before the discovery of Gnostic writings, our only knowledge of it came from a letter written by Church Father Clement of Alexandria (150 AD – 211 AD), which quotes this secret gospel and refers to it as “a more spiritual gospel for the use of those who were being perfected.” He said, “It even yet is most carefully guarded [by the church at Alexandria], being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.” Clement insists elsewhere that Jesus revealed a secret teaching to those who were “capable of receiving it and being molded by it.” (http://reluctant-messenger.com/Lost-Doctrines-Christianity003.htm)
The following passages from the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, usually dated to around the 2nd or 3rd century, but reflecting ideas of Valentinus who was a leader in Rome from 138-158AD. Philip records that the mysteries of Jesus included a baptism, a communal meal, and a bridal chamber.
The Lord did everything in a mystery, a baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber. (GPhil 60)
The Greek word used for “mystery” in this fragment can be found in the bible as “sacrament”. Although the church has always argued about the nature and number of sacraments, those cited by Philip are roughly the same as those still used by many churches. The chrism is an anointing of oil, marking the initiate’s forehead with the cross to make them “christs”. It continues today in the form of confirmation. The mystery of the “Bridal Chamber” most likely refers to a lost sacrament aimed at uniting the upper and lower selves.
Today most churches claim that marriage is a sacred institution, although the apostle Paul clearly recommended celibacy over marriage, and priests of most Christians denominations aren’t even allowed to enter into it. How could the marriage between two people be both a sacrament, sanctified by God, and unacceptable for priests? The answer is that originally, the sacrament of marriage referred to the mystery of the Wedding Chamber, and the fusion between the Sophia and the Logos inside each person, becoming ‘one with God’ or eternal.
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 63)
Although passages speak of light and mirrors; 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)
In my understanding of the mysteries, 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)
Many texts describe the ecstasy encountered between Mary and Jesus, which represent the Logos and the Sophia as they are fused into one in the Wedding Chamber. It is no wonder that there are so many books written about the sexual exploits of Jesus and Mary, and even the possibility of their royal offspring; an idea featured most prominently in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. As long as Jesus is assumed to be historical, Mary must be viewed as his real, physical companion. However it is obvious that the writer is using them as mystical symbols rather than historical personages.
Like Sophia, Mary was sometimes called a whore, as were many consorts of the sun. She was the one who was lost, sullied in matter, trapped and in need of rescue. Significantly, Mary is identified in the Bible as the woman out of whom seven devils were cast. After Mary had her seven demons removed, or ascended past the seven illusionary heavens, she was able to become Christ’s partner and lover in the bridal chamber.
In an ancient manuscript called the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mary was not only Christ’s beloved disciple, but also the revealer of secret mysteries.
Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them. Mary answered and said, what is hidden from you I will proclaim to you. (Gospel according the Mary Magdalene)
Later, when a certain branch of Christianity refused the higher mysteries, they viewed this form of Mary as a threat because of the authority it gave to women. The symbol for Sophia, the bride of Christ, was changed from Mary Magdalene into The Holy Mother Church.
Christ was viewed as the head of his body, the Church, and his great sacrifice was undertaken for the sake of this body. The Church, like Sophia, was the collection of individual sparks trapped in the world. Once the meaning of the Wedding Chamber was lost, this relationship between Christ and the Church became a metaphor for human marriages rather than the relationship between the higher and lower selves; yet even in Ephesians it is referred to as a ‘mystery with great significance’ which is being taken out of contexts.
Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy by washing her in cleansing water with a form of words, so that when he took the Church to himself she would be glorious. . . .This is why a man leaves his mother and father and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh. This mystery has great significance, but I am applying it to Christ and the Church. Ephesians 5:25
As difficult as it might seem, even the crucifixion of Jesus was interpreted as spiritual metaphor rather than historical event, in a feat of astrological exegesis. According to the Old Testament when Moses came down from the mountain and found his people with the golden calf, he smashed the idol and replaced it with a bronze serpent fixed it to a pole. “And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:4).
You may well wonder, remembering Ascelpius, where Moses got his magical healing symbol. However this image can also be interpreted symbolically. While the bull was a symbol of astrological precession, the snake on the pole represented the soul’s ascent to the One. Moses was introducing a new spirituality based on personal transformation rather than celestial observation. Thus, the writer of John’s gospel links Jesus’ crucifixion to Moses’ serpent stick, giving him a unique role as the pathway to spiritual perfection.
As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. (Ephesians 5:25)
This association is later confirmed by Cyril of Jerusalem, who credits Jesus with Christian apparent mastery over scorpions and snakes:
According to Job, the dragon Behemoth was in the Waters and received the Jordan into his jaws. Now, since the heads of the dragon must be broken, Jesus, having gone down into the Waters, bound the Strong One, so that we should have the power to walk on scorpions and snakes. (Cited in Eliade, 133)
A Gnostic or mystery reading Jesus crucifixion would be this: Jesus (the Logos) has fallen into matter, and in this state he appears crucified, or stuck. All of the pieces of him, his body, need to be lifted up and rejoined to the head. The pieces of him were called Sophia, the wisdom of God, and many biblical passages state clearly that Jesus crucified is Sophia. The relationship between these two is obscured by translating Sophia into “Wisdom”.
We are preaching a crucified Christ…who is both the power of God and the wisdom (Sophia) of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22)
Was Christianity Originally a Mystery Religion?
This is, of course, a loaded question. The answer is “yes” – and also “no”. It can be shown that the very earliest practices of Christianity coincided with popular mystery cults on many levels. Church leaders talked about “initiations, passwords, and mysteries” using exactly the same terms as other contemporary mystery religions. But it is the interpretation of Christianity which makes all the difference. It was the similarity of Christianity to mystery cults that made it define itself as different from mystery cults. Everyone who practiced levels initiation, allegorical interpretation, death and rebirth in this life (as opposed to the bodily resurrection) were basically kicked out. So if you define Christianity as ‘those communities of the early church who did not interpret themselves as a mystery’ and all other believers in Jesus Christ as Gnostics or Heretics, then yes, Christianity – by this violent, forced definition – wasn’t a mystery. However, even then the argument can only be that Christianity started with a historical founder and was immediately and irrevocably assimilated into the mystery tradition; to the exclusion of any specific details about that alleged historical founder.
At best, we can say that the passionate story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, his enigmatic parables and inner circle of disciples, the rituals he founded such as Baptism and the Eucharist, as well as the spiritual symbols of his saving role as sacrificial lamb and Logos, son of God, were perfectly suited for the production of a new mystery cult, blending the ancient tradition of Judaism with the Greek mysteries. We can also demonstrate that in fact, this basis was seized upon very early and that Christianity, at least from as early as Paul, had levels of initiation.
So more important, then, is who created the story and why. If Jesus was only a historical figure, and all of the qualities of a mystery were later added to the kernel of a real man, teacher, who was crucified, then we would expect the original story to be more secular, less phenomenal, less magical. But instead, as Christians apologists have pointed out, Jesus’ atoning death, victorious resurrection, mediary position between a loving God are the core elements of Christianity from the beginning.
It is difficult to prove what came first; the orthodox rendition of biblical history is that mystery language, rituals and traditions became immediately fixed unto the alternative Jewish teachings of a historical Jesus. However, the biographical conditions of Jesus Christ, including his death and resurrection, so perfectly fit the pre-existing mystery cult format that his story was very early interpreted as a mystery.
At any rate, there were some Christian mysteries. That’s a fact. Everything about Christianity made it perfect to become a mystery – and it was; viewed as such. Not only by Gnostics and heretics, but many orthodox in the beginning. You basically have a tradition of Greek-Jewish mystery synthesis that starts from Philo and continues unchecked through to the Gnostics – both of whom interpreted the symbols allegorically and not historically – and then the tradition of a historical Jesus Christ appears in the middle of that situation which is perfectly suited to mystery interpretation. Later Christians claim emphatically that Jesus was completely, irrevocably different and unconnected (actually, early Christians claimed Jesus WAS connected; he was the fulfillment. He was the same, but REAL – and so better. Only modern Christians try to argue that there is no similarity between the mysteries and Christianity). There is one obvious, simple and reasonable way to interpret the evidence, and there is one that can only be supported by Faith.