Dear friends, I am proud to announce the launch of my very first official full-length book via Amazon! This work was written over the span of two years, between 2011-2013, and has undergone significant revisions since I decided to publish it for a wider audience – as of recently, it’s been made available in paperback form through amazon’s print-on-demand service. The following link is an affiliate link, so if you’re looking to purchase the book, do it through here and I get a little extra bonus from Amazon:
Summary: The administration of initiation rites by an ecstatic specialist, now known to western scholarship by the general designation of ‘shaman’, has proven to be one of humanity’s oldest, most widespread, and continuous magico-religious traditions. At the heart of their initiatory rituals lay an ordeal – a metaphysical journey – almost ubiquitously brought on by the effects of a life-changing hallucinogenic drug experience.
To guide their initiates, these shaman worked with a repertoire of locally acquired instruments, costumes, dances, and ecstasy-inducing substances. Among past Mediterranean cultures, Semitic and Indo-European, these sorts of initiation rites were vital to society’s spiritual well-being. It was, however, the mystery schools of antiquity – organizations founded upon conserving the secrets of plant-lore, astrology, theurgy and mystical philosophy – which satisfied the role of the shaman in Greco-Roman society. The rites they delivered to the common individual were a form of ritualized ecstasy and they provided an orderly context for religiously-oriented intoxication.
In the eastern Mediterranean, these ecstatic cults were most often held in honour of a great mother goddess and her perennially dying-and-rising consort. The goddess’ religious dramas enacted in cultic ritual stressed the importance of fasting, drumming, trance-inducing music, self-mutilation, and a non-alcoholic ritual intoxication. Far and wide the dying consort worshiped by these cults was a god of vegetation, ecstasy, revelation, and salvation; by ingesting his body initiates underwent a profound mystical experience. From what limited information has survived from antiquity, it appears that the rites practiced in the eastern mystery cults were in essence traditional shamanic ordeals remodeled to suit the psychological needs of Mediterranean civilization’s marginalized people.
This book argues that the myths of this vegetable god, so-called ‘the Divine Bridegroom,’ particularly in manifestation of the Phrygian Attis and the Greek Dionysus, is deeply rooted in the life-cycle, cultivation, treatment, consumption of a tree-born hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria. The use of this mushroom is alive and well today among Finno-Ugric shaman and this paper explores their practices as one branch of Eurasian shamanism running parallel to, albeit in a different time, the rites of the Phrygian goddess. Using extant literary and linguistic evidence, I compare the initiatory cults long-assimilated into post-agricultural Mediterranean civilization with the hallucinogen-wielding shaman of the Russian steppe, emphasizing them both as facets of a prehistoric and pan-human magico-religious archetype.
Encyclopedia Hermetica: A Big History
with Dan Attrell
In this new podcast-style series presented by The Modern Hermeticist, historian Dan Attrell cruises through the centuries and millennia, starting around the year 5000 BC and working his way down to our times, in order to provide listeners with a ‘big picture’ of history. The ‘exoteric’ portions of the Encyclopedia Hermetica cover major events and trends in politics, art, philosophy, religion, science, and more, in order to provide listeners with a more ‘traditional’ historical framework.
This romp through the ages, however, serves a dual-function as a vehicle for imparting teachings vis-a-vis the ‘esoteric’ dimensions of history which one cannot learn in school. The discussions are punctuated by an honest and ‘alternative’, no-holds barred commentary that delves off into subjects such as the occult, mysticism, and mind control, and how these topics stand in connection with the way the past has unfurled, and the way we continue to interpret those events to this day. This is done to provide listeners not only with a basic chronology of events, but with a veritable ‘cosmology’ in the spirit of a liberal education.
Future episodes will discuss the topics as diverse as magic[k] and mystery traditions, prophets and their mystical experiences, science and alchemy, astrology and astronomy, entheogenic plants and psychedelic drugs, freedom and slavery, truth and illusion, and much more in relation to the broader framework of world history.
What were the Greco-Roman mysteries? Where were they most popular? What exactly happened in these initiation ceremonies? What is the relationship between ritual magic and the mysteries? What is the current status on the study of mystery cults? Classicists Dan Attrell and Stephen Millburn discuss these and many other frequently asked questions concerning the Greco-Roman mystery cults (Mithraism, Dionysianism, the Isaic mysteries, the mysteries of Attis and Cyele, the Eleusinian mysteries, etc.) in order to provide a general survey of the subject.
If you have any personal questions you would like to have answered in one of our next talks, please include them in the comment box – don’t be afraid to ask about specifics. Don’t forget to subscribe for more discussions, lectures, and presentations on this and other similar subjects (Paganism, Early Christianity, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Alchemy, etc.).
The Eleusinia, among the most famous of all the religious festivals of Antiquity, was held in honor of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The festival’s name derives from a small but influential town in Attica, approximately twenty-one kilometers northwest of Athens: Eleusis. For centuries, the mystery rites performed exclusively onsite at Eleusis had tremendous influence on the religious landscape of both the Greek and Roman worlds. Clement of Alexandria, among the most authoritative of the festival’s critics, referred to the Eleusinian mysteries as a ‘mystical drama.’ Akin to all other known mystery cults, the rituals undertaken were a sort of reconstructive drama in which the passions of Kore and Demeter could be experienced firsthand by initiates. The mysteries focused on these two goddesses due to their ties to agricultural fertility. Both goddesses were considered personifications of grain: Kore as the freshly sewn grain of autumn, and Demeter as the mature grain with maternal potential.
Prior to Athens’ annexation of Eleusis, the mysteries of Demeter and Kore were conducted by an independent community, and the ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ presupposes such a state of affairs. Once Athens had assumed jurisdiction of the mysteries around the year 600BC, Athenian interests naturally came to predominate in the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries. This Homeric Hymn to Demeter is believed to be a crucial source in recreating the illusive drama. But, like all historical artifacts, this particular source gives only a part of the story – a part which happens to be embellished and convoluted in poetic conventions. Religious scholars then must supplement the Homeric Hymn with a variety of other sources in order to paint a fuller picture of what may exactly have happened at the festival. Today I want to give somewhat of a reconstruction of what may have transpired during the festival nights; I want to talk about the problems that arise in the recreation of these mysterious events; and the reasons for their widespread popularity in the Greco-Roman world.
Early scholars of Roman religion and statesmen of the Republic alike have regarded the Roman citizenry’s participation in foreign cults in an unwaveringly depreciatory light. By and large, religious novelties were seen to have tainted an originally ‘wholesome’ Roman state religion. In spite of this, cult-festivals like the Eleusinian mysteries continued to gain mass appeal well into the Roman Imperial period as the empire’s influence diffused throughout the entire Mediterranean world. One question arises from this phenomenon: since – from a religious point of view – Greece had been relatively homogenous, why had Rome differed so dramatically? What political, socio-cultural and spiritual revolutions from the 4th c. BC onward pried open that floodgate for foreign religious influence, for the most part in the form of mystery cults, to flow into the Roman world? If we come at this ‘popularity of foreign cults’ as a natural reaction to the rise of Hellenism and its marriage of the ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ worlds, coupled with the moral bankruptcy of the Roman state religion, the rise of individualism, and the rampancy of superstition, ‘the appeal of foreign cults’ may appear to scholars as anything but a cultural anomaly.
Despite all the scholarship over the past two centuries devoted to the study of the mystery religions and festivals, scholars continue to encounter lots of difficulties in conveying a simple yet sufficient idea to the modern mind of what these cults actually entailed. The very nature of the mystery rites demanded such a high degree of secrecy that any sort of familiarity with either their history or practices has been both fragmentary and speculative at best. Whereas early Christians had been encouraged to proselytize and disperse the ευαγγέλιον of Christ, making scholarship on such a group far easier, the remainder of the more enigmatic mystery cults, including the Eleusinian mysteries, left us substantially fewer footprints.
Although nobody forbade initiates from praising the blessedness or the beatific vision they got during their initiation, it was far more common for people to divulge the ideas and philosophical teachings which the cults shared rather than details concerning rituals and practices – as some works of Cicero, Plutarch, Porphyry, Julian and Proclus have demonstrated. Oaths of secrecy were well kept and the mysteries which ancient authors refused to reveal have never been solved. “It is not lawful to mention the orgies which Demeter established” reads the Homeric Hymn. We’re told that Aeschylus was charged by a mob for nearly having exposed the secret of the Eleusinian rites, and that an inebriated Alcibiades was sent into exile for blasphemy against the Eleusinian hierophant among plenty of other offenses. As a result of such obstacles, Samuel Angus said that scholars concerned with the mysteries are in a much “worse position in regard to these ancient cults than a present-day historian would be in regard to Freemasonry. A mason may not disclose the secrets, while an outsider could record only such usages of Freemasonry as are openly spoken of by the brotherhood.”
The bulk of information used in unveiling mysteries comes down from antiquity in several forms of scattered references: lines of poetry, hymns or prayers, eroded inscriptions, cult symbols, vase shards, vandalized sanctuaries, and enigmatic frescoes – all of which tend to beget more questions than provide concrete answers. Despite the tremendous logistical issues surrounding the study of the mysteries, the topic has now captured the attention of religious scholars, historians, occultists, magicians and even New Agers for well over the past two centuries. A quick glance at mystery cult historiography proves that such a field of study has been subject of virulent debate despite the lack of any robust statistical or literary evidence. In any case, as archaeological evidence continues to be unearthed and dated works are revised in light of new discoveries, the study of mystery cults will persist and diminish in speculatory nature.
So before turning to the history behind the rise of a religious phenomenon as seemingly peculiar as that of the festival at Eleusis, a universal definition of the ‘mysteries’ is in order. The mystery rites were: the experience of an amalgamation of symbolic acts. These symbols took their form in liturgy, rituals, icons, sacraments, myths and allegories. These were then divided into three distinct categories: λεγόμενα, the things said; δεικνύμεναthe things shown; and δρώμενα the things done. Such symbols were then pooled into one event, the ‘mystery,’ and undertaken by initiates (probably under the effects of an ergotized rye-derived hallucinogen). The powerful and bizarre experiences were designed to be conducive to physical ecstasy and subsequently, spiritual catharsis. Through such catharses, initiates identified themselves with a particular deity, they believe themselves reborn or purged of sin and, at last, they were unified with a transcendental divine realm.
The ‘gift’ of the goddesses, however, wasn’t merely a spiritual one. Demeter was the giver of grain, so in the most fundamental sense possible, the giver of riches – Plutos. The maintenance of the Eleusinian Mysteries had a perceived practical effect too: guaranteeing an annual supply of grain. Most mystery cults evolved out of a variety of simple agrarian festivals which celebrated the death and rebirth of the crops. Deities commonly revered by mysteries like Osiris, Zagreus, Attis, Adonis, and in particular Demeter and Kore, have long been considered to be anthropomorphic embodiments of the natural cycles: the death and rebirth inherent to nature. Devotees of these gods sought to symbolically reenact their deity’s passion through the mysteries themselves in hope that they might also conquer the grave, though what exactly occurred during these mysteries remains mostly hidden. Healing miracles are said to have played an occasional role at Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of a man who was miraculously cured of his blindness in order that he might “behold the sacred exhibition.” To me, this only proves that the ‘sacred exhibitions’ dished out at Eleusis weren’t the kind beheld with the physical eye, but with an inner eye.
The Eleusinian festival was divided into two separate celebrations, the Greater Eleusinia of autumn, in which the Katabasis occurred, and the Lesser Eleusinia of the spring, celebrated at Agrae on the banks of the Ilissus. The Lesser Mysteries were a prelude to the Greater and were presented on a much smaller scale, but initiation in the Lesser was required before initiates could bear the title of ‘mystai,’ and move on toward the Greater mysteries. According to some accounts, the Lesser Mysteries had pertained specifically to Kore and Dionysus, while the Greater were set aside for the passion of Demeter and her daughter. The Lesser Mysteries at Agrae probably consisted of purification rituals, from which the waters of the Ilissus would have been used. It appears as though the rapture of Kore was the central focus of these specific rites. Six months after the Lesser Mysteries took place, on the fourteenth day of Boedromion (September), the nine-day celebration of the Greater Mysteries began. On the opening day of the festivities, sacred symbols were carried out from Eleusis to Athens and the hierophant of Eleusis would read the ‘proclamation,’ which marked the beginning of the telete (initiation). The proclamation declared that “everyone who has clean hands and intelligible speech, who is pure from all pollution and whose soul is conscious of no evil and who has lived well and justly” was permitted to proceed with the mysteries. Foreigners were accepted into the Lesser Mysteries, but not to the Greater. These regulations were done to commemorate the mythical initiation of Heracles, who was a foreigner himself, and who, according to the primitive custom, couldn’t be initiated into the mysteries.
On the 16th day of the month, a crowd of initiates traveled to bathe in the sea at Phaleron in an act of ritual purification. The next day, sacrifices were made at a temple called the Eleusinion, followed by a day of rest. On the nineteenth day of Boedromion, initiates crowned in wreaths and carrying great torches, were led by priests of Eleusis from Athens by means of the ‘Sacred Way.’ The fasted thirty kilometer journey through the countryside was filled with song and merriment. Since initiates left Athens just before noon, the sanctuary at Eleusis was not reached until midnight, especially due to the numerous stops before designated altars, shrines, and sanctuaries lining the Sacred Way. The mystery rites themselves took place on the 20th and 21st of the month in the Telesterion building, which would have been capable of hosting several thousand initiates at once. What was ‘said, shown and done’ during these festive nights at Eleusis is not clear to modern scholars.
The oath of secrecy was well kept and the mystery has never been truly been solved from what ancient authors agreed to divulge. Personally, I don’t believe the mysteries will ever be ‘solved’ since they’re something which can’t be conveyed via script or small mouth noises – it was an event based on structured madness, designed to provoke ecstatic experiences, shamanic ones, full of indescribable hallucinations. Archaeological evidence shows that on either side of the Telesterion were rows of seats from which initiates watched the mysteries unfold. In the center of the hall was located a monolithic stone construct, the Anaktoron, inside of which were kept secret objects or substances sacred to Demeter. Only the hierophants could enter the Anaktoron, and from it they performed the rites and displayed the sacred objects like a Catholic priest does at high mass. Concerning the Greater Mysteries, there appears to have been, at the very least, two degrees of initiation with at least one year between them: there’s no doubt that a succession of rites and revelations leading step by step towards an ideal of religious perfection existed. Those fully initiated were dubbed ‘overseers’, and these were the only people eligible for attaining epopteia, the hierophants’ greatest mystery. The following day, initiates poured out libations from special vases in honour of the dead, and at last, on the 23rd of the month, the celebrations came to a close.
It may be safely assumed that the pageant of Demeter’s wanderings, the abduction of Kore, and the reunion of mother and daughter formed the main part of the ‘δρώμενα.’ This would have occurred as symbolic drama or passion play in which the troubles of the goddess would be reenacted, making initiates take part in her sufferings, share with her the misery, and in stark contrast, the joy of her Daughter’s return. The Christian author Lactantius writes:
With burning torches Proserpina is sought, and when she is found, the rite is closed with general thanks giving and a waving of torches.
It’s pretty commonly agreed upon that the drama of Demeter and Kore symbolized a spiritual death, and rebirth; it gave initiates confidence to face a world in which death was omnipresent. Beyond this point, few agree on anything. Whether or not the δρώμενα was just a ritual drama, we can’t be certain. The Kykeon, Demeter’s sacramental elixir, along with a communal meal, may very well have been included into the δρώμενα, but what the Eleusinian ‘δεικνύμενα’ and the ‘λεγόμενα’ were, scholars are in little position to know. Nobody wants to talk about things said or things shown, since these things transcend any form of written word and material evidence, and historians can only do their work when these sources are available. The ‘things said’ may have been a mere invitation to eat and drink the first fruits of the harvest. Clement of Alexandria wrote how initiates would declare:
I fasted, I drank the Kykeon, I took from the chest, I put back into the basket and from the basket into the chest.
The Kykeon was possibly a fermented barley drink flavoured with mint; but it’s even more likely that, whatever grain it was made from, it had been contaminated with the fungus Claviceps Purpurea that contained powerful LSD-like alkaloids with strong hallucinogenic properties. There’s little evidence to support that there were any creeds which one had to repeat and accept, a detail which may help to illustrate the universality and un-dogmatic nature of pre-Christian cults. The ‘things shown’ may have included any number of sacred relics or symbols embodying the regenerative force of nature such as a wooden phallus, or an ear of corn. Among the ritual objects found in the ruins of the Eleusinian temple grounds were included images wheat or barley; pomegranates (Persephone’s fatal meal); poppies, a symbol of sleep and death; and the snake, which symbolized death and rebirth through the perennial shedding of its skin. As mentioned before, most information about the mysteries remains highly speculative. Whether the event faded in an initiate’s memory over time or led to a dramatic lifestyle change depended entirely on that individual’s disposition. In the Phaedo (69c), Plato claimed that although many had born the thyrsus rod, few had truly become true mystai. The Eleusinian mysteries, however, are but a single example drawn from among countless other mysteries and cult-festivals practiced throughout the Roman Empire.
When discussing the popularity of festivals such as those at Eleusis, it’s difficult to disentangle the causes of their popularization from their effects on the wider Mediterranean world. The international popularization of the Eleusinia was a historical event like any other, for which causes are numerous and complex. Franz Cumont gives an account for the superiority of mystery cults in that they gave greater satisfaction to the senses and emotions, to the intelligence and chiefly to conscience, and “compared with the ancient creeds, they appear to have offered greater beauty of ritual, greater truth of doctrine and a far superior morality.” In any case, such a simplistic answer can’t account for why the Eleusinian festival was ubiquitously held in such high esteem by the ancient world before the Christian era.
Widespread Eleusinian propaganda could be found in both literature and iconography extending as far as Russia and Egypt by the 4th century BC. The festival is likely to have achieved this sort of international recognition in so far as it was flexible to the religious sensibilities of the individual. No characteristic of the Greco-Roman world was more vital to religious history than the rise of individualism. Unlike political regimes, city-states, philosophical and social movements, the individual could endure through any historical calamity or revolution. Prior to Alexander’s introduction of cosmopolitanism, the universal understanding of ancient social life was that individuals were the cogs in the machinery of a particular state, clan, or family, rather than members of humanity as a whole. The lowest common denominator had been that of corporate bodies, not of individuals. While such a mentality proved excellent in the maintenance of systems such as the Greek polis, it couldn’t survive alongside the consciousness of universalism bred by world empires.
In the East, social bonds of cohesion had always been made up from the top down through authoritarian systems of government, and as such, they had never truly formed an understanding of ‘freedom’ and self-government in the modern Western sense. As a result of this, societies developed individual importance in religions divorced from national concerns. As the sophists began professing the notion of cultural relativism in Greece, and as Rome moved toward Eastern societal models following contact with the orient, the perceptions concerning the individual vis-à-vis the community dramatically changed. The Roman Revolution itself could be summarized as a series of conflicts between the status quo and individual ambition: violent political factionalism, numerous dictatorships, civil wars, the vying for prestigious offices, and of course, the expanding interest in the deeply personal mystery cults.
Coupled with this rise of individuality was an outbreak of superstition which had overwhelmingly taken hold of Greek and Roman lives. Since the sanctity of state religions had decayed, individualistic tendencies toward superstition were given freer play. The rise of Superstitio which had developed as a species of non-conformity against the public Religio was a symptom of the age. Men and women of the ancient world, rich or poor, had certainly not ceased to believe in the supernatural or the divine, whose powers intermingled within their own lives. Cumont holds that “people would no longer take a bath, go to the barber, change their clothes or manicure their fingernails, without first awaiting the propitious moment.” Since public auguries and auspices were gradually relegated to oblivion, new methods of divination were developed for this era of uncertainty, especially following contact with the ‘East.’ More occult manifestations of superstition, such as necromancy, demonology and witchcraft, weren’t only considered dangerous, but also came to symbolize political subversiveness. The literature of Rome, including that of Cicero, Lucretius, Epicurus, Seneca and Lucian, is teeming with sneering remarks against the infectious superstition of their age. In his essay ‘On Superstition,’ Plutarch describes it as a moral and emotional disorder, motivated by fear, as comparable with atheism which is an intellectual error:
No disease is so full of variations, so changeable in symptoms… as is the disease called Superstition. We must therefore fly from it, but in a safe way… some people, when running away from superstition, fall headlong into atheism… and leap over that which lies between the two, namely, true religion.
The ominous presence of superstition left men and women with little respite, and subsequently, they could either turn to expensive and fraudulent fortune-tellers, astrologers and mystic charlatans, or accept the allure of the exotic mysteries such as those at Eleusis which were now open to all Greek-speaking foreigners. The Eleusinia was comprehensive, enlightening, self-gratifying, and both spiritually and socially stimulating. It could alleviate the crushing weight of superstition and societal oppression, while appealing to a wide range of individual sensibilities and filling the void of dry, unrewarding state religions.
In the era leading up to the Hellenistic age, the Greek polis had proven its worth in promoting the creative spirit of their citizenry. Such small, homogenous and ideologically parochial city-states lay strewn about the mountains, hills, and islands of Magna Graecia, and over centuries, each of these insular communities developed its own set of social, cultural, political and religious virtues. With the conquests of Alexander between 336 and 323BC came profound changes to the old polis and its traditional ties to the old Greek pantheon. As the Macedonian conqueror battled his way through Central Asia as far as present day Afghanistan and the Indus River, he yoked numerous cities, old and new, establishing a new network of municipalities which would prove fundamental as springboards for the realization of his future ecumenical interests. This process was also greatly facilitated by Alexander’s introduction of Koiné Greek, which proved crucial in the synergistic growth of each particular mystery religion through the elimination of linguistic and intellectual barriers.
Since the Eleusinian mysteries had expanded in the 6th century BC to become a pan-Hellenic festival under Peisistratus, pilgrims flocked from the farthest corners of Magna Graecia to participate. As tradition dictated, only murders and βάρβαροι could be exempt from initiation. Following Alexander’s conquests however, Koiné Greek had become the international language of the Mediterranean, and the quantity of Greek speaking individuals expanded exponentially. Emerging from the marriage of East and West came a new understanding in the Greek mind: that of an inhabited world, the Ecumene. The world could no longer be seen as comprised of sparse pockets of Greeks amidst an ocean of uncivilized βάρβαροι, but rather as a cosmos rich in material and ideological wealth.
Although it hadn’t reached its zenith until the AD 3rd and 4th centuries, the impact of religious syncretism rocked both Greece and Rome immediately following both Alexander and Pompey’s conquests in the East, respectively. Without exception, all mystery religions which reached Greek and Italian shores were profoundly affected by syncretism. Before the marriage of East and West, most communities had been far too intellectually insular to be thoroughly affected by the processes theocrasia, but through the medium of a new lingua franca, the widespread demand for personal gods, and the considerable decrease in religious and ethnic intolerance, the transition towards syncretism appears to have come about as a natural cultural change.
Alexander himself, who founded a temple of Isis alongside one devoted to the Olympians in Alexandria, promoted this novel understanding of the spiritual realm. Alexandria was the birthplace of Serapis, a veritable manifestation of the syncretic spirit, since such a deity was basically a collation of the Egyptian gods Osiris, Apis and Ra, with the Greek Zeus, Helios and Asclepius. The intensity of syncretism increased substantially under the Roman empire, whose success necessitated the harmony of a world-religion, even if such a religion was merely a tapestry of inextricably linked cults, faiths and philosophies such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and Pythagoreanism. Syncretism was the inevitable result of decaying city-states, the rise of the individual, and cosmopolitanism. National faiths and philosophies no longer appealed to the novel exotic sensibilities of the world united by Alexander, and later by Roman law, roads and government:
Society under the early Empire continued to be highly Hellenized as it had been during the three centuries previous. Greek continued to be the language of culture and commerce, with Latin as the lingua Franca of diplomacy. The sea, cleared of pirates, was a great channel of commerce that led to all the Roman world, and the military highways provided the necessary land routes. Because of the easy means of communication, there was a free mingling of races and classes in the centers of population.
Three centuries worth of military campaigns had essentially linked the Eastern and Western worlds and given a potent impetus towards universal syncretism by breaking up, to use an anachronistic term, the nationalities of men and gods. No ancient religious system could maintain its purity in competition for new converts, and as such, the necessity for mutual exchange of ideas was conducive to the unanimity of all faith systems. Every major Mediterranean urban center was witness to the intermingling of Roman soldiers with native peoples, Thracian slaves with Greek scholars, and Egyptian merchants with Tyrian sailors, all preoccupied in common struggle for existence under the jurisdiction of one huge empire. Rejections of syncretism as attempts toward religio-cultural preservation, as practiced by the Jews and later the Christians, led to a widespread cultural ostracism and perception of backwardness for those who professed their gods to be untouched by cultural exchange.
As doubts came to shadow over the traditional Greek understanding of nature, outdated notions of religion also underwent rigorous scrutiny. Although a handful of famous philosophers and playwrights had questioned the existence of the old gods long before Alexander, such curiosities weren’t the norm. Throughout the Hellenistic period, the Olympians began to fall from all their positions of spiritual importance in Greece, although they maintained their importance as cultural symbols and continued to receive state recognition for centuries to come. Indeed, the Olympians remained both the inspiration and subject for the greatest festivals, works of literature, and art. But since “their destiny” as Marvin Meyer stated, “was linked to that of the Greek polis, which was no longer the basic political unit in the world after Alexander’s time. The philosophical criticism of religion… challenged Greek beliefs and exposed the gods as unworthy of worship.” In such a spiritual vacuum, the Greeks searched abroad for experiences which could satisfy the spiritual needs of an age as revolutionary as Alexander’s, but thanks to the Eleusinia, they needn’t look far. It was simply spiritual needs which resulted in the widespread explosion of popularity for the mystery cults and festivals.
The disintegration of the city-state system was a chronologically uneven process throughout the Mediterranean world. This collapse was completed in Greece with the rise of Alexander, but in Rome, it ended with the Second Punic War. If the unification of the occident and the orient had been inaugurated through Alexander’s conquests, then Rome may be said to have consummated such a relationship. The Roman Empire had broken down the ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers which had divided the world, but contrary to expectations, the flow of religious and intellectual innovation would run from East to West. Rome became involved in vigorous military contact with the Greek world in 281BC onwards, and within little more than a century, the whole of that world yielded to Roman hegemony. Roman religion had traditionally been “that of a practical, unimaginative, and patriotic people, fostering domestic and civic virtues… continually being… elaborated by foreign accretions. It was essentially a family religion,” and just as the Greek religion was strengthened by its ties to the political life, so too was the animistic Roman religion. Due to such an intricate connection, however, Roman religion was ultimately disintegrated into the “political machinery” of the senate, leaving the common people in a state of spiritual dissatisfaction.
With a wetted pallet for foreign cults following the Hannibalic wars and the arrival of the Great Mother in 205BC, Rome’s traditional religion proved ineffective in meeting the spiritual needs of its people and began its steady decline. Buried beneath the uncertainties of war, the lust for conquest and wealth, the decadence brought on by the ‘Punic curse,’ and the gradual acceptance of Greek skepticism, the simplistic model of traditional piety was suffocated. Civic concerns won out against religious ones, and the gulf between popular piety and political ambition widened as state religion collapsed into a dry and ceremonial mechanism of control for the educated nobility. By the Late Republic, Roman religion had been reduced to an assortment of unintelligible ceremonies and rituals, meticulously and mechanically reproduced with little alteration from the ancient formulas hallowed as the mos maiorum. The men assigned to its organization recognized it as a tool over the people, but certainly had no faith in their own practices. Even Cicero, in his De Divinatione, accounts for Cato’s bewilderment concerning a specific state-cult office:
… that was quite a clever remark which Cato made many years ago: “I’m amazed that one haruspex doesn’t laugh upon seeing another. (Cicero, De Divinatione II, 24.51.)
As the masses turned away from public divinations, the civic auguriae and auspices fell into disuse, and by the time of Augustus’ Pax Romana, the state had consciously abandoned its spiritual origins. Livy himself lamented such a break from the ways of his ancestors as he wrote:
Who is unaware that this city was founded only after taking the divinations, and that everything in war and peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the divinations? (Livy, 6.41)
As the state-run rites lost their appeal, many educated Romans set their eyes on Greek shores to satisfy new spiritual yearnings.
Though the all of the ancient world’s mystery cults were derived from a wide variety of geographical locations, each of them was nonetheless fundamentally homogenous in theological nature. Unlike the religions of the state, the cults were enigmatic groups composed of self-willing devotees – one couldn’t be born into the mysteries. The mysteries were sustained by an introverted and private form of personal worship as opposed to the common outward signs of allegiance to the civic gods. In a world in which religion and the state were inextricably bound up, such a change of perception concerning religious matters may have seemed baffling.
Between the times of Alexander and Augustine, the Eleusinian Mysteries harmoniously coexisted alongside the state cults, and even received support through official state patronage: “the interrelations between private initiations and official festivals are complicated and far from uniform…” writes Burkert, “mystery initiations were an optional activity within the polytheistic religion, comparable to, say, a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system.” The Eleusinia differed from the rituals prescribed by the state since they called for an element of personal choice. Initiation was not unavoidably prearranged by ancestral or political adherence. Though it’s true that there were initiations of children in some mystery cults, more frequently in Dionysian rituals, this was but a special honour or dedication by concerned parents rather than a religious duty. Even so, with Theodosius’ imperial decrees of AD391 and 396 prohibiting all pagan cults throughout the Roman Empire, the festival simply vanished without the support of a state superstructure. The mysteries weren’t entirely underground movements, as often portrayed, and due to their lack of self-sufficiency, most couldn’t survive without state subsidy and the confiscation of their funds.
Over the course of some two thousand years, the simple agrarian community festivals of Eleusis underwent radical change. Due to the prohibitions against revealing any physical details concerning the mysteries, tracing historical developments in ritual, theology, liturgy, and so forth, is virtually impossible. Sophocles wrote:
Thrice happy are those of the mortals, who having seen those rites 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.
Statements such as these, written by the great dramatists, philosophers and leaders, can be found in abundance throughout the extant text of the ancient world. When we take the time to imagine the rich monuments and temples at Eleusis constructed and funded for centuries by governing states, it should be apparent that the mysteries imparted at Eleusis weren’t some vapid affair manufactured by priestly elites in order fool ignorant peasant farmers. The wisdom passed on at Eleusis contained a novel and beatific perspective of life. It offered deep spiritual and psychological support which could scarcely be found elsewhere. The mysteries offered the benefit of personal transformation in an era of individualism, when mankind no longer needed religion for the purpose of guaranteeing civic order.
As men and women thirsted for the exhilaration of the supernatural, the mysteries pushed individuals beyond common superstition by offering a life-transforming union with the goddesses who was responsible for their very source of their existence. In an era where inquiries concerning the state of the individual soul beyond the grave abounded, the initiations at Eleusis unanimously seemed to guarantee both a blessed life on earth, as well as in death.
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