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Belief and Ritual

The Eleusinian Mysteries were not the only mystery cult of the Greek world, nor were they unique in their concern with what lay beyond death for human beings. Most mystery cults emphasized protection for initiates in their daily lives, whether against ghosts, illness, poverty, shipwrecks, or the countless other everyday dangers of ancient Greek life. Such protection came, however, from appropriate human behavior, not from any abstract belief in the gods. For the ancient Greeks, gods expected honors and rites, and Greek religion required action from its worshippers. Prayers had to be said, sacrifices had to be performed, and purifications had to be undergone. These rituals represented an active response to the precarious conditions of human life in a world in which early death from disease, accident, or war was commonplace. Furthermore, the Greeks believed the same gods were responsible for sending both good and bad. As Solon warned Croesus in an anecdote1 related by the fifth-century author Herodotus, “In all matters look to the end, and to how it turns out. For god has given prosperous happiness to many people, but afterwards uprooted them utterly.” As a result of their belief in the capability of the gods for bestowing both good and evil on human beings, the Greeks had no expectation that paradise would be achieved at some future time when evil forces would at last be vanquished forever. Their assessment of human existence made no allowance for change in the nature of the relationship between the human and the divine. That relationship encompassed sorrow as well as joy, punishment in the here and now, with the uncertain hope for favored treatment both in this life and in an afterlife for initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

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