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MYSTE´RIA (μυστήρια). Though the term μυστήρια is that which has survived, still it was only one and that a late one, and perhaps the least common of the terms used by the Greeks to express their mystic rites. The word ὄργια is found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, ll. 274, 476, derived from ἔοργα (cf. Lat. operari), which signifies “to perform” ritual, and it was only in later times that it came to connote ecstatic worship. The term μυστήρια is derived from μύειν, used of closing the lips or eyes; μύστης,, according to Petersen (in Ersch and Gruber, 82.228, note), means “with eyes shut,” as opposed to ἐπόπτης. Μυστήρια is applied both to the objects of secret worship (Themist. Or. 4.55) and also the secret ritual; ἀπόρρητα is similarly used. According to Lobeck (Aglaophamus, 85 ff.) μυστικὸν is anything recondite, enigmatical, indirect, allegorical; in fact, what is purposely not simple, plain, and straightforward. Again there is the term τελετή.. It is used of an ordinary festival (Pind. N. 10.34); as applied to sacred worship, it signifies the consummation of the votary's progress in his religion. (Cf. such phrases as τέλος γάμοιο, τέλη used for the magistrates of the state, and τελετὴ taken by the philosophers to express complete knowledge of the subject.) “Diutius initiant quam consignant,” says Tertullian (contra Valentin. 1), translating πλείονα χρόνον μυοῦσιν τελοῦσιν: compare σφραγὶς and τελείωσις, used for baptism (Lobeck, 33). The Latins used initia, which signified an ideal beginning ( “initia ut appellantur ita re vera principia vitae cognovimus,” Cic. de Leg. 2.1. 4, 36),--a sort of new birth, as Preller says. Thus then we have terms signifying both the objective secret nature of the ritual and the subjective condition of the votary.

1. The Kinds of Mysteries.--We can hardly consider under the head of mysteries those mystic usages which occur here and there in certain festivals, such as the marriage of the βασιλεὺς and βασίλισσα at the DIONYSIA; nor the multitude of purifications and sin-offerings found in most religions, all with more or less of a mystic meaning. Again the mystic worships performed by private families are hardly to be reckoned either, and do not come under our notice except in some few cases, such as the Orphic rites of the Lycomidae [ELEUSINIA]. But the mysteries properly so called, viz. those which were recognised by the state and required a regular initiation, may be divided into (1) those performed by a special sex, e. g. the THESMOPHORIA celebrated by women only, as was also the worship of Dionysus in Laconia (Paus. 2.20, 3), of Cora in Megalopolis (ib. 8.31, 8), Rhea in Thaumasion (ib. 36, 3), Dionysus on Parnassus (ib. 10.4, 3). Special mystic ceremonies for men only are rarely found, such as that to Demeter, Cora, and Dionysus at Sicyon (ib. 2.11, 3). (2) Those open to all Greeks, such as the Eleusinian and Samothracian mysteries. It is often stated that the only gods who had a mystic worship were the Chthonian ones; but this statement is not quite true, though the Chthonian gods are the gods principally worshipped in mysteries, as might be inferred even à priori from their very nature. But there are some Olympian gods to whom mystic worship was performed, e. g. Zeus Idaeus (Eur. Cretes, Frag. 2), a mixture of Phrygian Cybele-worship and Cretan or Thracian Zagreusworship, in honour of Zeus, celebrated (φανερῶς, according to Diod. 5.77, i. e. during the day, not at night; the Argive Hera (Paus. 2.38, 2), even the Graces (ib. 9.35, 3). For further discussion, see Hermann, Die Gottesdienstlichen Alterthümer, § 32, 6. Foreign mystic worships are those of Cybele, which were wild and enthusiastic, with flutes, drums, and cymbals (Hdt. 4.76); the trieteric worship of Dionysus [DIONYSIA]; of Hecate at Aegina (Paus. 2.30, 2) and in the Zerynthian cave in Samothrace (Schol, on Lycophr. 77). This goddess was especially worshipped in the Roman Empire just before it became Christian; during which period too, and indeed earlier also, the mysteries of Isis, Sabazius, and Mithras were much in vogue. For these the reader must be referred to the articles RHEA, HECATE, ISIS, SABAZIUS in Dict. of Mythology, There is a good article on MITIRAS in the Dict. of Christian Biography. A remarkable Roman mystery confined to women was that of the celebrated Bona Dea, which Cicero (Cic. Att. 6.1, 26) calls Romana mysteria. See Dict. of Myth. s. v. BONA DEA.

As to the general character of the gods of the mysteries, we cannot do better than quote Lenormant (Contemp. Review, 37.414): “Like all the worships of antiquity, the Eleusinian mysteries were founded on the adoration of Nature, its forces and its phenomena, conceived [p. 2.203]rather than observed, interpreted by the imagination rather than by the reason, transferred into divine figures and histories by a kind of theological poetry, which went off into pantheism on the one side and into anthropomorphism on the other. The nature and concatenation of their rites and plays were connected with precise beliefs; which tended to efface the distinction between the divine personages of the poetical and popular mythology, in such a manner as to lead to what has been called μυστικὴ θεοκρασία, and to reduce these gods who were exoterically individuals to mere general abstractions. But the form under which these beliefs were presented was such that, among the ancients themselves, some have been able to find in it a kind of philosophy of nature or physiologia, and others bring out of it euhemerism and with it atheism.” So far we will go, emphasising the fact, that this physiologia was of late growth in the mysteries; but no further. However, to such students as do not easily get dizzy and who may wish to pursue the subject into its details, we recommend Lenormant's articles on Bacchus, Ceres, and the Cabiri, in Daremberg and Saglio; also chapter vi. of his Voie Sacrée, where his views issue in the purest pantheism, which he supposes to be the doctrine taught by the Hierophant at Eleusis and to be the primitive Aryan dogma that lay at the base of the mysteries.

2. The Origin of the Mysteries.--That they were mostly old Pelasgian worships, which were driven into the background by the conquering races, and accordingly carried on as mysteries, is a very reasonable view, and is supported by what Herodotus says of the Thesmophoria (2.171) and the Cabiri (2.51). By the Pelasgians we mean what Curtius means (Hist. of Greece, 1.35 ff.), viz. the first great body of emigrants westward from among the Phrygians, that tribe which forms the link by which the Aryans of the West were connected with the Asiatics proper. They are the primitive indigenous race of Hellas, “the dark background of history, children of the black earth (as the poets called Pelasgus), who amidst all the changes of the ruling generations calmly clave to the soil, leading their life unobserved under unchanging conditions, as husbandmen and herdsmen.” They brought with them their Phrygian forms of worship, as they passed through Thrace into Hellas. Curtius (ib. p. 52) represents their religion to have been of the purest and noblest type--the worship of the Pelasgian Zeus upon the--mountain-tops, a god without images or temples, a god unnamed except as the pure, the great, the merciful, &c.--and that Greek polytheism was a development in decadence as far as spirituality went. When the fascination of Curtius's eloquence is passed, we are unable to feel: that the religion which the Pelasgians brought from Phrygia was much better than that of ordinary savages. Mr. Andrew Lang (Myth, Ritual and Religion, 1.282 ff.) mentions several points in which the Greek mysteries are in harmony with Australian, American, and African practice: the mystic dances (cf. τοὺς ἐξαγορεύοντας τὰ μυστήρια ἐξορχεῖσθαι λέγουσιν οἱ πολλοί, Lucian, de Salt. 15), the fastings, the elaborate and anxious purifications; the use of the κῶνος described by Lobeck (p. 700) as ξυλάριον οὗ ἐξῆπται τὸ σπαρτίον καὶ ἐν ταῖς τελεταῖς ἐδονεῖτο ἵνα ῥοιζῇ, similar to the turndun of the Australians, to call the votaries together; the plastering of initiates with clay or dirt of some kind and washing it off to symbolise purification (cf. Dem. de Cor. 313.259, and Soph. Frag. 32, στρατοῦ καθαρτὴς κἀπομαγμάτων ἴδρις), and the purifications by blood of swine mentioned in Aesch. Eum. 273--an undoubted savage custom, though not immediately connected with the mysteries--the use of serpents in the mysteries (Dem. l.c.), and so forth. Mr. Lang goes on to repeat again and again in his gentle vein of satire how easy it is. to think anything as a symbol of anything, and wonders why the allegory should choose the practices of early savage tribes. Nor is it any disgrace to the Greek race to allow this; rather that the list of savage survivals is not many times as large and very much more apparent. Most of the savage elements disappeared soon, and what remained became blended with purer and later speculations.

This old religion was thrust into the background by the conquering tribes, the gods of the latter becoming predominant and the stategods of the nation, while the old religion for the most part gradually disappeared. But by some families and tribes its ritual was in a large measure retained, and they probably formed themselves into brotherhoods, like those of the Roman Church, and preserved their rites doubtless with great strictness. Surely they were sodalities or confraternities that lived the “Orphic life.” Now, the Greeks never persecuted doctrine, unless indeed any doctrine was much blazed abroad and seemed likely to involve danger to the state-worship; and no danger seemed to arise from the remnants of this primitive worship. Indeed, they were sometimes adopted into the state-religion on occasions. of religious terror, when a feeling of sin and need for purification laid hold of the people. Thus it was that the mysteries of Eleusis and Samothrace were adopted. The gradual development of the Eleusinian worship (that mystic ritual with which we are best acquainted), from its original Phrygian-Pelasgian beginnings to its adoption into the Athenian religion, we, have attempted to sketch in outline in ELEUSINIA § 1.

3. Silence enjoined on the Votaries.--This is. an important feature in the mysteries; the votaries could not divulge the mysteries to noninitiates. Its original reason doubtless lies in the separatism of early worships, a fear lest any outsider should learn how to get the favour of the god; and the reason why it was retained in later and more enlightened periods was to enhance the solemnity of the ritual. Strabo says 10.717, 77 κρύψις μυστικὴ τῶν ἱερῶν σεμνοποιεῖ τὸ θεῖον μιμουμένη τὴν φύσιν αὐτοῦ ἐκφεύγουσαν τὴν αἴσθησιν. “Every expression,” says Renan (Études d'Hfistoire religieuse, 70), “is a limit, and the only language not unworthy of things divine is silence.” It prevented familiarity breeding contempt, as in the ordinary religion. Chrysippus, Etym. Mag. 751, thinks it was intended for an ethical purpose, viz. to teach the government of the tongue, τῆς ψυχῆς ἐχούσης ἕρμα καὶ πρὸς τοὺς ἀμυήτους σιωπᾶν δυναμένης. [p. 2.204]

4. The Ceremony.--Whatever is to be said specially about the initiated, the priests, and the ceremony, we have endeavoured to set forth in the particular articles, especially ELEUSINIA There will be found some description of the “mystic drama,” such as it was in later times when it was part of the state-religion and full of foreign accretions. It was of a splendid, solemn, vague nature, such as fettered the imagination of the votary; and, if it only put the worshipper in a certain state and did not teach anything (τοὺς τετελεσμένους οὐ μαθεῖν τι δεῖν ἀλλὰ παθεῖν καὶ διατεθῆναι, as Aristotle says, ap. Synes. Orat. p. 48), yet it made a man here and there think of things spiritual and proceed on the task of working out his own salvation. To such a man further progress was possible and a higher and deeper knowledge open, imparted by gradual stages, after due time being given to allow the awakened thought and imparted knowledge to germinate and fructify. All this is very Eastern, but it is none the less very rational. “Among the peasants who attend a midnight mass, how many are there who think of the mystery of the Incarnation?” asks M. Renan (op. cit., p. 56). Yet, if a man here and there does think about it, he can learn more about it from his teachers. But to the majority of the worshippers (and everyone who spoke the Greek language and was not stained with gross crime was welcome, no previous κατήχησις being required) the impression of the whole, not the perception of each particular, was the important part. We may allow that the whole drama of Eleusis would appear a miserable travesty to us, even its “fireworks” (Lobeck, p. 107); but we answer in the bold words of Renan, “You are not to ask for reason from the religious feeling. The spirit bloweth where it listeth; and if it chooses to attach the ideal to this or to that, what have you to say?”

But was there any reality at the back of it all, any doctrine like the Incarnation, symbolised by the midnight ceremonies? There certainly was in later times. The reality which the priests then appear to have taught was some kind of system of cosmogony: cf. Cic. de Nat. Deorum, 1.42, 119 (of the Samothracian mysteries), “quibus explicatis ad rationemque revocatis rerum magis natura cognoscitur quam deorum;” Clem. Alex. Stromat. 5.689, τὰ δὲ μέγαλα [μυστήρια] περὶ τῶν συμπάντων οὐ μανθάνειν ἔτι ὑπολείπεται, ἐποπτεύειν δὲ καὶ περινοεῖν τήν τε φύσιν καὶ τὰ πράγματα. But the true value of the mysteries did not lie here, in this kind of dogmatic teaching, but in the moral improvement apparent in the votaries (Diod. 5.48), in the comfort they gave in the present life and the glad hopes for the world to come (Isocr. Panegyr. § 28).

5. Monotheism and Immortality.--It is generally supposed that the mysteries were the fountain from which Greek philosophy derived the two great ideas of monotheism and immortality. The mystic school of theological teaching is the Orphic; to it we must look for these ideas. Now, as regards monotheism, we have attempted to show in ORPHICA that the passages which refer to monotheism in the Jewish or Christian sense date from Alexandrine times, and in the pantheistic sense are hardly much earlier: even the celebrated Ζεὺς κεφαλή, Ζεὺς μέσσα, Διὸς δ᾽ἐκ πάντα τέτυκται, supposed to be alluded to by Plato (Legg. 4.715 E), as Zeller (Philosophie der Griechen, 1.53 = 1.65 Eng. trans.) shows, does not imply more than Homer's line that Zeus is the father of gods and men, or Terpander's (650 B.C.) address, Ζεῦ πάντων ἀρχα πάντων ἀγήτωρ. The Greeks with their personifying of everything in nature came to have a feeling of the Divine pervading all nature,--“one and the same Nature-power,” as Petersen puts it. “This unity of the Divine element which polytheism presupposes was made concrete in Zeus as king of the gods; and so far all that exists and all that happens is ultimately referred to Zeus, but it does not imply that Zeus is the ideal complex (Inbegriff) of all things” (Zeller, l.c.). Zeller goes on to contrast the polemic of Xenophanes against polytheism, with the syncretism of the Stoics and Alexandrines, showing how the Greeks arrived at the idea of the Divine unity less by way of syncretism than of criticism. But if the idea of monotheism was naturally developed into a distinct form by Greek thought, and that only in comparatively late times, it was thereafter adopted into the mysteries, and especially some of the Orphic ones, and doubtless taught in them to those who had gone through the various stages and shown themselves naturally fitted to receive and understand it.

As to immortality, the case is different. Mr. Tylor has shown that the doctrine of Transmigration migration was universal among savage and barbarian races (Primitive Culture, ii. init.). This doctrine the Aryans probably brought with them into Europe. Herodotus thinks it came from Egypt (2.123); but when we find similar notions among the Indians from the earliest times even to the present day, and among the ancient Druids in Gaul (Caes. Gal. 6.14; Diod. 5.28; Amm. Marc. 15.9 fin.), we may infer that it was an original idea of the Aryan race, which gradually developed into the purer doctrine of what we call a Future Life; we find a strange example of this latter doctrine among the Thracians (Hdt. 4.94, 95). For the further discussion of immortality in the Orphic doctrine, see ORPHICA

6. The modern Critics of the Mysteries.--Passing over such treatises as Warburton, On the divine Legation of Moses (2.133-234), and Sainte-Croix, Recherches sur les Mysteres du Paganisme (1784), the first really great work on the mysteries was that by Creuzer, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, 1810-1812, written by a genuinely religious Doctor in Theology of the Roman Church. The title is certainly not a misnomer, for he finds symbolism everywhere. He is in fact too symbolical. He does not distinguish the ideas of different epochs, does not weigh evidence nor take sufficient thought of development in religious ideas. After him followed J. H. Voss, a zealous Protestant, who attacked Creuzer with unpardonable virulence and little success, especially in his Anti-Symbolik (1824). Abuse of priests occupies a large portion of the work. In 1829 Lobeck's great work, Aglaophamus, was published with the view of crushing the symbolical school. Its learning is portentous, its satire grim and savage. But with all his great gifts Lobeck had one thing [p. 2.205]wanting, the sense of things religious. Everything is judged from the level of the intellect, but religion is of another order. The whole book bears the character of a violent reaction, and so far is necessarily unfair; and Lobeck sometimes quite forgets himself, as for example when he says (p. 119) that the spectacles at Eleusis were seen with the eyes of the mind, not with those of the body. K. O. Müller (art. Eleusinia in Ersch and Gruber), and after him Preller (Demeter und Persephone, 1837; art. Mysteria in Pauly), make accurate distinctions of times, places, and races. They allow a mystic character to the worship of the Pelasgi, who adored Nature regarded as living and divine, especially in their worship of the Chthonian divinities, the naturalism of the Pelasgi being contrasted with the anthropomorphism of the Hellenes, as exemplified in the Homeric Age; but hold that, when this warrior age passed away at the time of Solon, there was a reaction in favour of the ancient cults. François Lenormant, in his Voie Sacré Éleusinienne (1864) and in the articles in Daremberg and Saglio mentioned above, is a strong symbolist; cf. also his articles in the Contemporary Review for May, July, September 1881. Other works to be consulted with advantage are Hermann, Die Gottesdienstlichen Alterthümer, § § 32, 55; Maury, Histoire des Religions de la Grèce antique, ii. chap. xi.; Renan, Les Religions de l'Antiquité, No. 1 of his Études d'Histoire religieuse; Ramsay, s. v. Mysteries, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


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  • Cross-references from this page (16):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 6.1
    • Aeschylus, Eumenides, 273
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.76
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.94
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.95
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.2
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.20
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.30
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.38
    • Caesar, Gallic War, 6.14
    • Cicero, De Legibus, 2.1
    • Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum, 15.9
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.28
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.48
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.77
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