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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Mystery Mysteries

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1. Meaning and usage.-The word ‘mystery’ (μυστήριον) is derived from the Greek μυεῖν, ‘to initiate’; but it is also connected with μύειν, ‘to shut the eyes or the mouth.’ Consequently it stands for rites and truths which must be closely guarded by those who possess them. J. E. Harrison (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Cambridge, 1903, p. 154) ventures to suggest as its source μύσος, ‘pollution.’ And, since in her judgment the aim of the mysteries is primarily purification, the μύσος, or pollution, from which the liberation is desired, gives the ceremonies of purification their name. But this derivation restricts the compass of the word, and leaves its use in the Scriptures unintelligible. Whence did it come into Christian use? Was it taken over from pagan sources, or did it reach the writers of the NT and of the early Christian literature through Jewish channels? There is sufficient ground to decide for the latter view. The word occurs several times in the Septuagint (e.g. in Daniel 2:18-19; Daniel 2:27-30; Daniel 2:47; Daniel 4:6); it meets us again in some of the apocryphal books (Sirach 3:22; Sirach 22:22; Sirach 27:16, Wisdom of Solomon 2:22; Wisdom of Solomon 6:22, Tobit 12:7; Tobit 12:11, Judith 2:2, 2 Maccabees 13:21). In these passages the word is applied to dreams and their interpretation, or else to the political and military plans of the king which have not been divulged. These plans are the king’s secrets, which no one should know until he has revealed them or put them in operation (G. Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 144; Hans von Soden, ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft.] xii. [1911] 197). Von Soden says that without doubt the passages in the book of Daniel suggest the origin of the NT use of μυστήριον, ‘mystery.’ The idea of the king’s secrets becomes that of God’s secrets, the plans of God, which remain hidden until He reveals them. This is already apparent in the Book of Enoch (ciii. 2, civ. 10, cvi. 19). In the Gospels the word occurs in this sense. But singularly it is found in only one Synoptic passage (Mark 4:11, Matthew 13:11, Luke 8:10), which, according to Carl Clemen, contains no word of the Lord (Der Einfluss der Mysterienreligionen, p. 24), whereas in the Fourth Gospel, which some critics view as the most Hellenistic of all the Gospels, it is not found at all. From this solitary occurrence we may infer that the word had no attraction for the writers as a means for expressing their thought. But evidently it had a charm for St. Paul. He uses it 21 times in his Epistles, of which 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians give us by far the largest number of examples. In every case the word retains its Septuagint meaning, which leads Von Soden to affirm that St. Paul did not borrow the word from the Greek, but from Jewish sources. It may have already become characteristic of Jewish eschatology, but Von Soden intimates that it was now a term of Jewish Christian theology which St. Paul both used and developed still further (see A. Schweitzer, Geschichte der paulinischen Forschung, Tübingen, 1911, p. 141 ff.). It is possible that St. Paul made this term conspicuous in his Epistles in order to oppose it to the same term as used in the mystery-religions. But it has yet to be demonstrated that he was familiar with their thought, terms, and rites. W. M. Ramsay’s fine discussion of the matter in his Teaching of Paul in Terms of the Present Day, London, 1913, pp. 283-305, needs more proofs than those given by him to carry conviction. The only one of the mysteries prevalent in St. Paul’s sphere of work was the Attis-cult, but he gives no hint of a knowledge of it save in the obscure passage in Colossians 2 discussed by Ramsay.

The word occurs in the early Church Fathers with noticeable infrequency. It is absent in the writings of Clement, Barnabas, and Hermas. It appears three times in the Epistles of Ignatius (ad Eph. xix. 1, ad Magn. ix. 1-2, ad Trall. ii. 3) and twice this number in the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus (iv. 6, vii. 1-2, viii. 10, x. 7, xi. 2, 5). In the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, it occurs only once (xi. 11). In these passages μυστήριον is no central conception and no sacrament, although T. Zahn explains the term ‘mysteries’ in Ignatius, ad Trall. ii. 3, as baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Ignatius von Antiochien, Gotha, 1873, p. 323)-an explanation rejected by both Lightfoot and Srawley. The mysteries are in the main the Incarnation and the Atonement of Christ.

The Apologists using the word took another step. In the writings of Aristides, Athenagoras, and Tatian the word is wanting; but in Justin it occurs many times, and usually signifies not any particular rite, but ‘the whole complex of religion’ in which the Passion of Christ pre-eminently appears (Apol. i. 13; Dial. 74, 91, 106, 121). It is placed by him on the same plane with symbol or parable or type, a usage which continues until the time of Augustine. The serpent is a mystery or symbol (Apol. i. 27); a prophecy is a mystery: ‘that which God said to David symbolically [ἐν μυστηρίῳ] was interpreted by Isaiah as to how it would actually come to pass’ (Dial. 68, quoted by E. Hatch, Essays in Biblical Greek, Oxford, 1889, p. 60). Justin, however, does not go much beyond his predecessors except to emphasize cosmological and ethical aspects. But he is the first to compare the Christian μυστήριον in its individual features with the pagan mysteries (Apol. i. 66; cf. i. 25, 27). This was ominous, for it tended to weaken the idea that the Christian mystery is peculiar and distinct, although Justin shows in his condemnation of the pagan rite that he had no thought of bringing about this result.

Irenaeus uses the term in a Gnostic sense. It stands for what he calls ‘these portentous and profound mysteries,’ against which he writes his famous work, c. Haereses. Therefore little light is thrown by him on the word ‘mystery’ as it was used in the early Church. However, from him is drawn much of the information which enables us to determine to some extent the Gnostic conception of ‘mystery.’ Apparently he represents it as magical in character (see, e.g., Haer. I. xiii. 2). The Gnostic conception is important, for it is regarded by some as introducing the change of the idea of mystery in the Christian Church. Carl Schmidt, Harnack, and others view the sacramentalism of Gnosticism as an anticipation of Christian sacramentalism. But to this Catholicism replies that the relationship was just the reverse, and, therefore, that Gnostic sacramentalism found its source in the sacramental ideas of the Church (Schmidt, TU [Note: U Texte and Untersuchungen.] viii. [1892] 525; A. Struckmann, Die Gegenwart Christi, Vienna, 1905, p. 97; CQR [Note: QR Church Quarterly Review.] xlii. [1896] 412). Neither position has thus far been sufficiently substantiated to carry conviction.

Two great writers at the end of the 2nd cent. did exercise a marked influence on the Christian conception of ‘mystery.’ One was Clement of Alexandria, who brought the Christian sacramental idea still nearer to that of the pagan cults. Von Soden affirms that ‘with him an essential extension and a hellenizing change of the use of μυστήριον begins’ (ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft.] xii. 205), and E. Bratke in his article ‘Die Stellung des Clem. Alex. zum antiken Mysterienwesen,’ in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] lx. [1887] i. 647) is an ardent advocate of the same belief. Anrich takes a similar view but is more cautious in his support of it (Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 140). From the time of Clement the Christian sacraments began to be called the Christian mysteries; and, while it is possible that they already bore this name, the influence of Clement’s writings must have done much to establish it. He speaks of Christ as initiating us into the mysteries, and quotes from Euripides, Bacchae, 470-473: ‘Seeing those who see he bestows his mysteries. Of what fashion are these mysteries? Secret except to the initiate’ (Strom. iv. 25). Christianity is the true Divine mystery, a mystical miracle; consequently the Church is an institution of mysteries (Protrept. 11). We, as perfected Christians, are permitted by Jesus to communicate ‘those divine mysteries’ and ‘that holy light’ to persons capable of receiving them (Strom. i. 1). In the same chapter Clement says that ‘there are some mysteries before other mysteries.’ He also draws a direct parallel between Christianity on one side and the Eleusinian and Dionysiac cults on the other (Protrept. 12). Clement had no intention, as Bratke seems to imply (SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] lx. 662; cf. Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 140), of breaking down all demarcations between Christianity and heathenism, nor was he bent on an accommodation of one to the other. But his use of mystery terminology, which he probably drew from the philosophy of his day rather than directly from the cults, must have affected the Christian conception of mystery and given it the idea of a secrecy that could be uncovered only to the initiated. His doctrine of the sacraments is still a matter of dispute; especially is his view of the Lord’s Supper difficult to determine. Almost all the Protestant historians of dogma deny that he believes in a real presence of the body and blood of Christ within and under the consecrated elements. Catholic theologians confidently attribute to him this belief (C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Oxford, 1913, p. 105; A. Harnack, History of Dogma, ii. [London, 1896] 145; Struckmann, Die Gegenwart Christi, p. 117; P. Batiffol, L’Eucharistic6, Paris, 1913, pp. 248-261).

The other great writer who exercised a marked influence on the Christian conception of ‘mystery’ was Tertullian. He accepted the term sacramentum as the Latin rendering of μυστήριον. The earliest use of the Latin word in connexion with Christian life occurs in one of Pliny’s letters (Ep. x. 96 [97]) wherein he speaks of the Christians as binding themselves by an oath (‘seque sacramento … obstringere’). But Pliny’s use of the term throws no light on its ecclesiastical meaning, for ecclesiastical Latin had not yet come into existence (E. C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, London, 1896-97, vol. ii. p. 594). The adherents of the mystery-religions were familiar with the word as designating their rites of initiation, particularly the oath of allegiance taken at some point in them. It would be hazardous to state dogmatically how early the word took its place among their religious terms. But ‘the votaries of Mithra likened the practice of their religion to military service. When the neophyte joined he was compelled to take an oath (sacramentum) similar to the one required of recruits in the army’ (F. Cumont, Oriental Religions, p. xix). Livy records in his history of Rome the recognition, on the part of the Romans, of the use of the sacramentum in the mysteries. In a speech of one of the consuls condemning the Bacchanalian rites, the consul asks, ‘Can you think that youths, initiated under such oaths as theirs, are fit to be made soldiers?’ (‘hoc sacramento initiatos juvenes milites faciendos censetis?’, xxxix. 15; cf. x. 38). As an element in mystery terminology sacramentum would naturally assume a religious significance, and we understand why its use in the cults awoke hostile suspicions of them among the Romans of the Republic and the early Empire. Even Tertullian occasionally applies the word to the rites of the mystery-religions (adv. Marc. i. 13., adv. Valent. 30, Scorp. 10). Thus its association with the mysteries and its resulting religious character might easily suggest it as a rendering of μυστήριον itself. Points of contact between the two terms would become apparent (F. Kattenbusch, article ‘Sakrament’ in PRE [Note: RE Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche.] 3 xvii. 250). And this must have happened speedily, for sacramentum represents μυστήριον in the old Latin texts, with some of which Tertullian was evidently familiar. But he himself employed the term in a varied application. On the one hand, he applied it to types and prophecies in the OT (adv. Marc. iii. 18, iv. 40; adv. Judges 1:9-11, and many other passages in these two works). In this use it is purely a translation of the biblical μυστήριον. On the other hand, he employed it very frequently in the sense of an oath of allegiance or an obligation (de Cor. Mil. 11, adv. Valent. 30). Between these two applications all other uses of the word fall-namely, as designating baptism, the Eucharist, the rule of faith, salvation, and religion itself. Nothing could show more clearly that the word is not always a strict rendering of ‘mystery,’ and Tertullian at times seems to have realized this himself.

But how did sacramentum come to have the significance of obligation and pledge? Two conceptions are implied in the term: (1) that of a deposit of money, given by persons about to engage in a law-suit, relinquished to the deity by the loser, and thereby becoming actually a sacred or devoted thing; (2) that of the military oath of allegiance taken on the standard. The idea of sacred obligation is thus common to both conceptions. The two were brought closer together by the payment of award for military service (Tacitus, Hist. I. Leviticus 2). Thus sacramentum as a military oath assumed the meaning of a sacred bond between the pledge-giver and the pledge-receiver. This characteristic was carried into the significance of sacrament in the terminology of the Church and gave her sacramental rites the nature of pledges. But the idea embodied in μυστήριον was still retained, so that sacramentum became as well the outward sign of an inward meaning or a spiritual grace. From this it is apparent that sacramentum has a wider and more varied meaning than the Greek term, which it, rather than arcanum, was chosen to represent.

The full conception held by Tertullian of the sacraments is still a debated question. G. Thomasius (Die christliche Dogmengeschichte2, Erlangen, 1886-89, i. 425), Harnack (History of Dogma, ii. 145, n. [Note: . note.] 2), and Roman Catholic theologians (Struckmann, Die Gegenwart Christi, p. 229 ff.) attribute to him realistic views, while the great majority of Protestant theologians believe that he held symbolical conceptions. But Harnack is quite sure that ‘Leimbach’s investigations of Tertullian’s use of words have placed this [that Tertullian did not accept a symbolical doctrine] beyond doubt.’

2. The kinds of mystery-religions.-The mystery-religions differed from each other in various ways. Some were State religions, such as the mysteries of Eleusis, near Athens, and the mysteries of Samothrace, an island in the Thracian Sea. Others, enjoying no State recognition, were celebrated in secret associations by private individuals. To the latter class the Orphic mysteries and the mysteries of certain Oriental gods belong. Again, some centred about a male, others about a female divinity. The mysteries of Mithras constitute an example of the former, the mysteries of Cybele and Attis, and the mysteries of Isis, examples of the latter. Miss Harrison remarks (Prolegomena, p. 150 f.) that ‘in general mysteries seem to occur more usually in relation to the cult of women divinities, of heroines and earth-goddesses,’ which is a well-supported statement. In the majority of the cults the female deity plays the chief part; the male deity, Attis, or Adonis, or Osiris, occupies an inferior position. This may be explained by the assumption that the ceremonies of these cults had their remote source in pre-historic rites which were intended to renew the strength of the harvest field and enable it to produce abundant returns. Consequently Mother Earth, with her vegetation unfolding in the spring and disappearing in the autumn, was prominent in the primitive days, and retained her pre-eminence in the persons of the Egyptian Isis, the Phœnician Astarte, the Phrygian Cybele, and the Greek Demeter, although J. G. Frazer (GB [Note: B Golden Bough (J. G. Frazer).] 3, pt. v., Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, London, 1912, i. 40) distinguishes Demeter from Mother Earth. We reach here a striking contrast between the cults on the one side and Christianity on the other. While the pagan deity had his female associate, the Christ of the Christian in the earlier centuries was wholly unaccompanied. It was not until 400 years had elapsed that Mary the Virgin assumed a position in which her relation to Christ could feebly suggest the old association of female and male deities in the mysteries.

In many other respects the mysteries differed from one another. Dissimilarities marked off those of Eleusis from those of Isis; and the mysteries of Mithras possessed a genius or spirit of their own. And yet they were united in one purpose and aim. They were essentially similar; so that they mutually recognized each other and excluded no one on the ground that he belonged to another cult or compelled him on his initiation into the new to relinquish his membership in the old cult. Together they were supposed to confer on the initiate protection against danger, to bring healing to his infirmities, and to assure him of a happy pilgrimage through this world and a blessed immortality in the next. The question of the moral inspiration of the mysteries has been for some time a centre of earnest discussion. Eminent scholars are in disagreement here. So great an authority as E. Rohde (Psyche, Freiburg i. B., 1894, i. 298-300) believes that the pagan cults were not uplifting in their effect on the initiate. Others, as H. Lietzmann (An die Römer [=Handbuch zum NT. ii.], Tübingen, 1906, on Romans 6:1-4) and K.H.E. de Jong (Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 69), are equally positive in the belief that the moral effect of the mysteries was elevating and helpful. The fact that the mysteries were pre-eminently ritualistic and formal would support the former view. Their rites of initiation appear to have been regarded as fully capable of accomplishing all that was necessary to bring their subject into union with the deity. Amid such conceptions it is likely that little emphasis would be laid on the need of an upright moral life as an aid. On the other hand, the impressive and, in some respects, beautiful ceremonies would have their influence on the mind and heart of the candidates. It is possible that revolting features characterized the ceremonies of some of the cults. But, if such features, relics of the old Nature religions, accompanied the ceremonial, they were offset by others fitted to exercise an uplifting power. Isis herself was viewed and extolled as the guardian of chastity; and consequently her initiations could have been no stimulation to a careless life. The testimony of the early Christian writers, however, and even of Flavius Josephus (Ant. XVIII. iii. 4), concerning the moral tone of the mysteries should not be contemptuously dismissed. Granted that they were inclined to exaggerate the dark side of the ceremonial of the pagan cults, they can hardly be charged with complete falsification of their true character. On the whole, it is highly probable that Rohde was nearer the truth in his unfavourable estimation of the soundness of the moral tendencies of the mysteries.

(a) The mysteries of Eleusis.-Of the State cults the most famous were the mysteries of Eleusis and of Samothrace. The Eleusinian mysteries existed for at least 1,000 years, and were brought to an end in a.d. 395 by Alaric. The oldest documentary evidence of their existence is contained in the Hymn to Demeter (v. 274, 473-482), which may have been composed as early as the 7th cent. b.c. This poem narrates the story of the search of Demeter for her lost daughter Persephone, who while gathering flowers in a lonely field had been seized by Pluto and enthroned as his wife in his subterranean realm. Demeter, indignant at the outrage, checked the sprouting of sown grain and deprived the farmer of his harvest until her daughter should be restored to her. The rich fields lay desolate until Zeus, fearing lest the people should perish with hunger, commanded Pluto to surrender his bride to her mother. The unscrupulous ruler obeyed, but craftily induced Persephone to swallow the seed of the pomegranate, whose magic properties would compel her annually to come back to him and remain in the under world for a part of the year. Consequently Persephone returned to the world from which she had been stolen, and Demeter in her joy released the powers of the seed, and taught the happy Eleusinians her sacred rites and mysteries. The myth clearly had its origin in a time when men were used to deify the energies of the vegetable world, and to see in its springing life the embodiment of the deity herself. The gender of the deity was determined by causes which are still the sport of speculation; but in the Eleusinian mysteries the corn deity was a goddess, Demeter, who, originally solitary in her glory, was subsequently associated with a second goddess, Kore or Persephone. Demeter may have been the original Mother Earth, but Frazer (GB [Note: B Golden Bough (J. G. Frazer).] 3, pt. v., Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, i. 41), on the alleged authority of the Hymn to Demeter, regards her as separate from Mother Earth and as exclusively the personification of the ripened and harvested grain; while Kore represents the grain in its sown and sprouting state. As the corn goddess, reappearing from the soil, Kore naturally was related to Demeter as offspring and daughter, and appropriately received her celebration and worship in the early spring. But the perplexities which attend the myths will be dissipated only when the mythology of the old aegean or Minoan civilization, which is just coming into view, is better known, for the myth of Demeter and the myth of Kore probably have their roots in it.

At the time of the composition of the hymn, Eleusis was a petty independent State, and celebrated its mysteries without the co-operation of the neighbouring Athens. Its government then was in the hands of a ruler who combined in himself the powers of both priest and king, and who always belonged to the family of the Eumolpidae descended from Eumolpus, a supposed Thracian soldier and immigrant described in the hymn as founding the mysteries under the instructions of Demeter herself. As a result of the conquest of Eleusis by Athens the mysteries became the ruling cult of the whole of Attica, and subsequently, through the supremacy of Athens, the chief cult of the Greek world. But the conservatism of religion kept it centred at Eleusis and under the supervision of the Eumolpidae. The hierophant, or revealer and interpreter of the sacred objects, was always chosen from this family, and was the object of such profound reverence that the mention of his name during his lifetime was a legal offence. The qualifications required for his election were advanced age, personal charm, and a beautiful voice, which was needed particularly for the recitation of the sacred formulae. As second in rank, another priestly family, that of the Kerykes or ‘Heralds,’ shared the authority of the Eumolpidae. They were also the ‘torch-bearers,’ symbolizing under this term the search of Demeter for her lost daughter in the under world. These two families, the latter belonging to Athens, worked together for several centuries directing the mysteries, and apparently continuing in their co-operation the ancient council of Eleusis. With them were associated priestesses, few in number, belonging to the family of the Phillidae and enjoying a dignity almost equal to that of the priests themselves, and performing functions of an important character. But the enumeration of these individuals does not exhaust the official life of the cult. For there were several officers, four in all, who were not of the priestly circle; they were chosen by the people of Attica, and had under their care the financial affairs of the cult. Yet this arrangement did not exclude the priestly families, for one of their number must always be a member of the financial committee. The polity of the mysteries is noticeable, for it had no influence on the polity of the Christian Church. Bratke, who believes that the mysteries, through the writings of Clement of Alexandria, strongly influenced the sacramental life of the Church, excludes their influence in relation to the official ordering of the Church (SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] lx. 695 ff.). It is singular that, if their influence was so potent in her sacramental sphere, it should have failed to extend its activity to her polity also. But no sign of this activity is perceptible in the ecclesiastical official life. The Christian deaconess might be designated as corresponding to the Eleusinian priestess. But women performed important religious functions everywhere in the Western religious world, both in the State cults and in the mystery-religions, except the cult of Mithras; and it is quite in keeping with their general recognition that they should assume some prominence in Christian worship. They held in the primitive Church, however, a position far less official than that allotted to the pagan priestess, and it was only after the lapse of several centuries that the deaconess acquired her limited sacerdotal character.

As a primary stage of initiation into the mysteries at Eleusis, mysteries were celebrated in the mouth of February at Agra, a suburb of Athens. Our information concerning their rise, their ceremonial, and their mystic significance is very defective. It is probable that they were once exclusively Athenian, and on the incorporation of Eleusis became subordinated to the Eleusinian rites. Clement of Alexandria calls them the ‘minor mysteries which have some foundation of instruction and of preliminary preparation for what is to come after,’ namely, the great mysteries at Eleusis (Strom. v. 11). The goddess who presided over them appears to have been exclusively Kore or Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. We learn from Hippolytus, a writer of the 3rd cent., that ‘the inferior mysteries are those of Proserpine [Persephone] below’ (Philos. v. 3). The scholiast on the Plutus of Aristophanes (845) also tells us that ‘in the course of the year two sets of mysteries are performed to Demeter and Kore-the greater were of Demeter, the lesser of Persephone, her daughter,’ although the genuineness of this passage is subject to doubt. Dionysus, also, was a sharer in the mysteries, and was known by the name of lacchos. On the Ninion Pinax, a monument dedicated by a woman named Ninion to the ‘Two Goddesses,’ he is represented as a full-grown man and as the bearer of the torch. Apparently he has no essential connexion with the mysteries, especially at Eleusis, and might be regarded as a visitor. The exact date of his entrance into the mysteries has not been determined. About these three deities the interest of the mysteries turns. On Demeter, Kore, and lacchos the devotion of the worshippers is centred.

In the month of Boëdromion, early in the autumn (September), the initiation into the greater mysteries occurred. On the 13th of the month the ἔφηβοι, soldiers still in their young manhood, went out, armed with spear and shield, to Eleusis to bring back the ‘holy things’ to the Eleusinion, which lay at the foot of the Acropolis of Athens. The ‘holy things’ were really in charge of the priestess, and, on their arrival in Athens on the following day, they were met by the Athenian priests and magistrates. On the 15th of the month the real festival began. The candidates were assembled for initiation, and the order was proclaimed by the hierophant in the Stoa Poikile that no one of unclean hands or of unintelligible speech should share in the mysteries. Thus two classes of persons were rigorously excluded. The first was composed of those who had been guilty of murder or homicide. These were invariably denied admission to all cults. The second class was composed of barbarians, or else of persons with defective speech, which would prevent their pronouncing clearly and distinctly the sacred words. All others, including children, whatever their position in life might be, were eligible for the reception of the secret rites of Demeter. It has been doubted whether slaves were numbered among them, but the doubt is not well supported. No dogmatic questions were asked, as in the Samothracian mysteries, all being admitted without assent to confessions of any sort. The only requirement to which all alike were subjected was ceremonial purity. Consequently on the 16th of the month the candidates again assembled and began their march of six miles to the sea, shouting as they went, ἅλαδε μύσται, ‘to the sea, ye mystics.’ The salt waters of the mysterious ocean were supposed to possess great purifying powers, and a relic of the belief may be seen in the sacramental use of salt in Christian sacramental practice. Euripides (Iph. Taur. 1193) alludes to the belief in his words θάλασσα κλύζει πάντα τάνθρώπων κακά (‘the sea washes away all evils of men’). Each candidate had provided himself with a young sacrificial pig which he drove before him, and on his arrival at the shore took it with him into the sea. Thus both were purified and the pig rendered fit for the sacrifice. The blood of the pig sprinkled on the candidate completed the purification, and the candidate himself, with head veiled, seated on a ram’s skin and grasping a winnow, was ready for the initiation. But at this point the festival of Asclepius, the Epidauria, which had been recognized in Athens as early as 421 b.c. and which had no vital connexion with the initiation, intervened, and lasted throughout the 17th and 18th of the month. During its celebration the candidates for the Eleusinian mysteries remained quietly at home, while the interval gave an opportunity to late comers to begin their initiation, or to complete the initial ceremonies, if they had already realized a part of them. On the 19th day of the month, perhaps one of the most solemn in the celebration, the procession of purified candidates set out from the Eleusinion on its tedious march over the sacred way leading to Eleusis. It followed the sacred image of lacchos, which was borne aloft before it, and it carried back to Eleusis the ‘holy things’ which the ἔφηβοι had brought to Athens. The number of those who composed it was comparatively great, sometimes 10,000 persons being in line: of course these could not all have been candidates, for the hall of initiation at Eleusis could not have contained so many. They were in part the initiated who accompanied the candidates and sang hymns in praise of lacchos on the way, or at certain places indulged in coarse ribaldry and witticisms in order to hold aloof the evil spirits. On the evening of the 20th the mystics reached the ‘holy city,’ which they entered with flaming torches, and passed the following day in rest or in offering the sacrifice. Probably on the 22nd the initiation took place in the Telesterion, a large square building surrounded by thick walls to shield its secrets from prying eyes. It was set almost in the centre of an extensive enclosure, which contained the large and small propylaea or massive gateways, through which the candidates were conducted past the small temple of Pluto along the sacred way leading to the doors of the Telesterion. Seats of stone, partly hewn from the native rock and partly constructed, rose tier on tier around the hall with a capacity for accommodating about 3,000 persons. The original building of course did not have this magnitude, for the Telesterion was repeatedly rebuilt, each time on a larger scale. What part the outer buildings played in the initiation is not known. Possibly the descent of Kore into the under world and Demeter’s search for her may have been represented in the temple of Pluto; but this is doubtful, for the ruins of the temple reveal no subterranean construction. It is more probable that the final initiation was begun, continued, and completed in the Telesterion. What the nature of the mystic ceremony was is not easy to determine. Clement of Alexandria tells us that ‘Deo [mystic name for Demeter] and Persephone may have become the heroines of a mystic drama; and their wanderings, seizure, and grief Eleusis celebrates by torchlight processions’ (Protrept. 2). Perhaps it would be precarious to take the word ‘drama’ literally. It may have had the character of a passion play, as L. R. Farnell suggests (Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 xix. 120); or it may have expressed the rehearsal of the story of Demeter in the pantomimic dance accompanied by songs, sacramental words, and other ceremonies, as De Jong suggests (Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 19 f.). But beyond such conjectures we know nothing of the manner in which the experiences, of which Demeter and Kore were the subject, were presented. In some way they were rendered so vivid, solemn, and impressive amid the dim light as to lift the observer up into a consciousness of union, even of identity, with the immortal goddess. Nor do we know what the ‘holy things’ were which the hierophant revealed at the most solemn moment of the initiation. Farnell (Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 xix. 120) suggests that they ‘included certain primitive idols of the goddesses’ and perhaps ‘ “a cut corn-stalk.” ’ A. Dieterich (Eine Mithrasliturgie, Leipzig, 1903, p. 125) would find among them symbols significant of phallic worship. The presentation of the corn token rests on the authority of Hippolytus, who says that ‘the Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade of these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: [I allude to] an ear of corn in silence reaped’ (Philos. v. 3). Hippolytus may not be trustworthy in his statement. But the majority of our authorities, such as Frazer, Farnell, and De Jong, are inclined to think that such a token was really shown. De Jong believes that the rendering of the words referring to it should be ‘display … in silence a reaped ear of corn’ (Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 23, n. [Note: . note.] 1). Dieterich’s suggestion of the presence of the phallic symbol rests on the retention of the old reading ἐργασάμενος, which C. A. Lobeck (Aglaophamus, p. 26) found unintelligible and changed to ἐγγευσάμενος. His contention is that we have no right to alter a text, especially the text of a mystic formula, simply because we cannot understand it in its actual sense (Eine Mithrasliturgie, p. 125). If Dieterich’s interpretation of the difficult term is correct, we can hardly regard this element in the Eleusinian mysteries as morally elevating, even taking into view its religious significance. It may be that at this point in the ceremonies a ‘holy marriage’ was celebrated in imitation of the marriage of Demeter and Zeus, or of Kore and Pluto. Its possibility rests mainly on the assertion of Asterius, who lived at the close of the 4th cent. and who briefly alludes to the act (Encomium in SS. Martyres [PG xl. 325]). De Jong seems to place great reliance on his witness (Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 22), while Farnell regards the passage embodying it as doubtful. With this sacred marriage the words of Hippolytus may be connected: ‘by night in Eleusis … [the hierophant] enacting the great and secret mysteries, vociferates and cries aloud, saying, “August Brimo has brought forth a consecrated son, Brimus,” that is, a potent [mother has been delivered of] a potent child’ (Philos. v. 3). Brimo is commonly believed to have been another name for Demeter; but Miss Harrison explains it as another name for the Thessalian Kore and designating in the Eleusinian mysteries simply a maiden (Prolegomena, p. 553). Brimus, the child, is understood by J. N. Svoronos (‘Erklärung der Denkmäler des eleus. mystischen Kreisen,’ in Journal international d’archéologie numismatique, iv. [1901]) to be Pluto, by Dieterich to be Iacchos (Eine Mithrasliturgie, p. 138). Frazer attributes reality to this feature of the ceremonies, and explains it as magical, ‘intended to make the fields wave with yellow corn’ (GB [Note: B Golden Bough (J. G. Frazer).] 3, pt. i., The Magic Art, London, 1911, ii. 138). If the ‘holy marriage’ really occurred in the mysteries, it must have been a relic of the old Nature-religions preserved in the cult and having the meaning which Frazer gives it. One more interesting feature of the mysteries of Demeter is the κυκεών, or sacred drink. Clement of Alexandria refers to it in the only confession he ascribes to the initiate: ‘I have fasted, I have drunk the cup (κυκεών); I have received from the box; having done (having tasted) I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chest’ (Protrept. 2). The κυκεών was a mixture of grain, water, and other ingredients, which was the first food that Demeter had taken after her long wanderings and fastings. Among these ingredients the sacramental wine must have been absent, for, while it was offered to other deities, it was not used in the cult of the underground gods (K. Kircher, Die sakrale Bedeutung des Weines im Altertum, Giessen, 1910, p. 21; P. Stengel, Opferbrauche der Griechen, Leipzig, 1910, p. 129). Stengel explains its absence on the ground that the chthonic cult reaches back to a remote time when the Greeks had not yet begun to cultivate the vine, and by reason of the conservatism of religion were disinclined, on the introduction of wine into use, to make any change in the practices of the religious cult. Moreover, the ancients were loath in their reverence for the chthonic deity to use anything which did not spring directly from the soil. However, the κυκεών was ‘a sort of soup’ (Miss Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 156) or ‘a kind of thick gruel,’ as Frazer describes it (GB [Note: B Golden Bough (J. G. Frazer).] 3, pt. v., Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, p. 161, n. [Note: . note.] 4). The part which it played in the progress of the ceremonies cannot be determined. But apparently it was not an important part, and therefore, in this respect, the κυκεών cannot be likened to the Lord’s Supper. It was a feature of the experience of Demeter in her search for her daughter, and, as every feature of that experience was closely followed in the pantomime, the manner in which she broke her protracted fast would be imitated. It is quite possible that sharing in the sacred drink meant also a formal induction into the community life of the mysteries and a reinforcing of the bonds which were binding its new members to the old. More than this-e.g. that the reception of it implied a belief of the presence of the deity with, in, and under its elements-can hardly be claimed for it. On the 23rd day, the last day of the festival, the final ceremony was performed. The worshippers assembled and, casting water from two vessels, now toward the east, and again toward the west, looked up to the heavens with the brief cry ‘Rain!’ and then looking down to the earth cried ‘Be fruitful!’ or ‘Conceive!’ The prayer, pregnant with significance, throws back a bright light on the real meaning of the mysteries celebrated at Eleusis.

We have no means of determining the extent of the influence of these mysteries. Numerous sanctuaries, dependent on the main sanctuary at Eleusis, arose in other parts of Greece. We hear of a sanctuary or chapel even in Italy. Of these daughter institutions we know but little that we can call trustworthy. The ‘truce of God,’ which suspended all hostilities during the Eleusinian celebration, was proclaimed in lands as distant as Syria and Egypt. Emperors, such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, gladly became initiated adherents of the cult, and when Valentinian I., in the year 364, forbade religious celebrations at night, he was obliged to make an exception of the ceremonies at Eleusis. An influence so extensive makes it possible that St. Paul knew of the mysteries. But if he did, it is singular that he did not allude to them in his speech at Athens on Mars’ Hill. The slightest apparent allusion to them would have been eagerly seized by those who affirm his familiarity with mystery-religions. But his silence would seem to show that he knew little or nothing of the Eleusinian mysteries, or else viewed them with a disfavour which the courtesy of the moment compelled him to refrain from revealing. Their influence on the Church can only be assumed, not proved. Svoronos, as quoted by De Jong (Das antike Mysterienwesen, p. 29), affirms that the Greek Church is the successor of the Eleusinian cult, that she borrowed much from Eleusis. If this be true, the act of borrowing could have taken place only at a comparatively late period. Examples of this act are found in her celebration of important ceremonies at night, in her processions with their icons, in the revealing of holy objects, in the confession of sins before the Eucharist, and in the adoration of the Virgin Mary. With these are supposed to correspond the initiation at night in Eleusis, the procession bearing the image of Iacchos, the disclosure of ‘holy things’ in the Telesterion, the exclusion of the unworthy, and the practice of confession at Samothrace, the mourning of Demeter, having for her Christian parallel the ‘mater dolorosa,’ and the worship of Demeter, whose cult ceased just before the worship (hyperdulia) of the Virgin assumed unusual importance, and, therefore, seems to have replaced that of Demeter. One could speak more confidently of the exactness of these similarities if one knew accurately what the ceremonies in the Telesterion really were. Moreover, the origin of the ceremonial customs and rites of the Greek can be traced and has been traced to other sources than to the cult at Eleusis; and when more than one source can be ascribed to a practice, its assumed origin in a particular quarter is rendered doubtful. At all events, this comparison does not come within the limits of the primitive Church, for such rites as make the comparison possible had not yet been developed.

(b) The mysteries of Samothrace.-The Samothracian mysteries are far less known to us than the Eleusinian. They get their name from the fact that their chief seat was in the island of Samothrace, which was an object of superstitious regard from pre-historic times to a comparatively late period. The cult itself is very ancient, and seems to be a relic of the religious life of the old Pelasgian or aegean civilization which flourished even as far as Sicily before the Greek civilization arose. The ruins of its ancient sanctuaries in Samothrace reveal remnants of the same massive, Cyclopean walls, which are found elsewhere in the islands and on the coasts of the Mediterranean. Its mysteries were important in ancient times, and from the 4th cent. rivalled the Eleusinian. They attained their greatest distinction under Philip and his queen Olympia, who were initiated into them, and under the Ptolemys, who patronized them and cared for their sacred buildings. Later the cult extended its influence among the citizens of the Roman Republic. Among its adherents were such Roman soldiers and leaders as M. Claudius Marcellus. We know little about its ceremonies and formulae, which is a misfortune, for such knowledge might have thrown light on the growth of the religious terminology which St. Paul found and used. They centred in the Kabeiroi, concerning whom we have only the most meagre information. They seem to have belonged to the class of spirits known as demons, goblins, and satyrs. Originally they were chthonian deities or gods of the under world, as the excavations on the island reveal. Their name is probably of Phœnician origin, for it appears to be connected with the Semitic Kabeirim, the ‘mighty ones.’ They were really gods native to the islands of the aegean sea; but inasmuch as they were gods of navigation, the Phœnician sailors naturally were interested in them and gave them the name by which they came to be generally known. On Samothrace they were called presumably Axieros, Axiokersos, Axiokersa, and Casmilos. Like all deities of indeterminate character, they were identified at various times with deities of another name. The possible affinity of their mysteries with those of Eleusis led to the subsequent retirement of these barbaric names, and the substitution in the place of the first three of the names of Demeter, Kore, and Pluto or Hades. Cybele and Dionysus rival Demeter and Pluto as usurpers of the native Samothracian names. A worship of the Kabeiroi existed near Thebes also at an early period. Excavations of the sanctuary belonging to the cult have brought to light pottery dating from the end of the 5th and beginning of the 4th centuries b.c., which bears on its surface a figure apparently of Dionysus with the word ‘Kabiros’ written just above it. The god is evidently chthonic in character. Probably the Kabeiroi were remotely deities of vegetation; but their office in historic times was to safeguard the mariner. He who had been initiated into their mysteries and had the purple thread bound about his person was secure from the perils of the sea. We know nothing more of their mystic festival than that it was ecstatic, and that it contained a sacramental communion, if we accept H. Hepding’s interpretation of a Samothracian inscription (Attis, seine Mythen und sein Kult, Giessen, 1903, p. 185). Nor is there any way of determining their influence on the development of the religious life which finally found its complete satisfaction in the Christian faith.

(c) The mysteries of Andania.-The Andanian mysteries were celebrated at Andania in Messenia, the south-western part of Greece (Peloponnesus). Originally they were consecrated to Demeter and to Kore, who was called Hagne, ‘the Holy One.’ But at a later period Hermes, the Kabeiroi, and Apollo were added to these deities. The Andanian inscription of 91 b.c. gives us some information concerning their external rites. The manner in which the priests take the oath, the various crowns or head-dresses which the priests and the mystics should wear, the dress of linen in which they should be clothed, are described. Women are directed to be present with hair unbound and feet unshod, and the animals to be offered to the different deities are designated. Married women figure as priestesses, and grades of initiation appear here as in the Eleusinian mysteries. While evidences of required baptisms and anointings are apparent, there is no indication of a sacramental meal; but as such meals were customary in the secret cults, it is possible that it had a place in the Andanian mysteries. Of the purpose of these mysteries we know nothing, but we can conjecture that they were related to the harvest, and that they gave to the initiate a happy lot in the future world.

(d) The Egyptian mysteries.-As early as the XIXth dynasty the Egyptian cults had already begun to spread into other lands. They were founded on the legend of Osiris, who, like Demeter, was originally a deity of vegetation. The myth that centres about him is gathered from various sources, among which Plutarch’s account may be regarded as the chief. He is usually represented as the son of the earth-god Keb and the sky-goddess Nut, which is the reverse of the customary relationship of the parental deities. On reaching manhood he ruled his country for twenty-eight years, and proved to be a beneficent monarch. He taught his subjects how to cultivate their fields, to train their vines, and to work with tools. He even left his country and carried everywhere his knowledge of the arts of a helpful life. On his return his evil-minded brother, Set, persuaded him to test the capacity of a chest to receive his body, and, as soon as he had stretched himself in it, Set shut the lid, fastened it down, and threw the chest into the Nile. Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris, in an agony of grief went everywhere seeking him, and, finally recovering the body, returned with it to Egypt and hid it among the reeds by the river. But Set, while hunting at night, discovered it under the moonlight, and, dismembering it, scattered the several parts throughout the country. Isis renewed her search, and on finding the fragments gave them a fitting burial. Another version of the story tells us that Anubis, sent by Ra, came to her aid, and with the help of Thot and of Horus (in Greek times Harpocrates) fitted the parts together, enveloped them in a linen winding-sheet, and then by his magical power restored him to life. From this moment Osiris presided over the under world as its king and judge. All disembodied souls had to appear before him, make their confession to him, and receive at his hands the award of their deeds. In this capacity Osiris was viewed as the representative and giver of immortal life. In order to receive it, one must have become even identified with him and be called by his name. His great festival began on 28th October and ended on 1st November.

It was not until the time of Ptolemy I. (306-285 b.c.) that the Egyptian mysteries made rapid progress. He seems to have given the first impulse to the syncretism, or amalgamation of cults and divinities, which for six or seven centuries was to direct the religious life and practice of men, and which is supposed by some scholars to have deeply influenced even the beginnings of Christianity. The first step in this syncretistic movement was the adoption of the name Serapis for that of Osiris. The origin of the name is still doubtful. Some find its source in the Chaldaean Sar-apsi. But more probably it is simply the reduced form of Osiris-apis (Oser-hapi). The union of the god with the sacred bull, Apis, which was regarded as his incarnation, would suit Egyptian prejudices, and the name Serapis itself would appeal to the Greek mind. Thus Serapis, Isis, and Horus or Harpocrates were the leading deities in the Egyptian cults, Anubis, Jupiter Hammon, and the Sphinx ranking after them. They were invoked sometimes together, and sometimes separately. Usually the name Serapis leads the rest, and when alone is identified with Zeus and Helios, giving rise to the formula, inscribed on amulets, ‘Zeus, Helios, and Serapis are one.’ More frequently two names, Serapis and Isis, are united in one invocation, but Isis also often stands alone, as in Spain and Gaul, and receives the exclusive worship.

Under the Ptolemys the cults spread through the aegean islands and found numerous adherents along the shores of Asia Minor. In the same period they had reached Greece, and they arrived in Sicily about the year 298 b.c. The later progress of Christianity was hardly more rapid. The ability of the cult of Serapis by itself to arouse the emotions and fancies, its capacity to answer the ascetic longings, its power to amalgamate itself with other cults, and to meet the monotheistic tendency, combined to give it a victorious career. However, it was Isis, the queen deity, that became the more celebrated of the two. The charm of her personality attracted the affections of many peoples. Her gracious attitude toward women, especially young women, enlisted in her following one of the most potential aids to the dissemination of a religious cult. Her dark temples, solemn and mysterious, drew, rather than repelled, the religiously inclined. About 150 b.c. her cult reached Italy, but did not enter Rome until the middle of the 1st cent. b.c. There it encountered a determined opposition, its altars and images being destroyed four times in the course of one decade. But the cult was tenacious. The emperor Tiberius dealt it another blow in a.d. 19. Soon after this resistance gave way, for the cult of Isis did what the State-religions were not doing-gave to the worshipper the consciousness of direct and personal communion with the deity. In a.d. 38 Caligula built the great temple of Isis on the Campus Martius, which figures in the story of Apuleius. In a.d. 215 Caracalla placed the cult on a level with the State-cults and built for the worship of Isis one of her finest temples. The goddess of countless names, Isis Myrionyma, had conquered. She is rightly called Domina, Victrix, Invicta, Mater, Panthea; and, had her worship finally prevailed, the Creator of all things visible and invisible would have been conceived as the feminine rather than as the masculine principle of the universe. But her reign ceased, although years after every other mystery-religion had vanished. Her cult lingered on in southern Egypt, where probably, in pre-historic times, the goddess began her career, and in a.d. 560 Justinian closed her only remaining temple on the little island of Philae.

Our chief source of information concerning the mysteries of Isis is Metamorphoses, or Golden Ass, written by Lucius Apuleius (born a.d. 125). At the close of the work the author describes the experiences of one undergoing initiation into the Egyptian cult. We may accept the information with confidence, for the account is marked by too much sincerity to pass, like the story which precedes it, as a product of the imagination. Unfortunately, the information bears on the rites of preparation, not on the transactions in the sanctuary itself. We learn from it that the candidate for initiation had to await the summons of Isis, even after he had been assured by her that he was destined for her ministry. During this period of waiting he must carefully perform his religious duties and preserve a dignified silence. At the proper time Isis makes her will known to him in a vision, and the priest, to whom she has addressed herself at the same moment, in the ‘darksome night’ and by no ‘obscure mandate,’ informs him that Isis is ready to communicate to him her secrets. After certain ceremonies, whose significance is not disclosed, the priest ‘washed and sprinkled him with the purest water,’ and, after giving him further secret instructions, enjoined upon him abstinence for ten days from all but the simplest food. At the close of the fast he was led, clothed in new linen garments, to the inner recesses of the sanctuary, where the mysteries of the cult were revealed to him. Of course the revelations were inviolably secret, but no doubt they centred about the cruel treatment of Serapis, the search of Isis for his dead body, and the resurrection of the god. We should be glad to know what was said and done in the sanctuary.

‘I would tell you,’ answers Apuleius, ‘were it lawful for me to tell you; you should know it, if it were lawful for you to hear. But both the ears that heard these things, and the tongue that told them, would reap the evil results of their rashness’ (xi. 23).

The final initiation was consummated at night, as it was in all the mystery-religions; for it is in the midnight hours that mind and heart are the most deeply impressed.

In those hours, Apuleius go


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mystery Mysteries'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/m/mystery-mysteries.html. 1906-1918.


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