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2.2.3 Greek Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries
The most popular and influential of the Greek mysteries were those of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, in Attica near Athens. There, it was believed that God had given grain to sow and feed the people. An agricultural cult commemorated the yearly sowing around the month of Boedromion (September/October). Until Athens took control of Eleusis (before 600 BC), the mysteries of Demeter and Kore were conducted as mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter focusing on both goddesses. Demeter was a goddess of probable Cretan origin and she was also the “Grain Mother”, or the “Earth Mother”. Kore was the “Maiden” and, as she sojourned in the realm of Hades, she was also identified with Persephone, the queen of the underworld. Both Demeter and Kore were personification of grain, Demeter, the mature grain with maternal potency, and Kore, the newly planted grain. After Athens took over Eleusis, its interest took priorities in the content of the mysteries. What is known of the Eleusinian mysteries refers mainly to this Athenian period. The greater mystery celebrations on Boedromion are rather well known. Athenian youths carried the Kistai (chest) and the hiera (the “Sacred Things”, which precise nature is uncertain) from Eleusis to Athens where they were stored in the Eleusinion (the Eleusinian temple) until the Iacchos procession. Criminals and barbaroi (those who do not speak Greeks) could not participate in the mysteries. The initiates had to bathe in the sea and to kill a young pig in honour to Demeter and Kore. The iacchos procession took place on Boedromion 19 when the initiates walked on the sacred way from Athens to Eleusis singing, dancing, and carrying the “Sacred Things” of the goddesses back to the Telesterion (great hall of initiation) in Eleusis. What happened there is unknown. Christian authors like Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome and Arnobius of Sicca suggest various rites, frequently sexual in nature, but their testimony must be treated with care. According to Clement of Alexandria the initiatory formula of the Eleusinian mysteries was the following:

I have fasted;
I have drunk the kykeon;
I have taken from the chest (kiste);
having done the work,
I have placed the basket (kalathos),
and from the basket into the chest.

By this the initiate claims that he has done the requisite fast, that he has partaken in the ceremonial kykeon and that he has performed mysterious rites with sacred objects or symbols to be found in the kiistai (probably cakes, a serpent, pomegranates, leaves and stalks, poppies and a model of a woman’s genitals). According to Hippolytus of Rome, the great Eleusinian mysteries is the cry Hye kye (“Rain, Conceive”), a “symbolon” intended as a command to the sky to provoke raining and to the earth being fruitful. The ritual could have included pouring water into the ground, an act symbolising the intercourse of the deities and the impregnation of Mother Nature. The male partner would be Father Zeus and the female partner Mother Demeter or the maiden Kore. Lesser mysteries were celebrated in the month of Anthesterion (February) at Agrai near Athens as a preparation for the greater mysteries celebrated in Boedromion.

The Andanian Mysteries of Messenia

The Andanian mysteries were celebrated in the ancient town of Andania, in the Messenia region, situated in the southwestern part of the Greek Peloponnesus. These mysteries were very old and second only to the Eleusinian in sanctity. They were interrupted by wars but they were revived after Epaminondas, the Theban general defeated the Spartans and gave independence to the Messenian region in 369 BC with Messene as the capital. The Andanian mysteries were reinstated again in 92/91 BC, 55 years after the Romans took control over the region.

Our only knowledge of the rites of the Andanian mysteries comes from Pausanias and the Andanian Rule. In the mid-second century AD, Pausanias mentions the Karnasian cypress grove, with a spring nearby, as the site of the Andanian worship of many gods: Apollo Karneinos, Hermes, Hagne and the Great Goddesses. Hagne (“Pure One”) was a title of Kore, Demeter’s daughter, and refers in this way to the Eleusinian mysteries with perhaps some Athenian influence. Two hundred and fifty years before, the Andanian Rule also mentioned the Karnasian Grove as the site at which the gods and goddesses of the mysteries were worshipped. However the deities mentioned in this earlier text were slightly different: Demeter, Hermes, Apollo Karneios, Hagna (Hagne) and the Great Gods.

The Greek Mysteries of Dionysos

The Greek god Dionysos (also known as Bacchos or Bacchus) manifested himself and was worshipped in different ways. He probably originated in Thrace but he also had connections with Phrygia and possibly Crete. He was sometime represented as a mighty bull, the embodiment of animal maleness, but he also appeared in more effeminate form, with fair skin and long curls. At times his followers roamed the forests and the mountains, clothing themselves in fawn skins and wielding thyrsi (long shafts, topped with ivy or wine leaves, the symbols of the god). Actors also appeared in the official festivals and theatres of Dionys, the god of drama, and wore their masks in the public performances of Greek plays. The worshippers of Dionysos acknowledged his presence in the raw flesh of wild beasts, in wine, in the phallus concealed in the liknon (a basket that could be used as a baby cradle) and also, among the Orphics, in the immortal human soul. A person confronted by Dionysos and possessed by him may feel his power in ecstasy, inebriation, in sexuality or in spiritual bliss. Such a person became one with Dionysos and could be called Bacche (feminine) or Bacchos (masculine) after the god himself. Little is known of the mysteries of Dionysos except that they were as diverse as his manifestations. They certainly included eating and drinking. In the archaic and savage mysteries of Dionysos the initiates were said to tear animals to pieces (sparagmos) and to eat their raw flesh (omophagia) as a way to assimilate Dionysos’ power embodied in the animal. In more serene Bacchic rites, as those of the Iobacchoi in Athens, the meal was a banquet. The holy drink given to the initiates was ordinary wine, since wine was considered a gift of god. Sexual practices must have been a part of some Bacchic rites. We know something more about the Orphic mysteries of Dionysos named after their founder, Orpheus, whose myths describe him as a Thracian singer who tried to liberate his departed Eurycide from death. Orpheus was torn to pieces by Bacchantes (women maddened by Dionysos) and the Orphics laid special claim to the god Dionysos in a strange way. For the Orphics the Dionysian practice of omophagia became the original transgression, and they told the myth of Dionysos Zagreus in order to show the enormity of the sin of omophagia. According to the myth of Zagreus, it was the evil Titans who consumed Dionysos. Yet after Zeus incinerated the Titans for their wicked deed, human beings were created from the ashes. As a result human beings are bipartite for the Orphics: they are composed of a Titanic nature (the material body) and a Dionysian nature (the immortal soul) imprisoned in the Titanic body (the soma or body is called a sema, or tomb, by the Orphics). The soul may be delivered from its imprisonment by means of a life devoted to purity to realise its Dionysian destiny.

The Anatolian Mysteries of the Great Mother and her Lover, and the Syrian Goddess
Phrygia, located in central Anatolia, has produced or influenced the nature of many deities: Dionysos, Sabazios and the Great Mother (Magna Mater) and her lover Attis. Here, in the 2d century AD, a Christian prophetic movement called Montanism arose. Kybele (or Kybebe and, in Latin, Cybele), the Great Mother of Anatolia, was worshipped in Phrygia and in Lydia. She was adored as a mother goddess of fertility. In works of art she was represented holding a tympanon (a tambourine, as she inspired singing and dancing) and wearing a towered mural crown (she also protected towns and castles) and she was accompanied by her lions (she was the mistress of the wild animals). She was fairly well known in Greece but an event that occurred in Rome in 204 BC introduced her in the Greco-Roman world when she was welcomed in the Roman Pantheon. As a result she was also considered a Roman goddess and many Emperors favoured her worship starting with Claudius in the first century AD. He also introduced Attis to the Roman world. As a result, from the 2d century AD the Roman world became more familiar with the exotic festivals, the flamboyant Galli (the eunuchs of the Great Mother), and the gory taurobolia (ritual slaughter of bulls) within the celebrations of Kybele and Attis. The best-known Roman festival of the Anatolian deities was taking place in March, starting in the first century AD, even if the evidences available date from later on. In the 3d and 4th centuries AD the ceremonies opened on March 15 with the reed-bearers (cannophori) carrying reeds into the sanctuary. The reeds were probably a symbolic representation on one aspect of the story of Kybele and Attis: either the abandonment of baby Attis along a river, or his later castration. The next days of the festival were spent in fasting as well as in abstaining from sexual intercourse. On March 22 the tree-bearers (dendrophori) carried a freshly cut pine tree decorated with purple flowers and ribbons into the sanctuary, as well as an image of Attis. On that day and the following, the worshipers mourned over the tree that commemorated the death of Attis. According to the myth, Attis castrated himself and died under a pine tree with which he would then be identified. As the pine tree was cut down in death, so also was youthful Attis cut down. March 24 was called the day of Blood (Dies sanguinis) and some of the fanatic celebrants flogged themselves until they bled. They then sprinkled their blood upon the Attis of and the altars in the sanctuary while others imitated Attis by castrating themselves. In these ways they identified themselves with the passion and death of Attis. The Hilariua on March 25 brought renewed joy and hope and there was feasting in honour of the Great Mother. In some late 4th century AD celebrations of the Hilaria, there may have been affirmations of the resurrection of Attis. The spring festival came to a close with a day of rest on March 26 and, on its final day (March 27), the image of the Great Mother was bathed in the Almo River.