THE MYSTERIES - MYSTÍRIA - ΜΥΣΤΗΡΙΑ
in Ancient Greek Religion

Ύε! Κύε!

"And those who instituted the Mysteries for us appear to have been by no means contemptible persons, but to have really signified formerly, in an obscure manner, that whoever descended into Hades uninitiated, and without being a partaker of the Mysteries, should be plunged into mire; but that whoever arrived there, purified and initiated, should dwell with the Gods." (Φαίδων Πλάτωνος 69 c-d, trans. Thomas Taylor, 1804.)

"...she (Δημήτηρ) showed the conduct of her rites and taught them all her Mysteries, to Triptolemus and Polyxeinus and Diocles also, -- awful Mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the Gods checks the voice. Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these Mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom." (Homeric Hymn Εἲς Δημήτραν 475-479, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, 1914.)

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Mystíria (Mysteria or Musteria; Gr. Μυστήρια, ΜΥΣΤΗΡΙΑ, from μύω, "to close, be shut," of the eyes) Pronunciation: mees-TEE-ree-ah. 

The Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony (The Fifth King) tells the story of how Zefs (Ζεύς) creates a new generation of beings --- our generation --- who have an immortal soul but whose bodies are subject to decay, violence, and death. When one's body deteriorates, the soul is eventually reborn in a new body which must continue this cycle, over and over again...a painful circle of births (κύκλος γενέσεως). This mighty God, indeed the father of both Gods and men, has created a universe of great beauty, but we live with unrelenting sufferings. Why would Zefs create such a flawed world? It is because he has created the best world which is possible, constrained by natural laws. At its creation, Zefs realized these difficulties and conceived a solution; he would father a child who would teach mortals the means of escaping the cycle of rebirths. This child is Diónysos (Διόνυσος). The Goddess Rǽa (Rhea, Ῥέα) taught Diónysos the Mysteries and it is from these teachings that he accomplishes the intent of his father. [1]

Mystíria (Μυστήρια) is the Greek word for what is commonly called Mysteries or Mystery Religion. In simplest terms, Mystíria is the deepest meaning of the religion. It is the heart of the religion. In reality, the Mysteries are the religion, because without the Mysteries you actually do not have a religion. If you take the heart out of a creature, all you have is a corpse. The enemies of our religion are happy to delegate the Mysteries to an inferior status because intuitively they sense that without them, the religion has no power and authority. 

The Mysteries refer to the ultimate and deepest teachings and practices of Ællinismόs (Hellenismos, Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, and this includes the philosophía (philosophy, φιλοσοφία). The Mysteries are sacred teachings, rites, and initiations to develop the progress of the soul; such progress is arætí (arete, Ἀρετή), the source from which arise all of the virtues. Mystíria is a means of accelerating the natural progression of the soul, a development which ascends of its own volition, but at an impossibly slow pace. Mystíria is for those who wish to venture fully into Ællinismόs, to put the religion completely into practice, and to accomplish something significant with one's life. Mystíria pierces through the mask of thriskeia (= religion, θρησκεία), journeying beyond the outside shell of religion to the very core of what is actually important, transforming our practice from one which worships Gods for personal gain into a religion which is significant, illuminating, and of great depth. Mystíria is not outside of and independent from the rest of the Greek religion, but, rather, consists of teachings within the body of Ællinismόs, teachings which are central to it. The Mysteries are, in fact, the very heart of Ællinismόs, without which the entire tradition is superficial.


Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς) is regarded as the founder of all Mysteries; he disseminated their content.
 Mystíria is intimately connected with the rites of Diónysos (Διόνυσος) and that of Dimítir (Demeter, Δημήτηρ) and her daughter Pærsæphóni (Persephone, Περσεφόνη). The most prominent of the formal Mysteries from antiquity are the Ælefsínia Mystíria (Eleusinian Mysteries, Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) but there were other great sanctuaries which taught Mysteries and there were also independent itinerant teachers who promulgated them.   

Orphismós, the teachings of Orphéfs and the heart of the Mystíria, is also the root of philosophy. Orphism attempts to explain the origin and nature of the Kózmos (Cosmos, Κόσμος) as natural phenomenon based on the interaction of material substances rather than something beyond nature. Orphismós presents the concept of the elements, Earth and Water, providing the foundation of the pre-Socratic natural philosophers, and major aspects of the Mysteries can be found overtly and covertly in the dialogues of Plátohn (Plato, Πλάτων) and in the writings of the philósophi (philosophers, φιλόσοφοι) who came after him; this can be seen in the ideas concerning the soul and reincarnation as well as the establishment of the philosophical foundation supporting the achievement of Virtue as laid out in the dialogues. In contemporary Greece, the Mystíria have become integrated within the tradition and philosophía (philosophy, φιλοσοφία) such that the whole of established practice is referred to as the Orphic-Pythagorean-Platonic tradition.

The Mystíria are thought of as a secret tradition. This is because these teachings are not for the profane, but for those of pure heart. In reality, much of the teaching is "self-secret" because the profane or unprepared cannot understand them, as is stated by the composer of the Derveni Papyrus.
[3]

Controversy:

Some contemporary practitioners of Ællinismόs (Hellenismos, Ἑλληνισμός) are adverse to the Mysteries. This is not true with practitioners of the religion inside Greece, as can be attested by anyone who has actually spent time there and met, face-to-face, teachers and students of repute.

Some of the attacks on the Mysteries come from Hellenic reconstructionist groups. These are people who, generally, belief that the ancient religion perished centuries ago and are trying to revive the religion by reconstructing its practices from ancient sources. Reconstructionists in the United States rightly rely on antique sources for justification of their beliefs and practices, but they also depend heavily on secondary scholarship. Many disparaging ideas regarding the Mysteries were promulgated in the 1800s and early 20th century by scholars such as John Bagnall Bury in his book, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, 1900, until recently a common textbook in schools 
[4]. Bury associates "Orphism" with an invasion of oriental ideas into Greek culture, rule by aristocracy, domination by a priestly class, and subordination of reason to irrationality. He see the teachings of Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς) as a religious system that relied on superstition and he contrasts Orphism with Greek scientific inquiry, an inquiry which he equates with philosophy and reason, positioning philosophy in opposition to Orphic teaching. Regarding the latter criticism, Bury points to the Orphic Theogony as an example of an unscientific explanation of the Kózmos. He interprets this theogony purely on its surface level, seemingly not even vaguely suspicious that there could be a more profound interpretation; if he had so much as a hint of any such intuition, he did not reveal it in this book. Contemporary scholarship is, perhaps, more congenial to Orphic teaching, but, nonetheless, many of the 19th century ideas persist to this day.

Some of the typical objections to Mystíria fall into the categories discussed below. These criticisms reveal a mistaken conception of the Mysteries either as they existed in antiquity or as they exist in contemporary Greece. As is stated in the opening section of this essay, Mystíria is the deeper meaning of Ællinismόs. By this definition, rejection of Mystíria is as though one was saying that thriskeia (θρησκεία) is sufficient. Thriskeia is a word usually translated as "religion." Thriskeia is the outward manifestation of a religious belief-system, the rituals, the vestments of the priests/priestesses, the incense, etc. But it must be clearly understood that if these things are the actual body of a religion, such thriskeia can be taught to a monkey. The perspective of Mystíria is that thriskeia is only an aspect of Ællinismόs, and for those who wish to truly live the tradition and put Ællinismόs fully into meaningful practice, one must go beyond thriskeia to the Mysteries. 

Most of the criticism of the Mysteries fall into one of the following four categories: 

1
) Criticism of the teaching of the Deification of the Soul:  Is this hubris?   

One of the principle points of attack of Mystíria is the teaching regarding the Deification of the Soul, Ækthǽohsis (Ektheosis, Ἐκθέωσις). It has even been proposed that the doctrine of deification does not have its roots in antiquity or that its contemporary interpretation is a distortion of what has been taught by the ancient philosophers. In response to this criticism and to help the reader make a more informed judgement, visit this page of citations: Deification of the Soul: Sources.

Deification bears similarity to Hindu beliefs or the Buddhist nirvana, i.e. to become a Buddha oneself, through work over many lifetimes. The beliefs of these other systems, as in the Mysteries, involve an understanding of reincarnation, what is called in the Hellenic language palingænæsía (palingenesía, παλιγγενεσία) or mætæmpsýkhohsis (metempsychōsis, μετεμψύχωσις). This process has been called a sorrowful circle of rebirths (κύκλος γενέσεως) from which escape is remote. It is a painful experience to be reborn over and over, only to die again either through old age, sickness, or violence. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Zefs (Zeus) conceived a solution: through his son Diónysos and the Mysteries he teaches, one can break the cycle. This solution, a great gift from our Father, is our birthright. One who has broken the cycle no longer is confined to a mortal body; such a soul is free. This is the deification of the soul and it is our right and inheritance. 

A God is an immortal soul which does not have and will never again have a mortal body. We also have immortal souls, but it is our ephemeral bodies which make us mortal, because these bodies are subject to death. In addition, after losing our bodies, we have no choice but to attain a new body, and this cycle recurs endlessly. It is not a voluntary cycle, but it is natural one and inevitable. If people who practice the Mysteries desire deification, what this means is that they desire freedom from this involuntary cycle. It is not that they desire great power of any kind. And how do we prepare for such an experience? By learning about the religion, by worshiping the Gods, by increasing wisdom, and by developing virtue. In reality, those who properly practice our religion are not actually struggling to become Gods, they are struggling to become good people. To glorify the ego is not conducive to becoming a good person, for we are striving for truth and the truth is that we are like grains of sand in a vast desert, or drops of water in an immense ocean. 

So is deification ývris (hubris, ὕβρις)? No...the opposite. Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων) is the principle God of deification and the principal protector of the Mysteries. He is the Destroyer who slays the multi-headed ýdra (hydra, ὕδρα) of ego. Therefore, it is the very destruction of ývris, the absolute annihilation of exaggerated self-importance, that is the mark of one who is at the brink of deification, not the other way around. It is the humble but noble soul who exemplifies the Mysteries, one who embodies all the qualities of perfect piety and supreme virtue (ἀρετή).


2)
 Are the Mysteries part of the traditional Hellenic polytheistic tradition?

Some scholars and some contemporary Hellenic groups outside of Greece position the Mysteries far apart from mainstream Hellenic tradition. This posture cannot be supported. Perhaps the most obvious demonstration of the acceptance of the Mysteries in the ancient world is the fact that Ælefsís (Eleusis, Ἐλευσίς), the site of the most famous of the Mystery cults, the Ælefsínia Mystíria (Eleusinian Mysteries, Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια), flourished for 2000 years and likely many more, and its requirement of secrecy, was actually protected by Athenian law, and that vast numbers of individuals of every status were initiated, from rulers to slaves. Ælefsís was a pan-Hellenic sanctuary to which people came from the entire Greek world and beyond to be initiated. To go to Ælefsís and receive initiation was the dream of all pious Greeks. 

Yet another testament of the ancient acceptance of the Mystíria is the ubiquity of Orphic eggs and other Orphic symbols. Such symbols are found everywhere in the ruins of ancient archaeological sites, and very prominently in some of the most important quarters of the Hellenic world. Most notably, Orphic symbols can be found at Dælphí (Delphi, Δελφοί), the very seat of the ancient religion, the holy sanctuary of the great oracle, the utterance of Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων) who is the voice of Zefs (Ζεύς) himself. 

Reconstructionists usually give precedence to the thæogonía (Theogony, Θεογονία) of Isíodos (Hesiod, Ἡσίοδος), pointing out that this text is older and therefore more traditional than Orphic texts, but this view is not held by all scholars and was not the view of all Greeks from antiquity. W.K.C. Guthrie remarks that it is likely that the Orphic theogonic mythology pre-dates that of Isíodos (Hesiod) and the writings of Ómiros (Homer, Ὅμηρος) [5]. Guthrie goes on to say that the content of the Orphic theogony can be found in Neoplatonic writings and even Plátohn (Plato, Πλάτων) himself, therefore Bury's criticism of Orphism (see above) as standing in opposition to philosophy (and scientific inquiry) is not correct.  

It is interesting to note that the Dærvǽni (Derveni, Δερβένι) papyrus, an Orphic text, is the oldest surviving manuscript from Greek antiquity.

3) Has the tradition of the Mysteries been so severed from antiquity that it cannot be legitimately be practiced in the contemporary world?

Some individuals take the position that the Mysteries were lost because of their secrecy in combination with Christian repression and various historic events, such as the forced closing of the sanctuary of Ælefsís (Eleusis, Ἐλευσίς) in 380 CE by Theodosius I [6]. This author suggests that precisely because of the ancient tradition of secrecy, the core teachings of the Mystíria were ideally positioned to survive.

Nonetheless, there are those who believe that the Mysteries should not be reconstructed. It seems that the argument follows from the reconstructionist position that the religion can only be reconstructed from legitimate information gleaned from antique literature, but this scenario is absurd if the genuine Mysteries are currently existing and have succession with antiquity. In other words, why would you need to reconstruct something which already exists? If for no other reason than the existence of an unbroken line of Platonic philosophers from antiquity, the Mystíria have in this way...at the very least....survived, for the Mysteries are embedded in the dialogues, as is well known, but beyond this, there seems to be more.

In all honesty, the presence of people teaching the Mysteries in Greece is known. The issue is more of continuity and authenticity. When confronted by those who claim continuity, skeptics are unable to believe that such continuity is possible. It is difficult to prove the unbroken continuance of something that has been deliberately concealed. From this author's experience, the desire to substantiate continuity is not a pressing consideration with those in Greece who practice the Mysteries, especially when those demanding such substantiation are belligerent and unfriendly to the tradition. Those who practice Mystíria seem to be only interested in individuals who want to practice the religion, people who are genuine, sincere, and appropriate, people who can discern by their own reasoning and sensitivity the immense beauty of these teachings and the truth which, when understood, is self-evident.

Nonetheless, it should be known that the initiations and content of the great sanctuaries of the Mysteries such as those at Ælefsís have been lost. We are making no claim to be privy to this knowledge. So, what remains? We have the echoes of the past..but very powerful echoes. Much can be found in the philosophers and much in the hearts of those who practice the remnants which have been passed down. Those who practice the way of virtue (
ἀρετή) are already practicing the Mysteries, for, as has been previously stated, the Mystíria are none other than the deepest meaning of our religion. And for those who claim that you cannot legitimately practice the Mysteries, you are wrong: the Mysteries are the birth rite of all sentient beings. They were devised by Zefs (Ζεὺς) himself as a solution to the sufferings of all creatures, to free us from the painful cycle of births. There are those who say that too much of the Mysteries have been lost to legitimately practice them, to which the reply is obvious: the Gods give us what we need, and of that which has been lost, should we need it, the Gods will restore it to us. Of this, there is no question.

4) Are the Mysteries steeped in magic and superstition?

It is believed by some that Mystíria cannot be safely and legitimately restored because the Mysteries are easy targets for distortion by charlatans and superficial individuals. In reality, once one has been educated in the fundamentals of the Mysteries, it is easy to identify charlatans. The impostors are the exact opposite of the Mysteries, and they are repelled by genuine practice, such as the acquisition of virtue. Such superficial individuals cling to practices which are foreign to the Mystíria, practices such as magic and divination.

The reader should not be misled by preconceptions that have been layered on the word mystery. The contemporary associations regarding this word do not reflect the original understanding of Mystíria. The Mysteries are not an eclectic hodgepodge of anything unusual and bizarre. The Mysteries have nothing to do with any common notions of magic and are devoid of superstition. If your interest is in subjects such as divination, astrology, necromancy, casting spells, witchery, or anything similar, you will find nothing of interest here. Contemporary Hellenic communities have endured impostors who claim to be adherents of the Mysteries, individuals who practice any variety of "occult sciences." Much of the skepticism regarding the modern practice of the Mystíria has these experiences as its source. Genuine Mystíria is protected from such pollution. Those reconstructionists who are simply trying to protect our religion from charlatans who give Ællinismόs a bad reputation should be commended, but wholesale rejection of the Mysteries is an over-reaction and the result of misunderstanding
.

  

For a list of terms concerning the Mysteries, please visit this page: 

Glossary of Hellenic Mystery Religion


For a list of terms specifically associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, please visit this page:

Glossary of the Eleusinian Mysteries


For a general description of the Ælefsínia Mystíria (Eleusinian Mysteries; Gr. Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια):


NOTES:

[1] Βιβλιοθήκη Ἀπολλοδώρου 3.5.1.

[2] See Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie,  p. 17, where the author calls Orpheus the "founder of Mystery-Religions." See also, Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις Παυσανίου 1: Central Greece, 9.30.4, which says the same thing. 

Pausanias makes a connection between the teachings of Orpheus and the Eleusinean Mysteries at 1.37.3-4.

Pausanias says that the hymns of Orpheus were sung by the Λυκομίδαι, who were the hereditary torch-bearers at Eleusis. Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις Παυσανίου 9.30.12.

Diódohros Sikælióhtis (Diodoros Siculus, Διόδωρος Σικελιώτης) states that Mousaios, the son of Orpheus, presided over the initiations of Eleusis. You can find this in Βιβλιοθήκη ἱστορική 4.25.1.  

Ῥῆσος Εὐριπίδου 941-948 states that Orpheus first instructed the Athenians in the rites of the Mysteries. 

[3] The Derveni Papyrus, Col. 7.

[4] See A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great by J.B. Bury, 1900, Chapter VII, Section 12, Religious Movements in the Sixth Century. It is worth reading the entire chapter.

[5] Orpheus and Greek Religion by W.K.C. Guthrie, 1906; found in the 1993 Princeton Univ. Press edition on pp. 71-72.

[6] See Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries by George E. Mylonas, 1961, pp. 8-9.


The story of the birth of the GodsOrphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.
How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.


The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The Pætilía (Petelia, Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase (Γῆς παῖς εἰμί καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος) are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara, κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς).


PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.


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