SECRECY IN ORPHISMÓS
HOME GLOSSARY RESOURCE ART LOGOS CONTACT
“...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.”
(Ὁμηρικὸς Ὕμνος 2 Εις Δίμητραν 475-479, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, 1914)
A Sacred Tradition of Secrecy
The ancient Greek writers were robustly poetic; they greatly enjoyed the use of metaphors, symbols, and allegories. Of course, to use language in this way is very beautiful and delightful, but when the subject of religion is involved...which is almost always the case in one way or another in these texts...the loveliness of the poetry is sometimes not the ultimate object, but rather to conceal something precious. This is true of the mythology in general, but of religious texts concerning the Mysteries, it is the rule. Orphismós (Orphism, Ορφισμός) and the traditions of the Mystíria (Mystery Religion, Μυστήρια) are well-known as being secret traditions and their texts are locked and require linguistic keys and instruction which are not so accessible to those unfamiliar with its imagery:
“And the true nature of the words cannot be said even though they are spoken. The poem is an alien one and riddling for human beings. But Orpheus intended by means of it to say not contentious riddles, but rather great things in riddles. Indeed, he is uttering a holy discourse, and from the first all the way to the last word, as he makes clear in the well-chosen verse too: for having bidden them to put doors to their ears he says that he is not legislating for the many (ed. but for) those who are pure in hearing ...” 
It is not simply that the poems and language are written in riddles, but the entire tradition, the actual content of the teaching itself is secret. The secrecy can be seen hinted at in conventions that are known from antiquity. For instance, there were the great mystery cults, from little groups of students surrounding a single teacher to the famous sanctuaries where the Mystíria were promulgated. The most famous of them all was at Ælefsís (Ἐλευσίς, modern Ελευσίνα), the Ælefsínia Mystíria (Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια); the central mythology involved with these mysteries was that of Dimítir (Δημήτηρ) and her search for Pærsæphóni (Περσεφόνη), but it was much more usual to see them referred to as the Mother and Daughter (Κόρη), avoiding saying the names. This practice is known as efphimía (εὐφημία), a type of religious silence. In the Orphic hymn to Ǽrôs (Ἔρως), Dimítir is not named except by inference; she is called “the Goddess who produces green fruits” (θεὰ βόσκει χλοόκαρπος), keeping her name hidden. Such a practice was true for all the Gods; it is thought that in very ancient times, they never spoke the names of the Gods...they were not even known...but later, names were given to us by Orphéfs (Ὀρφεύς) and Isíodos (Ἡσίοδος), but the pious avoided using those names; this is a type of secrecy.
The Ælefsínia Mystíria were conducted for at least two-thousand years but some scholars believe they existed for much longer than that, extending into great antiquity. It is interesting to note that although countless people participated in the Ælefsínia Mystíria for all those centuries, we know very little about their content; we know many names and details about buildings in the temple complex and the titles of various priests, etc., but the initiations, rituals and liturgies which were conducted behind closed doors are largely lost. Ælefsís, like all the great sanctuaries of the mystery cults, had a strict policy of secrecy, and the people who participated in them viewed the experience as so very precious that they honored that secrecy. And the secrecy was valued so highly that it was protected by Athenian law; Athens had political control over the sanctuary after of the war won by Ærækhthéfs (Erechtheus, Ἐρεχθεύς), the archaic king of Athens, over Ælefsís. It is hard to conceive that something existed for so many years leaving very little record of its content, but it is true. When the practice of the ancient religion was forbidden by the Roman emperor Thæodósios I (Θεοδόσιος Αʹ) in 379 CE, the rites began a decline which ended in 395 CE with the destruction of the sanctuary by Alaric the Visigoth and his Christians during the reign of the unlawful Iærophántis. Unless the initiation rites have been hidden in some unknown family or text (something not impossible), they have been entirely lost.
If the Mystíria are secret, how do we know anything of them at all?
“On the road stands a small temple called that of Cyamites (ed. “Bean”). I cannot state for certain whether he was the first to sow beans, or whether they gave this name to a hero because they may not attribute to Demeter the discovery of beans. Whoever has been initiated at Eleusis or has read what are called the Orphica knows what I mean.” 
It is no coincidence that the author of the above quotation, the geographer Pausanias, seems to keeping something to himself, since it is forbidden to reveal secrets of the Mysteries, yet on the other hand, the basic concepts of the Mystíria are known. Many things are hidden in the works of Plátôn (Πλάτων) and in those who followed him. We have the Orphic Hymns, fragments of Orphic theogonies, and other things. But why would we know anything at all? The reason is that there have been instances recorded in antiquity where secrets were revealed, and, undoubtedly, some which were not recorded in history. Once something is revealed, it is no longer secret. In a way, everything of the mysteries that was ever known was due to people revealing something which was forbidden. According to Pafsanías (Παυσανίας), Orphéfs himself could be seen as the first to break the secrecy:
“Some say that Orpheus came to his end by being struck by a thunderbolt, hurled at him by the God because he revealed sayings in the Mysteries to men who had not heard them before.” 
Aiskhýlos: It is reported that the great tragedian Aiskhýlos (Αἰσχύλος) revealed something of the Mysteries in his writing  for which he was placed on trial. Although he himself was from Ælefsís (Ἐλευσίς), Aiskhýlos claimed that he had never been initiated into the rites and that he could not have disclosed something which he actually did not know, and, therefore, he was at last acquitted. Nonetheless, something in his plays reflected secrets of the Mystíria (Μυστήρια) which were identified as such by those who accused him and Aiskhýlos either revealed these secrets deliberately or somehow discovered them without being initiated and included them in his plays being unaware that the ideas were secret. And it is said that his plays contain many hints and whispers of the Mysteries.
The Cretans: The historian Diódohros Sikælióhtis (Διόδωρος Σικελιώτης) says this regarding the famous mystery cults:
“The initiatory rite which is celebrated by the Athenians in Eleusis, the most famous, one may venture, of them all, and that of Samothrace, and the one practised in Thrace among the Cicones, whence Orpheus came who introduced them---these are all handed down in the form of a mystery (i.e. secretly), whereas at Cnosus in Crete it has been the custom from ancient times that these initiatory rites should be handed down to all openly, and what is handed down among other peoples as not to be divulged, this the Cretans conceal from no one who may wish to inform himself upon such matters.” 
This is significant also because the island of Kríti (Crete, Κρήτη) was strongly associated in ancient times with the Mystíria, the birth of Zefs (Ζεύς) and the Kourítæs (Κουρῆτες).
These various examples attempt to explain why Plátôn and others felt comfortable speaking of things which are obviously of the Mysteries, things which through the passage of time must have become known and, thereafter, could no longer be considered secret, albeit that such things are of their own nature self-secret. And it is said of Plátôn that he himself hid secrets in the dialogues which are concealed, but somehow “in plain sight.”
Christian writers: We know of some things from the Mysteries which were revealed by Christian writers who felt no need to keep them secret. How they obtained this knowledge is not certain. We know, for instance, of the Toys of Diónysos from the writings of Clement of Alexandria . This author gives an extraordinary explanation of how the Greeks hid things in the mythology:
“...I can adduce the Greeks as exceedingly addicted to the use of the method of concealment? Androcydes the Pythagorean says the far-famed so-called Ephesian letters were of the class of symbols. For he said that ἄσκιον(shadowless) meant darkness, for it has no shadow; and κατάσκιον (shadowy) light, since it casts with its rays the shadow; and λίξ if is the earth, according to an ancient appellation; and τετράς is the year, in reference to the seasons; and δαμναμενεύς is the sun, which overpowers (δαμάζων); and τὰ αἴσια is the true voice. And then the symbol intimates that divine things have been arranged in harmonious order--darkness to light, the sun to the year, and the earth to nature's processes of production of every sort. Also Dionysius Thrax, the grammarian, in his book, Respecting the Exposition of the Symbolical Signification in Circles, says expressly, 'Some signified actions not by words only, but also by symbols: by words, as is the case of what are called the Delphic maxims, "Nothing in excess," "Know thyself," and the like; and by symbols, as the wheel that is turned in the temples of the Gods, derived from the Egyptians, and the branches that are given to the worshippers. For the Thracian Orpheus says:
‘Whatever works of branches are a care to men on earth,
Not one has one fate in the mind, but all things
Revolve around; and it is not lawful to stand at one point,
But each one keeps an equal part of the race as they began.’
“The branches either stand as the symbol of the first food, or they are that the multitude may know that fruits spring and grow universally, remaining a very longtime; but that the duration of life allotted to themselves is brief. And it is on this account that they will have it that the branches are given; and perhaps also that they may know, that as these, on the other hand, are burned, so also they themselves speedily leave this life, and will become fuel for fire.
“Very useful, then, is the mode of symbolic interpretation for many purposes; and it is helpful to the right theology, and to piety, and to the display of intelligence, and the practice of brevity, and the exhibition of wisdom. For the use of symbolic speech is characteristic of the wise man, appositely remarks the grammarian Didymus, and the explanation of what is signified by it...”
And further in the same chapter:
“Does not Epigenes, in his book on the Poetry of Orpheus, in exhibiting the peculiarities found in Orpheus, say that by "the curved rods" (κεραίσι) is meant "ploughs;" and by the warp (στήμοσι), the furrows; and the woof (μίτος) is a figurative expression for the seed; and that the tears of Zeus signify a shower; and that the "parts" (μοῖραι) are, again, the phases of the moon, the thirtieth day, and the fifteenth, and the new moon, and that Orpheus accordingly calls them "white-robed," as being parts of the light? Again, that the Spring is called "flowery," from its nature; and Night "still," on account of rest; and the Moon "Gorgonian," on account of the face in it; and that the time in which it is necessary to sow is called Aphrodite by the "Theologian." In the same way, too, the Pythagoreans figuratively called the planets the "dogs of Persephone;" and to the sea they applied the metaphorical appellation of the "tears of Kronus." Myriads on myriads of enigmatical utterances by both poets and philosophers are to be found; and there are also whole books which present the mind of the writer veiled, as that of Heraclitus On Nature, who on this very account is called "Obscure." Similar to this book is the Theology of Pherecydes of Syrus; for Euphorion the poet, and the Causes of Callimachus, and the Alexandra of Lycophron, and the like, are proposed as an exercise in exposition to all the grammarians.” 
It can be clearly seen from these quotations of Clement that when educated Christian writers tried to humiliate our religion by interpreting our myths literally, they were very selective in revealing their own knowledge, for they actually knew that the mythology was written in a secret code.
For us in the 21st century, the most important consideration is that there are teachers who live the tradition and who know things or whispers of things from antiquity. We know enough to continue, and when it is needed, the Gods will reveal anything which has been lost. But what was taught in the various Mystery cults was, for the most part, secret; this is the tradition and we maintain that tradition, particularly as regards our rituals.
The Secrecy of the Rituals of Orphismós
In the second line of the hymn to Apóllôn (Ἀπόλλων) by Kallímakhos (Καλλίμαχος) of Alexandria, we find this phrase:
ἑκας, ἑκας ὅστις ἀλιτρός 
“Be far! Be far! you who are wicked!”
This hymn commemorates the great festival of Apóllôn Kárneios in the ancient Spartan colony of Kyríni (Κυρήνη); so here we see the idea of casting out those who are inappropriate being applied to a religious practice not usually thought of as Orphic, yet this very phrase is very much associated with Orphismós, being found as a prelude to Orphic texts. This is a recognition of the problem of pollution, or in ancient Greek, míasma (μίασμα). Pollution is connected with the profane (ἀνόσιος or βέβηλοι) and the profane is not to approach the sacred. This is true in all of Greek religion. And the secrecy is related to keeping the profane and the sacred separate.
There are variants on this idea:
θύρας δ’ ἐπίθεσθε βέβηλοι.
“Put bars to ears all ye profane together.” 
We can put these two phrases together and recite them just before ritual begins in Orphismós, immediately before we say the hymn to Æstía (Ἑστία), as a type of purification:
ἑκας, ἑκας ὅστις ἀλιτρός
θύρας δʹ ἐπίθεσθε βέβηλοι
“Be far! Be far! You who are wicked.
Close your doors, you who are profane.” 
This invocation is a type of seal (σφραγίς) found at the commencement of literature in the Orphic tradition, warning the reader to close the book if he or she is not suitable to read what is inside. We cast out those who are impious or those who are unprepared. This is a form of self-purification because in saying these words we attempt to let go of all our negativities before ritual begins, for in reality there is no-one inappropriate present as we would never perform ritual where we would admit someone who would pollute the tælætí (telete, the ritual or rite; τελετή). It is important to fully realize that despite the wording of this phrase, we do not put ourselves “above” others; all people have immortal souls and are at their natural state of progress, so no-one is “better” than anyone else.
Having purified, the tone changes entirely; we now welcome in the virtuous and pious (ὅσιος), those who are competent to perform ritual, for Orphéfs says that…
“…he is not legislating for the many (ed. but for) those who are pure in hearing ..." 
οἷς θέμις ἐστί
“I will speak to those to whom it is right and proper.” 
Therefore, we welcome the mystics, but also we welcome the best of our own nature, freed from our negativities, so we recite:
“Come! you who enjoy great privilege, you who are good, mystics much blessed!
Greetings! and welcome to holy ritual!”
And now the tælætí may commence.
The rituals we have inherited are privy to our community. We do not perform them in a public place and we do not publish their content. This behavior is not consistent with other modern people practicing Ællinismόs (Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion. It seems that these other practitioners are trying to make available easy means by which to learn the ways of the worship the Gods, for those who have converted to the religion, and are seeking a stepping-stone by which to begin; their intentions are benevolent and admirable. But we are different. It is not that we are unwilling to help people...quite the contrary...but the way we view ritual prevents us from sharing it publicly.
Ritual is communion with Gods. It is based on Ǽrôs (Ἔρως), a mighty force that flows back and forth between Gods and mortals. This is an intimate and beautiful labor, a true expression of love, which is not appropriate for all to see. Just as when we make love with our spouses, we do not perform the act in front of glass walls or photograph ourselves to make a YouTube for the Internet. No, we regard ritual as so very sacred that it must be kept from the curiosity of the profane. This is the privacy and secrecy of Orphic ritual.
Reconstructionists believe that it is legitimate to conduct public rituals. They say that their activities emulate the great festivals of antiquity…which were public. They say that these endeavors are beneficial for the participants and society at large. And they say that these rituals are not specifically “Orphic,” of the Mysteries. So should such activities be public or private? It would seem that they should be out of the eyes of non-believers. Why? In ancient times the vast majority of people believed in our religion. The state approved of and financially supported these festivals. This is not the case now. Although the nature of the festivities is not particularly secret, it is deeply sacred and all sacred activity should be separated from the profane. Nonetheless, what other people do is their business and they should not be condemned for their views.
In antiquity, the Orphic rites were only for the initiated
In ancient times, only those who received initiation (μύησις) from the mystagôgós (μυσταγωγός), a teacher in the Mysteries, were allowed into the rituals of Orphismós. All of those initiations have been lost. Anyone performing an initiation ceremony in modern times is doing a reconstruction, as far as this author is aware. The contemporary approach in the tradition given to this author by his teacher in Greece is that by accepting the rituals and making a commitment to lead a virtuous life we become suitable and are trusted to become a vessel of the lineage; this learning process and its accompanying responsibilities constitutes a very real initiation which is entirely ample and genuine; we initiate (μυέω) ourselves and become a mýstîs (μὐστης), an initiate of the Mysteries. This is what we now possess and we must honor it. The idea of reconstructing an initiation has been discussed and rejected primarily because of the fear that the ego  ...the ýdra (ὕδρα), the master of self-deception.... will utilize all his energy to ensnare those who receive such an initiation and will create a false and corrupting sense of superiority in the souls of those who receive it. So we take the courageous path of rejecting a false badge of honor in favor of genuine courage and character. What other communities decide to do is their business and we cannot judge them, but this is the direction from our teacher.
Innate Secrecy, the Self-Secret, and the Forbidden
Innate Secrecy: Some phenomenon of the Kózmos are secret by nature. The great term for this is árritos (ἄρρητος), which means "unutterable." Examples of this would be the unfathomable nature of Nyx (Νύξ), the “darkness” of Ækátî (Ἑκάτη), and the Árritos Arkhí (Ἄρρητος Ἀρχή), the Unutterable Beginning or primordial nature of the universe.
The self-secret: Things which are self-secret can sometimes be told because they cannot be understood unless the one who hears them has the necessary background in their meaning; the understanding of such teaching remains hidden while it is in plain sight. The mythology is an example of the self-secret. This refers not only to the specifically Orphic mythology but to mythology in general. It is thought that in great antiquity, Orphéfs (Ὀρφεύς) revealed the Kozmogonía (Κοσμογονία) and thereby gave us the names of the Gods. From this perspective, all the mythology can be seen as an expression of Orphismós (Ορφισμός) and is, generally, self-secret.
The forbidden: Finally, there are things which are forbidden to be told except to those in the Orphic circle. The Greek word for this is apórritos (ἀπόρρητος), which means "not to be divulged." There are teachings which are not permitted to be publicly shared, and this is for various reasons, the primary being that it is a míasma (μίασμα), a pollution, to reveal sacred things to those who might profane them. A very real example of what happens when the profane gain access to the sacred is the svástika (σβάστικα) which was a great symbol in our religion, but was contaminated by the Nazis and can no longer be used.
NOTES TO THE TEXT
 Dærvǽni (Derveni; Gr. Δερβένι) Papyrus Column 7, trans. André Laks and Glenn W. Most, 1997. We are using the 2001 reprint entitled Studies on the Derveni Papyrus, Oxford Univ. Press (Oxford, UK and New York, NY USA) where this quotation may be found on p. 12.
 ὠικοδόμηται δὲ κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ναὸς οὐ μέγας καλούμενος Κυαμίτου· σαφὲς δὲ οὐδὲν ἔχω λέγειν εἴτε πρῶτος κυάμους ἔσπειρεν οὗτος εἴτε τινὰ ἐπεφήμισαν (ἐπεφήμισαν Hemsterhuis] ἐπεφήμησαν [ἐπευφήμησαν y] ) ἥρωα, ὅτι τῶν κυάμων ἀνενεγκεῖν οὐκ ἔστι σφίσιν ἐς Δήμητρα τὴν εὕρεσιν. ὅστις δὲ ἤδη τελετὴν Ἐλευσῖνι εἶδεν ἢ τὰ καλούμενα Ὀρφικὰ (v. nr. 216 τοῖσι καλεομένοισι καὶ Βακχικοῖσι) ἐπελέξατο, οἶδεν ὃ λέγω. (Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις Παυσανίου 1.37.4), trans. W. H. S. Jones, 1918.
 Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις Παυσανίου 9.30.5, trans. W. H. S. Jones, 1935.
 Ηθικών Νικομαχείων Ἀριστοτέλους Book 3 line 1111a 8-11.
 Βιβλιοθήκη ἱστορικὴ Διοδώρου Σικελιώτου 5.77.3, trans. C. H. Oldfather, 1939.
 Λόγος Προτρεπτικὸς πρὸς Ἕλληνας Κλήμεντος του Ἀλεξανδρέως 2.176.
 Λόγος Στρώματα Κλήμεντος του Ἀλεξανδρέως 5.8, trans. by William Wilson, 1885.
 εις Ἀπόλλωνα Καλλιμάχου, line 2.
 Λόγος Προτρεπτικὸς πρὸς Ἕλληνας Κλήμεντος του Ἀλεξανδρέως, trans. by the author.
 This may be accompanied with the use of a seistron (σεῖστρον).
 The word ego, not in the Freudian sense, but, rather, in the common sense of exaggerated self-importance.
Please visit this page: Glossary of Secrecy in Ancient Greek Mystery Religion.
The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic 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.