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Chapter 11: The Mysteries

THE Greek had religious yearnings that were not satisfied either by the public or the private worships which have been described. (1) He had reminiscences of an earlier world in which the state was not yet organised, and in the life of the country he had lived in more immediate and continual dependence upon Mother Earth, and the powers which give increase to the flocks and to the fruit of the ground. Survivals of tree worship and of animal worship had lingered on as elements of village life, and could not be relinquished without leaving a void, which imagination laboured to supply. (2) As humanity became more conscious of itself, the great recurring fact of death awakened more and more anxiety and wonder about what lay beyond. And (3) the sense of sin or of an offended god, of which the germs are found in Hesiod, although in the Homeric poems there are only distant echoes of such thoughts, had suggested rites of purification and atonement which wrought upon men's hopes and fears.

The religious movements which brought temporary aid to these human needs may be considered in two stages: the first earlier and more primitive, the second more advanced. In both we cannot but trace the working of influences from abroad, although in every instance the Hellenic, and more particularly the Attic spirit, is accountable for what is essentially characteristic. Simple mysteries, such as belong to most religions, were not absent from the earliest known phase of Hellenic worship. The ceremony of the sacred marriage of Hera, performed with cognate rites at Samos, in Argolis, and in Boeotia, was essentially of this nature; and although the Samian Hera had Asiatic associations, and the Argolic Hera, in historic times at least, bore traces of Egyptian contact, the mysterious rite referred to had a deep root in Hellenic soil. The procession of the ἀρρηϕόροι carrying secret things in honour of Athena was analogous to the Thesmophoria, and belonged to the most primitive of Athenian worships. The worship of the mother of the gods, already known as Rhea in Homer, stood undoubtedly in some relation to the Phrygian worship of Cybele. When Sophocles describes her as seated on a chariot drawn by lions, he seems to recognise this connection. It will be remembered that the scene of the ‘Philoctetes’ where this occurs is laid in the island of Lemnos, and that this play was not produced until the last decade of the fifth century. But it is uncertain how far such recognition was really present at Thebes in the time of Pindar, or at Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian war, when the Great Mother is mentioned in the inscriptions as one of the gods whose treasures were drawn upon for supplies. Her temple (the μητρᾠον) was one of the earliest of those at Olympia. Whether there were mysteries connected with her in these earlier days or not, or whether, as in Homer, she was simply regarded as the parent of the Olympian gods, must be left uncertain.

All such worships in historic times are composite, and have been developed both from within and from without. The difficulties attending the attempts to analyse them have not yet been solved by archaeology. The Egyptologist is inclined to attribute all mystic worships to an Egyptian source. The student of Semitic origins is apt to look everywhere for traces of tribal religion. Both sometimes ignore the Aryan element to which language unmistakably points as prior to either of these. What came in through Phoenician commerce and colonisation, what through contact with Asiatic peoples, and what was due to the supposed suzerainty of Egypt over the shores of the Levant in the second millennium B.C., can hardly be distinguished with accuracy. The tendency of the Hellenes, after their settlement in lower Egypt in the seventh century, to refer many features of their own religion to an Egyptian source should make us hesitate in accepting without reserve the statements of Herodotus and other writers on this subject, whatever proofs may exist of subsequent contamination of Hellenic with Egyptian rites. This caution is especially necessary in considering the worship of Demeter. Even if Minos were, as is sometimes affirmed, not a Phoenician potentate, but an Egyptian viceroy, it does not follow that Hellenic village populations would be inclined to accept a religion imposed on them in consequence of the suzerainty of the Pharaohs.

In Homer the underground Zeus and Persephone are the god and goddess of the world below, while Demeter is simply the goddess of the grain, and in a late passage one of the many consorts of Zeus; while in a myth apparently of Cretan origin she is the wife of Iasion. This hardly justifies the supposition that the Eleusinian ritual and mythology had been developed to any extent in the heroic age

Besides the Eleusinian mysteries, Demeter and her daughter Persephone had another important festival, the Thesmophoria, which Athens shared with many other localities. It belonged essentially to the country, as appears from the fact that when the Chians passed through the Ephesian territory, the women were all in the fields, on account of this festival. Its universality, especially amongst Ionian peoples, is a strong evidence of antiquity. Herodotus even refers it to Pelasgian times. In Attica it never underwent the modifications to which the kindred festival at Eleusis was continually liable. It was first a festival of seed-time, being celebrated in the month Pyanepsion, our October, and it occupied four days. Only the married women of the state took part in it; and, as the name implies, it was observed with strictness according to ancestral precepts (θεσμοί) which the goddess herself had instituted. The reason of its continued importance was that not only the produce of the ground but the fruitfulness of married life depended on it. The elder women gave precepts to the younger, which they had themselves received from those before them; thus it was a sort of initiation into the duties of the wife and mother. On one day they went in procession to the point of Colias, where was a shrine of Aphrodite Urania: on the next they returned. The third day was a day of fasting in sympathy with the sorrowing Demeter, in honour of whom young pigs were thrown into a chasm and destroyed; this was a day of gloom, when no religious-minded person would show a cheerful countenance. The fourth day was a day of rejoicing, again in sympathy with the goddess, who had her child restored to her; certain objects not to be beheld by men were carried solemnly in closed caskets, and the day ended with a feast, the means for which were supplied by the richer matrons of the community. It appears that at some uncertain time a procession of the Athenian women to the temple at Eleusis formed part of the ceremony. M. Foucart, accepting the testimony of Herodotus that this ritual was brought by an Egyptian colony to Argolis, and assigning its arrival to the period of the eighteenth dynasty, further assumes that another colony brought it also to Eleusis at the same time, the sorrowing Demeter being thus supposed to have been already identified with Isis. But the sorrows of the earth goddess have given rise to similar observances in many centres not associated with Egypt, and the Gephyreans, who were said to have brought the rites of the Demeter of sorrows into Attica, were not Egyptians, but Phoenicians from Thebes. Without affirming or denying M. Foucart's hypothesis, I hold that it is at least conceivable that some Asiatic influence working upon an Aryan village rite may sufficiently account for all that is known of the religion of Demeter before the seventh century. Her worship seems to have sprung up independently of Eleusis. Demeter was by no means the only earth deity in Hellas. The worship of Erechtheus and of Aglauros on the Acropolis, of Athena Itonia in Boeotia, that of Asclepius, and other worships in which the serpent as the son of Earth appears, bear traces of primitive religious feeling. Poseidon as god of earthquake had similar associations, and even the Omphalos at Delphi seems to have been a primeval symbol of the earth. Nor is it clearly proved that such forms as Damia and Auxesia in Aegina and Epidaurus, or the nameless goddesses of Triteia in Achaia, were derivative, and not rather an indigenous growth arising out of feelings connected with the cultivation of the soil. Earth has, in fact, two aspects: she is the mother of all things, the nurse of all things, the producer of ‘our sustaining corn’; but she is also in close relation to the darkness beneath, into which all that live upon the ground must pass away. Vague emotions thus suggested lay at the root of religious forms that sprang up, no one can tell how. It is hardly conceivable that rites, which appear at so many different centres, and remain longest in places most remote from the outer world (see, for example, the Demeter Erinnys and the ‘black Demeter’ in Arcadia), should be entirely of foreign origin. Even the rape of Persephone was identified with many separate localities: for instance, with Lerna, where in the time of Pausanias there was a stone enclosure surrounding the place where the daughter of Demeter descended with Pluto to their under realm. This festival of the Thesmophoria was, in any case, the native Attic worship of Demeter, as distinguished from that in which Athens had joined hands with Eleusis. Aristophanes made fun of it in his ‘Thesmophoriazusae,’ where he takes occasion to satirise Euripides and the Athenian women.

The wisdom of early Athenian statesmanship was in nothing more remarkable than in its frank acceptance of the Eleusinian and Dionysiac rituals under the patronage of the state. The Eleusinian rite became interwoven with Athenian patriotism hardly less intimately than the worship of Athena herself, and this helped to perpetuate it in its main features. That of Dionysus came in time to be equally inseparable from the national spirit, to which it gave expression in its most universal pan-Hellenic aspect. Dionysiac rites in prehistoric times had already had a vigorous growth in Attica, especially on the east coast and on the northern border. In Dionysus there are traces of primeval tree worship, and also of the midnight or winter sun, distinct elements which must have blended in very early times. His winter festival at Delphi, with the midnight torch processions on Parnassus, belong to the latter phase of him, which reached Athens through Thebes by way of Eleutherae. Which of his many seats in Hellas was the earliest it would be hard to say, but his oracle in the Thracian highlands seems to have been of great antiquity. His ritual probably spread together with the planting of the vine, but not the vine alone was sacred to him. All fruit-trees, the mountain pine, and the lush growth of ivy were evidences of his universal power. He was associated with the mythical mountain Nysa, which was variously located in Euboea, in Naxos, and far away in Ethiopia. In Sicily also there was a Nysean plain. The Greek habit of identifying foreign deities with their own makes an already obscure subject still more confused. It may be incidentally illustrated by the curious interlacing of flute music with that of the lyre in the worship of Athena and Apollo, which gave rise to fables such as that about the flutes of Marsyas, found by a shepherd in the river Asopus near Sicyon, and dedicated by him to Apollo. Compare the Sicilian story of Arethusa and the Alpheus.

That in the Hellenic Dionysus worship, Phoenician, Thracian, and Phrygian elements have been engrafted on a primitive stock is extremely probable. This religion seems to have entered Attica through two principal channels—by way of Icaria, perhaps from Naxos, and through Eleutherae on the way from Thebes. Thespis, the inventor of tragedy, was a native of Icaria, while, on the other hand, the place of honour in the Dionysiac theatre was assigned to the priest of Dionysus of Eleutherae. The reception of the god by the mythical Icarius is the subject of a strange and elaborate legend, which was still represented on the ὑποσκήνιον of the Attic stage in the latest time. In accordance with the spirit of the festival, the cries of joy and grief alternately had less of native Greek moderation than in other rites. This worship embodied the ‘violent delights that have a violent end,’ the exuberance of nature, whose transience awakens profound sadness, the infinity of natural desire in which, as Plato felt, there is involved the spiritual longing after immortality. It should be remembered that the Greeks were descendants of a race who had first been huntsmen, then nomad herdsmen, leading a wandering life under the covert of the sky. Coming down to arable land and settling in villages, they had felt the periodic exhilaration and depression of agricultural life: the springing of the corn, seed-time and harvest, and the hardships of the winter season had impressed their minds. Their feelings had been deeply engaged in the precarious growth of their fruit-trees, above all of the vine. That in some ways, even before the Orphic symbolism entered in, the sufferings of the god were celebrated in the Bacchic dance, appears from what Herodotus tells of tragic choruses at Corinth in the earlier part of the sixth century. Hence, amid the wild licence and unbridled mirth of the spring festival, in which Sileni and Satyrs danced, there were notes of poignant melancholy, which had a sobering effect, and opened deeper fountains of emotion. It was out of these, as will be presently seen, that Attic tragedy sprang.

Another worship, partaking still more obviously of the underground or Chthonian strain, is that of the Erinnyes, who, whatever may have been the origin of the name, came to be in fact an impersonation of the ‘dead man's curse’ surviving him. These Dread Goddesses, whom the Athenian feared to name, had a habitation assigned them in a cave under the hill of Ares, and also in the precinct of Poseidon at Colonus. Their worshipper, fearing to offend them, addressed them as the ‘gentle ones,’ a euphemistic and propitiatory epithet, describing them as he would have them to be. This special attribute did not diminish the awe with which they were approached, but was an index of the aspect which they assumed for the Attic spirit. They were no longer merely blind and passionate avengers, but the executors of divine justice, the guardians of domestic sanctity, bringing to those who worshipped them in spirit and in truth a blessing and not a curse. We shall have to say more of them in speaking particularly of the Aeschylean religion, for it was Aeschylus who gave expression to the peculiar form of this belief and ritual which afterwards prevailed in Attica. The imagined struggle between powers of light and darkness, appearing in the conceptions of Typhoeus and of the Titans already known to Homer, is a common feature of early religious thought, and may be recognised on the Babylonian monuments as well as in the mythology of Egypt. But there are plausible grounds for recognising in some Greek forms of it an early influence from without. Typhon, in Homer, has his lair amongst the Arimi in Cilicia, and in Aeschylus he is said to have dwelt formerly in Cilician caves.

We have now to consider a most important movement which had an extraordinary influence on all the after development, but whose early history, like that of all beginnings, is extremely obscure. The existence of Orphism throughout the fifth century is an indisputable fact, but of its precise scope and nature during that period little trustworthy evidence remains. A religion which from the first was imparted to a clique of votaries in a mystery, which in the course of centuries attained extensive influence, and was continually modified through the absorption of fresh elements, affords a subject of enquiry which is almost impossible to disentangle. Quotations from the Orphic poems or from ‘Orpheus’ abound in writers of the early Christian centuries, both sacred and profane. And that such poems existed in much earlier times is clear; but it is known that they were continually recast, augmented or interpolated, as the doctrines of the sect were altered or improved; and the only evidence that can be really trusted is that which was either derived from Aristotle, Plato, and writers preceding them, or which is confirmed by direct allusions in such writers. We may now add the golden plates or tablets inscribed with a sort of ritual for the dead which have been lately found in Greek tombs anterior to the Christian era. Lobeck did an immense service by collecting the fragments, whether genuine or spurious, and discussing them; and the labours of Hermann, and more recently of Lenormant, of Abel, of Ermin Rohde, of Foucart, and E. Maass, have supplied us with grounds on which we can proceed with some confidence, though much remains vague and indeterminate. Partly with their help I will try to give such an account of the matter as may be in keeping with the general tenor of this volume.

Before the middle of the sixth century individuals at Athens and elsewhere had begun to form new conceptions of the divine nature and of the religious life. They dimly but strongly felt the contradictions and confusions of the traditional mythology, and strove to formulate the notion of a universal Deity pervading all things and essentially One. At the same time they were painfully conscious of the limitations of mortality. In giving form to their conception, and still more in recommending it to others, it did not occur to them, and it would have been futile if it had, to give their thoughts an abstract and clearly defined or an openly controversial expression. For abstractions were a language not yet understood, and negation would also have been premature. In promulgating a new form of religion, a new mythology and a new ritual having some felt relation to the old were indispensable. But in this case, unlike that of more primitive religion, the mythology was not subsequent to the ritual, but suggested it, and was itself subject to conditions of precedent thought. These men were impelled to impart to others their own aspirations and emotional impulses, but to teach novelties as novelties, and to do so openly, was impossible in that state of the world. They found a basis for their doctrine in the Thracian worship of Dionysus, which with important changes had long been naturalised in Hellas. Thrace was the cradle not only of Dionysiac worship but of the religion of the Muse, and under the traditional names of Orpheus the Thracian singer, and his son Musaeus, as well as of Olen, Thamyras, and other legendary figures, they indited long poems in hexameter verse embodying their mystic theosophy. The Hesiodic poems supplied them with some hints, for, as we have seen, there are already in Hesiod germs of an almost oriental mysticism, and there is a strong probability, which modern research has made more substantial, that through the recent settlement of Greeks in Egypt in the seventh century, this rising sect derived important suggestions from Egyptian theology. The result was a creation of great originality and fulness of symbolic meaning. The exact steps of the Theogony in its early form are uncertain. The primeval egg, the birth of Phanes, his disappearance and rebirth, cannot be traced to the fifth century, though it is possible that they may have already been present then. Bolide's reason to the contrary, however, has considerable force, viz. that the similarity between the swallowing of Phanes and the disappearance of Zagreus (as presently described) looks like an after development or reduplication. But the central feature of the mythology is tolerably clear. The son of Zeus and Persephone (the goddess of the underworld) is Zagreus, an old epithet of Hades, whom the Orphic pantheism identifies with Dionysus, and also in a manner with Zeus. The holy child, like the infant Zeus in Crete, is entrusted to the Titans, powers of evil, who cajole his infancy with toys, and while he looks into a mirror which, they have given him, surprise him, and attempt to seize him. He assumes various forms in endeavouring to escape from them, and last assumes the shape of a bull; in that disguise he is torn to pieces by them. They devour the members all but the heart, which Persephone rescues, and it is swallowed by Zeus, who thus becomes Zeus and Dionysus in one, the supreme being, the beginning, middle, and end of everything. Zeus smites the Titans with his thunderbolts, and reduces them to ashes, which are collected and become the material from which, mankind are formed. Man thus partakes of a nature both evil and good, infected with the Titanic element, but having a portion of the divine. To subdue the Titanic to the divine, and to reunite what has been violently sundered, is therefore the highest task of humanity. Many writers have dwelt upon the obvious parallel between the discerption of Zagreus and what follows it, and the Egyptian legend of Osiris. If the primeval egg and the birth of Phanes were proved ancient, the analogy would be strengthened; but this would not disprove the supposition that the pulling to pieces of the bull and devouring the portions is founded on the ancient Thracian ritual, of which there are many other reminiscences, a ritual having many analogies in savage rites. The doctrine lends support, however, to the suggestion of Herodotus that Osiris and Dionysus are the same. To the Orphic mystic the whole legend symbolised the high doctrine that birth is an evil, and that the manifold is a hindrance to the good. And with this accords their ethical doctrine, that the soul of man is imprisoned in the body as a punishment for previous sin. This involves the teaching of metempsychosis and continuance after death. Whether this last doctrine had an independent existence in Thrace, it is difficult to say. That for the Orphic theosophist it was confirmed by stories of Zamolxis and other mysterious beings in the northern region (such as Aristeas of Proconnesus), as well as by the return of Orpheus from Hades, is probable enough.

Another question arises which is not yet solved: the relation of Orphism to Pythagoreanism. They have many points of resemblance, which cannot be accidental. There are three ways of explaining these: either (1) both systems had an Egyptian (or other earlier) source, or (2) Pythagoras borrowed from the Orphics, or (3) the Orphics from Pythagoras. The first supposition is countenanced by many ancient writers who support the Egyptian origin, and has perhaps been too rashly thrown aside by modern critics. Rohde declares for the second view, that Pythagoras borrowed certain details of his scheme from the Orphic teachers. But it seems more consonant with analogy to suppose that the authors of a vague theosophy, groping their way by feeling more than by thought, and desiderating some intellectual substratum, should lean on a half-understood philosophy, than that a great original philosopher should have condescended to follow such a doubtful lead. But here again we are met by the chronological difficulty. Onomacritus, the only person who can be credited with the authorship of Orphic writings in early times, flourished about the middle of the sixth century, and Pythagoras is said to have left Samos in 532. We are thus thrown back upon the first hypothesis, viz.: that what is common to both schemes of doctrine was due to some influence to which both were subject; and this is supported by the theory of Diels, that mystic doctrines of similar complexion arose simultaneously at various The doctrine of transmigration, however, is not Egyptian at all, and is common to many forms of religious speculation. It was adopted by Brahmanism and Buddhism, no less than by Pythagoras. Thus we may be justified in supposing that besides Egyptian influence, or even apart from it, some phase of pantheistic or at least of ascetic and pessimistic teaching, of which no clear trace remains, existed antecedently both to Pythagoras and Onomacritus. But to return. The hope of the mystic who carried the reed in the train of the Orphic priest was, that by performing the ritual prescribed, not only outwardly, but in spirit and in truth, he might ultimately escape from the circle of successive births and deaths, and fly away into some unknown heaven, perhaps becoming an inhabitant of one of the stars. To this end, not only were religious forms prescribed, but a mode of life, unlike that of the world, was instituted.

Greek asceticism never reached the extravagance of the Indian self-tormentor. It chiefly consisted in abstinence from fleshly indulgence and especially from the use of animal food. This latter practice was denounced by the Orphic teacher as a sort of cannibalism. The doctrine of transmigration implies that all living beings are akin, so that to eat animal food is to devour one's relations. Abstinence was also prescribed from eggs, and (emphatically) from the bean. The former prohibition was in later times attributed to the legend of the birth of Phanes, but may have simply expressed the reverence of the sect for the beginnings of life. The latter was also a Pythagorean observance and coincided with some Egyptian rites. It has been accounted for by the fact that beans were amongst the usual offerings to the dead. The Orphic, in this also agreeing with the Egyptian, would not be buried in wool. Even his dead body must not benefit at the expense of an animal.

The hope of a future state of ultimate blessedness was balanced by fears of judgment to come. The uninitiated, and the adherent of Orphism who had broken the rule, were threatened with torments or with degradation in a future state, from which they could only be released through repentance and suffering. Eternal punishment in Tartarus, such as was dimly foreshadowed even in Homer, and is distinctly provided by Plato for incurable offenders, does not seem to have been preached by these mild mystics.

Some general remarks may be more profitable than any further discussion of uncertain details.

1. Any one of the resemblances between Orphism and the religion of Egypt taken singly may be accidental, and it is uncertain at what period each was introduced. But taken all together they do afford prima facie evidence of some real connection. To recapitulate them briefly there is: (1) the primeval egg; (2) the tearing to pieces of Zagreus by the Titans, the saving of the heart, and collection of the remains, compared with the destruction of Osiris by Set, the saving of the head, and the finding of the body by Isis; (3) the prohibition of the use of wool in burial; (4) the belief in a future judgment. Compare the ‘Book of the Dead,’ of which we are also reminded by the inscriptions on gold plates above referred to, in which the hope of the dead person relies upon his strict observance of the Orphic rule. The resemblance is after all superficial, for the chief doctrine of the Orphics, the immortality of the soul, combined with metempsychosis, and with the hope of ultimate deliverance from the body, is essentially different from the Egyptian belief in the Ka or double of the dead man, which enjoys an intermittent life so long as the body is preserved, and the ritual of the dead is maintained.

A deeper affinity is implied in what is called the Theocrasy or blending together of distinct divinities; as when Zeus becomes Dionysus or Dionysus Zeus. But this again may be accounted for by the pantheistic spirit, which is inherent in either religion.

2. The coincidences between Orphism and Pythagoreanism are more striking, extending as they do, not only to detailed points of doctrine, but to minute requirements of ritual. The data which are available seem to point, as said above, to some common antecedent influence out of which both came. Orphism may then be related to Pythagoreanism, much as the Asclepian school of Epidaurus was to that of Cos. The one was far more influential for a time, but lost itself in vague aspirations in which true feeling was alloyed with credulity; the other contained within it a germ of philosophic truth, which is of endless value, and is in fact still operative amongst mankind.

3. The indirect influence of Orphism, even in the fifth century, must have been considerable. The curiosity of enlightened Greeks would be a sufficient motive for initiation, and it is obvious, for example, that Herodotus, though not a consistent adherent, had been initiated. It is, therefore, not surprising to find pantheistic tendencies and innovations in mythology existing side by side with orthodox polytheism in the plays of Aeschylus and even of Sophocles, as well as manifestly in Euripides. From the way in which Plato speaks of Eumolpus, side by side with Orpheus and Musaeus, it is evident that there had been a secret alliance as well as no doubt occasional rivalry between the Eleusinian and the Orphic priesthood. But this fusion must have been comparatively recent, else why should Aeschylus, who is learned in all the wisdom of Eleusis, betray so little consciousness of future blessedness for the righteous dead? Probably also they had something in common with the priests of Cybele, the Great Mother, of whom Plato speaks in similar terms. It was in the nature of these orgiastic worships to become interlaced with one another. The reader of the ‘Bacchanals’ of Euripides might suppose that Dionysus had as much to do with Phrygia as with Thrace or Naxos.

Pausanias, the antiquarian writer in the times of the early Roman empire, surprises us with the observation that the Orphic poetry appeared to him as great as, or greater than, the poems of Homer. We should not attach too much weight to such a criticism, from one to whom a vein of religiosity probably appealed more powerfully than the perfection of art. But still we are led to think that he must have had access to these works in an earlier and less interpolated form than that from which most of the fragments which have descended to us were taken. It may be worth while to quote here some of those passages which have the strongest claim to be considered authentic.

‘One power, one Deity, was born, great gleaming Heaven; all things were framed as one, wherein all these are rolled, fire, water, earth.

‘Zeus was the first, Zeus of the bright thunderbolt shall be the last of things; Zeus is the head; Zeus fills the midst; all things are framed of Zeus. Zeus is the foundation both of earth and starry heaven; Zeus is male, Zeus the divine feminine; Zeus the breath of all things; Zeus the rushing of irresistible fire; Zeus the great fountain of the deep; Zeus the sun and moon; Zeus is the king; Zeus the leader of all; for he of the bright thunderbolt, after hiding all within him, brought them forth again from his sacred bosom to the gladsome day, doing ever wondrously. None saw the firstborn except holy night alone; the other powers admired as they beheld an unlooked for light in the sky; such radiance shone from the immortal form of Phanes.’

The following is probably a somewhat later development of the description of Zeus just quoted:—‘For all these things lie within the mighty frame of Zeus. His head and fair countenance is to be beheld in the gleaming sky, adorned with the golden rays of glittering stars, as with beautiful hair; and on either hand are two golden horns as of a bull, the east and the west, paths of the heavenly gods; and his eyes are the sun and shining moon; his royal ear that tells him all things truly is the imperishable ether, wherethrough he hears and hath intelligence of all things. Nor is there any voice or cry or noise or rumour, which escapes the ear of all-prevailing Zeus, the son of Kronos. Thus immortal is his head and faculty of thought, and his body, all radiant, immeasurable, impenetrable, unshakeable, of mighty limbs and all-subduing, is thus framed. The shoulders and the chest and broad back of the god is the wide circumambient air, and he hath wings, moreover, whereon he is wafted every way. And his holy abdomen is the earth, mother of all things, and the lofty mountain tops; and the girdle of his middle is the swelling and sounding sea. And the ground he treads are the inward parts of earth firmly rooted beneath in gloomy Tartarus. Hiding all these things within him, he brings them forth again into the gladsome light, doing ever wondrously.’

One more short piece, though not from the poem itself, is worth quoting because it refers to the Orphic tradition at an earlier stage. It is the place in Apollonius Rhodius' ‘Argonautica,’ where he describes the singing of Orpheus, and has been imitated by Virgil in a well-known passage. ‘And Orpheus, lifting with the left hand his lyre, essayed to sing.—He sang how earth and sky and sea beforetime fitted in one perfect frame were sundered by dread strife, and stood apart. And how the stars and moon and pathways of the sun hold evermore their limit in the ether without fail; and how the mountains rose, and how the roaring rivers came into being with their attendant nymphs, and all the creatures were born. And he sang how first of all Ophion, and the ocean nymph Eurynome, held the sway over snowy Olympus. And how, by force and violence, Ophion yielded his honours to Kronos, and Eurynome to Rhea. And they fell into the ocean waves, and Kronos and Rhea for a while ruled over the Titanic brood of happy gods, whilst Zeus was yet a child and still with infant thoughts was dwelling in the covert of the Diktaean cave, and the earthborn Cyclopes had not yet provided him with the might of thunder, lightning, and the thunderbolt. For these things give to Zeus his renown.—He spake, and hushed his lyre, together with his immortal voice.’

4. The Orphic ritual may be credited with two great contributions to religion—the belief in immortality, and the idea of personal holiness. Each contribution was made more valuable by the fact that both were combined, so that without holiness blessedness could not be secured hereafter. A third contribution had in it the seeds at once of good and evil. The idea of redemption or of atonement entered largely into this religion. So long as this was received in a spiritual sense, and the great Orphic saying ‘Many bear the reed but few are pure’ was understood in its full significance, it could not but have a profoundly salutary effect. But when the ritual degenerated into formalism, and it was imagined that by rites and ceremonies duly performed not only might a man's self be acquitted for past sins but he might redeem the souls of his ancestors from future punishment, what should have been a law of life became a law of death. It is this degenerate Orphism that is denounced and satirised by Plato, whose disgust at the hypocrisy of the sectaries whom he had known, and who made a gain of godliness, led him into a possibly exaggerated abhorrence of the whole doctrine of forgiveness and absolution. He, too, holds forth the hope of release for the wrongdoer, but it is through the conversion of the whole soul from error to truth, by living in the light of truth, and holding firmly to the right way. Many a weak brother whom Orphism had comforted and really edified was beyond the reach of Plato's teaching, and could not have benefited by meat that was too strong for him. More will have to be said of this when we come to Plato.

5. It is a paradoxical circumstance, and one that illustrates the contrariety that may exist between the germ and the completed form of a spiritual fact, that the Orphic sect, the central point of whose mythology had been suggested by a savage ritual of bloody sacrifice, not only themselves abstained from animal food, and therefore cannot have tasted for instance of the hecatomb to Athena, but lived amongst a nation of sacrificers without partaking in the act. This consideration also brings into a clear light the tolerance of polytheism when not directly challenged or provoked. The Orphic teaching may have led to acts which were severely punished for impiety, but the sect does not seem to have been the object of anything like an organised persecution.

To return from these generalities to the special worship of Demeter at Athens, which in historic times had two chief forms—the Thesmophoria above described, and the Eleusinia. The former, as we have seen, was common to the Attic population with other members of the Ionian race, and apparently also to the early Achaeans. So much at least may be gathered from what Herodotus tells, that this rite at the conquest of the Peloponnesus retired from Argolis into Arcadia, where it remained in green observance. But there is a question behind. There is no doubt that some elements derived from Egypt were infused at an uncertain period into the Eleusinian ritual. The historian believed that the earlier and immemorial rite was brought by the daughters of Danaus into Argolis, and that they had also visited Lindus in Rhodes. The students of Greek history have long discarded that belief; but it has recently been revived by Foucart, who suggests that as the victories of Thothmes III extended to the shores of the Aegean, and as Achaeans seem to be mentioned amongst the enemies of Egypt during the twentieth dynasty, there is every probability that the whole religion of Demeter, together with the cultivation of wheat and barley, may have been introduced into Greece by way of Egypt. The proof, however, seems incomplete, and if Hellas was early occupied by an Aryan stock who brought with them the words for ploughing, sowing, and reaping, it is probable that, notwithstanding the poverty of the soil, agricultural habits may have been accompanied with a native village festival. Still it deserves to be remarked that if the hypothesis of Foucart should be substantiated, it would appear all the more natural that the worship of Demeter should in later times have assimilated the exotic features which I have just referred to.

When the Homeric ‘Hymn to Demeter’ was composed, a time that can hardly be placed later than the beginning of the sixth century, Eleusis was already the home of an elaborate myth which gave the reason of a ritual already considerably developed. This seems to have prevailed not at Eleusis only, but also at Paros, no doubt in the temple which Miltiades violated to his cost. And it included various features which were permanently imbedded in the Eleusinian celebration. These are:

1. The interval of three months between the lesser and the greater Eleusinia (the latter at Eleusis, the former at the village of Agrae near Athens)—i.e. from the disappearance of the seed in the ground to the springing of the corn. ‘Persephone remains with her dark lord for one third of the year.’

2. The nine days of preparation for the greater Eleusinia in spring—‘Demeter wandered for nine days with torches in her hands.’

3. The association of Hecate and of Rhea the mother of the gods with this worship. Hecate is a light-bearing deity who dwells in a cave.

4. The position of the temple below the citadel of Eleusis on the rising ground above the spring of Callichoron. This locality, as well as the rock of sorrow on which the image of the Mater Dolorosa sat, has been verified by recent excavations.

5. The fertility of the sacred Rharian plain—from which barley was taken for the sacrifices.

6. The joyousness of the procession along the Sacred Way, perhaps also some sportive features in the celebration, contrasting with the solemn silence of the main ceremony. ‘Iambe with her pleasantry succeeded in diverting the mind of Demeter from her sorrow.’

7. Certain abstinences forming part of the preparation—as from wine and from pomegranates, or, at least, pomegranate seed. Also downright fasting for some time. ‘Demeter remained without tasting food or drink.’

8. The drinking of the potion made of barley water flavoured with an aromatic herb.

9. Demeter has the power of conferring immortality, and this is associated with the sacred fire of the Hearth.

10. The happiness of the mystae in the world below. They are not yet removed to Islands of the Blest.

11. A sort of sham fight which followed all the other ceremonies on the concluding day, which was a day of festival.

No trace appears in the hymn of several things which are described by later writers as belonging to the Eleusinia, some of which have been referred with probability to the fifth century. The sacred marriage of Zeus and Demeter, and the birth of the child, whether Triptolemus, Eubulus, or Iacchus, are the most important of these. The Egyptologists who suppose the whole rite to have been introduced from Egypt at a very early date attribute this silence to some mystic reserve; but the supposition is hazardous, and no confirmation of it has yet been cited from any source that is shown to be earlier than the hymn. If we compare the manner in which the Panathenaic festival was developed out of a crude sacrificial rite, another hypothesis seems at least tenable, namely, that the Eleusinian ceremony, under the guidance of the Eumolpidae, may have assimilated foreign elements by gradual stages, of which the adoption of the Gephyreans with their Cadmeian sanctities may have been the earliest.

M. Foucart, in supporting the Egyptian origin, makes much of the name Eumolpus and the requirement of great vocal power in the hierophant and intelligible utterance in the initiate. This he accounts for after the manner of Egypt, by supposing that the mystic formula to be dictated and repeated was of the nature of a charm, which lost its effect if any tone or modulation were imperfect. He rejects the usual tradition that by intelligible utterance was meant that of a true Hellene. This hypothesis he states with becoming modesty, but the other views which he puts forth on this subject are hardly more substantial. It is true that amongst the sanctities of Eleusis, to which the hymn makes no allusion, there are a god and goddess, simply mentioned as such, while the god is sometimes identified with Pluto. This fact has, indeed, a primitive air, but not more of an Egyptian look than the worship of Zeus and Dione at Dodona, That the Thesmophoria was the more ancient rite seems clear. The rite of Eleusis may not have been originally distinct from it, but gradually modified through special influences. Two statements of Herodotus, however, must be considered before we finally lay aside the theory in question: (1) that the Thesmophoria were brought by the daughters of Danaus into Argolis, and carried by them, under the stress of invasion, into Arcadia; and (2) that the Eleusinion at Miletus was founded by the Ionians, who brought the rite from Athens in the time of Codrus. That the simpler rite of the Thesmophoria has some primeval connection with Egypt, I would neither affirm nor deny; in any case it does not pass beyond the limits of an ordinary village festival, securing by traditional custom the blessing of fruitfulness and the ordering of married life. What rite may have been brought over from Eleusis to Asia, in the time of Codrus, it would be difficult to say, but the continuous intercourse between Athens and Miletus in historical times would be a sufficient reason for assimilating the ritual of Demeter in the neighbourhood of Miletus to that of Eleusis, and assigning to the worship so developed a date coeval with the foundation of the city.

It is clear at any rate that the Eleusinia already differed from the Thesmophoria in promising to the initiated a peculiar blessedness in the world of the dead, and in attributing to the goddess the power of conferring immortality on her nursling and favourite. The latter attribute, however, does not go beyond the privilege assigned to several of the gods in Homer, and it is remarkable that in the promise of blessedness there is no allusion to the Islands of the Blest, but only to some special immunity, such perhaps as Teiresias already enjoys in the eleventh Odyssey, while dwelling in the darkness underground (ὑπό ζόϕῳ εὐρώεντι, cp. Od. xi. 155 ὑπὸ ζόϕον ἠερόεντα) The grave question whether these features were added to the original rite through a process of internal development, or, if they came from without, whether they were brought directly from Egypt, or through a Phoenician channel, must unfortunately be left undecided. But it is important to note that the probable date of the hymn excludes the supposition that such development was due in the first instance to the influence of Orphism. The Eleusinian priesthood may claim the right of precedence as to the honour of holding forth the hope to the initiated, that it faithful they will be happy after death; but it may be cited as making against the hypothesis that they derived this doctrine immediately from Egypt, that the power of Demeter to confer immortality on her favourite is directly associated with the sacred fire of the hearth, which, as we saw at first, is a conception of Aryan origin.

We may now pass to the consideration of the ritual as it existed in historic times. The details of the nine days' preparation—the rush to the salt water, the sacrifice of young swine, the tumult at the bridge, the purification for uncleanness and bloodguiltiness, and so forth, have been fully described by Lenormant and Foucart. The following are the essential points:

1. Although there could be no strict test of probation so far as pure Hellenes were concerned, when once the celebrants were multiplied by the admission of foreigners, yet the warning of the Archon Basileus and of the Eumolpidae, that none should take part who had not ‘the hands and the heart pure,’ implied something more than a ceremonial test, which those elect spirits that were ‘finely touched unto fine issues’ could not fail to apply to themselves. Even in Aristophanes, the initiated declare ‘we only have bright sun and cheerful light who have been initiated and lived piously in regard to strangers and to private citizens.’

2. Another incident of great importance and solemnity was the proclamation of the sacred truce—which was religiously observed until the intense embitterment of relations which came after the disaster at Syracuse, and the establishment of a Spartan garrison at Deceleia.

3. The carrying of the image of young Iacchus from Athens to Eleusis—occupying the whole of a day: ‘the procession which set out at sunrise did not arrive at Eleusis till a late hour of the night, by the light of the thousands of torches carried by the mystae.’

4. The order of the ceremonies at Eleusis itself. We may note in passing, as indicating the high development of the later rite, that there were no less than twenty distinct titles for the various ministers, and it was a fact which gave added solemnity that the hierophant and high priestess when once appointed were never known again by their birthnames.

The day preceding the mystic celebration was occupied with many sacrifices. The greatest of them is described in an inscription said to be earlier than the age of Pericles, i.e. early in the fifth century. ‘A goat to Earth the nourisher of Youth, to Hermes of the public place, and to the Graces; a goat to Artemis; a goat to Triptolemus and Telesidromus’ (Telesidromus is not mentioned in the ‘Hymn to Demeter’); ‘a bull, a ram, and a boar’ (cf. the Roman Suovetaurilia) ‘to Iacchus and the Great Goddesses.’

That night the mystae went to visit the places which bore witness to Demeter's grief, carrying torches as she had done—the well by which she was found, and the rock of mourning on which she had sat awaiting her reception by Metaneira. Then, if not before, they fasted, and on returning from the wandering all drank together of the temperate potion, whereof the goddess had tasted when Metaneira had prepared it. This was part of the ‘communication of the sacred things’ preceding initiation, which is implied in the mystic formula: ‘I have fasted: I have drunk of the potion: I have taken out of the casket, and after having tasted I have deposited in the basket: I have taken out of the basket again, and have put back into the casket.’ Before all this the mystagogus put the question to each initiated person, whether he or she had tasted any of the forbidden aliments—as fish, fowl, or pomegranate seed.

Once more the herald proclaimed silence, and warned off the profane; and a new phase of the ceremonial began. It was continued through two nights of vigil. Those permitted to take part in it were crowned with myrtle and carried a short staff with mystic emblems on it. They assembled at the gates of the temple some time before the ceremonies began, not now with torches, but in darkness, with the mystagogues no doubt keeping order amongst the novices. Presently a light was seen to gleam through the aperture in the roof reflected on high. A torchbearer threw the gates open, and the farther end of the hall was seen under a strong illumination which revealed the forms of the statues of mystae of former days. In the middle was the seated image of Demeter with new and gorgeous apparel, and probably also figures of the other divinities of the place. On either side stood the hierophant and the torchbearer. Then, while the audience remained in breathless silence, moving and breathing pictures were presented—a series of tableaux representing the carrying down of Persephone, the sorrow of Demeter, the return of Persephone with her child in her arms, and lastly the triumph of Triptolemus, Demeter's foster son, in his chariot drawn by serpents, in which he goes forth to spread the blessings of husbandry amongst mankind. These successive scenes were probably accompanied with sacred words delivered by the hierophant in exalted tones adapted to produce a profound impression on minds so carefully prepared.

In the legend as known in the fourth century Iacchus, the child of Persephone, or according to another view of Zeus and Demeter, was identified with Zagreus, the suffering Dionysus of the Orphic theogony. M. Foucart supposes this to have been the case as early as the sixth century, but perhaps Lenormant is right in thinking that the change coincided with the building of the larger temple begun in the time of Pericles Iacchus in Herodotus means only ‘the song of the mystae.’ Iacchus in Aristophanes is the god whom they invoke; but there is no proof that he is there regarded as Dionysus, though this identification seems to be already implied in a choral ode of the ‘Antigone.’

The name Zagreus occurs in a fragment of Aeschylus, apparently as an appellation of the god of the underworld, but not as in any way associated with the Eleusinia. We can only say that probably before the time of Plato both Dionysiac and Orphic elements had been engrafted on the Eleusinia, and in the mysteries of the second night of vigil, in the tableaux reserved for the select number of those who had been initiated at least a year before, and who were only admitted on presenting tokens,1 scenes were enacted recalling the mystic marriage of Zeus and Demeter, the birth of Zagreus, his dismemberment by the Titans, and the pursuit of the Titans by Zeus—points of Orphic doctrine closely resembling the Egyptian legend of Osiris. If these incidents recall Egyptian theology, so also does the culminating act of these advanced mysteries. The horror of that scene of apparent annihilation is said by a somewhat late authority to have been followed by the blissful apparition of a perfect ear of corn, which was contemplated with adoration amidst absolute silence—the symbol at once of life and death and of life after death. As I have said, this second night is not proved to have existed before the fourth century. With the exception of this solemn hour of silence which concluded all, not only were the eyes of the mute throng on either night engaged with visions, but their sense of hearing, too, was rilled with impressive sounds. The hierophant who managed the display accompanied each successive scene (in which there were both live impersonations and plastic moving figures) with solemn words, spoken or chanted in awe-inspiring tones. And at the critical moment of the descent of Persephone, he struck a bronze bowl, a sort of bell or gong which resounded through the hall. What the words then uttered were, we never shall know, but it is unlikely that they contained any elaborate statement of doctrine. The effect was not that of listening to a sermon, but much more that of assisting at the Easter ceremonies at Rome, when the Pope still gave his blessing Urbi et Orbi. This is said to have been Aristotle's view. ‘The initiated learned nothing precisely, but received impressions and were put into a certain frame of mind, for which they had been prepared.’

M. Foucart in a memorable brochure, published at Paris in 1895, has argued with great probability in favour of the following hypothesis:—That the words heard by the mystae, which might not be repeated to profane ears, were simply directions for the passage of the soul from this life to happiness in the next, analogous to the elaborate guide-book with which the Egyptians provided their dead. If we suppose with him that the Eleusinian rite in its full development was derived from Egypt with due adaptation to Hellenic religion, his view seems plausible, and it is strikingly supported by the mystic inscriptions on gold plates which have been mentioned before in connection with Orphism, discovered in Greek tombs, not only in Magna Graecia, but in Crete, and dating at all events from pre-Christian times, in which the departed spirit is advised to keep to the right, leaving the pool of oblivion by the cypress tree on the left hand, and to beg for a draught from the springs of memory;—then to declare itself as an offspring of heaven and earth, and as having partaken of the rites of Persephone.

The same author reasons with much force in favour of another view, viz. that the drama of the second night presented not only the legend of Demeter but also the contrasted pictures of future misery and blessedness; the dangers which the soul must pass before arriving at its Elysium, the slough of despond in which the uninitiate were plunged, the monsters threatening the disembodied spirit, and finally, the state of blessedness which would be reached by those who bore in memory the mystic pass-words.

The remark above quoted as attributed to Aristotle brings us back to the point which is of main importance in connection with our subject: What was the frame of mind of the initiated? What impressions did they receive and carry away? The effect must have varied greatly with the degree of impressibility, of depth, of aspiration, and of preparedness in the nature of the recipient. What frivolous or sentimental fancies may have been awakened in the mind of the average sensual man is really not our concern. That to many the promise of future blessedness meant only an earthly paradise may be quite true. Antinomianism dogs the steps of every spiritual revival, as the shadow the substance. Hence the mocking question of the Cynic—‘Shall the thief who has been initiated fare better after death than Epaminondas?’ But there is a phase of religious growth in which persons gifted with a deeper religious impulse than is satisfied by the established worships infallibly draw together. To such, the requirement that those who approached the goddess of sorrow and of consolation must have clean hands and a pure heart had much more than a merely ceremonial meaning.

To some also, as to the Antigone of Sophocles, the hope of blessedness in another life was inseparable from the thought of reunion with loved ones who had gone before.

In the sixth century B.C. or early in the fifth, even if no Dionysiac or Orphic rite had been engrafted on the native ceremony, there must already have been an inner circle ever growing amongst the initiated and amongst the Eumolpidae themselves, not marked off from others by any outward sign, yet consciously distinct, who were acquainted with Orphism,—with that new mythology, embodied in strangely sounding poems, in which Hesiodic traditions, cosmogonic speculations, and a daring theosophy were blended in a haze of pantheism. What ineffable thoughts the mysteries may have suggested to minds so prepared, who can say? Many mystagogues on each occasion were instructing the novices how to conduct themselves. Each was an Athenian, active in mind and fluent in speech. Can we doubt that the results would be rich and various? We cannot suppose, for example, that Themistocles and Aeschylus, or Herodotus and Sophocles, would be alike impressed, or that their meditations would be of the same order. All this must have gradually reacted on the body of legend that was sure to form itself around such a religious centre, and which as thus gradually modified supplied rich material for tragedy.

One thing may be certainly affirmed—that high authorities whose gravity and depth of mind cannot be disputed bear witness with one voice to the elevating influence of the Eleusinian mysteries. Sophocles dwells emphatically on the incomparable happiness of the initiated both in life and after death; and Plato, who had a far clearer vision both of God and immortality than any child of Eumolpus, can find no more fitting vehicle for his most transcendent thoughts than the imagery which he borrows from the contemplation of the mysteries.

And long afterwards, when the philosophy inspired by Plato had become the acknowledged guide of life for those who could receive it, and the Eleusinian ceremonies had lost much of their early freshness and simplicity, Plutarch, in speaking of death and a future state, could find no language more impressive than what belonged to the same line of allusion:—‘To die is to be initiated into the great mysteries…It is there that man, having become perfect through his new initiation, restored to liberty, really master of himself, celebrates, crowned with myrtle, the most august mysteries, holds converse with just and pure souls, and sees with contempt the impure multitude of the profane or uninitiated, ever plunged or sinking of itself into the mire and in profound darkness.’

Lastly, it is a significant fact that Marcus Aurelius, in his anxiety to keep touch with the religion of his contemporaries, when he visited Athens took care to be initiated at Eleusis.

How many of the higher thoughts about another life, and about the divine nature, which we find in Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, how much of the tradition concerning immortality to which Plato refers in the ‘Meno,’ may have been originated in some such way as I have indicated, it were vain to inquire.

Demeter and Persephone were closely associated both in ritual and mythology with the Erinnyes of the household, i.e. with the religious sanctions for domestic purity and for righteous dealings amongst kinsmen. Here also existed a true germ of moral and spiritual religion.

Tiele and others have observed that the great historical religions have all grown out of voluntary associations (θιασοί) which stood apart from national or tribal worships. And in this connection it deserves to be noted with respect to the mystical side of Greek religion generally that its votaries differed from those of the national or patriotic gods, in being possessed with the missionary spirit. No Athenian priestess of Athena, no Corinthian devotee of Poseidon would think of carrying the sacred things of either into other realms, unless in connection with the foundation of an Athenian or Corinthian colony. The case is different with the rites of the Great Goddesses. Take, for example, what Pausanias tells us of the bringing of the Eleusinian rites into Messenia (Book iv. ch. 1 § 5): how Caucon, the son of Celaenus, the son of Phlyus, came bringing the orgies of the Great Goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, from Eleusis to the court of Polycaon, in Messene. This is one of many similar traditions, and the universal spread of these worships may have arisen partly from this cause, but partly from the fact that they were congenial to the native mind, and that the germ of them already existed in the universal village festival. A still more unquestionable instance occurs in Herodotus (vii. 153), where he tells how Telines of Gela owed the ascendency which he obtained over his countrymen to nothing else than his possession of the sacred things of the subterranean goddesses. He led back a body of exiles and made terms with his fellow citizens on condition that his descendants should succeed him as hierophants of the same holy rites. This achievement, Herodotus says, would seem to have evinced high qualities of mind and manlike energy, whereas the Sicilians repute Telines to have been of a soft and effeminate character.

There is something akin to these phenomena in the persistence with which certain ancient families, especially in Elis, successfully maintained the power of divination (μαντική). See for example the elaborate account which Herodotus gives of the soothsayers on either side before Plataea: Tisamenos, the son of Antiochus of Elis, a Clytiad of the Iamidae, whom the Spartans had secured upon the Greek side by the rare gift of Lacedaemonian citizenship; and Hegesistratos, also of Elis, a distinguished Telliad, who served upon the Persian side through resentment against the Spartans for their maltreatment of him. Thus it appears that the religious authority accorded to the race of prophets was independent of national prepossessions.

There has been no room in this chapter for the mention of mysteries of a more vulgar kind, which became rife at Athens in the fourth century, and were increasingly influential in the decline of Hellas—such as those practised by the votaries of Sabazius (a spurious Dionysus) or by the mendicant priests of Cybele. We must be content with following the more important lines, merely glancing aside at such as these: ‘Let us not discourse about them, but look and pass them by.’

  • 1.

    Some of these have been recently discovered.