The Greek Civilization: The bright side (III)

Esoterism, the Mysteries: In ancient Greece, from immemorial time, esoterism, the initiatic dominion, had the form of Mysteries. As already explained in the third article of this series (3. Initiation and Mysticism), Mystery means something incommunicable, and as well as myste, the initiate, has the same meaning and etymological origin of muni, the one who remains silent. It is appropriate here to distinguish between mystery and secret. Secret is an information that must remain confidential, but if revealed can be understood and communicated by anyone. On the contrary, mystery, if publicly exposed and explained, remains incomprehensible for all those who are not qualified to understand (jñānādhikārin), being incommunicable by its nature. Mysteries were initiatic organization with a main master called “Hierophant” (ἱεροφάντης, read hierophàntes “the one who reveals sacred things”, the main Guru, and a number of mystagogues (μυσταγωγοί, read müstagogòi), Upagurus. Except for the Eleusinian Mysteries, seated in Eleusis, the other Mysteries had their representatives in almost all Greek cities.

Eleusinian Mysteries: One of the oldest seat of a Mystery was Eleusis. Since the time of the Mycenaean civilization (16th-11th century B.C.) an Achaean Pelasgic population, the great complex of the Eleusinian Mysteries was famous throughout Greece. The myth of Demeter (Devamātṛ) tells the origins of this sanctuary. Demeter was the Goddess of the Earth and the protector of agriculture, especially of wheat. The Goddess had a daughter from Zeus, the God of Heaven, Persephone “who gives growth.” One day, Hades, the divine King of Dead, abducted her to make her his bride and dragged her into his underground kingdom. Due to the absence of Persephone the earth could no longer produce anything, with severe danger for men and animals. Demeter, desperate, wandered for a long time in her quest. She received generous hospitality from the King of Eleusis. To repay, Demeter initiated the King’s son to the mysteries of agriculture. Demeter later made a deal with Hades so that Persephone could stay with her mother on the earth for six months and for six months with her husband underground. Thus summer and winter began.
But which was the initiatic meaning of the Eleusinian Mysteries? Man is like a grain of wheat. If it is not grounded to rot, the plant will not grow. This is the secret of initiatic death: to die while staying alive, so important to all Greek Mysteries. Initiatic death is the end of the profane condition and the attainment of rebirth as initiate. For this reason, a fresh initiated to Eleusinian Mysteries was called neophyte (νεόφυτος, read neòphütos), a new seedling. The spiritual growth of the initiate was achieved when he had produced the ear of wheat in himself, namely the ability to make disciples, to become a master.
Eleusinian Mysteries were divided into two phases: little mysteries and Great Mysteries. The little mysteries were celebrated at the end of winter. They consisted in a series of initiatic trials of purification, catharsis (κάθαρσις, read kàtharsis). The Great Mysteries took place in autumn and were a ritual of initiatic death, followed by the transmission of the method (μέθοδος, read méthodos, “the way to go further”, i.e. sādhana mārga). The method consisted of a triple action performed with body, word and mind (dròmenalegòmena and deiknǘmena). One year after the Great Mysteries, the Hierophant taught the interior view (ἐποπτεία, read epoptèia, i.e. antardṛṣṭi) to the beginner. Initiates endowed with greater knowledge later on were recognized as masters and capable of transmitting initiation (μύησις, read mǘesis; or τελετή read teletè). Next degree was that of God’s friends (θεόφιλες, read theophiles), those who after death would share the dwelling of Gods.

Dionysian Mysteries: These Mysteries, though diffused throughout Greece and later in all the cities of the Roman Empire1, were not of Hellenic origin. In fact, one supposes that their founder Dionysius was a Thracian-Scythian (śaka). According to the myth, Dionysus, whose name means “son of God”, was born further east of Greece from Zeus and Semele2. Since God always appeared to his lover in human form, Semele, being pregnant, asked Zeus to appear to her in his universal form. But the apparition of God was so devastating that Selene died blown away by the light of Zeus. The God, however, managed to save his son’s fetus stitching him to his thigh. After nine months Zeus’ thigh gave birth to Dionysus. We have already said that thigh in Greek is called meròs, a word that alludes to Mount Meru of Hindū Tradition3. Due to this second birth Dionysus was also called Dithyrambus, “twice born” (dvija). To avoid further danger he was transformed into a kid and entrusted to the seven Hyades Nymphs, daughters of Atlas4. The seven wise Nymphs gave him a third birth to wisdom. So this third rebirth was the very initiation: “First master is the mother, second is the father, the third the guru.” In return for the teaching given to Dionysus, Zeus promoted the Hyades to be the constellation of the head of the zodiac Taurus5. Thanks to this knowledge Dionysus discovered the vine and the effects of wine. The intoxicating liquid played a key role in the rites of his Mystery. Armed with vines and with a cortege of Satyrs and Sileni6, Dionysus set out to conquer India. This peaceful conquest represents the penetration of Tantrism in the Subcontinent7. Returning from India, riding a tiger or a bull and wearing a leopard skin, Dionysus arrived for the first time in Greece. He and his followers upset the old customs and scandalized the people, therefore he was not welcome. He had to fight, even violently, to impose his worship. Dionysus’s followers used to gather at night in the forests where they held banquets with wine and raw meat, with orgies involving men and women. At the climax of these extreme ritual acts, God took possession of his followers, leading them to experiences of violent samādhi with unbridled behaviors. Not much is known about the Dionysian Mysteries, because if any profane tried to watch them secretly, he would be killed and dismembered. However, we know that even in those Mysteries there were the initiation three degrees of katharsisparadosis and epopteya. Dionysism was very successful among women, called Maenads or Bacchae (in Latin), greatly feared for the violence of their trance.

Orphic Mysteries: Orpheus as Dionysus was not Greek, but of Thracian-Scythian (śaka) origin. Unlike Dionysus, he was Apollo’s son and for this reason he represents a Hyperborean rectification to Dionysian initiation8. He learned the art of poetry and music from his father Apollo and his singing was able to tame the beasts and bring order in the nature. When he sang it was as if the Gold Age had returned. He participated in several feats with the most famous Greek heroes, but his role was always as peacemaker and protector. The core of the Orphic Mysteries is illustrated in the myth of his love for the Nymph (i.e. yakṣiṇī) Eurydice. Unfortunately Eurydice died due to a snake bite. Orpheus then discended to the Underworld to convince Hades and Presephone to return him his beloved wife. Orpheus also was able to appease the Gods of the dead. He was granted to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living, as long as he didn’t look back at her before they both were out of the Underworld. But his love was too strong, and he could not refrain from looking at her. Eurydice disappeared again. Consumed with grief he refused to participate in a Dionysian ritual9, and for this reason he was killed and dismembered by Maenads. Also the Orphic Mysteries were characterized by the already mentioned three initiatic degrees: katharsisparadosis and epopteia. We have more information about Orphism because many intellectuals were initiated to its Mysteries, and they left us some notion of the doctrine. At the beginning there was only Chaos. In Chaos there were three separated principles: time, life and substance. Time modeled the substance through life, and then in the Chaos a cosmic silver egg appeared. When the egg broke in two, Phanes10, the self-luminous God, appeared along with the germs of all the worldly objects and beings. Phanes coupled with the night and, the Sky and the Earth were born; afterwards, in pairs all the Gods, the spirits of nature, men, animals and plants were born. The body was the lowest production. In the Orphic Mysteries the body was considered as a jail from which to be freed. The instrument for Liberation was Love. For this reason this initiatic path (sādhanā) was also called “Mysteries of Love”. Trough love, we differentiate ourselves from the body, from our limited humanity, and we tend to go back to Phanes. This process may take more than a single life. Therefore Orphism teaches the purification through successive rebirths, until one becomes God in a final life. This process of purification occurs by canceling the coercions of Fate, which corresponds to the concept of “past karma“. Injunctions to wear white clothes, to follow a vegetarian diet and to avoid intoxicants, were also part of the purification rituals.

Mysteries of Samothrace and Cabirian Mysteries: Very little is known about these Mysteries. Their Atlantean origin, through the Peoples of the Sea is sure; those of Samothrace were of Semitic origin. The meaning of Cabirian was “great Gods”; in fact in all Semitic languages (including Hebrew and Arabic) kabir means “great”. The Mysteries of Samothrace spread vastly in all the coastal cities of the Roman Empire. In effect, that initiation was reserved to sailors. Instead, the lesser-known Cabirian Mysteries were the initiation of the blacksmith’s corporation (śreṇi). Probably being directed to the lowest social classes they did not attract the attention of the literates and philosophers, hence the lack of information about them. We only know that in those Mysteries the master was not called a mystagogue, but a paragogue (παραγώγος, read paragògos, “which leads beyond”).
From these initiatic environments and from the philosophical schools connected to the Mysteries derives a more complete vision of posthumous destinies. Also Homer, who in the 9th Book of Odyssey, described the gray and sad land of the dead, without any prize or punishment, in 4th Book and in his Hymns11 illustrates a more sympathetic and satisfying vision. Hades12 was immediately below the Earth surface and could be accessed through well known caves and caverns. The distance between Sky and Earth was equal to the distance between Hades and Tartarus. This distance well illustrates the abysmal diversity of punishment between these two parts of the Hell.
From these sources we know that the dead who had committed serious faults were punished to Hades. Instead, those who had done infamous and serious acts against the divine and cosmic order were condemned to Tartarus.
The heroes dead in battle, however, went to the Islands of the Blest, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most likely this is an allusion to the submerged Atlantean archipelago, land of the dead for the heroic or gigantic races. These islands were also known as “Garden of the Hesperides”, the Nynphs daughters of Atlas13.
Instead, those who had done good deeds obtained as final prize the Elysian Fields, until their transmigration to a new body. The Elysian Fields were in the centre of Hades, but they were on a beautiful, abloom and sunny hill. Those who had done good and bad in life in equal quantity or those who had never done either of them, went to the Asphodel Fields. This kind of indolent Hell corresponds to the above mentioned description of Homer.

D. K. Aśvamitra

  1. In Latin and Dionysus was called Bacchus and the Dionysian Mysteries were called Bacchanalia.
  2. Semele was the daughter of Kadmos. This mythological character was Phoenician, denouncing a Semitic origin of Dionysus. Kadmos, having the root Q D M, in all Semitic languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, means “primordial, fundamental”. The Phoenician Kadmos founded the city of Thebes in Greece and for this reason this city was particularly important for the Dionysian Mysteries.
  3. Thigh was also the name given by the Egyptians to the northern constellation of the Great Bear.
  4. Two tendencies can be easily identified in Dionisism, one of Hyperborean origin, as evidenced by the birth from the thigh, and one Atlantidean from the Hyades.
  5. The Hyades were the sisters of the Pleiades. See the similarity between this myth and that of Skanda and Kṛttikās.
  6. Demigods similar to Gaṇas and Gandharvas.
  7. Dionysus with his followers stayed mainly in the mountainous area in northern India, near a mount called “Meros”. So we have the evidence that the Greek “méros” (thigh) and Meru are the same thing (Diodorus Siculus, cit. II.38.4).
  8. The Tradition tells about a journey of Orpheus to Egypt where he was initiated to the Osiris Mysteries.
  9. This means that previously Orpheus had been initiated to Dionysian Mysteries, so Orphic Mysteries can be considered as their adaptation.
  10. Phanes was considered identical to God Pan, “the Whole”
  11. Let us leave the useless diatribe among scholars if Homer was one or more poets. The Tradition considered the existence of a single Homer.
  12. In this case Hades is not the name of the God but of a Hell.
  13. Hesperides: “those of the West”. There are several geographic and population names meaning West-Western, pointing out their ancient Atlantean origin: for instance Hiberia, Hesperia, Hebrides, Hebrews, Hispans, Cimmers, and so on. The planet Venus is still called Hesperus when it appears at sunset and, not surprisingly, Lucifer in the morning.