Was Christianity Influenced by Mystery Religions?
Paganism is commonly used to refer to various, largely unconnected religions that existed during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, such as the Greco-Roman religions of the Roman Empire, including the Roman imperial cult, the various mystery religions, monotheistic religions Christianity originated in the Roman province of Judaea, a predominantly. Only national groups were allowed a distinct religion. the Christ, so initiation into the pagan mysteries brings you into a relationship with the furnishing of the Mithraic 'cave' with 'symbols of the climes and elements of the. their influence upon the nascent Christian religion is fraught with difficulty. establish a direct causal connection between the pagan mysteries and Christianity, . Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper Torchbooks, ),
Each person had to decide for himself whether or not he wanted to be initiated. This development was possible only because Athens had become a large city with a differentiated culture that gave the individual ample choice of a way of life, including religion. Ruins of the sanctuary at Eleusis, Greece. Their essence was not contained in any written record but only in the festivals themselves—the holy days of the community.
Many participants appreciated only the superficial level of the ceremonies and considered them as an opportunity for having a good time—good company, good food, intoxication, and sometimes in the Dionysiac cult sexual pleasures. The ceremonies were open to a deeper understanding, however, that was not made explicit by any theology or by any set of creeds but by the religious action itself, which contained the meaning and conveyed it to the participants without the interposition of words.
Therefore, it was not possible to disclose to the noninitiated the mysteries by words, but it was treachery to reveal the secret dances. Secular mystery communities A society of initiates could drop its religious connections and become merely a social club. But because secrecy, common meals, and common drinking were implied, the Greeks and Romans regarded such clubs as mystery societies; they did not differentiate between religious associations and private clubs.
The role of aristocratic clubs in Athenian politics was very important. In bc the famous mystery scandal occurred. Several aristocratic societies conspired to overthrow the Athenian democracy. In order to pledge all members, a common crime was committed in which each member had to participate. One night the members of the social clubs took hammers and removed the genitals of the many Hermes statues in the city. Whoever would desert the common political cause would be denounced by his former friends for having committed a crime against religion, and many witnesses against him would be at hand.
The people of Athens immediately understood that a conspiracy was developing. By a series of severe trials, the conspirators were traced and exiled. The speech of the orator Andocidesone of the conspirators, delivered in his defense in or bc, when the old affair was again taken up in a trial, still survives. The Romans were especially distrustful of secret societies. This suspicion was justified in the case of Catilinewho led a conspiracy that attempted to overthrow the government in 63 bc.
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Orphic Besides community initiations, there were ceremonies for individual persons of deeper religious longing. Such persons were called Orphics after Orpheusthe Greek hero with superhuman musical skills who was supposedly the author of sacred writings; these writings were called the Orphic rhapsodies and they dealt with such subjects as purification and the afterlife. Many Orphics seem to have had a strong feeling of sin and guilt. This could be achieved by living an Orphic life, which included abstinence from meat, wine, and sexual intercourse.
After death the soul would be judged. If a man had lived a righteous life, his soul would be sent to the meadows of the blessed in Elysium ; but, if he had committed misdeeds, his soul would be punished in various ways and perhaps sent to hell.
Following a period of reward or punishment, the soul would be incarnated in a new body. Only a soul that had lived a pious life three times could be liberated from the cycle. Pythagoreans The Orphic creeds were the basis of the Pythagorean brotherhood, which flourished in southern Italy beginning in the 6th century bc. The Pythagoreans were aristocratic fraternities that sometimes had a political scope.
Their main achievements, however, lay in the fields of music, geometry, and astronomy. They discovered that these subjects could be explained by numbers and ratios. Combining Orphic eschatology the study of the last things, especially death and afterlife with their discoveries, they invested music, geometry, and astronomy with religious values.
According to their doctrine, the original home of the soul was in the stars. From there it fell down to earth and associated with the body.
Platonists The philosophy of Plato c. Yet Plato did take up many ideas from earlier Greek religionespecially from the Pythagorean brotherhood and from the Eleusinian communities, and often described his philosophy in terms derived from the mysteries.
A value was thus attached to the very act of searching. Plato, Roman herm probably copied from a Greek original, 4th century bce; in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—Preussischer Kulturbesitz In the Timaeuswhich is an exposition of his theory of the universePlato also developed his theory of the soul. The earth is surrounded by the spheres of the seven planets; the eighth sphere is that of the fixed stars. Beyond the eighth sphere is the realm of the divine. The sphere of the fixed stars, moved by the divine, continuously turns to the right at an even speed.
This clockwise rotation affects the spheres of the planets, although they have their proper movement, which runs to the left, or counterclockwise. The sphere of mortality begins with the planets. The original home of each soul is in one of the fixed stars. As a result of the movement of the spheres, the soul falls through the planetary spheres to earth, where it is united with the body.
The soul must then try to liberate itself from the body and ascend to the fixed star from which it fell. In later generations this picture was vividly worked out. The soul, in the course of its fall through the planetary spheres, was thought to acquire the qualities of the planets: The Hellenistic period When Alexander the Great conquered the Asiatic kingdoms as far east as the Indus Riverthe Greek world was extended immensely.
The religious ideas in Greece itself and the western part of the Alexandrian Empire, however, changed very slowly, because the Greeks, now masters of the world, felt no need for change. In the Messenian town of Andania mysteries were celebrated in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Kore. Christians fled to safe havens in the countryside and some purchased their certificates, called libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians.
Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death. The proconsul obliged some of them and then sent the rest away, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves there was plenty of rope available or cliffs they could jump off.
Both Polycarp and Cyprianbishops in Smyrna and Carthage respectively, attempted to avoid martyrdom.
The Diocletianic Persecution[ edit ] Main article: The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. The Great Persecution is considered the largest. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the gods or face immediate execution. This persecution lasted until Constantine Ialong with Liciniuslegalized Christianity in It was not until Theodosius I in the later 4th century that Christianity would become the State church of the Roman Empire.
Between these two events Julian II temporarily restored the traditional Roman religion and established broad religious tolerance renewing Pagan and Christian hostilities.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural".
Attempts at estimating the numbers involved are inevitably based on inadequate sources, but one historian of the persecutions estimates the overall numbers as between 5, and 6, In the years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians.
Among modern philologists Walter Burkert is the chief proponent of the view that the root of the mysteries is to be looked for in agrarian culture and specifically in secret society ceremonies with their tests of courage and their sexual, orgiastic traits and that they originated in the Neolithic age; the dawning Greek individualism of the seventh and sixth centuries bce took over these ancient cults and turned them into a deliberately adopted religion centered on the conquest of death.Individualism and the Mystery Religions
Jensen has suggested a different ethnological approach. He sees behind the Greek mysteries especially those of Eleusis a conception of the world proper to the culture of early food growers; this conception centered on the death or possibly the sacrifice of a female prototypical being or divinity who was the source of the life-sustaining cultivated vegetation, and thus it thematized for the first time the mystery of death and life "the slain god".
There has since been occasional criticism of the interpretation of the Melanesian starting point the myth of Hainuwele; see Jonathan Z. The answer can be found only through cooperative study by ethnologists, prehistorians, philologists, and historians of religion.
In any case an answer is not directly required for understanding our historical and philological material, which comes to us primarily from Greek sources.
All our ancient informants confirm the view that the mysteries in general took their character primarily from the Greek mysteries and became widespread only as a result of hellenization. The Historical Multiplicity of Mysteries Within the confines of this article it is necessary to start with the ancient Greek mysteries and move on to related Oriental mysteries.
The Greek mysteries The Greek mysteries were from the outset cults of clan or tribe. They can in many cases be traced back to the pre-Greek Mycenaean period and were probably ancient rituals of initiation into a clan or an "association. The independent town of Eleusis there is evidence of a prehistoric settlement there in the third millennium bce became an Athenian dependency in the seventh century bce and thereby acquired, especially from the sixth century on, a pan-Hellenic role that in the Roman imperial age attracted the attention of Rome.
An attempt under Claudius r. The destruction of the sanctuary came under Alaric's Christian Goths in ce. The mythological background for the Eleusinian mysteries was provided by the story of the goddesses Demeter and Kore, preserved in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The pair were presented as mother and daughter. Their relationship developed in a gripping manner the theme of loss deathgrief, search, and re discovery life. The interpretation of the story as purely a nature myth and specifically a vegetation myth is actually an old one and can appeal to ancient witnesses for support; nonetheless it is oversimplified precisely because it loses sight of the human and social content of the myth.
The public ceremonies of the annual Eleusinian ritual are well known to us and confirmed from archaeological findings. The director was the hierophant, who from time immemorial had been a member of the Eumolpides, a noble family that had held the kingship of old. The Kerukes family filled the other offices. All classes, including slaves, were admitted to the cult.
But this distinction was not original and came in when the Eleusinian mysteries were combined with the mysteries of Agrai on the Ilissos near Athens in the seventh century bce. The Lesser Mysteries at Agrai took place annually in February the month Anthesterion and were regarded as a preliminary stage leading to the Greater Mysteries held at Eleusis in September 16—20 Boe-dromion.
Sacrifices, libations, baths, ablutions, fasts, processions especially bringing the "holy things," the cult symbols, to Eleusisand torches all played an important role in both feasts. The center of all activity was the ceremony that was not open to the public.
We know that at the ceremonies at Agrai the initiate knelt down with a ram's skin draped around him and held an unlit torch in his hand.
The priestess shook a winnowing fan liknon over him, and he handled a serpent sacred to Demeter and Kore. Finally water was poured over him. In the Eleusinian ceremony, of which we know less, the initiation took place at night. It included the handling of an object, not identified with certainty, which was taken from a "coffer" perhaps the instrument—mortar and pestle—used in preparing the sacred potion; other interpretations see the coffer as an image of the womb.
In addition, there was a "viewing" epopteia of the rescued? The cry that the hierophant uttered at this point suggests as much: Brimo bore Brimos" Hippolytus, Refutations 5. The reference is probably to the birth of Ploutos, the personification of wealth, from Demeter; yet it is questionable whether this was intended as a symbol of the new birth of the initiate and not as a symbol of the limited power of the lower world or death.
The latter meaning seems to be suggested by the concluding rite: This must have signified that life is "Mother" Demeter's gift to human beings. A fragment of Pindar Bowra says of the initiates: They know life's end but also a new beginning from the gods. In addition to the mysteries of Eleusis, there was a series of others about which there is unsatisfactory information. Almost all of them were very ancient.
They include the mysteries at Phenas in Arcadia also mysteries of Demeter ; those at Andania in Messenia, in which Demeter and Hermes were venerated as great gods; those at Phyle, dedicated to "Earth, the great mother"; and those on Paros and Thasos, which were again mysteries of Demeter.
More important were the mysteries of the great gods, or Kabeiroi, on the island of Samo-thrace, where there was an ancient place of worship until the fourth century cethat attracted many, especially in the second century bce.
The gods in question were probably a pair of Phrygian divinities, father and son kabeiros is a Semitic word. The ceremonies had a pronounced orgiastic and burlesque character and were probably connected with what had originally been associations of smiths iron rings played a role.
Later, however, the Kabeiroi were regarded as helpers in distress at sea. Practically nothing is known of these mysteries; there are hints of links with Demeter and Orpheus. More important were the Dionysian mysteries, information on which has come down to us from as early as the fifth century bce see Euripides, The Bacchae. As is well known, Dionysos was an unusual god who represented a side of Greek life long regarded as un-Greek—a view that has caused interpreters many difficulties. His thiasos "company" was probably originally an association of women that spread throughout Greece, especially the islands, and carried on a real proselytizing activity by means of itinerant priestesses.
There was no one central sanctuary, but there were centers in southern Italy CumaeAsia Minorand Egypt. Ecstatic and orgiastic activity remained characteristic of this cult as late as the second century bce and only then assumed more strictly regulated, esoteric forms, as can be seen from the laws of the Iobacchant community at Athens, where the cult of Dionysos Bacchus had become a kind of club.
The myth of Dionysos had for its focus the divine forces hidden in nature and human beings; these forces were thematized and applied chiefly by women.
The ecstatic nocturnal celebrations showed traits of promiscuity Maenads and satyrs and took place in the open air. It is uncertain to what extent the paintings in the Villa Item at Pompeii and in the Casa Omerica reproduce the later ritual of the Dionysian mysteries. These paintings are more likely a mysteriosophic interpretation within the framework of a bridal mysticism in which the soul the immortal element as part of the god Dionysos presents the pattern of a cycle of purifications.
The myth of Dionysos was at an early stage combined with the Orphic mysteries. The hope of another world that was promised and confirmed in the rites is well attested by burial gifts gold plates from Greece and southern Italy.
Even after death, the initiate remained under the protection of the god. The Orphic mysteries are a difficult phenomenon to deal with. Often they are not easily distinguished from the Dionysian mysteries.
Also, it is not certain whether they were actually mysteries and, if they were, where we should look for their origin. Testimonies do not go back beyond the sixth century bce and vary widely. It is certain that at an early date Orpheus was turned into the founder of the Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Samo-thracian mysteries.
Orphism therefore had no central sanctuary. It had an ethical view of the relation between initiation and behavior. A way of life that was shaped by certain rules served to liberate the soul or the divine in human beings.
The anthropogonic and cosmogonic myth that provided an explanation of the hybrid human condition also showed the way to redemption; cosmology and soteriology were thus already closely connected. As a result, Orphism broke away from the religion of the polis, not only because it possessed holy books that contained its teachings, but also because the idea of the immortality of the soul made the official cult superfluous. Greek philosophy, beginning with Socrates and Plato, gave a theoretical justification for all this.
The Oriental mysteries Narrowly understood, the Oriental mysteries comprised only the mysteries of Isis and of Mithras. Mysteries of Cybele are attested on the Greek mainland and islands from the third century bce.
Oddly, no mention is made of Attis. Pausanias, in the second century ce, is the first witness to the connection; the mythological relation is attested by Catullus in his "Poem 63" first century bce. We know nothing about the structure and content of these mysteries; perhaps they were an imitation of the Eleusinian mysteries. In any case, the Roman cult of Cybele, who was worshiped on the Palatine from bce on, was not a mystery religion.
On the supposition that we are not dealing simply with a misleading terminology, these mysteries may have focused on the ritual castration of novices Galli and its deeper meaning. With regard to Attis, inscriptions in Asia Minor dating from the first century cespeak of the "initiates of Attis" Attabokaoi. Some formulas, preserved by Clement of Alexandria and Firmicus Maternus, show that the reference is to a participation in the destiny of the divinity whereby the faithful are promised deliverance: The initiation involved an anointing; there is also reference to a kind of sacred meal eating from a tambourine, drinking from a cymbal.
The meaning of an accompanying formula is uncertain in the version given by Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus This ceremony had developed out of an older sacrifice of a bull, attested from the middle of the second century on.
It was supposed to bring renewal to the initiates; only a single inscription interprets the renewal as a "new birth.
The Hellenistic cult of Isis in late antiquity undoubtedly involved secret initiatory celebrations. We learn something about them from Apuleius's famous novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass second century ce.