Whenever a hailstorm destroyed their crops, the winds prevented them from sailing, and life seemed too challenging, ancient Greeks turned towards their gods. Their divine intervention was needed in times of struggle. By building temples, offering sacrifices, and organizing festivals, they hoped that the gods and goddesses would be on their side. However, some people craved a deeper spiritual connection. They sought answers that still remain unanswered. What is the purpose of life? What happens after we die? The mystery religions (or cults) of ancient Greece, such as Orphism and the cult of Eleusis, reportedly offered some answers. Although their revelations remain a mystery, there are some accounts and assumptions regarding their initiations.
What Constitutes a Mystery Religion?
Officially, there was no ancient Greek organized religion, at least with today’s criteria. However, ancient Greeks shared common beliefs, rituals, and myths that formed a popular public faith system. Most people recognized and worshipped the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses, with Zeus, the sky god, being the ruler of Olympus. Their worship included sacrificial offerings, building marvelous temples, and organizing religious festivals. The latter usually involved athletic competitions that occurred every few years. For example, the Olympic Games started as a religious festival dedicated to Zeus. Their revival might have obscured their religious aspect, but its flame lighting ceremony still takes place at Olympia.
These forms of worship were public and with only a few limitations regarding who could participate. For example, married women could not attend men’s athletic competitions and vice versa, while slaves often had limited participation in religious activities. However, the beliefs and practices of the public religion of ancient Greece were known to everyone.
Already since the archaic period, various secret cults operated out of the public eye. They constituted what we now call “mystery religions” of ancient Greece. With promises about the afterlife and, sometimes, revelations about the salvation of the soul, they managed to acquire a great following. They required initiation rituals and absolute secrecy. The term “mystery” (from the Greek “myein”, to shut one’s eyes or lips) is actually associated with the secrets the “mystes” (the initiates) had to keep from outsiders. In some cases, openly talking about the mystery rites to non-members could lead to the ultimate punishment: death.
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1. The Eleusinian Mysteries
One of the most prominent mystery religions of ancient Greece was no other than the one of Eleusis. This agrarian cult organized annual rituals at the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Eleusis in Attica, Greece, for over 1000 years till 329 CE. Its members had to take a vow of secrecy during their initiation. Revealing the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries — as these rites were called — was punished with the death penalty.
The mysteries of Eleusis occurred every year in early September and they lasted for nine days. This period of time included the Grand Procession — the long walk of the initiates from Athens to Eleusis. Although the exact details of the rites remain unknown, we do know that they revolved around the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
The Myth of Persephone’s Abduction and Its Role in the Eleusinian Mysteries
As we know from the Homeric hymn to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture once lost her daughter, Persephone (Kore), goddess of vegetation. The latter had been abducted by Hades, king of the underworld, while gathering flowers in a field. Hades had tricked her into staying in the world of the dead by offering her pomegranate seeds — a symbol of the indissolubility of marriage.
After the loss of her daughter, Demeter refused to let crops grow, causing a famine. The other gods of Mount Olympus had to intervene to appease Demeter, without breaking the marriage of Persephone and Hades. The solution was the following: Persephone would spend half the year with her husband in Hades, the other half with her mother on the land of the living.
“He [Zeus] assented that your daughter, every time the season comes round,
would spend a third portion of the year in the realms of dark mist underneath,
and the other two thirds in your company and that of the other immortals.”
(Homeric Hymn to Demeter)
As a result, humans would have to make sure that they were well prepared for the seasons when no crops could grow. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiates would understand the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life. The connection to the cycle of the seasons is easy to understand; the harsh winter months resulted from Demeter missing her daughter, while springtime marked the return of Persephone on Earth.
At the same time, this story can be interpreted as the revelation of the possibility of reincarnation. Persephone was both the goddess of vegetation and the queen of the underworld. She was therefore responsible for anything that grows over the surface of the Earth and then for anything that is buried within its soil. She would periodically travel between the realms of the living and Hades, showcasing a cyclical, rather than a linear relationship between life and death. Indeed, the Eleusinian Mysteries reportedly helped people understand this connection and stop fearing their ultimate destiny: to return to the Earth’s soil.
2. The Cabirian Mysteries
The Cabirian (Cabeirian/Kabirian/Kabeirian) Mysteries were ancient religious rituals and ceremonies dedicated to the gods known as the Cabiri. The latter were a group of chthonic deities worshipped in islands of the northern Aegean Sea. They were believed to protect seafarers and their worship ensured safe sea travels.
The mystery surrounding the cult of the Cabiri has yet to be solved. We do know, however, that there is a special connection between the Cabirian Mysteries and the island of Samothrace, where new members would be initiated. We also do know that other gods and goddesses were worshipped during these rites, including a mother goddess. The latter could once again be Demeter and, therefore, the Cabirian Mysteries were also associated with fertility.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact time when these rites started taking place, however, it is estimated that they gained immense popularity during the 3rd century BCE. Moreover, contrary to the Eleusinian Mysteries, there are no indications that the Cabirian Mysteries talked about the afterlife and reincarnation. In many ways, they are considered as a more primitive form of a mystery religion.
3. The Cult of Pythagoras
Most people are already familiar with the Pythagorean theorem. However, fewer know that Pythagoras of Samos was not only an ancient Greek mathematician, but also a philosopher and founder of a mystery religion. Pythagoreanism, as it was called, dates back to the 6th century BCE. It reportedly revealed truths about the metaphysical meaning of numbers and the salvation of the human soul.
Just like every mystery cult, Pythagoreanism revealed its truths only to those who were initiated. Its members would perform purification rituals, which included sexual purity and a strict vegetarian diet. The ultimate goal was to reach higher incarnations, meaning that Pythagoreans did believe in the concept of reincarnation (metempsychosis). This school of thought was revived in the first century BCE and, this time, it included the worship of Pythagoras.
4. The Dionysian Mysteries
Women, slaves, and non-citizens often had limited participation to the rites of the ancient Greek public religion. Therefore, many of them were drawn into mystery religions. One of them was the cult of Dionysus that would organize the wine induced rituals known as “Dionysian Mysteries”. Contrary to other mystery religions, the cult of Dionysus did not seek the salvation of the soul but rather the loss of inhibitions and social constraint. Through various trance-inducing techniques, which included dancing and alcohol consumption, the members would return to a “natural state”.
It goes without saying that the divine figure connected to this cult is no other than Dionysus. The god of wine, grape harvest, and festivity, was celebrated in many mysteries. However, no other mystery religion had such a great impact as this one. For example, the Dionysian Mysteries inspired the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to name the ecstatic forms of art as “Dionysian”.
Moreover, the birth of Greek drama is attributed to the “tragedies”, the songs of the goat”. During the Dionysian rites, members would wear goat skins and sing hymns to the god of wine. These primitive, wine-induced performances slowly evolved into the historical theatrical competitions known as the “Great Dionysia”, leading to the birth of western theatre.
One of the lesser-known mystery religions of ancient Greece is perhaps Orphism. Although it is hard to estimate when this movement started, it became widely spread in the 5th century BCE. By that time, religious teachers would travel across Greece to initiate new members.
Characterized by a belief in the immortality of the soul and reincarnation, Orphism promoted a life of asceticism and contemplation. The Orphic religion was reportedly based on the teachings and songs of Orpheus. The legendary musician is mostly known from the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice”, where he travels to the underworld to reclaim his wife. However, Orpheus has a more prominent role in the myths of the Orphic religion. In this case, he is presented as a prophet who saw the secrets of the underworld and revealed the truths of the afterlife to humanity.
The most important deity in Orphism is no other than God Dionysus, who is also referred to as “Zagreus”. The Orphic rituals usually included a reenactment of the death and rebirth of the god of wine. The followers of this movement believed that their soul contained an aspect of the god, which had to be “freed” from their physical forms. Contrary to the Dionysian Mysteries, the role of Dionysus in Orphism was not to reduce inhibitions but rather to stop the fear of bodily death.
The Impact of Ancient Greek Mystery Religions
The mystery religions had a greater impact on Greece’s religious beliefs and practices than many may think. Although they spawned in the shadows and operated in complete secrecy, they soon began gaining a great following. That is especially true for the cults of Attica, with the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries being widely known to this day. Perhaps, their focus on the afterlife and the immortality of the soul paved the way for the acceptance of other religions, such as Christianity. These religious movements came at a time when people craved answers to unanswered questions. Their curiosity was no longer limited to questions about “how to survive” but rather extended to inquiries such as: “What is the purpose of life?” and “What happens in the afterlife?”.
Lastly, the secrecy of these ancient cults inspired the formation of various religious, philosophical, academic, and political secret societies over the years. These included groups such as the Free Masons — the largest worldwide secret society of all times. In the 19th century, academic organizations called fraternities and sororities started forming in western academic institutions. These organizations included initiation rituals, vows, loyalty tests, and a great level of secrecy. Today, similar organizations still exist in the United States and other countries. Fraternity brothers and sorority sisters are often considered members of a so-called “Greek Life” and their organizations are usually named after a combination of Greek letters. Although their connection to the mystery religions of ancient Greece is not disclosed, it is hard to deny their obvious influences.