THE MYSTERY SCHOOLS



The great Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to the early part of the second millennium B.C.E., portrays an ancient Mesopotamian king's quest for immortality and his despair when he learns that the gods keep the priceless jewel of eternal life for themselves. From clay, the gods shaped humankind and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. What a cruel trick, then, to snatch back the wind of life at the time of physical death and permit the wonderful piece of work that is man to return once again to dust. The destiny of all humans, regardless of whatever greatness they may achieve or however low they might sink, is the same—death.

Throughout all of humankind's recorded history, there have been those who have sought to guarantee a dignified way of death and to ensure a stylish and safe passage into the afterlife. Many of these individuals who sought to approach death on their own terms formed secret societies and cults which are known by the general name of "mysteries," which comes from the Greek myein,"to close," referring to the need of the mystes, the initiate, to close the eyes and the lips and to keep secret the rites of the cult.

All of the early mysteries and mystical traditions appear to center around a kind of mystery play or ritual reenactment of the life of such gods as Osiris, Dionysus, and Demeter, divinities most often associated with the underworld, the realm of the dead, the powers of darkness, and the process of rebirth. Because of the importance of the regenerative process, the rites of the mysteries were usually built around a divine female as the agent of transformation and regeneration. While the initiates of the mystery cult enacted the life cycle of the gods who triumphed over death and who were reborn, they also asserted their own path of wisdom that would enable them to conquer death and accomplish resurrection in the afterlife, with rebirth in a new body in a new existence.

The origin and substance of the state religion of ancient Greece was a sophisticated kind of nature worship wherein natural elements and phenomena were transformed into divine beings who lived atop Mount Olympus. If the Judeo-Christian tradition proclaimed that humans were fashioned in the image of God, their creator, then it must be said that the gods of ancient Greece were created in the image of humans, their creators. Like the humans who worshipped them, the Olympians lived in communities and had families, friends, and enemies and were controlled by the same emotions, lusts, and loves. The pantheon of the gods of ancient Greece were not cloaked in the mysterious, unfathomable qualities of the deities of the East, but possessed the same vices and virtues as the humans who sought their assistance. Although the Olympians could manifest as all-powerful entities—especially when a rival god wasn't interfering—none of them were omnipotent. Although they were capable of exhibiting wisdom, none of them were omniscient. And they often found themselves as subject to the whims of Fate as the humans who prayed for their guidance.

The Olympians were worshipped by the Greeks most often in small family groups. There existed no highly organized or formally educated priesthood, no strict doctrines, no theologians to interpret the meaning of ambiguous scriptural passages. The followers of the state religion could worship the god or gods of their choosing and believed that they could gain their favor by performing simple ritual acts and sacrifices.

In addition to the state religion into which every Greek belonged automatically at birth, there were also the "mystery religions," which required elaborate processes of purification and initiation before a man or woman could qualify for membership. The mystery religions were concerned with the spiritual welfare of the individual, and their proponents believed in an orderly universe and the unity of all life with God. The relationship of the mystes, the initiate, was not taken lightly, as in the official state religion, but was considered to be intimate and close. The aim and promise of the mystical rites was to enable the initiate to feel as though he or she had attained union with the divine. The purifications and processions, the fasting and the feasts, the blazing lights of torches and the musical liturgies played during the performances of the sacred plays—all fueled the imagination and stirred deep emotions. The initiates left the celebration of the mystery feeling that they were now superior to the problems that the uninitiated faced concerning life, death, and immortality. Not only did the initiates believe that their communion with the patron god or goddess would continue after death, but that they would eventually leave Hades to be born again in another life experience.


DELVING DEEPER

Cotterell, Arthur, ed. Encyclopedia of World Mytholo gy. London: Dempsey Parr, 1999.

Ferm, Vergilius, ed. Ancient Religions. New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950.

Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Leg ends. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1994.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1983.


DELVING DEEPER

Brandon, S. G. F. Religion in Ancient History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Ferm, Vergilious ed. Ancient Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

DELVING DEEPER

Ferm, Vergilious, ed. Ancient Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Gaster, Dr. Theodor H., ed. The New Golden Bough. New York: Criterion Books, 1959.

Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. New York: Larousse, 1994.


DELVING DEEPER

Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Leg ends. London: Headline House, 1993.

DELVING DEEPER

Ferm, Vergilious, ed. Ancient Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Gaster, Dr. Theodor H., ed. The New Golden Bough. New York: Criterion Books, 1959.

DELVING DEEPER

Schure, Edouard. The Great Initiates. Trans. by Gloria Raspberry. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.



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