Notebook, 1993--


[From: Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]

Elements of the Religious
Beliefs of the Ancient
Greeks [cont.]

The first stop of the procession was the bridge at the Reitoi lakes [the modern Kumundouru]. There the ceremony of Crocuses took place. The descendants of the mythical Crocus would bind to their left foot and the right hand of those to be initiated in the mysteries a crocus which was a ribbon of saffron-coloured wool which guarded them from the evil spirits.

Before arriving at their destination, the procession passed over the Kifissus stream of Eleusis. On the bridge there awaited them men with their faces covered to avoid recognition, for these men cast invective and taunts against the officials who took part in the procession. These insults were known as 'gefirismoi' or 'bridge insults' and in all likelihood were abominable, the purpose being to humble the lordly and the powerful in order that they would not fall victim to the jealously and envy of the evil spirits.

After this, the procession, with lighted torches [for nightfall had already come] reached the edge of the sacred precinct. There, in accordance to the accepted view, Iacchos was received with cries of joy and was set in place, and the initiates, the initiators, and all the participants in the procession sang and danced the night through to honour the goddess.

On the sixth day, known as the Ritual, the 20th Boedromion, the festivities began at night. The faithful had rested during the day from the long journey, and fasted, cleansed themselves, and made the appropriate sacrifices to the goddesses. The fasting was in memory of that of Demeter who had abstained from food in the course of her search for Persephone, and ended with the drinking of the cyceon or strengthening potion, again in memory of the goddess who has asked for this drink when she had reached Eleusis. [p. 115]

The main sacrifice to Demeter, Persephone, and the other goddesses of Eleusis was made by the Archon Basileus who at the same time prayed for the prosperity and protection of Athens and her people. The ephebes [young men] also made sacrifice.

What precisely took place in the course of the initiation rites is unknown, for the secret has been well kept, and the only source of information one possibly could get was from the initiates themselves, but only that information which was not part of the mysteries.

After performing the sacrifices, the initiates donned their finest garb which they had brought for the purpose and changed their wreaths for fresher ones with ribbons. When the initiators certified that the candidates had fulfilled all the required formalities, they led the neophytes into the temple to begin the ceremony of full initiation.

It appears that the ritual ceremony consisted of three distinct parts, the 'dromena' or the ceremony of seeking the Maiden [Kore] and the sacred representation, the 'deiknyomena' or that ceremony in which the sacred relics and objects were exposed to the initiates, and the 'legomena' or those things that were uttered by the priests and the initiators.

The 'dromena' were performances of the story of Demeter and Persephone. The performance must have been very impressive and in all probability the neophytes were not simple viewers but took part in the drama. Where the 'dromena' actually were performed has preoccupied the scholars at great length. The most probable site was in the Telesterion or house of initiation. Was the performance, however, limited only to the seizure of Persephene, Demeter's wanderings which ended at the very place wherein the initiates were now found, and the reunion of Mother and daughter, or were there other scenes?

According to the views of the great authority on the Eleusinian Mysteries, P. Foucart, the 'dromena' also contain an imaginative journey into the underworld where in the darkness the initiates would have perceived specters which frightened and terrorized them. Thence they would move on to the Elysian Fields where they would see in a mystical light the remarkably blissful and pleasant fields and those happily settled dwellers, in order to obtain some inkling of the happiness that awaited the faithful of the goddess in the future life. But this view is rejected by later scholars who maintain that nowhere, neither in the Telesterion wherein Foucart places the site of the 'journey', nor in any other part of the sacred precinct are there any edifices or subterranean structures which could accommodate [p. 116] the appropriate machinery for an elaboration of the lower world and the appearance of the spectres. The same scholars argue that the fear and terror undergone by the initiates was due to the simple performance of the sacred drama in conjunction with the lighting and blacking out of the sources of light, the hymns, and the prayers.

Some scholars maintain that the 'dromena' also included a performance of the sacred marriage. But this is also rejected by most archeologists who satisfy themselves with the statement that, even if the 'dromena' included other performances or other events, this cannot be proved.

Although we may know a few things about the 'dromena' or the performances, our knowledge of the 'legomena' or those things which were uttered by the priests and imitators is so limited that we must confine ourselves to conjecture only. The archeologists argue that the 'legomena' ceremony was very brief, but it must have been of great significance. Foucart believed that these were instructions given to the neophytes for their entry to the lower world after their death. This was of course of utmost importance to the initiates for it assured them that their 'life' in the next world would be pleasant and free of all worry and cares.

But most archeologists reject such an explanation. On the contrary, they maintain that the 'legomena' must have been ritual formulae which explained to the initiates what precisely was happening before their eyes. They add that these formulae were of great significance, otherwise the priests of the Eleusinian Mysteries would not have required that the initiates understand Greek.

The 'deiknyomena' or the sacred objects and relics which the initiates were exposed to are not known. The most important of these may have been the shrines. The holy of holies was shown to the initiates by the Hierophant [hence the name--he who shows the shrines]. The Hierophant stood before the 'temple' or palace flooded in light before the dazzled eyes of the initiates, and pointed out to them the holy of holies which was so sacred as to preclude the possibility of any initiate revealing the secret to the uninitiated.

The seventh day, on the night of the 21st/22nd Boedromion. After the second day at Eleusis, the initiates rested in preparation for the ritual of the final night of the mysteries. With the disclosure of the sacred altar, the initiation came to an end and the initiate to the second degree in the supervision next went to the Epoptae or supervisors. The supervision was the second and the highest stage of the initiation and always took place a year after the first initiation.

The eighth and final day was spent by the initiates at Eleusis. It was devoted to the dead. Two special vessels known as the 'plemochoe' [see Glossary] were filled with water and the festival was brought to a close by pouring libations from these cups to the earth. The day was named the Plemochoe after the vessels. The remainder of the day was spent by the initiates in dancing and song to honour the goddess.

On the ninth day, the 23rd Boedromion, the initiates were free to return to their homes. The return was not made in procession and each person was free to depart for his city by any means he wished or had available.

Our knowledge of the Eleusinian Mysteries is very limited indeed, and the efforts made to disentangle the mystery which surrounds them have not borne fruit. The last of the [p. 117] Hierophants of Demeter took his secrets with him.

The power and the influence of the Eleusinian Mysteries was due, as the great scholar of Greek religion Professor Nielson says, to the fact that there was no dogma, only sacred practices which elevated the religious fervour. They possessed a myth that touched the deepest chords of human nature.

Human nature was deeply concerned with the after life. The worship of Demeter was full of promise and her hymn was a reminder of these promises. The hymn says somewhere,

'Blessed are those of who on earth
Saw these things [the mysteries] with their own eyes.
But he who has not been initiated and did not
Take part in these, shall never have the same share of goods
In this cold realm of darkness'

It appears that in the Eleusinian Mysteries the ideas of the underworld played a dominant role. As Aristophanes says in the Frogs, only those who have been initiated and had lived a devout and pious life could expect the sun to shine upon them in the lower regions.

The Eleusinian Mysteries appear to have satisfied absolutely the innermost desires of the human heart, and the initiated returned from Eleusis with the fear of the unknown expunged to a great degree, and with their hopes soaring in the expectation that their lot in the world of the shades would be much better than that of the uninitiated. Sophocles points out,

'Thrice-blessed are those mortals who
Having seen the rituals leave for Hades, for
They can be sure of a good life there. As for
The Others, only evil awaits them'.

Professor G. Mylnas, in his book 'Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries', writes, 'When we read all that the great men of antiquity had said, and when we consider the remarkable edifices and monuments which personalities such as Peisistratus, Kimon, Pericles, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and other had built, we are forced to believe that the Eleusinian Mysteries were not a common immature creation prepared by the priests to deceive the unlettered, the common folk, and ordinary people, but a philosophy of life which contained a meaning and a substance, providing a morsel of truth to the human soul filled with anxiety. This faith becomes even more strengthened when we read in Cicero that Athens gave nothing more remarkable or more divine to the world than the Eleusinian Mysteries'.

And Professor Mylnas concludes, "Let us remember again that the ritual of Eleusis endured some 2000 years and that for two millennia mankind was sustained and ennobled by this ritual. When we recall this fact, we will realize the significance and the meaning of Eleusis, and the worship of Demeter in the pre-Christian era". [p. 118]

Orphism was a mystical religion which developed mostly in the 6th Century B.C., in Sicily, Magna Graecia, and Attica. The founder is reputed to be the mythical Orpheus who was the first and only person in Greece to establish a cult, and who fell a victim to his fate when he was torn to bits by the Maenads of Thrace.

The followers of the Orphic cult claimed, in order to acquire greater authority and prestige, not to mention validity from the point of view of age, that their hymns and songs pre-dated Homer, a fact which is rather dubious. At all events, in the 6th Century, there existed a rich Orphic corpus of literature of which, however, little has survived to this day. Orphism was embraced by many outstanding Greek intellectuals including Protagoras, in the early period, followed by Pindar, Plato, and the painter Polygnotos.

Orphism generally was a synthesized religious movement which had collected various elements of faith into a current that became a rushing torrent. Some scholars of Greek religion maintain that the idea of immortality which exists in the Eleusinian Mysteries originated with Orphism, or the Orphic mysteries. But this view does not hold water, for the idea of immortality, as it appears according to the facts, developed independently in different parts of the Greek world.

According to the Orphic cult, or perhaps more properly the Orphic heresy, at the apex of its theogony was Cronus, followed by Chaos and Aether. Later Cronus made a silver egg from which was born the first god Phanes also known as Hericapaeus. Then followed Zeus who was the beginning, the middle and the end, and who is almighty because he had swallowed both Hericapaeus and Metis. The Orphic cult also dealt with the creation of man and perhaps herein lies its most original contribution to Greek religion. The Orphics maintained that Persephone had begot a son by Zeus named Dionysos Zagreus. Zeus had intended this son to rule the world. But the Titans hacked him to pieces and devoured the parts. Athena, however, saved his heart which she gave to Zeus. He in turn devoured the heart and as a result there emerged Dionysos the son of Semele. But Zeus wished to obtain revenge from the Titans. He thus struck them with his thunder-bolts and from the resultant ash man was born. This man had something divine in him which derived from Dionysos Zagreus, and at the same time something undivine deriving from the Titans.

The purpose of the myth dealing with the murder of Zagreus was to explain the sublimation of the ritual in the Dionysiac orgies which practiced the dismembering and consumption of the god who was represented by the animal instinct. And Dionysos Zagreus was represented by the animal instinct, for according to another variation of the story, when Zagreus was being pursued by the Titans in their attempt to slay him, he kept changing into [p. 119] various beasts, but finally was killed when he was in the shape of a bull. Another version of the myth, less well known, relates that Zagreus was murdered by the Titans who ensnared him when he was yet a child. Orphism accepts the doctrine, as pointed out above, that man had within himself a good nature, the divine of Dionysos, and possessed an evil nature, that inherited from the Titans. How such a doctrine evolved is difficult to say. According to one view, the feeling that god also dwelt within man is that which made the Orphic cultists believe that the nature of man is such as to be divided into two parts, the good or divine, and the evil, or Titanic.

The Orphics, as in the case of the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries, expected a better lot in the next world. But in contrast with the Eleusinian cult, the Orphics visualized the life of the blest as a continuous festivity, somewhat like the festive gaiety of the Dionysiac worship.

The purification was of the utmost significance to the Orphics. All those who had not purified themselves live, in accordance to the belief, in impurity and abomination, and would continue to live in the same state in the next world. The expression 'he lies in filth' derived from such a doctrine. All those who were accepted for initiation in the heresy had to rub themselves with coarse flour and mud and were then initiated. As in the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiation assured the members of the cult an existence after death.

Evidence of what the Orphics believed of the underworld comes from Pausanias who describes the painting by Polygnotos in the treasury of the Cnidians at Delphi. The Orphic influence in the painting is very obvious, for one readily recognizes the portrayals of the journeys to the underworld as these are contained in the poetry of the mystical cult. Polygnotos portrayed Charon, Acnus who braids a rope which is being chewed by a donkey, Eurynomus who removes the flesh from the bones of the dead, and the fate of the uninitiated who gather water in broken pitchers.

The Orphics believed it the duty of man to release the soul from the body, for the soul was divine, and the body was the evil element that came from the Titans. In this prison, the body, the soul does not enter only once, but returns in a kind of transmigration. Hades was conceived as Hell, a place of retribution for the unrighteous, from where it returned to earth and again became contaminated by its entrance into the body. Thus there results a kind of vicious circle which never ceases until the person is initiated into the orgies of the Orphics. Once the person has been initiated, and purified, and abstains from certain foods, his soul is cleansed and it descends into Hades and partakes of the 'life' of the blest. And he partakes of the life of the blest, since as long as man fulfills all the precepts of the Orphic cult he can hope in the grace of Dionysos, the deliverer, the liberating divinity who releases the soul from the process of transmigration and unites it with himself which is the divinity from which the soul was descended.

Such precepts initially limited to the ritualistic aspect only, involving a purification and initiation, evolved in time in to something more noble and exalted, for the Orphic cult demanded of its followers a moral life and the practice of certain asceticism in their lives, since only in this manner could they hope to redeem themselves from their Titanic inheritance. The adherence to ethical rules imposed upon their followers as well as the moderate life, convinced the Orphics, and perhaps justly so, that their cult was more pious, [p. 120] and that they themselves were more just than members of other religious cults who did not adhere to their doctrines.

The Orphics also insisted on justice. But their attitude to justice was not that of a problem involving the entire family, but only the individual. The individual, they were wont to say, and not the family, could unite with god, and so the individual and not the family could be rewarded or punished for doing good or evil. Since they observed that often times the unjust were not punished on earth, they would suffer in the lower world, just as in the underworld the just would receive their reward.

But Orphism did not become a universal cult. It continued to remain a heresy in view of the demands which it had and which were not easy to meet on the part of individuals. Asceticism was not a practice that fitted the Greek character. And its theories were difficult to understand, only the great intellects being able to grasp and understand the doctrines.

'Orphism', the learned Professor Nielson says, 'is a combination and the acme of all the restless and varied religious currents of the ancient period'.

And in fact, the addition of the concept of the creation of man to the theogony which provides an explanation of the good and the evil in the nature of man, the probity and uprightiousness of the ceremony and of life, the moral precepts, mysticism in its worship, the portrayals of life in the next world, the punishment in the underworld, faith in a happy lot for those who have been purified and initiated, all convince Professor Nielson that:

'The greatness of Orphism lies in the blending of all these elements into a system, and in its indubitable originality in making the crux of its doctrine the individual in his relationship with guilt and retribution'.

Pure Orphism should not be confused with certain other Orphic cults one of which was that of the Orphic ritualists who exploited man's innate fear of death and released their followers from sin by means of purification and gave release for even those already dead, in exchange for a generous fee from the naive.

Orphic literature has dealt at great length also with eschatology, and in its hymns are described even the punishments and the tortures which awaited the uninitiated and the immoral and the criminal. Punishment of course was in accordance with the degree of the transgression. These dialogues with the dead, the descent into Hades, and the descriptions of the sufferings of the chastised, all made a colossal impression not only on the faithful members of the Orphic cult, but even on the Christians of the early centuries, in the Middle Ages, and perhaps in modern times in certain instances.

But Greek religion did not stop, it continued to evolve without interruption, and when finally restless intellects appeared on the scene, exploratory in nature, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, religious convictions began to change, the power of the Olympian gods began to wane, ancestor worship took a secondary or tertiary place to eventually be forgotten completely in later years, and mystical faiths began to acquire more and more importance, more and greater significance. And this development continued until the fourth Century after the birth of Christ, when the Greek world turned in its entirety to Jesus of Nazareth and the great intellects immersed in Platonic thought and in the doctrines of other great philosophers, presented to the humble god of Judaic love, the benevolent Jesus, a new interpretation which became known as Greco-Christian philosophy. [p. 121]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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