The mystery religions and their relationship to christianity

Mystery religion - Beliefs and practices |

the mystery religions and their relationship to christianity

do not make Christianity any more than bits of matter make a human Recent study in the mystery religions is one If the probability of this relationship is. Christianity's first appearance in the Roman empire would have been as a Mystery Religion like the ones mentioned on this page. As it severed its ties to. The essay examines how Christianity developed as a distinct religion with a set were introduced into Christian practices by association with the mystery cults.

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.

Was Christianity Influenced by Mystery Religions?

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.

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. A long inscription of 92 bc gives elaborate directions for the conduct of the rites, although, naturally, it gives no details of what went on during initiation. The mysteries in honour of the Cabeiri gods of fertility on the island of Samothrace attracted great attention in this period. These gods were thought to be helpers of the seafarers, and initiation into their mysteries was looked upon as a general safeguard against all misfortune but particularly against shipwreck.

The Dionysiac Mysteries, with their revels and merriment, continued throughout the whole of Greek history. Together with most of the elements of Greek civilization, this cult was transferred to Italy. In bc a scandal about the Bacchanalia —the Latin name for the Hellenistic Dionysiac Mysteries—so upset the Romans that a decree of the Senate prohibited them throughout Italy, except in certain special cases.

These mysteries were celebrated in a lower middle class milieu and involved gross sex parties and violence conducted under the cover of mystery secrecy. The important developments in the mystery rites during the Hellenistic period took place in the Greek Orient, where elements from the Greek and Oriental religions were blended.

Contact with Greek civilization completely changed life in the Orient, where the knowledge of writing had been confined to a few priests and scribes. Society first disintegrated after the conquest of Alexander and then developed along new lines.

Changes in religion were inevitable, and some influence of Oriental traditions upon the Greeks was bound to follow. But the process was a slow one and became manifest only a few centuries later. With regard to the institution of kingship, however, syncretism worked quickly. Ancient Near Eastern kingship was originally sacral. The Syrian and Egyptian inhabitants of the newly created Greek kingdoms inevitably regarded the Greco-Macedonian kings as semidivine beings.

The Greeks themselves soon submitted to this mixture of politics and religion.

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He was the symbol of the security and help that man derives from an orderly society. Mystery rituals, called royal mysteries, were developed especially in Egypt. According to traditional Egyptian religionthe ruling pharaoh was an incarnation of Horus the sun-godhis mother or wife an incarnation of Isis the heavenly queenand his deceased father an incarnation of Osiris the god of fertility.

In Hellenistic times, Osiris was commonly known by the name Serapis. These gods became equated with Greek gods: Both Greek and Egyptian myths were adopted for these divinities. Khafre, detail of a statue with the god Horus in the shape of a falcon; in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; photograph, Hirmer Fotoarchiv, Munich One of the suburbs of Alexandria, the newly constructed Greek capital of Egypt, was called Eleusis after the city of Demeter in Greece, and the Eleusinian Mysteries were instituted in a Greco-Egyptian adaptation.

Dionysiac Mysteries were introduced on an even greater scale, so that the royal court was temporarily thrown into turmoil by the number of Bacchic ceremonies in which the king was considered to be a reincarnation of Dionysus. The Pythagorean concept of the migration of the soul was also taken over and was blended with the Egyptian belief in the reincarnation of the sun-god Horus in the reigning king.

The cult of rulers thus introduced ideas from the Greek Orient into Greek communities. But the mixture of religion and politics was a great obstacle for the propagation of the Greco-Oriental mysteries in the Mediterranean world. Even the numerous Greeks who lived in Egypt and Syria maintained the traditional Greek concept of the separation of god and man, and it was only after the political aspect of the mysteries was discarded that the religious elements could gain a life of their own.

Inscriptions discovered on the Greek island of Delos demonstrate this well. The worship of Serapis was introduced at Delos during the time the island was temporarily a naval base of the Greco-Egyptian kings.

When the Egyptian influence on the island receded, the cult of Serapis not only remained but reached new heights. The Romans later used Delos as a free port for the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and from there the worship of Serapis and Isis spread to most of the harbours of the Greek world and to the cities in the Bay of Napleswhence it was brought by Italian merchants to Rome. The combination of mystery elements with ruler worship is also evident in the kingdom of Commagene eastern Turkey and northern Syria.

Long inscriptions discovered in the remains of these sanctuaries bear striking similarities to the language of the mysteries. The ceremonies, however, seem to have contained little true religion.

Roman imperial times The great period of the mystery religions began when the Romans imposed peace upon the Mediterranean world. The Dionysiac, or Bacchic, societies flourished in the whole empire—in Greece proper, on the Greek islands, in Asia Minoralong the Danube Riverand especially in Italy and at Rome.

the mystery religions and their relationship to christianity

Hundreds of inscriptions attest to Bacchic Mysteries. Dionysus and satyrs, amphora painted in the black-figure style by the Amasis Painter, c. Courtesy of the Antikenmuseum, Basel, Switz. The pattern of imperial mystery ceremonies could vary widely. This was especially true of the Dionysiac rites.

In the clubs of the upper middle class and wealthy, for example, the festivals were chiefly social events. But the members of these communities were grateful for the security and peace and for the opportunity to make a good living that the emperor guaranteed to them.

They felt loyalty toward the Roman Empire and expressed this by ceremonies of the imperial mysteries.

the mystery religions and their relationship to christianity

Dionysus was the patron god of the important international society of actorsand their reunions were celebrated in the mode of Dionysiac Mysteries. When an emperor travelled in the empire, responsibility for dignified receptions of him was handed over to the society of actors.

Because his route was known beforehand, a voyage of the emperor was turned into a series of pompous festivals that were organized in a manner closely resembling mystery ceremonies. The meetings of the mystery clubs were often named after the common meal.

Seasonal festivals The religions of Dionysus and Demeter and of Isis and the Great Mother had something of an ecclesiastical year. The seasonal festivals were inherited from old tribal ceremonies that had been closely associated with the sowing and reaping of corn and with the production of wine.

The dates varied greatly according to the geographical conditions and the emphasis of the seasonal rites in the country in which the mysteries had originated. Dionysiac festivals were held in all four seasons; vintage and tasting of the new wine were the most important occasions. But the religion of Dionysus was closely associated with that of Demeter, and, thus, sowing and reaping were also celebrated in Dionysiac festivals. In the religion of the Great Mother, a hilarious spring festival celebrating the renewal of life was enacted in Rome.

The festivals of the Isis religion were connected with the three Egyptian seasons caused by the cycle of the Nile River inundation, sowing, and reaping.

About July 19, when the whole country was almost desiccated by the heat and the drought, the high waters of the new flood miraculously arrived from Ethiopia. On that day, just before sunrise, Sirius the Dog Star, or the star of Isis would make its first appearance of the season on the horizon. There were, in addition, the festivals of sowing and reaping. But because the Egyptian year was a solar year of days without intercalation leap yearsthe seasonal festivals that were fixed upon a particular date were retarded by one day every four years and complete confusion resulted.

The Romans fixed the calendar of Egypt by introducing an intercalary day every fourth year. It was a spring festival that celebrated the beginning of the seafaring season. A ship was carried on a cart carrus navalis through the city. It was followed by a procession of choruses, candidates, mystai in bright clothes wearing masks, and priests carrying the insignia of the goddess. The ship was let into the sea, and the participants returned to the temple, where initiation ceremonies, banquets, and dances were held.

In the religion of Sol, the festivals were determined by astronomy. The greatest festival was held on December 24—25, at the time of the winter solstice. Because from this date the length of the day began to increase, it was regarded as the day of the rebirth of the god and of the renovation of life.

Literature The mystery communities had religious hymns, but almost nothing of them has been preserved. The initial words of some hymns from the Sta. Prisca Mithraeum in Rome are known, and some Isiac poems exist. More important is a text of 40 sentences in which the goddess Isis reveals herself; it was found at four different and geographically distant places and was probably exhibited in every Isis sanctuary.

Narratives of the miracles wrought by the gods were preserved in many temple libraries; examples of these narratives, on papyrus and on stone, have been found. According to a recent theory, the literary genre of the romance was developed from these narratives. The last part of the Metamorphoses of Apuleius is an Isis text and narrates in detail the initiation into the Egyptian mysteries.

Hermes Trismegistosthe Greek name for the Egyptian god Thothwas the reputed author of treatises that have been preserved.

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Thoth was the scribe of the gods, the inventor of writing, and the patron of all the arts dependent upon writing; he was sometimes thought of as an attendant of Isis and sometimes as the repository of all wisdom. These treatises are not exactly mystery texts, but they are works of revelation on occult subjects and on theology.

Because the pagan mysteries had no official creed, each congregation of initiates was free to construct a theology of its own and to change it again. The Hermetic writings were attempts to provide a theology for a particular community. Although no authorized interpretation could exist for a doctrine that was in constant fluctuation and although none of the Hermetic treatises could claim to be the correct interpretation of the pagan mysteries, nevertheless, the texts give an instructive picture of spiritual life in mystery communities.

Thoth, represented in human form with ibis head, detail from the Greenfield Papyrus, c. Copyright British Museum There are some contemporary texts that shed light on the mystery communities. Arnobius seems to have lived among them in North Africa for a time before his conversion to Christianity. They had a religious doctrine of the soul, with marked affinities to the teachings of the Neoplatonic thinkers Plotinus and Porphyry.

Only fragments are preserved of the Chaldean Oraclesa theosophical text in verse that was composed by Julianus the Theurgist and his son late in the 2nd century ad and had great influence on the Neoplatonists. The work combined Platonic elements with Persian or Babylonian creeds and was regarded by the later Neoplatonists as their basic religious book, something of a heathen bible.

The doctrine of the Chaldean Oracles was associated with esoteric fire rituals. Julianus and his followers were called theurgists —i. Their religion was partly one of meditation about the hidden and wondrous magical processes within the cosmos.

Theology The creeds of the mystery religions were never worked out to the same extent that the Christian creeds were.

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Nevertheless, the doctrines of the mysteries may be called a theology. One of the central subjects in mystery writings was cosmogony—the theory of the origin or creation of the world. The theological doctrine of the soul and the myth about its celestial home, its fall, and its redemption were inseparable. The hero of the hymn, who represents the soul of man, is born in the Eastern the yonder Kingdom; immediately after his birth, he is sent by his parents on a pilgrimage into the world with instructions to take a pearl from the mouth of a dragon in the sea.

Instead of wearing his heavenly garment, he dresses in earthly clothes, eats earthly food, and forgets his task. Then his parents send a letter to rouse him. As soon as he has read the letter, he awakes and remembers his task, takes the pearl, and begins the homeward journey.