The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, by Thomas Taylor, , at sacred-texts.com
In offering to the public a new edition of Mr. Thomas Taylors admirable treatise upon the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, it is proper to insert a few words of explanation. These observances once represented the spiritual life of Greece, and were considered for two thousand years and more the appointed means for regeneration through an interior union with the Divine Essence. However absurd, or even offensive they may seem to us, we should therefore hesitate long before we venture to lay desecrating hands on what others have esteemed holy. We can learn a valuable lesson in this regard from the Grecian and Roman writers, who had learned to treat the popular religious rites with mirth, but always considered the Eleusinian Mysteries with the deepest reverence.
It is ignorance which leads to profanation. Men ridicule what they do not properly understand. Alcibiades was drunk when he ventured to touch what his
countrymen deemed sacred. The undercurrent of this world is set toward one goal; and inside of human credulity—call it human weakness, if you please—is a power almost infinite, a holy faith capable of apprehending the supremest truths of all Existence. The veriest dreams of life, pertaining as they do to “the minor mystery of death,” have in them more than external fact can reach or explain; and Myth, however much she is proved to be a child of Earth, is also received among men as the child of Heaven. The Cinder-Wench of the ashes will become the Cinderella of the Palace, and be wedded to the Kings Son.
The instant that we attempt to analyze, the sensible, palpable facts upon which so many try to build disappear beneath the surface, like a foundation laid upon quicksand. “In the deepest reflections,” says a distinguished writer, “all that we call external is only the material basis upon which our dreams are built; and the sleep that surrounds life swallows up life,—all but a dim wreck of matter, floating this way and that, and forever evanishing from sight. Complete the analysis, and we lose even the shadow of the external Present, and only the Past and the Future are left us as our sure inheritance. This is the first initiation,—the vailing [muesis] of the eyes to the external. But as epoptæ, by the synthesis of this Past and Future in a living nature, we obtain a higher, an ideal Present, comprehending within itself all that can be real for us within us or without. This is the second
initiation in which is unvailed to us the Present as a new birth from our own life. Thus the great problem of Idealism is symbolically solved in the Eleusinia.” *
These were the most celebrated of all the sacred orgies, and were called, by way of eminence, The Mysteries. Although exhibiting apparently the features of an Eastern origin, they were evidently copied from the rites of Isis in Egypt, an idea of which, more or less correct, may be found in The Metamorphoses of Apuleius and The Epicurean by Thomas Moore. Every act, rite, and person engaged in them was symbolical; and the individual revealing them was put to death without mercy. So also was any uninitiated person who happened to be present. Persons of all ages and both sexes were initiated; and neglect in this respect, as in the case of Socrates, was regarded as impious and atheistical. It was required of all candidates that they should be first admitted at the Mikra or Lesser Mysteries of Agræ, by a process of fasting called purification, after which they were styled mystæ, or initiates. A year later, they might enter the higher degree. In this they learned the aporrheta, or secret meaning of the rites, and were thenceforth denominated ephori, or epoptæ. To some of the interior mysteries, however, only a very select number obtained admission. From these were taken all the ministers of holy rites. The Hierophant who presided was bound to celibacy, and required to devote his entire life to his sacred office.
[paragraph continues] He had three assistants,—the torch-bearer, the kerux or crier, and the minister at the altar. There were also a basileus or king, who was an archon of Athens, four curators, elected by suffrage, and ten to offer sacrifices.
The sacred Orgies were celebrated on every fifth year; and began on the 15th of the month Boëdromian or September. The first day was styled the agurmos or assembly, because the worshipers then convened. The second was the day of purification, called also aladé mystai, from the proclamation: “To the sea, initiated ones!” The third day was the day of sacrifices; for which purpose were offered a mullet and barley from a field in Eleusis. The officiating persons were forbidden to taste of either; the offering was for Achtheia (the sorrowing one, Demeter) alone. On the fourth day was a solemn procession. The kalathos or sacred basket was borne, followed by women, cistæ or chests in which were sesamum, carded wool, salt, pomegranates, poppies,—also thyrsi, a serpent, boughs of ivy, cakes, etc. The fifth day was denominated the day of torches. In the evening were torchlight processions and much tumult.
The sixth was a great occasion. The statue of Iacchus, the son of Zeus and Demeter, was brought from Athens, by the Iacchogoroi, all crowned with myrtle. In the way was heard only an uproar of singing and the beating of brazen kettles, as the votaries danced and ran along. The image was borne “through the sacred Gate, along the sacred way, halting by the
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Procession of Iacchos and Phallus.
sacred fig-tree (all sacred, mark you, from Eleusinian associations), where the procession rests, and then moves on to the bridge over the Cephissus, where again it rests, and where the expression of the wildest grief gives place to the trifling farce,—even as Demeter, in the midst of her grief, smiled at the levity of Iambé in the palace of Celeus. Through the mystical entrance we enter Eleusis. On the seventh day games are celebrated; and to the victor is given a measure of barley,—as it were a gift direct from the hand of the goddess. The eighth is sacred to Æsculapius, the Divine Physician, who heals all diseases; and in the evening is performed the initiatory ritual.
“Let us enter the mystic temple and be initiated,—though it must be supposed that, a year ago, we were initiated into the Lesser Mysteries at Agræ. We must have been mystæ (vailed), before we can become epoptæ (seers); in plain English, we must have shut our eyes to all else before we can behold the mysteries. Crowned with myrtle, we enter with the other initiates into the vestibule of the temple,—blind as yet, but the Hierophant within will soon open our eyes.
“But first,—for here we must do nothing rashly,—first we must wash in this holy water; for it is with pure hands and a pure heart that we are bidden to enter the most sacred enclosure [μυστικος σηκος, mustikos sekos]. Then, led into the presence of the Hierophant, *
he reads to us, from a book of stone [πετρωμα, petroma], things which we must not divulge on pain of death. Let it suffice that they fit the place and the occasion; and though you might laugh at them, if they were spoken outside, still you seem very far from that mood now, as you hear the words of the old man (for old he he always was), and look upon the revealed symbols. And very far, indeed, are you from ridicule, when Demeter seals, by her own peculiar utterance and signals, by vivid coruscations of light, and cloud piled upon cloud, all that we have seen and heard from her sacred priest; and then, finally, the light of a serene wonder fills the temple, and we see the pure fields of Elysium, and hear the chorus of the Blessed;—then, not merely by external seeming or philosophic interpretation, but in real fact, does the Hierophant become the Creator [δημιουργος, demiourgos] and revealer of all things; the Sun is but his torch-bearer, the Moon his attendant at the altar, and Hermes his mystic herald * [κηρυξ, kerux]. But the final word has been uttered Conx Om pax. The rite is consummated, and we are epoptæ forever!”
Those who are curious to know the myth on which
the “mystical drama” of the Eleusinia is founded will find it in any Classical Dictionary, as well as in these pages. It is only pertinent here to give some idea of the meaning. That it was regarded as profound is evident from the peculiar rites, and the obligations imposed on every initiated person. It was a reproach not to observe them. Socrates was accused of atheism, or disrespect to the gods, for having never been initiated. * Any person accidentally guilty of homicide, or of any crime, or convicted of witchcraft, was excluded. The secret doctrines, it is supposed, were the same as are expressed in the celebrated Hymn of Cleanthes. The philosopher Isocrates thus bears testimony: “She [Demeter] gave us two gifts that are the most excellent; fruits, that we may not live like beasts; and that initiation—those who have part in which have sweeter hope, both as regards the close of life and for all eternity.” In like manner, Pindar also declares: “Happy is he who has beheld them, and descends into the Underworld: he knows the end, he knows the origin of life.”
The Bacchic Orgies were said to have been instituted,
or more probably reformed by Orpheus, a mythical personage, supposed to have flourished in Thrace. * The Orphic associations dedicated themselves to the worship of Bacchus, in which they hoped to find the gratification of an ardent longing after the worthy and elevating influences of a religious life. The worshipers did not indulge in unrestrained pleasure and frantic enthusiasm, but rather aimed at an ascetic purity of
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Etruscan Eleusinian Ceremonies.
life and manners. The worship of Dionysus was the center of their ideas, and the starting-point of all their speculations upon the world and human nature. They believed that human souls were confined in the body as in a prison, a condition which was denominated genesis or generation; from which Dionysus would liberate them. Their sufferings, the stages by which they passed to a higher form of existence, their katharsis or purification, and their enlightenment constituted the themes of the Orphic writers. All this was represented in the legend which constituted the groundwork of the mystical rites.
Dionysus-Zagreus was the son of Zeus, whom he had begotten in the form of a dragon or serpent, upon the person of Kore or Persephoneia, considered by some to have been identical with Ceres or Demeter, and by others to have been her daughter. The former idea is more probably the more correct. Ceres or Demeter was called Koré at Cnidos. She is called Phersephatta in a fragment by Psellus, and is also styled a Fury. The divine child, an avatar or incarnation of Zeus, was denominated Zagreus, or Chakra (Sanscrit) as being destined to universal dominion. But at the instigation of Hera * the Titans conspired to murder him.
[paragraph continues] Accordingly, one day while he was contemplating a mirror, * they set upon him, disguised under a coating of plaster, and tore him into seven parts. Athena, however, rescued from them his heart, which was swallowed by Zeus, and so returned into the paternal substance, to be generated anew. He was thus destined to be again born, to succeed to universal rule, establish the reign of happiness, and release all souls from the dominion of death.
The hypothesis of Mr. Taylor is the same as was maintained by the philosopher Porphyry, that the Mysteries constitute an illustration of the Platonic
philosophy. At first sight, this may be hard to believe; but we must know that no pageant could hold place so long, without an under-meaning. Indeed, Herodotus asserts that “the rites called Orphic and Bacchic are in reality Egyptian and Pythagorean.” * The influence of the doctrines of Pythagoras upon the Platonic system is generally acknowledged. It is only important in that case to understand the great philosopher correctly; and we have a key to the doctrines and symbolism of the Mysteries.
The first initiations of the Eleusinia were called Teletæ or terminations, as denoting that the imperfect and rudimentary period of generated life was ended and purged off; and the candidate was denominated a mysta, a vailed or liberated person. The Greater Mysteries completed the work; the candidate was more fully instructed and disciplined, becoming an epopta or seer. He was now regarded as having received the arcane principles of life. This was also the end sought by philosophy. The soul was believed to be of composite nature, linked on the one side to the eternal world, emanating from God, and so partaking of Divinity. On the other hand, it was also allied to the phenomenal or external world, and so liable to be subjected to passion, lust, and the bondage of evils. This condition is denominated generation; and is supposed to be a kind of death to the higher form of life. Evil is inherent in this condition; and the soul dwells
in the body as in a prison or a grave. In this state, and previous to the discipline of education and the mystical initiation, the rational or intellectual element, which Paul denominates the spiritual, is asleep. The earth-life is a dream rather than a reality. Yet it has longings for a higher and nobler form of life, and its affinities are on high. “All men yearn after God,” says Homer. The object of Plato is to present to us the fact that there are in the soul certain ideas or principles, innate and connatural, which are not derived from without, but are anterior to all experience, and are developed and brought to view, but not produced by experience. These ideas are the most vital of all truths, and the purpose of instruction and discipline is to make the individual conscious of them and willing to be led and inspired by them. The soul is purified or separated from evils by knowledge, truth, expiations, sufferings, and prayers. Our life is a discipline and preparation for another state of being; and resemblance to God is the highest motive of action. *
Proclus does not hesitate to identify the theological doctrines with the mystical dogmas of the Orphic system. He says: “What Orpheus delivered in hidden allegories, Pythagoras learned when he was initiated into the Orphic Mysteries; and Plato next received a perfect knowledge of them from the Orphean and Pythagorean writings.”
Mr. Taylors peculiar style has been the subject of repeated criticism; and his translations are not accepted by classical scholars. Yet they have met with favor at the hands of men capable of profound and recondite thinking; and it must be conceded that he was endowed with a superior qualification,—that of an intuitive perception of the interior meaning of the subjects which he considered. Others may have known more Greek, but he knew more Plato. He devoted his time and means for the elucidation and dissemination of the doctrines of the divine philosopher; and has rendered into English not only his writings, but also the works of other authors, who affected the teachings of the great master, that have escaped destruction at the hand of Moslem and Christian bigots. For this labor we cannot be too grateful.
The present treatise has all the peculiarities of style which characterize the translations. The principal difficulties of these we have endeavored to obviate—a labor which will, we trust, be not unacceptable to readers. The book has been for some time out of print; and no later writer has endeavored to replace it. There are
many who still cherish a regard, almost amounting to veneration, for the author; and we hope that this reproduction of his admirable explanation of the nature and object of the Mysteries will prove to them a welcome undertaking. There is an increasing interest in philosophical, mystical, and other antique literature, which will, we believe, render our labor of some value to a class of readers whose sympathy, good-will, and fellowship we would gladly possess and cherish. If we have added to their enjoyment, we shall be doubly gratified.
Venus and Proserpina in Hades.
Rape of Proserpina.
As there is nothing more celebrated than the Mysteries of the ancients, so there is perhaps nothing which has hitherto been less solidly known. Of the truth of this observation, the liberal reader will, I persuade myself, be fully convinced, from an attentive perusal of the following sheets; in which the secret meaning of the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries is unfolded, from authority the most respectable, and from a philosophy of all others the most venerable and august. The authority, indeed, is principally derived from manuscript writings, which are, of course, in the possession of but a few; but its respectability is no more lessened by its concealment, than the value of a diamond when secluded from the light. And as to the philosophy, by whose assistance these Mysteries are developed, it is coeval with the universe itself; and, however its continuity may be broken by opposing systems, it will make its appearance at different periods of time, as long as the sun himself shall continue to illuminate the
world. It has, indeed, and may hereafter, be violently assaulted by delusive opinions; but the opposition will be just as imbecile as that of the waves of the sea against a temple built on a rock, which majestically pours them back,
Pallas, Venus, and Diana.
13:* Atlantic Monthly, vol. iv. September, 1859.
17:* In the Oriental countries the designation פתר Peter (an interpreter), appears to have been the title of this personage; and p. 18 the petroma consisted, notably enough, of two tablets of stone. There is in these facts some reminder of the peculiar circumstances of the Mosaic Law which was so preserved; and also of the claim of the Pope to be the successor of Peter, the hierophant or interpreter of the Christian religion.
19:* Ancient Symbol-Worship, page 12, note. “Socrates was not initiated, yet after drinking the hemlock, he addressed Crito: We owe a cock to Æsculapius. This was the peculiar offering made by initiates (now called kerknophori) on the eve of the last day, and he thus symbolically asserted that he was about to receive the great apocalypse.”
See, also, “Progress of Religious Ideas,” by Lydia Maria Child, vol. ii. p. 308; and “Discourses on the Worship of Priapus,” by Richard Payne Knight.
20:* Euripides: Rhaesus. “Orpheus showed forth the rites of the hidden Mysteries.”
Plato: Protagoras. “The art of a sophist or sage is ancient, but the men who proposed it in ancient times, fearing the odium attached to it, sought to conceal it, and vailed it over, some under the garb of poetry, as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides: and others under that of the Mysteries and prophetic manias, such as Orpheus, Musæus, and their followers.”
Herodotus takes a different view—ii. 49. “Melampus, the son of Amytheon,” he says, “introduced into Greece the name of Dionysus (Bacchus), the ceremonial of his worship, and the procession of the phallus. He did not, however, so completely apprehend the whole doctrine as to be able to communicate it entirely: but various sages, since his time, have carried out his teaching to greater perfection. Still it is certain that Melampus introduced the phallus, and that the Greeks learnt from him the ceremonies which they now practice. I therefore maintain that Melampus, who was a sage, and had acquired the art of divination, having become acquainted with the worship of Dionysus through knowledge derived from Egypt, introduced it into Greece, with a few slight changes, at the same time that he brought in various other practices. For I can by no means allow that it is by mere coincidence that the Bacchic ceremonies in Greece are so nearly the same as the Egyptian.”
23:* Hera, generally regarded as the Greek title of Juno, is not the definite name of any goddess, but was used by ancient writers as a designation only. It signifies domina or lady, and appears to be of Sanscrit origin. It is applied to Ceres or Demeter, and other divinities.
24:* The mirror was a part of the symbolism of the Thesmophoria, and was used in the search for Atmu, the Hidden One, evidently the same as Tammuz, Adonis, and Atys. See Exodus xxxviii. 8; 1 Samuel ii. 22; and Ezekiel viii. 14. But despite the assertion of Herodotus and others that the Bacchic Mysteries were in reality Egyptian, there exists strong probability that they came originally from India, and were Sivaic or Buddhistical. Coré-Persephoneia was but the goddess Parasu-pani or Bhavani, the patroness of the Thugs, called also Gorée; and Zagreus is from Chakra, a country extending from ocean to ocean. If this is a Turanian or Tartar Story, we can easily recognize the “Horns” as the crescent worn by lama-priests: and translating god-names as merely sacerdotal designations, assume the whole legend to be based on a tale of Lama Succession and transmigration. The Titans would then be the Daityas of India, who were opposed to the faith of the northern tribes; and the title Dionysus but signify the god or chief-priest of Nysa, or Mount Meru. The whole story of Orpheus, the institutor or rather the reformer of the Bacchic rites, has a Hindu ring all through.
25:* Herodotus: ii. 81.
26:* Many of the early Christian writers were deeply imbued with the Eclectic or Platonic doctrines. The very forms of speech were almost identical. One of the four Gospels, bearing the title “according to John,” was the evident product of a Platonist, and hardly seems in a considerable degree Jewish or historical. The epistles ascribed to Paul evince a great familiarity with the Eclectic philosophy and the peculiar symbolism of the Mysteries, as well as with the Mithraic notions that had penetrated and permeated the religious ideas of the western countries.