The mysteries were the elite religious system of the Greek (and later Roman worlds). They took the form of temple initiations, several days of sacred ceremonies celebrated once a year. Only the best of persons were admitted and harsh test and trials had to be passed before initiation was granted.
From the earliest of times the mysteries were held in great esteem:
Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.
Homeric Hymns, 2.480
When you come upon a burning sacrifice, do not make a mock of mysteries, for Heaven is angry at this also.
Hesiod, Works and Days, 755
The great Plato, himself an initiate, has this to say:
And I fancy that those men who established the mysteries were not unenlightened, but in reality had a hidden meaning when they said long ago that whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods. For as they say in the mysteries, 'the thyrsus-bearers are many, but the mystics few';
Plato, Phaedo, 69c
This veneration for the mysteries lasted even to later centuries in Rome:
For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those mysteries. For by means of them we…have been civilized. [T]he basis not only for living with joy but also for dying with a better hope.
Cicero, On the Laws, 2.14.36
The mysteries (and the characters celebrated therein) were not just stories but were very much an active part of the ancient world, in fact "Bacchus" (a key figure in the mysteries of Eleusis) was considered responsible for the defeat of Xerxes' fleet at Salamis (whose army had prevented the mysteries being celebrated that year):
A tale told by Dicaeus…an Athenian…after the army of Xerxes had…wasted Attica…he saw a cloud of dust advancing from Eleusis…as a host of thirty thousand men might raise…and he thought he recognised the mystic hymn to Bacchus. ..and saw…the cloud rise up in the air and sail away to Salamis… Then they knew that it was the fleet of Xerxes which would suffer destruction.
Herodotus, History Book VIII, 65
The ceremonies and symbolism of the mysteries were based around the myths of the Great Mother and her daughter, Mistress of the underworld.
The Great Mother has many names, the common one being Demeter (the Mater), but also Cybele, Rhea and Ceres (our cereal) in different times and places. The Great Mother is associated with grain and also fertility and is sometimes also known as the Grain Mother.
The girl, Kore, is called Persephone (or Proserpine) and is associated with fertility and the underworld - the central myth of the mysteries being the Great Mother's search for her daughter after she is carried away to the underworld by Pluto or Hades.
The secrets of the inner rituals have remained unbroken to this day, yet some general ideas may be obtained from a scattering of early references. Broadly it is known there were things seen, things said, and things done. More specifically, the initiate had a life-changing spiritual experience apparently involving a direct meeting with the gods.
This may simply have been done with the aid of drugs and smoke and mirror tricks (after careful psychological preparation), or may perhaps have been a genuine Out Of Body Experience. One interesting speculation says that a fire-walking ceremony was shown to the initiates.
One rare, possibly personal, account of initiation into the mysteries (in this case the Egyptian mysteries of Isis) is in the Golden Ass (from the 2nd century A.D.):
I approached the very gates of death and set one foot on Proserpine's threshold yet was permitted to return, borne through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining as if it were noon: I entered the presence of the gods of the underworld and the gods of the upper world, stood near and worshipped them.
Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Ch 18
One other account is from Photius (Patriarch of Constantinople writing in the 8th century from 2nd century sources):
In a manifestation which one must not reveal .... there is seen on a wall of the temple a mass of light, which appears at first at a very great distance. It is transformed, while unfolding itself, into a visage evidently divine and supernatural, of an aspect severe, but with a touch of sweetness. Following the teachings of a mysterious religion, the Alexandrians honour it as Osiris or Adonis"
(Damascius, cited in the Library of Photius, in Hislop, from Doleshal)
Hippolytus the church father, writing circa 200 A.D. describes the mysteries in more symbolic terms:
[T]he Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites…display…the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped.[later…] the Celebrant…cries aloud "August Brimo has brought forth a consecrated son, Brimus" that is a potent mother has borne a potent child.
Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, Book 5, Ch 3
Of course, it is difficult to be sure about such accounts, being either from the enemies of the pagans, or individuals who have broken their vows. Furthermore, by the end of the Roman Republic the mysteries were breaking down, and most of what we know is from this period - nonetheless it is possible to form a broad picture.
The mysteries were taken seriously even by the heroes. From Diodorus comes the most detail about the Samothracian mysteries, and his discussion notes that the heroes themselves were initiates:
The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the mysteries become more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous both of the ancient heroes and of the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioskoroi, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.
Diodorus Siculus, Book 5, Ch 49, 6
Hercules specifically sought initiation to assist him with one of his Labours:
He received a command from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus up from Hades to the light of day. And assuming it would be to his advantage for the accomplishment of this Labour, he went to Athens and took part in the Eleusinian mysteries.
Diodorus Siculus, Book 4, Ch 25, 1.
In fact at the start of the great voyage of Jason and the Argonauts (with the heroes Orpheus and Hercules and Castor and Pollux also present) they stop at Samothrace first:
In the evening at the suggestion of Orpheus, they beached the ship at Samothrace, the island of Electra daughter of Atlas. He wished them, by a holy initiation, to learn something of the secret rites and so sail on with greater confidence across the formidable sea.
Apollonius of Rhodes, The Voyage of Argo, I, 915
In another version this turns out crucial to our heroes, as we read in Diodorus:
But there came on a great storm and the chieftains had given up hope of being saved, when Orpheus, they say, who was the only one on ship-board who had ever been initiated in the mysteries of the deities of Samothrace, offered to these deities the prayres for there salvation. And immediately the wind died down and two stars fell over the heads of the Dioscuri
Diodorus Siculus, Book 4, Ch 43, 1.
Now we step back to the very beginnings of Greek history, the time of Hesiod and Homer, the 7th century B.C., to introduce a minor character of Greek myth - Iasion.
Iasion was the lover or partner of Ceres (Demeter), as we read in Homer:
Calypso trembled with rage…"You gods…are always jealous…when Ceres fell in love with Iasion, and yielded to him in a thrice-ploughed fallow field, Jove…killed Iasion with his thunderbolts"
Homer, The Odyssey, Book V, 116
Hesiod tells us a little more about the family:
Demeter, shining goddess, joined in love with Iasion the hero, on the rich island of Crete; They lay on fallow land which had been ploughed three times, and she gave birth to Ploutos, splendid god who travels far…and everyone who meets or touches him, grows wealthy, for great riches come from him.
Hesiod, Theogony, 970
It looks like the end of Iasion, but a few centuries later we read in a letter from Theocritus to his girl-friend (in 3rd century B.C. Greece):
"I envy Endymion. May my sleep be as sound as his. Sweet girl, I envy Iasion bound on the journey that unillumined ones may not take."
Theocritus, The Idylls, Lovesong 6
Thus it appears Iasion has gone on a journey that only initiates know about - but where? And wasn't Iasion killed?
No he wasn't, for by the 1st century B.C. Ovid is writing in Rome:
Aurora wept because her husband had white hair; and Ceres then bewailed the age of her Iasion, grey and stricken old;
Ovid, Metamorphoses, 9.682
Iasion leader-in-chief of the mysteries
In fact by this time (the end of the Roman Republic) it is public knowledge that Iasion is in fact considered the very founder of the mysteries (the Samothracian, earliest form):
And while the Samothracians were living under a government of this kind, they say that there were born in that land to Zeus and Electra, who was one of the Atlantids, Dardanus and Iasion and Harmonia. Of these children Dardanus, who was a man who entertained great designs and was the first to make his way across to Asia in a make-shift boat, founded at the outset a city called Dardanus, organized the kingdom which lay about the city which was called Troy at a later time, and called the peoples Dardanians after himself. They say also that he ruled over many nations throughout Asia and that the Dardani who dwell beyond Thrace were colonists sent forth by him. But Zeus desired that the other of his two sons [ie Iasion] might also attain to honor, and so he instructed him in the initiatory rite of the mysteries, which had existed on the island since ancient times but was at that time, so to speak, put in his hands; it is not lawful, however, for any but the initiated to hear about the mysteries
Diodorus Siculus Book 5, Ch 47, 3
Elsewhere Diodorus makes it clear that the identity of Iasion, as leader-in-chief of the mysteries had been a secret for initiates only:
[T]he Mother of the Gods, well pleased with the island [Samothrace], settled in it certain other people, and also her own sons, who are known by the name Corybantes - who their father was is handed down in their rites as a matter not to be divulged.
Diodorus Siculus, Book 3, Ch 55, 9
It is clear that it is Iasion who is meant here, Diodorus as much as says so:
Iasion married Kybele and begat Korybas…and Korybas gave the name of Korybantes to all who, in celebrating the rites of his mother, acted like men possessed…
Diodorus Siculus, Book 5, Ch 49, 2-3
Furthermore Iasion is known by other names. Consider what Strabo has to say about the leader-in-chief of the mysteries (writing shortly after Diodorus):
Now most of the Greeks assigned to Dionysus, Apollo, Hecatê, the Muses and above all to Demeter, everything of an orgiastic or Bacchic or choral nature, as well as the mystic element in initiations; and they give the name "Iacchus" not only to Dionysus but also to the leader-in-chief of the mysteries, who is the genius of Demeter.
Strabo, Book 10, Ch 3, 10
Now it is Iasion who is the leader-in-chief of the mysteries, and the lover of Demeter - here he is described as the genius of Demeter. This word is from the Greek daimona and means an inspiring or tutelary spirit, or originally the male creative principle.
Thus we are being told that the name Iacchus is equivalent both with Dionysus, and with Iasion. Note that Iacchus is often consider equivalent to Bacchus - all these names refer to a similar role, not necessarily exactly the same character, but similar characters whose stories carry similar themes.
Dionysus is a character from the later Orphic mysteries (which developed from the Samothracian) who shares many of the features of Iasion. In one form of the story Dionysus, the innocent child, is waylaid and killed by the Titans, who dismember and eat his body (boiled, then roasted!). Zeus, enraged, strikes the Titans with his thunderbolts and from their ashes springs mankind.
Note there is some overlap of roles between Iasion and Dardanus, his brother. Elsewhere in Strabo Dardanus is held responsible for bringing the mysteries to the Trojans (as well as founding the whole Trojan nation):
Iasion and Dardanus, two brothers, used to live in Samothrace. But when Iasion was struck by a thunderbolt because of his sin against Demeter, Dardanus sailed away from Samothrace, went and took up his abode at the foot of Mount Ida, calling the city Dardania, and taught the Trojans the Samothracian Mysteries.
Strabo, Geography, 7 f49
So we have seen how Iasion was seen as the leader-in-chief of the mysteries (although not necessarily by everyone), let us hear the Iasion story straight from Grimal:
Iasion A son of Zeus and Electra. He lived with his brother, Dardanus, in Samothrace...united with Demeter on a strip of fallow land... She bore a son Plutus...Zeus taught him the secrets of Samothrace. Later Iasion married Cybele, by whom he had a son called Corybas, eponym of the Corybantes.
Pierre Grimal, Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Penguin 1991
Now Samothrace was considered Electra's island from the earliest times. It is from her name that our word electricity is derived, and in fact she seems to have been associated with the idea of electric charge even in early times (some images showing her with suggestively streaming, radiant hair). Electra was a mortal daughter of Atlas, and she is also particularly known for her chastity and purity.
The Samothracian mysteries were the fountainhead of the ancient mysteries, Orpheus himself - who was responsible for the Orphic mysteries (and the Eleusinian in some versions) - received initiation at Samothrace. The origins of the Pelasgians of Samothrace is not known for sure, but they were considered non-Greeks. The key figures at Samothrace were the mysterious nature gods known as the Cabiri (or Kabeiroi). Authors differ (then and now) as to the identity and even the names of the Cabiri. Suffice for now to say that the central theme of the mysteries of Samothrace seems to involve the safe delivery from a perilous sea voyage (which was why the Argonauts sought the blessing of initiation there). As to where the trail leads back before Greek pre-history, well, to Egypt of course. We cannot follow that thread just now, but consider what Herodotus has to say:
These customs, then, and others besides, which I shall indicate, were taken by the Greeks from the Egyptians... It was not so with the ithyphallic images of Hermes; the production of these came from the Pelasgians, from whom the Athenians were the first Greeks to take it, and then handed it on to others. For the Athenians were then already counted as Greeks when the Pelasgians came to live in the land with them and thereby began to be considered as Greeks. Whoever has been initiated into the rites of the Cabeiri, which the Samothracians learned from the Pelasgians and now practice, understands what my meaning is. Samothrace was formerly inhabited by those Pelasgians who came to live among the Athenians, and it is from them that the Samothracians take their rites. The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is set forth in the Samothracian mysteries.
Herodotus, Histories, 2.51.1
Iasion does not remain dead, but retires to Olympus. His family spreads the sacred rites of the mysteries (and found the people who become Troy):
And after Iasion had been removed into the circle of the gods, Dardanus and Kybele and Korybas conveyed to Asia the sacred rites of the Mother of the Gods and removed with them to Phrygia.
Diodorus Siculus, Book 5, Ch 49, 2
Note Phrygia is where the rites of the Mother of the Gods are placed at the end of the story, and also note that the name of Plutus (the child of Iasion and Demeter) means 'wealth' which is what this god brings to all.
As Iasion was the original founder of the mysteries, so too his story is an early form of the myth. As the mysteries developed in different times and places, different names were used, and slightly differing themes were emphasised. The core characters of the myth were the Mother, the daughter, and the partner and/or the child. For the mother and daughter the key symbols are grain and sometimes pomegranite. For the partner the associated symbols are wine (and vines) and also the Holy Child.
Rome was the heir to the Greeks and they shared common myths and gods and heroes (often with different names), they also saw themselves as the descendents of the Trojans. The story of Aeneas in Virgil's great poem tells how he escaped from the ruins of Troy to later give rise to the Roman nation. In fact Iasion rates a very special mention in the Aeneid:
There is a land the roving Greeks have named Hesperia. It is a storied realm made mighty by great wars and fruitful land.Oenotrians had it, and their sons, 't is said, have called it Italy, a chieftain's name to a whole region given. That land alone our true abode can be; for Dardanus was cradled there, and old Iasius, their blood the oldest of our ancient line. Arise! go forth and cheer thy father gray with the glad tidings! Bid him doubt no more!
Vergil, Aeneid 3.246
Here Iasion is called Iasius (more about that shortly) and he and Dardanus are creditted with being the sires of Troy but actually from Italy (the passage above is from a vision in which the hero is steered towards Rome after the sack of Troy).
Thus one of the greatest of Roman poets portrays Iasion as his ancestor (though not supported on this specific point). Generally he is seen as the founder of the mysteries rather than of the race. Still it is clear that Iasion was a well known and respected forebear in the late Republic - remember of course that he was seen then as a real (yet semi-divine) personage, not as a story.
The importance of the Greater Mother cult in Rome can be seen in an event from 2 centuries B.C. When Hannibal was rampaging up and down Italy, wiping out consuls and legions by the dozen, panic seized the people and they turned to the Sibylline books for advice. Livy tells us:
[I]n the Books a prophecy was found that if ever a foreign enemy should invade Italy, he could be defeated and drive out if Cybele, the Idaean Mother of the Gods, were brought from Pessinus to Rome.
Livy, The War with Hannibal, Book 29, 10
So a sacred black (probably meteoric) stone representing the Great Mother to the Roman mind, was brought to Rome from the central temple in Phrygia (amidst much drama, even miracles!) and sure enough Hannibal was eventually defeated.
We saw above that Iasion is sometimes called Iasius, in fact there are several variants of the name including Aetion and Eetion - we know all these names refer to the same person because of the context. Consider a fragment of the Catalogue of Women:
Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, The Catalogues
of Women Eoiae (fragments)
Fragment #102 (Uncertain Position), Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1359 fr. 2 (early 3rd cent. A.D.), (ll. 5-16):
...Electra....was subject to the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and bare Dardanus....and Eetion....who once greatly loved rich-haired Demeter. And cloud-gathering Zeus was wroth and smote him, Eetion, and laid him low with a flaming thunderbolt, because he sought to lay hands upon rich-haired Demeter...
It is clear that we are hearing about Iasion (from the context), showing Eetion = Iasius = Iasion. These names are all equivalent like Richard is equivalent to Dick and Rick, or William to Bill, Will, and Willy.
The name Iasion or Iasius (whilst perhaps not directly equivalent) is suggestively similar to Iesous.
This Greek name Iesous, in English, is Jesus.
The Sacrificed Son-of-God was a common figure in these times and places, his story being found under several different names: Dionysus, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis - and Iasius of course, for this is the Type of his story. The essential characteristics of the story are a Son-of-God, born of a virgin, tragically killed, but rising again, with his 'death' bringing fruitfulness to mankind.
Each different variant has some different local characteristics, consider one variant: that of Attis, the consort of the Phrygian Cybele. Attis was the Good Shepherd, in some versions the son of a Virgin Nana. The festival of his death and resurrection took place from March 22nd to 25th when a pine tree was felled and an effigy of Attis hung it - i.e. Attis is slain and hung on a tree (c.f. Acts V 30), after three days he rises again to much celebration, the initiates having their sins washed in blood and being thus "born again" [Weigall, Paganism in our Christianity]
The common or central symbols to this sacrificed son of god story included:
Wedding, Great Mother, Wine, Grain, Holy Child, Descent into Hell.
The Church Fathers knew about the connections between Jesus and these other pagan figures. St Jerome noted that the supposed birth place of Jesus was actually an earlier shrine to Tammuz/Adonis! The Vatican Hill was apparently the very centre of the ancient Attis cult [Hepding, Attis].
Clement of Alexandria, the 2nd century Church Father refers both to Eetion and Iasion :
Perish, then, the man who was the author of this imposture amongst men, be he Dardanus, who taught the mysteries of the mother of the gods, or Eetion, who instituted the orgies and mysteries of Samothracians.
"The female deities stayed each in the house, for shame," says Homer; the goddesses blushing, for modesty's sake, to look on Aphrodité when she had been guilty of adultery. But these are more passionately licentious, bound in the chains of adultery; Eos having disgraced herself with Tithonus, Selene with Endymion, Nereis with Aeacus, Thetis with Peleus, Demeter with Iasion, Persephatta with Adonis
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Ch II
The 2nd reference to Iasion is usually translated as "Jason" in English - showing how the context determines the transliteration used, often confusing the issue as to who is meant. It is not clear that Clement recognised that Eetion and Iasion were the same figures, nor is it clear that he saw the connection with Jesus.
At the beginning of the Roman Empire (the time leading up the formation of Christianity).
Most would have heard of Iasion and would know the basic outlines of the story:
Now, who does this sound like?
At this stage Paul enters preaching the word of Jesus, the Son of God, who brings divine revelation to mankind - bringing revelation to Paul himself in a life-changing experience. Paul's audience (at least the non-Jews) responded to Paul's Jesus because it was the well-known pagan story of the sacrificed son-of-god. This story was one of the main religious (i.e. teaching) allegories of the period. The Romans were particularly ready to accept a system which offered personal salvation through initiation (open to all!) into the mysteries of the great Iasion/Iasius (Paul use the name Iesous, suggestively similar) because they already knew this Iasius/Jesus as the initiator of Orpheus, Hercules and Castor and Pollux as well as many in the Roman elite. In fact Rome was the centre of a Jesus/Iasius cult and they believed his family to responsible for the founding of Troy, Rome and the mysteries.
Paul's inspired spiritual teachings, based on one of the most powerful allegorical myths of the day, offering initiation to all into the mysteries of the very founder of the ancient Greek mysteries, was a very powerful offering indeed.
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