Greek Mystery Tradition

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. 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, none of them were omnipotent. Although they were capable of exhibiting wisdom, none of them were omniscient. And they often found themselves just as subject to the whims of Fate as the humans who prayed to them 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 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 knowing that they were now superior to the problems that the uninitiated faced concerning life, death, and immortality. Not only did the initiates know 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.

The early mystery schools of the Greeks centered around a kind of play or ritual reenactment of the life of such gods as Osiris, Dionysus, 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.

There is a general consensus that the most important mystery religions of Greece—the Eleusinian, the Dionysian, and the Orphic— were brought to that country from abroad sometime during the closing centuries of the Prehistoric Era (c. 2000 B.C.E.). The oldest of the mysteries, the Dionysian, was probably developed in Thrace, in the eastern Balkans, and introduced to the Greeks. Once the mysteries were accepted by the Greek initiates, the passion plays of Demeter and Dionysus became popular in the sixth century B.C.E. and again in the Hellenistic Age in the fourth century B.C.E. This was when individualism was encouraged and the old gods of Olympus fell into disregard. Perhaps the time of greatest popularity for the mysteries occurred during the closing centuries of pagan worship practices and the advent of the Christian Era. The early Christian Fathers regarded the rites in the sacred groves as strong rivals for their faith, and in the Middle Ages (500–1500 C.E.), the Christian clergy would declare such mysteries as satanic.