1. The Mystery Religions in Greek Antiquity

Being self-conscious humans, we don’t just think; we think we think. We reflect upon our thinking by manipulating symbol systems, which ground our ability to reason. Whether this reasoning ability discloses the ‘true’ state of affairs in the world is a question best left unanswered, since to ask it at all involves the presupposition that the question is reasonable to begin with. On the other hand, we can think of our self-reflective faculty in purely pragmatic terms, since reason alone allows us to register patterns in experience and make long-term predictions based on them which are of inestimable aid to survival.

Looking at it this way however immediately surfaces a grim inevitability. For just as the classic syllogism concludes of Socrates, the foresight which reason enables ultimately reveals man’s mortality to man. Stated simply, we know that eventually we are going to die. Perhaps this is why in the Phaedo Plato’s Socrates claims that those who genuinely follow a philosophy of wisdom ‘pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead’. For without wisdom we are powerless to reconcile mortal anxiety with the transient but untroubled forms of nature and are likely to come to the desperate conclusion that our perspective is somehow skewed.

Such an outlook has provided the impetus for salvation-seeking throughout human history, from the alchemical pursuit of the elixir of immortality to the growth of our world religions. In the last two centuries, the crisis of values triggered by scientific movements like Darwinism and the trauma of two world wars led many philosophers to cast the same undercurrent of mortal unease into higher relief. Witnessing the rise of secular society, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: ‘God is dead, but man has not, for all that, become atheistic. The silence of the transcendent, and the permanent need for religion in modern man, is today’s – as well as yesterday’s – greatest preoccupation.’

The early existentialists had essentially identified humankind’s loftiest behavioral tendency: while historical conditions may vary, what does not vary is our craving for meaningful unity with a world that is indifferent to our brief residence within it. The seemingly implacable division of self and other in human consciousness was already evident in Greek antiquity, but as Nietzsche noted in The Birth of Tragedy, the Greeks found a way to heal the split through intoxicating rites and festivities, which in their intensification ‘led the individual to forget himself completely’.

It is either through the influence of narcotic potions, of which all primitive people and races speak in hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, penetrating all of nature with joy, that those Dionysian stirrings rise… Not only does the bond between person and person come to be forged once again by the magic of the Dionysian rite, but alienated, hostile, or subjugated nature again celebrates her reconciliation with her prodigal son, mankind.

Dionysian cults of the sort are believed to have been inherited by the Greeks through the Minoan civilization, which in turn took inspiration from the pre-Indo-Germanic worshippers of Artemis, the goddess of love and fertility. Turning back the clock further, prototypes of Artemis can be traced all the way to the last Ice Age in the form of the Earth Mother, who presided over not only the life of animals and humans, but also – indeed, especially – over death.

This primeval lineage hints at not only the early origins of the mysteries, but also the pivotal role they played in the Greek mind: the central spiritual illumination that evoked feelings of awe and served as the source and depository of religious ideas among the ancients was rooted in a death-rebirth initiation.

Of all the mystery institutions stirred by these Dionysian currents in which the shattering of the principium individuationis (or ‘unselving’, as Nietzsche called it) was the chief aim, the rites held just outside of Athens, at a site known as Eleusis, were the most celebrated across the ancient world. Celebrated annually around the time of the autumnal equinox, the so-called Eleusinian Mysteries were observed for almost two millennia and witnessed by thousands of participants, all of them sworn to secrecy under pain of death. Contemporary scholars still debate the exact nature of the rituals, but according to the available evidence, the rites at Eleusis involved a reenactment of the sacred mythos of Demeter and Persephone, as recounted in the Homeric Hymns of the Olympian pantheon, and were said to provide initiates with a vision of the afterlife.

As one might expect, all of Greece hastened to be initiated, leading one nineteenth century scholar to conclude that “the life of the Greeks [would be] unlivable, if they were prevented from properly observing the most sacred Mysteries, which hold the whole human race together.” Little wonder then that many important figures and thinkers of antiquity held them in such high regard. Even Socrates is said to have attended the Mysteries, although having never written anything down, we have no first-hand evidence by the philosopher’s hand. Fortunately his student, Plato, who also penetrated into the secrets of the sanctuary at Eleusis, could not help but speak of them with admiration. Again from the Phaedo, in which his character Socrates reflects on the immortality of the soul: ‘Our Mysteries had a very real meaning: he who has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods.’ Later in the same text, Socrates claims the true Mystery initiates are the true philosophers, “to be numbered amongst whom I have bent all the effort of a lifetime.” Elsewhere, in the Symposium, Plato even goes so far as to draw a direct analogy between philosophy and the Mysteries, suggesting both end with a similar divine revelation.

Clearly, initiates revered these secretive Mystery rituals as a wellspring of spiritual and philosophical wisdom that was crucially connected to the possibility of leading a good life. But how exactly does one understand in life a wisdom which concerns itself with ‘nothing else but death and dying?’ In other words, how does the philosopher of Greek antiquity reconcile everyday reason – the ground of all that is logical and rational – with what is, by all accounts, an unutterable mystical vision?

Keep reading