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6010Re: [ANE-2] Re: Greek Mystery Religions

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  • Daniel Grolin
    Sep 6, 2007
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      Dear participants of the Mystery Religion thread,

      I would like to thank everyone for their input.

      Stephanie. I would like to bring out a few quotes from Pakkanen's thesis to explain my view about mystery and status.

      "It was a kind of blessed status for those who had seen the Mysteries and who could share in the secret. All the other great celebrations created an opportunity to escape temporarily from daily life, its duties and troubles, but the Mysteries offered somewhat more. This may be interpretated as purifying, getting temporarily free from anxieties by solving questions concerning life and death and their paradox. It is hard to say whether individual distinction prevailed over group identity, because the central part of the Mysteries, the shared secrecy, was also socially determined. The individualistic appeal, however, was one of the most important factors that made the Mysteries so long-lived in antiquity and guaranteed its continuity." (p. 34)

      Now Pekkanen is here proposing what might have been the religious motives for internal cohesion, but what I proposed was that it not only created an "us" (that have the secret) and a "them" (that don't), but also that the "secret" translated into status and social capital.

      Immediately, below this quote commences Pekkanen's discussion of participants in the cult. As you noted all sorts of people could become initiates as long as the fulfilled certain criteria, which you cited and I will not repeat. You noted that even prostitutes could become members and the story of one such is mentioned in footnote 4.

      "There are, even though, only rare literal mentions of the women who took part in the rites; for example, the famous courtesan Phryne is mentioned by Athenaeus, 13.590e-f as having gone to take a bath naked in the river Cephissus, in front of the eyes of all participating in the procession from Athens to Eleusis."

      Now this to me is an example of social power granted by mystery. Phryne is parading power in a twofold way. First of all Phryne's personal power in terms of her ability to attract men. Social convention requires that Phryne to cover herself and not display her power, just like a warrior cannot go through the streets with weapon bared. Phryne can flaunt social convention because she has another power to back her, the mystery. She knows the secret and must be motivated by it and no one stops her. It is the power of the idea of mystery, and the authority it gives to those who know it, but it is also the mystery as social grouping.

      After her brief remark about membership she goes to discuss the cult's position in Athens:

      "From this we learn that the cult was an expedient for expressing the position of Athens, and during period of political and economical difficulties it might have been one way to symbolically show to the outer world that Athens had not lost its power. Thus the public aspect of this religious celebration was important for the city, because it gave an opportunity for the organization of a spectacle, a procession that made the position and power of Athens visible and concrete. The procession was the most important one given by the city-state, because it bound the relation of Athens and Eleusis together at a practical level and gave an opportunity for Athenian power to make a public appearance before all the Greeks. There is epigraphical evidence concerning the ordering of the procession, forming its participants into a line.1 It is quite evident that the role of the epheboi held a remarkable significance; the epheboi were those who represented the cities
      which took part in the festival, and thus their presence had symbolic meaning. Their appearance is most emphasized in the regulations for forming the pompe. One inscription from the middle of the fourth century BC (SEG XVII 21) relates how a so-called sacred peace was proclaimed for the period of the Great Mysteries in Athens and states that the initiants had to be ready to accept the regulations of the city. It was necessary for one to prove to the magistrate, who acted for the benefit of the Athenian state, that one had brought a contribution to the sacrificies. It was one way for Athens to make them submit to her, and acknowledge her power. The city itself even had the power of proclaiming an internal peace which demonstrates the remarkable political influence of the festival. No doubt Athens was well aware of this." (p. 35)

      If Athens could use the mystery cult as political capital, then surely it follows that members that gave such prestige to Athens in Greek society, must have had it in Athens' societal scheme as well.

      Pekkanen goes on to explain at great length about the administration of the cult, which I will not even try to summarize or quote here. A number of things, however, are worth noticing. For example, while there are a limited number of high officials, Pekkanen presents an impressive number of "minor sacred officials", right from advisors to cleaners (and those are only the ones that we know of). It seems to me that there were plenty of room for hierarchy within the mystery.

      Within this hierarchy the secret of the mystery also played a role. The hierophantes, the top official, was the one who showed the "hiera and revealed the spoken secrets" (p. 36) Thus to reveal the secrets to outsiders was a twofold betrayal. It was the betrayal of the hierarchy and the prerogatives of the top, and it was a betrayal of the boundaries between "us" and "them". Furthermore revealing the secrets of the mystery devalues it.

      Cara L. Sailor in her thesis "The Function of Mythology and Religion in Greek Society" notes:

      Like all Mystery Cults, the Eleusian Mysteries were to be kept secret from any person not initiated into the cult. However, there were at least a few people who violated this. One, a man named Diagoras of Melos, was said to have told the entirety of the mystery in the streets of Athens in such a way as to make it seem 'vile and unimportant.'" (p. 44)

      Finally, one of the things that originally suggested to me that we were dealing with what I (perhaps unadvisedly) called an "upper class phenomenon" was reading Zoilos of Aspendos' letter to Apollonios (Grant, F. C. "Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism" pp. 144-5). Where popular movements like Pauline Christianity created communities from the grassroots mystery religions were created from the top. While the latter's ideology tried to overturn social status quo and therefore came into conflict with Rome, mystery religions both accommodated and supported the status quo and happily co-existed with secular leaders (an anachronism, I know). The exception, the Dionysic cult, only proves the point. The solution was to have a Roman official be overseer.

      Michael. Thanks for the tip. It's a bit later than the period I am looking at, but might still be worth my while.

      With respect to the possible recurrence of themes from mystery religions (such as resurrection) in Christianity, I think that while this is interesting it does not really solve the question of relationship. First of all we cannot (as far as I can tell) construct the general features of the content of mystery religions, because in terms of content they are diverse. So one is not really comparing Pauline Christianity with a generic set of features, but looking at features in Pauline Christianity that may or may not be similar to those of a number of diverse religions.

      What unifies them, what can be regarded as generic, I think, is the phenomenon. It is also here that I find that they are quite different.

      I do think though that they both could be viewed as "voluntary associations".


      Daniel Grolin

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