Mystery and Messiah: Parallels between the mystery cults of the Hellenistic era and Christianity

2003 02 24 - 11:30

The Hellenistic period in the history of Greece stretched from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. to Macedonian Greece's fall to Rome in 146 B.C.E. It gave rise to the schools of Epicurus (1) and Zeno (2) in Athens, but was also the time of the suppression of the Bacchic mysteries by the Roman Senate. Despite this suppression, the time was a fertile one for mystery religions such as the Bacchics. There were hundreds of these mystery cults, and despite their variety, they held many similarities with each other, and with the newly emerging religion of Christianity.

It is important to understand what is meant by the term "mystery" when discussing the cults of the Hellenistic world. In our time the word mystery carries a (mostly negative) connotation relating to something unknown, particularly a crime that cannot be, or is not yet, solved. This was not the connotation of that term when applied to ancient religious groups. In the study of these cults or religious groups, the term "mystery" (mysterion in Greek) refers only to something that is "secret" or "closed". The word mystery itself, derived from the Greek word "myein" which meant "to close". It is believed to indicate the closing of the lips or eyes, which could indicate both the need to keep the secrets of the cult (not revealing them to outsiders) or the ignorance of the uninitiated before they are enlightened (opened) by the realities of the particular group. It could also be interpreted as an indication of the closed nature of the group at large, closed to the uninitiated, since the mysteries are rites "in which certain sacra are exhibited, which cannot be safely seen by the worshipper till he has undergone certain purifications." (Harrison) The mysteries were, at their basic level, secret religious groups composed of individuals who wished to be initiated into the realities of that group's particular deity. The origins of these cults are ancient and "hidden in the mists of prehistory." (Meyer) It is believed that the formation of some of these groups stemmed from agrarian festivals celebrating nature's fertility and the cycle of crops, and from chthonian (3) cults (from Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Anatolia, Iran, and elsewhere) that had merged with local beliefs and rituals.

Variety in number and nature did not preclude inter-cult similarities. Vows were taken that ensured the secrets of the group were kept private; salvation was provided by a deity who had died and was reborn; and rituals often included a sacred meal of food and drink (often visualised as the body and blood of the deity). It was not only with other cults that these groups shared common ground. Although it cannot be determined from which direction the borrowing began, except in regards to religious practices that existed before the dawn of Christianity, whose nature and origin can be derived from pre-Christian sources, many similarities can be drawn between the mystery religions and Christianity. Ferguson theorises that the identification of various deities may be responsible for reducing their number. The chief god of each group was thought of as the same (the Greeks even believing that the name of a god was translatable like any other word), and that, along with this cross-identification, the borrowing of ideas, concepts, and interpretations between cults, had sparked a trend towards monotheism.

One of the most common similarities between the mystery cults and Christianity, one that was almost universal despite the intent being different for each group, was the sacred meal. Within Christianity the Eucharist (4) carries a note of thanksgiving and is a meal that memorialises the death and resurrection of Jesus. The mystai of Dionysus (5) and Mithras (6) also partook of sacred feasts. The Dionysians devoured the raw flesh of a sacrificial animal and believed they were consuming the god himself. This concept, of course, echoes the idea of transubstantiation that exists in many Christian sects, where, at the time of consecration during a religious service, the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. The Mithraics and Christians both made use of bread at their sacred feasts, yet while the Christians took wine, it seems that Mithraics made use of water instead - though it may have been a mixed drink of water and wine. It has been said of both Mithraism and Christianity that the act of faith is renewed in this common feast. The apologist Justin Martyr (7) found the similarities between the Lord's Supper of the Christian faith and the feast shared by Mithraics so embarrassing, that he claimed of the Mithraics that they ate bread and drank water in "diabolical imitation of the Christian Eucharist." (Meyer)

It is not in Christianity alone that we find evidence of the concept of resurrection, though the Christian idea of resurrection seems repugnant to many mystery faiths. This repugnance is likely because, in their eyes, the god was to be and remain divine, not return in any earthly or "manly" way, nor considered a man any longer, as Christ was. A type of resurrection, like the sacred feast, was also nearly universal to the ancient mystery cults. The deities of many cults died and were reborn; Osiris, for example, was one such resurrected deity. Osiris was only, however, ruler of the dead. Christ is, through himself and God, ruler over all things: the dead and the Kingdom of God. The idea of resurrection in the mystery cults seems heavily tied to the cycle of nature, something that was renewed each year and commemorated fertility, whereas the resurrection of Christ is a one-time historical event. The Christians also saw the resurrection of Jesus in a moral light, something that symbolised the redemption of their sins, but within the mystery cults a moral ideal did not necessarily exist. The "salvation" found within the cults was one that delivered them from fate and terrors of the afterlife, in a more immediate and physical sense. The deities of the mystery cults also did not die voluntarily, nor had Christ, though he was cognisant of his fate and resigned to it., and did not do so (nor return to the earth) to save humanity. One of Demeter's gifts, though, is "the promise of a prolonged life beyond the grave for those who have 'seen the mysteries'." (Burkert, Mystery Cults) Much like Christians are promised heaven for eternity if they lead the sort of life outlined for them in the Bible and through the teachings of Jesus.

One of the most significant rituals within the Christian community is that of baptism. From the time of Paul, baptism was seen as a death experience, and emergence from the water was taken as the beginning of a new life. This ritual was a gift of god that conferred a state of grace upon the recipient, and washed away the stain of sin. Although there are no true parallels to the Christian concept of baptism and its significance within the mysteries, ceremonies and concepts manifest in similar ways. As with the Christian baptism, water was used for purification purposes within the mysteries, but the benefit came from the act of cleansing itself not from any sense of a god's grace-gift. The Mithraic taurobolium, a ritual in which the recipient crouched in a pit while a bull was slaughtered on boards over his head, was a type of baptismal ritual. The blood falling on the recipient symbolised a rebirth, and it has been suggested that, though this ceremony had to be repeated every 20 years, a person was reborn for eternity. Water, within the mysteries, seems to have been more commonly used as a lustration (purification by means of ritual) or ablution (act of washing oneself or another) required before approaching an altar, entering a sanctuary, or taking part in other rituals or ceremonies. This could be likened to a practice within the Roman Catholic faith, where upon entering a church a person blesses himself with the sign of the cross after dipping their fingers in holy water. This water had been blessed by a priest and put in a font by the church doors. There is a similar act within Isis worship, where fonts of sacred water from the Nile were set up in the temple. More barbaric to our modern sensibilities is the suggestion that Mithraics also partook of flagellation (beating with a whip, strap, or rope) as an act of purification before approaching an altar. It was believed that an initiate must undergo trials in order to prove one's allegiance and faith in the god, and these flagellations may have been part of this. This practice was taken up by some of the more extreme adherents of the Christian faith who would whip themselves whilst chanting the words "mea culpa." These words denoted an acknowledgement of your own guilt or error in order to punish the flesh for committed sins, or to deny the power of the flesh over the more important strength of the spirit.

The concepts of sin, confession, and atonement were not exclusive to Christianity. There are a number of inscriptions of Lydian (8) and Phrygian (9) origin dating from the second and third centuries C.E. that contain confessions of ritual offences and punishments. As late as the latter part of the fifth century C.E., there is evidence of the institution of confession within the Samothracian (10) mysteries as well. Acknowledgement of guilt to the deity existed within many mysteries as well as Christianity, and in both cases worshippers were compelled to not only confess sins, but also to perform rituals of atonement and penance. Within Roman Catholicism this is usually confined to the saying of prayers, sometimes a pilgrimage, a time of seclusion, requesting forgiveness from the injured party, or repayment for something stolen. However, in the mysteries a person might be required to perform rituals of sacrifice in order to attain balance once more. Catholicism has ritualised the practice of confession in a much more strict form than it likely ever existed within the mysteries, and it is, in fact, required as part of proper participation in the church or before certain sacraments are undertaken. This may be a throwback to an aspect of Isis worship that, though seemingly confined to the physical, required confession of sins before proper healing could occur. In fact, though perhaps existing only in Christian superstition now, it was felt that deeds of the past were responsible for illness or depression. Rituals were undertaken that had the effect of relieving grief and sorrow, and conferring a "blessed" state. Conferring of this state of grace is the purpose of Catholic confession now. Catholicism also employs rituals of exorcism in order to remove evil spirits either from a person or a place, yet another similarity to Isis worship that ties in with the aforementioned "deeds of the past." These "deeds" might include hauntings by, for example, victims of murder or persons who did not receive proper burial.

Worship of Isis (who was often associated with other Mother goddesses such as Cybele, Demeter, and Magna Mater (11)), may be partially responsible for the later veneration of the Virgin Mary. There are, at least, similarities between the two: both were blessed mothers proclaimed queen of heaven, and both were often depicted with their sons (Horus with Isis, Jesus with Mary) sitting on their laps. Most mysteries, in fact, had a place for a female (deity or otherwise) who was connected with the male god (Isis - Horus, Mary - Jesus - God, Meter - Attis, Persephone - Athena - Rhea - Semele - Dionysus) either as mother, lover, sister, or any combination thereof.

Along with the similarities we can find between Isis and Mary, similarities can be drawn between Christ and various male mystery deities. As with Orphic worship, the fish is used symbolically. In Orphism the fish denotes the god himself (though within this faith men are considered to be reincarnated fish), and within Christianity as a symbol that one was a Christian. Mithras is considered the god of light and truth, concepts both applied to Christ as well. In John 14:6, in fact, Jesus is reported to have said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," the word light sometimes appearing in place of life. In addition, he describes Christians as "The light of the world." (Mat 5:14) In the case of Christ being "the way, the truth, and the life," the implication is that no one can commune with God, or attain heaven, except through Jesus himself. Whatever the precise connection, Mithras, in the Vedic literature of India, is allied with Varuna (12) the god of heaven, and with Ahura Mazda (13), the wise lord, within Zoroastrianism. The Zoroastrian Avesta (14) goes so far as to name him the champion of Ahura Mazda's truth, and a warrior against the falsehood of Ahriman (15). The connections here are obvious: Varuna, as god of heaven can be associated with the Christian God, and the idea that Mithra was champion of Ahura-Mazda's truth can be associated with Christ championing the cause of his Father who, like Ahura-Mazda, was the supreme god and creator of all things.     

Although it may be begging a connection, Mithras' name means "the middle one" in the sense of "treaty" or "promise of allegiance", which could be equated with Christ's place within the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit - or Ghost), and his purpose for existing. Christ, after all, was seen as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, which his believers felt denoted him as the Messiah and the beginning of a new covenant with God. Mithra was born from a rock or cave, as Christ had been (though the connotation is different. Christ was born in the cave, while Mithra is supposedly born of it). From the blood of the bull slain by Mithra before his ascendance to heaven, came all the plants and animals beneficial to man. It is likely because of this that shepherds offered the divine infant the first fruits of their flocks and crops, a practice that could be connected to the offering of gifts to Christ at his birth by the Magi. The Magi were, by definition at least, members of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Medes and Persians, and Zoroastrianism is believed to be one of the "parent" religions of Mithraism.

The worship of Attis, a god of growth and fertility in Anatolia (Asia Minor), venerated in both Greece and Rome as well, also has echoes within the Christian faith. Attis, who is said to have died under a pine tree, is venerated by the bringing of pine trees decorated with ribbons, flowers, and possibly other ornaments (including an image of the god himself), into the sanctuary. Although the purpose of the tree and decorations within Attis worship is different to that of the celebration of Christ's birth (16), their use in both can still be associated superficially. There was a Roman festival honouring the Anatolian deities that was celebrated in the spring, during which reeds were carried into the sanctuary after which the next several days were spent fasting and abstaining from certain foods (meat, wine, bread) and sexual intercourse. This festival bears some resemblance to the practices of Lent (which is celebrated at about the same time, during which the faithful customarily abstain from luxuries or other things of temptation), and Palm Sunday where palms are carried into the church, blessed, and taken home by the faithful. They are then brought back to the church on Ash Wednesday, and the ashes of the burnt palms from the previous year's celebration are then used to anoint the foreheads of mass participants. This practice of anointing on the forehead also exists in the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation (which, along with the celebration of First Communion, is also celebrated during the spring seasons normally). Although, in the case of Confirmation, it is oil that participants are anointed with. It is theorised that initiates of Mithras also were anointed on the forehead, though what was used in the act, and the nature and meaning of the act itself, are indeterminate.

Communion and Confirmation are but two of the seven sacraments (17) of the Catholic Church, and this number, seven, has special significance in Mithraic worship also. There were seven grades of initiation, the highest of which was Pater (Father), a term still used in the Catholic Church to this day; and, like the Pope, the head of the Fathers (Pater Patrum or Pater Patratus) retained his leadership until his death. Mithraic astrology also recognised seven planets (18), each of which was endowed with virtues and qualities, and the Mithraic concept of heaven was divided into seven spheres. The Catholic Church, at least, recognises seven deadly sins (19), seven heavenly virtues (20), and the seven sacraments. In addition, like Catholicism's Baptism, Confession, and Communion, the first three degrees of Mithraic initiation were open to children.

Christian researchers and converts are some of the only sources we have regarding the specifics of any particular mystery religion, as the vows of secrecy made within the mystery religions seem to have been stringently kept by each cult's followers. Christian converts, in particular, felt the mystery religions to be godless, shameless, and "devilish counterfeits of the one true religion," (Meyer), and because of this many Christian converts, who had once been mystai (21), felt no compunction toward revealing the secrets of their former religious affiliations. Early researchers interpreted one cult in terms of another, often with Christian ideals as their guide and basis of interpretation. They often conclude that the mysteries had been the "parent" of many Christian practices and beliefs; although, as previously mentioned, the origins are indeterminate. It has also been theorised by many, that the church deliberately appropriated certain Pagan practices in order to devalue their non-Christian influences, and to make the Christian faith more appealing to the uninitiated. One example of this being the Mithraic celebration of their god on the 25th of December, the same day most Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus. The church had also, according to Eisler, "travestied so many local divinities of decaying Paganism into Christian saints."

The reasons for inter-faith similarities could simply be a result of different peoples sharing a common geographic space. Peoples living near bodies of water, for example, might all worship fish - as the Orphics did - or the sea itself, even though each group might do so in a different manner. Similarities might also simply be the result of the evolution of faith that corresponds with the evolution of each group. In addition, persons converting from one faith to another might bring along certain familiar practices in order to feel "at home" in the new religion. Whatever the reasons for the similarities that we can find, be they natural evolution or appropriation, and because our information is so scarce, much of it coming from what could be deemed biased sources (converts and apologists who may have exaggerated similarities either to claim a specific origin or to highlight "demonic imitation"), we must question both the parallels we draw and the reliability of the information we can gather, in amount, depth of understanding, and representation.

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2003 01 25 - 11:36

Strength does not come with coldness, hardness, rigidity, or the unwillingness to bend. Strength comes from suppleness, adaptability, and the willingness to change. It is when one is rigid, that there is the greatest potential of breaking.



2003 01 01 - 11:39

There's this mysterious thing called a migraine, which sometimes has symptoms called "aura". Aura can range from visual problems (loss of sight, bright flashing spots, zigzag lines, etc.) to physical ones that can include tingling and numbness in the face, sometimes the extremities. You can even experience confusion, slurred speech, nausea, and a whole host of other things besides. Most often migraine aura precedes the actual pain, but there are those, and I am one, that more often get the migraine symptoms with no pain. My symptoms include the tingling and numbness in the face, sometimes my tongue, a crawling feeling on my scalp, a squeezing feeling at the back of my head, confusion, and always the nausea. I've had the visual aura where I see bright flashing purple and white spots in front of my eyes, but that's rare. The first time it happened it really fucked me up. I thought I was going blind.

My migraines can be triggered by a very long list of things that includes too little sleep, or too much, too much heat/humidity, chemical sensitivity and other odours that can include vanilla, raspberry, perfumed personal care and cleaning products, marijuana, and even body odour. The physical aura, particularly the tingling and numbness, have been likened to that experienced by someone having a stroke, as well as the slurred speech and confusion. The visual aura experienced by someone having a stroke is restricted only to vision loss, which can happen in migraine sufferers also, but stroke victims never have any other visual aura.

Anyhow, just for fun, behind the cut you'll find something that may surprise you. It's the International Headache Society's complete list of headache classification. I should note that there are two main categories of headache: primary and secondary. Secondary headaches have an underlying cause, like stroke or head trauma, and primary headaches are those where the headache itself is the problem. Migraines are primary headaches. It is important to remember, also, that migraine is not "just a really bad headache." It's far different from your garden variety head pain - but I'll explain that some other time.

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2002 12 04 - 20:13

One of these days I should count exactly how many cups of tea I drink per day. So far, all I've got is the extremely precise mathematical number of "a lot". I remember learning, as a child, that there actually are quasi-accepted numeric equivalents for terms like "a few", "many", and "some". I think "a few" is supposed to be "four or five". It's odd, when you think about it, how many words the English language has for numerics without any precise value attached to them, yet only one word for love, friend, and family - things which morph constantly.


First snowfall

2002 11 17 - 20:16

Outside my window the world is blanketed in silent white. It always looks so pristine, so fresh and undisturbed right after a snowfall; so clean and perfect. I am tempted to run out and indulge in snow-angels and licking the falling flakes out of the sky, to write my name on the window of a parked car, and to make some footprints in the freshness.

The arc sodium light casts its soft orange glow, like diluted fruit juice, side by side with the soft yellow leaking from the windows of those still awake or just rising.

It may all end in melting, dingy greyness, but right now it's crisp and new.



2002 10 10 - 20:21

There comes a time of year in every person's life, unless they live where there be no trees nor hope for any, when autumn comes, the leaves turn gem-shaded hues of red, ochre, and orange, and begin to fall to the ground from the great height of branches.

They collect on the ground underneath the trees, making small piles which are subsequently swept up into greater heaps by the labours of rake and broom.

Before the leaves are swept up into great, unwieldly piles, whilst they are still spread in a crunching blanket under trees and across yards, it is the time for leaf-scuffing.

Leaf-scuffing is done by, well, scuffing through the leaves. One walks through them, dragging ones feet, kicking up heaps of colour, and allowing the rustling to calm one's nerves. Trust me on that one, it works. It's possibly one of the most soothing activities ever to exist on this planet. There is a strange sense of peace that comes with the scuffing of dried leaves, from the sound and the action itself.

The time for leaf-scuffing is near, at least for those of us north of the equator. And, you're never too old to scuff leaves.

So, when the leaves are fallen and dry, go scuff. You'll thank yourself for it later.



2002 10 09 - 20:50

My grandmother lives in an apartment building geared for the elderly. It's not a nursing home, but more for independent elderly on fixed income. It's run through Hamilton Housing, which means - in part - that its rents are geared towards income levels. Rather than a fixed rental rate, your rent, on an individual basis, is a certain percentage of whatever money you get each month.

Anyway, that's really unimportant to the following, except in the sense that this is a building full of older people where deaths occur frequently due to age and medical infirmity. If you're easily grossed out, don't continue reading this.

One of those deaths happened a couple of days ago. A man on the 12th floor passed away, but his body wasn't discovered until today. When they came to take him away his body burst in the elevator - after which they had to call people in, people wearing containment suits, to clean the elevator out. This happened to be the same elevator, there are three, that I had to take to get out of the building not five minutes after my grandmother had told me the story.

It was not anti-septic smelling. In fact, it smelled overly of soapy things and air freshener. I remember when my grandfather died on the bathroom floor, that the room stank of bleach for days afterwards, because they had to clean it up immediately after his body had been removed. Not the same conditions as the above. His body hadn't done anything but what bodies usually do when they die.

The man who died had lived on the streets of Toronto for several years, from what I understand, but had been extremely intelligent and well-educated. He spent the last few years of his life in the building where my grandmother lives now, drinking away his days from a bag-wrapped bottle of liquor.

I find that sad.


Art is...

2002 10 08 - 20:57

Art is a thought, a feeling, an idea, made manifest. Artistic creations are avatars of those thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

An artist, to me, is one who creates. That creation can take the form of anything at all, even things that traditionally hang outside the realm of art. Anything you create from your heart and with your soul, is art. Stephen Hawking is an artist, so is Alan Greenspan. Their talents just lie in directions not necessarily meant to hang on gallery walls. Being an artist is creating, having a certain quality of soul, being open, willing, taking nothing and making something from it. Art is a constant act of being and becoming, of enjoying a process and not caring about the result, of crafting a desired result. An artist is a philosopher, a craftsperson, an anarchist, a spiritualist, one who can see God (whatever form or fashion your god is, even if you don't call it by some deified name), and a madman.

Art coming alive is when some piece, installation, creation, actually speaks to a person or at least conjures up some feeling or thought - and those feelings or thoughts don't need to be complex. If the feeling you get is the same joy you had when playing in the mud as a small child, then the art or artist has done their job. If all you do is look at something and fall in love with the colours in it, then the art has done its job. There may be more that the creator intended, but in some way, however small, it's done its job if it affects you in any way. Where there is nothing flowing between the artist / the art and the audience, there is no life. It is just a person staring at something static that does not, and perhaps cannot ever, speak to them.

Art coming alive is, sometimes, when that art involves a physical act of participation. When you create a piece of entertainment for as small a group as possible, using as many performers as possible. It's anarchy.

Art coming alive, for me, happened the day I snuck over to my friend's house while she was at work, and dyed the snow on her front lawn several different colours, or when a dear friend of mine put a greeting card beep tone music thingie into his passport so that when they opened it up it played "Don't Worry Be Happy".



2002 09 30 - 21:04

When you were very little what sorts of strange stories did your parents tell you? Did they say that thunder was the angels bowling, did they tell you the moon was made of cheese, did they say babies were brought by storks or found under mushroom caps? I think that last one is terribly cute, and I've always loved the idea of angels bowling, even though I don't believe in celestial winged beings with divine power. The mere thought of it always made me giggle when my grandmother said it to soothe me. It certainly explains the "strikes" of lightning.

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Friday the 13th

2002 09 29 - 20:36

I wonder how Friday the 13th got so unlucky. Some say it relates to the number of diners at the last supper of Jesus, or even more simply, death. The Egyptians believed in many stages of spiritual existance, the thirteenth happened after the body died. Some theorise that it was purposely vilified by priests of patriarchal religions because it represented femininity: 13 revered in ancient goddess-worshipping cultures because it corresponded to the number of menstrual cycles in a year. Some people are so afraid of it they've even got a phobia all their own: Paraskevidekatriaphobia. Try saying that one ten times fast - or thirteen.