The Mystery Religions

"There is to others no force of compulsion in that which we keep secret".

The mystery religions that preceded the rise of Christianity are in essence oriental religions. There were many different mystery cults, most of which were monotheistic and gained near universal acceptance in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Rather than describe "what" they believed, which is an almost impossible task due to their vows of secrecy within their collectives... It is only possible to describe some of their practices and infer what meaning they had to the initiates of those orders.

The ground was laid for the mystery religions in the Greek schools of philosophy. In Greece, and also Rome, the defacto religion was a state religion that was not a personal choice but part of the package of being in or 'of' the state. The various gods existed but not for the individual, rather the state was the believer, and the "church" could be considered as such. There were no churches to go to on Sundays, although each family would respect and honour the gods... The family unit playing the role of education of the religion of the state. The problem caused by the schools of philosophy in essence started with the premise that the soul was immortal and "imprisoned" in the flesh. Without intending so, this philosophy produced a reaction against the state religions which resulted in a mass of superstition and effecting the combat of it's rule using magic to protect one's self against darker forces mirrored by the gods and demonae of the underworld, and later to a more profound extent by astrology.

The outcome that to people all over the ancient world, they required a more personal religion was coupled with the near destruction of the old state religion, particularly with the rise of the school of thought that the gods were really once men, for whom they had been simply "deified" in memoriam. The tales of the gods were reinterpreted in light of this to produce workable allegory which fed the encroachment of the mysteries. For instance, most mysteries held in allegory that the key to ensuring ones immortality and freedom from the evil of this world is in controlling the "sinful" nature, becoming less animal-like and more divine. Typically they initiated into their ranks believers, in a ritual using almost hypnotic and dazzling contrasts, and shocking the individual so that when it was all over, the new initiate was "reborn". Rebirth became one of the more recognisable tenets of ritual initiation.

Where did these mysteries come from? Well, we must understand that ever since the Jews had been in Israel, they had travelled and set up synagogues and made proselytes all over the ancient world. That the Jews had a ancient and authoritative scripture, a moral code that promoted righteousness and generally existed for the betterment of its believers is paramount to tracing the mysteries. Jewish synagogues required circumcision and complete obedience to the mosaic law for anyone to be truly accepted in. There were however, large numbers of "god fearing" individuals who were part hangers-on, part satellites to the Jews and their enclaves. That the Jews were so separate from any state religion or other beliefs could also be considered a factor.

The rise of empire after empire in the orient, especially in Alexander the Great's lifetime made sure that there was a common international greek tongue which spread new ideas from the orient across the Mediterranean, bringing new beliefs and the mysteries. These took hold in Greece in opposition to the state religion, though incorporating its imagery, with a canon of its own (the pantheistic gods and their reworked symbolism and allegory) more acceptable to the state than were the Jewish scriptures and their segregation. As more of these cults began to be set up and accepted, the oriental belief's of monotheistic or pantheist origin,... based on the astrological belief that the stars and planets control all, and the sun is the radiance of the glory of this "one" god, (but not the god himself) synthesized with the superstition of the people and the solution, a more personal (or personable) god which could be reached through these mysteries without the use of begging magic (which was expensive) Or indeed, the heavy burden of Judaism. This isn't to say there was a downside... smaller religions introduced greater costs in upkeep and huge sums were often charged to new initiates and for 'higher' level rituals.

Thus over time these mystery religions began to preach a personal salvation in the form of whichever deity they called their own. The mysteries began to be non exclusive and members would be initiated into several, including their priesthoods under the idea that all these deities are the same, but revealed in different aspects. Thus, the ideas of gnosticism took route in the mysteries, which became less of faith but of appeasing the determining hand of fate as shown in the heavens, and transforming the base character of the individual through ritual, (even violent shock) of contrasting light and darkness, silence and deafening noise, cleanliness and being covered in blood, fasting and eating. Nearly all initiations involved scenes of death and rebirth through which the deity would bless and sustain. Within the cults themselves, fellow initiates could stand as more or less equal whatever their social status. - The concept of exclusivity was not one of class, but of brotherhood. The (passing) success of being "just as initiated" as others within these cults was not as seized upon as in Christ Jesus. Equality ended at the door. For true fellowship, that would happen later with the benefits of Christianity.

The mysteries grew into that which is more recognisable from paganism, but with a secrecy not found in other freely open societies which has obscured any real study of what they were and what they meant. The mystery religions, for over 700 years were a phenomenal success story, but ultimately their successes and their outstanding failures to meet the needs of people turned on them. Christianity, (before which no greater solution to the problems of man had ever arrived) filled these needs and spread too quickly to be extinguished. Strangely alike to these mystery religions with their saviour deities, Christianity married the best efforts of the Jews and their concept of a spiritual nation state and a canon of authoritative scripture with the needs of redemptive action for the individual; and finally won.

Source - "The Mystery Religions and Early Christianity" by S. Angus (second edition) Dover Publications, Inc. New York.

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