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Professor Algis Uzdavinis-In the Mysteries

Relief of Demeter / Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, Greece


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Professor Algis Uzdavinis’s opus ‘Orpheus and the roots of Platonism’, The Matheson trust. 2011. Chapter XXII, ‘In the Mysteries’. From page 89 to 93.


The early Hellenic teletai (including the Orphic backcheia) and the mysteries were officially recognized by the Athenian state and rearranged as the politically significant rite of ‘civic eschatology’ performed in Eleusis. According to Jan Bremmer, the Eleusinian Mysteries began to be used ‘for political aims by stressing their civilizing function’ and their religio-ideological power: “The First Fruits decree had made the Mysteries into the symbol of Athenian power par excellence. The revelation of its contents was a political act…”

Orpheus the Theologian was placed on the same firmly established foundation as Homer the Theologian. However, the mysteries in the form of various unspeakable or ineffeable (arrheta) and secret or esoteric (aporrheta) teletai, ‘aimed at a change of mind through experience of the sacred’ and the salvation ‘through closeness to the divine’, depended on a private and personal decision and a vow.

To make an oath and be initiated into the thiasos (a remote antic prototype of the Sufi tariqah, likewise based on a relationship between a patron and his clients) is tantamount to making a covenant (or legal treaty) with a deity in the Neo-Assyrian and Biblical contexts. This is so because the divine saviour is regarded as the patron of the client who is to be saved. Consequently, the human royal patron and saviour may be called theos epiphanes eucharistos, as Ptolemy V of Egypt is designated (the hieroglyphs equivalents, according to Arthur Nock, being the god ‘who comes forth’ and ‘lord of beauties’/

According to Walter Burkert, charisma and the display of power override all other forms of reverential awe (sebas), because the attration of the royal epiphany (like Amun’s epiphany in the New Kingdom of Thebes) is overwhelming. Hence:

‘The experience of ‘epiphany’ came to concentrate on the person of the ruler who had acted as a ‘savior’ and inaugurated an age of bliss and abundance-a process that easily assumed a Dionysian coloring…The monarch was the victor, the saviour, the god, ‘present’ (epiphanes) to a degree gods has hardly ever been. Not only the actors followed in this wake, but ‘all sorts of thiasoi’, including those of the mustai and bakchoi.

Lenaia celebration. Maenads in ecstasy dancing around an effigy of Dionysus depicted on a vase currently at the Naples National Archaeological Museum, Italy.

Every professional association (hetairia) claimed the patronage of one or more deities, and was made up of the deities ‘servants, vassals and cult-worshipers. Those societies were sometimes called orgeones, from orgiazo, ‘to pay ritual service to the gods’. And their ritual practices were ta orgia. They usually included a banquet (sumposion) where the members of the heteria or initiates sat crowned with garlands on sacred couches. In this way, the stephanos (wreath, garland) was worn by the ‘dead’ initiate and the corpse alike. The participants of the earthly drinking party-playing the role of Dionysus restored or Osiris resurrected-initiated the ‘living one’ of the heavenly symposium.

The ceremonial drinking and its established representational hierarchy brings the rulers and the royal initiates to the divine status of bliss, making them close to the gods. Since the gods are no longer in fact homotrapezoi, ‘table companions’ of men, and are to be addressed through ritual mediation, the ceremonial banquet serves as a mean to imitate (or play) the gods and thereby restore (symbolically, at least) perfect heavenly bliss.

According to Sara Rappe, for the late Neo-platonists the dismemberment of Dionysus signified both a phase in the manifestation of the cosmos (in the sense of the Pythagorean numerical progression) and the setting of the stages for the soul’s ultimate liberation and glorification at the noetic symposium. She explains:

‘For Proclus, the Orphic theology, in offering a vision of the great world encompassed in the pleroma of the human intellect and embodied within the perfect person, Phanes shows forth the soul as an imago dei. It is this It is this recognition that in itself constitutes a form of initiation, making possible the soul’s access to the fulness of reality…Once more, the creative divine energies that pour itself through the various stations of being as stages within the theology is initiatory in function.’

Presumably, ritual initiation into the early Hellenic hetairia implied a pedagogical rather than a hidden or concealed relationship-and, consequently, one’s preparation for the a priori established role of the ‘blessed initiate’, and not a sort of miraculous transubstantiation.

A famous clay plaque in the shape of a temple from about 370 BC, with an inscription noting that it was dedicated by a woman named Ninnion.


As Luther H. Martin emphasizes, ‘initiation into the Eleusinian, as in the other mysteries, was equivalent to adoption by presiding deities, like adoption into an Arab tribe in order to become a mawla, a client of the Islamic patron and a member of the ‘central community’ (ummatan wasatan) of believers. Martin continues:

‘The strategy of recruitment for the fictive, as for natural, kinship societies was adoption, a legal fiction that permits kin relations to be create artificially, and which provided the model for the discourse of conversion and the practice of initiation in genealogically articulated systems. The Greek juridical system term for adoption, huiothesia, is used in this derivative sense most notably by Paul the Apostle.

The initiate into the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, is therefore regarded as a kinsman (gennetes) of the gods. The ‘mystery societies’ were organized on the constitutional model of municipalities, and were not distinguished by their concealment of particular or extraordinary secrets, but by their pedagogical silence or ‘secrecy’ (arrhetos)-even a real or pretended Socratic ‘ignorance’ as a rhetorical strategy for structuring social relations in religious and educational contexts.

The families of telestai that belonged to the groups (thiasoi) called Orphikoi viewed Dionysus as their soter (savior), the Orphic Mustai of Dionysus were promised soteria (salvation). In short, they were ‘initiates whom blessed Dionysus saves’ (mustai hous soze makar dionusos), and they travelled the divine and royal path of purification, death and rebirth.


Professor Algis Uzdavinis-In the Mysteries

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