Christianity and the Eleusinian Mysteries

The central story underlying the Eleusinian mystery was that Hades, the God of the Underworld,  abducted Persephone from her mother, Demeter.  Demeter roughly translates to “mother earth”.  She was the Goddess of harvest and agriculture.  After abducting Persephone, Hades then took her to the underworld.

Demeter searched ceaselessly for Persephone.  During her search, she fasted.  Her search also took her on mini-adventures, such as taking a job as a nurse and avoiding Poseidon’s romantic advances; the point of these stories was to convey how Demeter passed on her agricultural wisdom to humans.  Celebration within the Eleusinian mystery included a period of fasting, followed by a ritual where initiates drank a Barley-Mint drink called Kykeon.  Kykeon was alternatively made with wine, barley, and grated goat cheese.

One of the levers Demeter, the mother-earth Goddess, pulled to compel her brother Zeus to force Hades to return Persephone was her ability to cause drought.  The leverage the drought gave Demeter was that it decreased the number of sacrifices humans could make to the gods (less rain=less crops=less animals to sacrifice).  Zeus eventually gave in (or perhaps Demeter’s search prevented her from giving proper maintenance to the earth), and sent Hermes to accompany Persephone on her voyage from the underworld, back to her mother.

Because Persephone consumed pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she was forced to return to the underworld every year for some portion of the year (4-6 months depending on the source).  Persephone’s yearly stay in the underworld explains why Demeter annually neglected the Earth during Greece’s dry summer months.  In her grief, she neglected to tend to the Earth, just like when she was searching for her daughter.

There were 3 phases to Persephone’s abduction: the loss (descent), the search, and the (re) ascent.  These phases depict Persephone’s resurrection, and were displayed in dramatic reenactment festivals which were called The Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries.

In the Lesser mystery (performed in the Spring), plays were performed that would signify misery in the soul while it was in the body.  The Greater mysteries (performed in late Summer) contained similar performances as the lesser mystery dramatic performances, but the Greater mysteries would be more abstract, and they were characterized by appeals to mystical visions.  The Greater mysteries also lasted longer, and they included a journey around Greece, and ended with rituals, wild parties, and animal sacrifices.

The subtext of the mysteries was that humans should be led back to the principles from which we descended.  Anyone of any gender or nation could belong to the Eleusinian Mystery Religion; this detail contributed to its enormous popularity throughout the Roman empire.

During the Greater Mystery celebration, there was a “festival within a festival” that celebrated Asklepios, the God of medicine and son of Apollos.  The legend of Asklepios includes a story where, because of kindness Asklepios gave to a snake, the snake revealed a secret wisdom (Gnosis?), which gave him medical super powers. Though the relationship between Demeter and Asklepios is not obvious, there are symbolic links between them – they both make offerings to mankind – Demeter offers agriculture, while Asklepios offers medicine.

I suspect the Asklepios snake myth was influential to the Ophite religion, which was  a slight forerunner to Sethian Christianity (both the Sethians and the Ophites were in the same geographic area, Alexandria); a key Ophite tenet was their high regard for snakes.  The Sethian myth  integrated this reverence for snakes in its depiction of Sophia’s manifestation as the snake in the Garden of Eden; the snake was the one who gave Eve the “Divine Spark” in an attempt to free Adam and Eve from Yaldabaoth’s tyranny.

Asklepios_-_Epidauros

One point of interest is that a later iteration of Demeter was Ceres, the Roman mother Goddess of Agriculture, who had 12 helper Gods. Compare this to Demeter’s Grandmother Gaia, who birthed 12 Titans, or Gnostic Christianity’s Sophia, who created 12 archons.  12 was a common number in these myths, and Christianity is no exception (12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel, crown of 12 stars, etc)…

But what does the Eleusinian Mystery have to do with Christianity?

In my hypothesis, Marcion had multiple tiers in his theology, similar to the Valentinians.  The Gospel was an earlier tier, and the Paul letters and Revelation came later (alternatively, Paul was also introduced early).  Given the penchant mystery religions had for this dual-tier system (The Lesser mystery vs. The Greater mystery), this multi-tiered system is quite plausible, given my earlier assumptions that Marcion was a student of Cerinthus, who wrote Revelation; Marcion makes reference to Cerinthus in 2 Corinthians 12.  I also propose that Cerinthus brought Christianity to Northern and Western Turkey, and might have even brought it to those Northern Turks that Pliny the Younger noticed in 112.

Beyond that, this hypothesis also fits the general template:  The Lesser mystery depicts suffering in dramatic form, while the Greater Mystery is more abstract, and gives broader insight into the theology’s underpinnings, and ultimately tie in the high-minded principles.  The Gospel of Mark, which I think had heavy contribution from Marcion, reads like a play or dramatic depiction, rather than a biography – Ken Humphreys has a Youtube video about that detail.  Could it be that the Gospel of Mark was the outline for a dramatic performance that was to be performed in Christianity’s own mystery gatherings?  A copycat of the Eleusinian mysteries?

Another aspect of plausibility of this connection lies in geography and timing.  The Eleusinian mysteries continued to be popular at precisely the time that Christianity was ramping up, the mid-2nd century.  The Eleusinian temple to Demeter was destroyed in 170, and promptly rebuilt by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor between 161 and 180.  Incidentally, that was the same time frame as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were beginning to emerge as the orthodox victors.  By this point, Christianity had already spread to Rome, and (I suspect) was engaged in heavy lobbying campaigns (eg Justin Martyr’s 1st apology, chapter 26).

Consider a line in Galatians 3: 1, one of the most obviously Marcionite of all the Pauline epistles:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

“Clearly Portrayed”, says the author.  The Greek word is Prographo (προγράφω).  “Paul” used this same term in Romans 15:4 and Ephesians 3:3 (this amplifies my suspicion that most of Ephesians is indeed “authentic”, save for a few passages).

The term Prographo gives a clue that Paul is not saying Jesus was crucified.  It is saying that Jesus was portrayed as being crucified.  This contributes to the plausibility that what we’re looking at in many of the early New Testament texts is a snapshot of an emerging mystery cult that had all sorts of influences from other mystery cults, including the Eleusinians, along with cultural, philosophical, and mythological inputs of the day.

Advertisements

Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

9 thoughts on “Christianity and the Eleusinian Mysteries”

  1. To begin – that was a lucid summary of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Very nice.
    In your previous posting, on Marcion-Valentinus, you made some reasonable suggestions about “Revelations”, Marcion and Cerinthus. I particularly appreciated how you linked “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…” with Cerinthus, “Revelations” and the Presbyter. You’re inspiring new thoughts, for me, about many things and I thank you.

    Was there a “higher level” of knowledge, or understanding, or membership, involved in any manifestations of the earliest Christian theologies, leadership or community? Were there really “secret teachings”, as Alexandrian Clement asserts? (If so – who had them, what did they consist of and what became of them?) Did anyone stage Christian versions of mystery dramas, perhaps featuring a ‘portrayal” of Christ being crucified, or carefully staged appearances by the ghost of Christ risen – either in some fixed location, or as a roadshow? If there were multi-tiered ‘systems’, could there be forgotten layers of meaning for even the most fundamental Gospel concepts? For example, when Christ in The Gospel Of Mark asks: “Who am I?”.

    I don’t know the answers.
    I have sometime wondered if there might be an obscure-obscured ‘tier’ of questions needing to be addressed, before the full story (the real story?) can be known;
    Was there really a “popular” Christian movement prior to the 4th century AD? How many persons, and of what social status/ occupation/ discipline, really were self-identified Christians participating in “the Church”, in communities being addressed as such through epistles and other scripture? Just the persons specifically referenced in such ‘letters’, i.e., a handful of notables – or dozens, hundreds, more? Who was reading these scriptures – just a tiny elite of theologian-philosophers, professing diverse philosophies & theologies, scattered around the major centres of that region? Did characters such as Marcion and Valentinus, (or a dozen others), actually believe and profess the things attributed to them by other writers, and did their ‘followers’ actually know about, understand and profess the complex systems attributed to them? Were their “church” communities large, popular movements, or small networks of philosophical-theological intellectuals?

    Like

    1. Thanks for the response! I appreciate you reading 🙂

      If you look at Christianity through the lens of a mystery religion, I think it starts making a lot more sense. The Valentinians certainly had that dual layer of initiation, where they presumed some people lacked “the divine spark”, and would never achieve Gnosis.

      I think that’s just how people thought about religion back then. They took these mysteries pretty seriously, too – revealing information about one’s mystery religion might result in death! I have doubts there were many Christian sects that would have been so rigid as to kill their members, and I do not believe those sects survived or played a big role in the orthodoxy; but I think the cultural undercurrent was alive and well, and it definitely influenced Christianity.

      If you read the stories of Dionysus – he was traveling all over Turkey, including Ephesus – Ephesus you’ll remember was the home of the supposed John the Apostle and the Johannine Ground Zero; how could that culture not have influenced those Christians in some way (perhaps they had their own initiation processes to keep out the riff-raff)?

      Something happened between 140 and 180 that really compelled people to argue on behalf of Jesus’ humanity, but I’m not sure what it was. Marcion was called a Docetic, where the Christ was a temporary occupant of a human body, but I wonder if that’s not a mischaracterization. Clearly, the late 1st century Sethians didn’t have much of a need of a Jesus-on-earth because his big chore was in the stars, creating a pathway to get beyond the Kenoma; yet, the stories of Jesus were depictions on Earth – I think these stories were simply metaphorical devices that made it easier to conceptualize. The fact that the Paul writings (Colossians 1:13-16; Ephesians 6:12) invoke Sethian terminology is quite interesting, and a detail that makes a lot more sense if you consider that Paul’s writings might have indeed been an initiation tier of the faith.

      So then you have Valentinus (some people think he might have preceded Marcion [who was active by the 130s or earlier]) who claims to have learned from Theudas, Paul’s disciple, and was revealed a special Gnosis that Paul reserved for those with the “divine spark”, and you get to wonder if the intent of the Paul letters was to do exactly what Valentinus used them for – to act as initiation texts to weed out those without the divine spark.

      I don’t know if we’ll ever definitively answer these questions, because I think people took special care to erase those 2nd century details…

      As far as who was reading these letters, I think it indeed was a tiny population of people – that’s not to say illiterates weren’t joining up, because I think they were, but I keep concluding that the original authors of these texts were a small number of people.

      April Deconick writes about the Sethians emerging out of Alexandrian “Hermetic lodges” with clear Platonist and Egyptian influences, as well as some attachment to their Judaism. That sounds a lot like a mystery religion to me…

      Like

  2. My learned friend, a question has come up regarding the early church and i think you’re the one best positioned to answer it. What evidence exists that the first actual Christian churches were in Syria and Turkey? The Acts Seminar concluded there was no first church in Jerusalem (I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion, though) so we’re wondering what supporting evidence exists for where the first churches actually were.

    When you get a chance, can you pop over to Arks post (link below)? It’d be hugely appreciated.

    https://attaleuntold.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/the-truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth-so-help-me-er-whats-his-name-again/comment-page-1/#comment-47132

    Like

  3. Not necessarily illiterates, but I was wondering to what extent the philosophy-theology of these systems would realistically have been of much interest to “the masses” of those times, and consequently adopted/ assimilated by them. Hard for me to imagine many such persons listening to some preacher at the market, then: “Oh, of course! Aeons, syzygies, pleroma & kenoma, the divine spark trapped within us…how could i have been so blind to The Truth all my life!” and consequently abandoning family, friends, lifelong adherence to Roman law & religious/ social conventions…

    I’m not saying it couldn’t or didn’t happen, it just seems improbable to me.
    On the other hand, there are many aspects of writings attributed to Paul, that could well have “brought in the ‘marks’ “, as they continue to do today. The whole “charismatic” element. The promised redemption of sin through John’s water baptism, the promise of magic powers (aka “gifts of the spirit”) bestowed through baptism in the Holy Spirit – especially the power of “true prophecy”. The dispensation, personally conferred through Paul via “James” himself, no more need for Gentiles to be circumcised.
    Simple things, easy to explain and to understand, could make including Paul in your canon a necessity, even if he wasn’t completely in line with your own particular theology.

    Like

    1. “Oh, of course! Aeons, syzygies, pleroma & kenoma, the divine spark trapped within us…how could i have been so blind to The Truth all my life!”
      Absolutely! I think that heavy Platonist bent would have alienated the masses, which is why I don’t think that Gnostic undercurrent was part of the “initiation”. It’s precisely why I think the Gospels and Paul letters were the early texts to be read. It was only those with “the divine spark” (those able and willing to see the Gnosis that was being revealed) who would be initiated in the upper tiers.

      I think there are at least 3 reasons why Christianity lost that Gnostic component:
      1. Most people didn’t get it
      2. A human man-god was more palatable to Rome
      3. Christianity became more marketable with a simpler backstory

      “Simple things, easy to explain and to understand, could make including Paul in your canon a necessity, even if he wasn’t completely in line with your own particular theology.”
      That might very well be. This seems to be how we understand it in modern times. The Valentinians included Paul and Matthew in their canon, which is pretty weird, right? But Marcion rejected everything except Paul (perhaps a Luke-like gospel, as well).

      There was a growing diversity in Christianity in the mid-2nd century – The Johannines in Western Turkey, The Montanists/Phrygians in Central Turkey, and the Marcionites in Northern Turkey; therefore, there would have been increasing competition, particularly as Christianity moved west towards Rome. It might be that each of those 3 groups were trying to find a synthesis with the Syrians and Palestinians, and therefore included Matthew in their “canon”.

      Like

  4. Okay. So, assuming the approximate timeline of your hypothesis…
    Within the synagogues of the diaspora, a small portion of the “congregants” may have been messianic Jews and sympathetic gentile converts to Judaism, who self-identified as Jews not as “Christians” or “jewish Christians”. A portion of those persons are presumably “converted” by “Jesus was The Christ” propagandists visiting their synagogues (i.e., the St Stephen archetype). Some of those people take the Pauline path, self-identify as Christians and start meeting in each other’s homes – and were still doing this in Justin Martyr’s time, according to his Apology. They had no houses of worship, and minimal if any organization or structure.

    From this tiny pool of persons in the regions you’ve been talking about, an even smaller portion (presumably) would actually qualify for “higher tier membership”, or possess the resources to collect and study religious texts and thereby become a recognized “theologian” – yes?
    So – how many such persons could there possibly be circa 140-180 A.D.? Did these so-called Church Fathers really have an audience, other than each other?

    Like

    1. “Within the synagogues of the diaspora, a small portion of the “congregants” may have been messianic Jews and sympathetic gentile converts to Judaism, who self-identified as Jews not as “Christians” or “jewish Christians””
      ——————————————————————-
      I think there were people like that, but those people were probably closer to Israel and Palestine than to Turkey or Alexandria.

      “A portion of those persons are presumably “converted” by “Jesus was The Christ” propagandists visiting their synagogues (i.e., the St Stephen archetype)”
      ——————————————————————-
      I actually don’t think that archetype was one of the earliest ones (which puts me in contrast with almost everyone). I suppose Peter might fit that archetype, as well. I think the personification of the apostles came later, because I think the apostles were originally representations of the ruling archons, manifesting on Earth.

      “Some of those people take the Pauline path, self-identify as Christians and start meeting in each other’s homes – and were still doing this in Justin Martyr’s time, according to his Apology. They had no houses of worship, and minimal if any organization or structure.”
      ——————————————————————-
      I don’t put the Paul followers as early as convention states – I don’t think they came until Marcion in the 120s. In Turkey, at least by the early 110s, Christians did appear to be repurposing pre-existing temples, and that trend continued, as Christianity gobbled up Mithraic temples. In Alexandria in the late 1st century, there was a “lodge” mentality that gave rise to the Hermetics and the Sethians…in that case, it might be in each other’s homes.

      “From this tiny pool of persons in the regions you’ve been talking about, an even smaller portion (presumably) would actually qualify for “higher tier membership”, or possess the resources to collect and study religious texts and thereby become a recognized “theologian” – yes?”
      ——————————————————————-
      That’s right. This tiered system certainly existed by the time of Valentinus, perhaps as early as the 130s. If Valentinus and Marcion were contemporaries (which I’m beginning to think of them as), then we’ve got a rough timeline for when this multi-tiered system started being noticed, and perhaps, rejected by some…perhaps including the James community around Jerusalem. If you consider that the Gospels were starting to emerge in the 120s and 130s (and not the 70s or 80s like many scholars believe), then what you’ve got is a contrast between specific implementations of Jesus, versus the more abstract, in-the-stars actions as described in the Book of Revelation, which I think was written in-part by Cerinthus, who was a predecessor of Marcion, and who I also think played a major role in bringing Christianity to Turkey.

      “So – how many such persons could there possibly be circa 140-180 A.D.? Did these so-called Church Fathers really have an audience, other than each other?”
      ——————————————————————-
      In these areas, particularly the more rural areas, Christian communities probably only had 1 or 2 people who could read, if that. There were probably more readers in the more metropolitan areas, such as Ephesus, Antioch, and Sinope.
      These texts were almost certainly read out loud for the sake of the congregants – in that sense, I agree with most mainstreamers about what these texts were used for.

      Pliny the Younger describes a pretty diverse group, saying “For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered”. The texts were repurposed to read to “congregants”, but I don’t think there were many people reading them, and I think there were fewer people writing them – as Bart Ehrman points out, the ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write.

      Specifically, I think Marcion’s fingerprints are all over the New Testament, and perhaps Valentinus’ too. I think the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle of James were written in response to Marcion, and Luke and the Gospel of John were written by the Syrians and/or Johannines (mostly the latter). The rift was exacerbated in a Syrian community, and we see that in the Gospel of Thomas, which seems to revere James. I believe it was either this text or the Gospel of Matthew which compelled Marcion to write Galatians 1 and 2.

      So it depends on which texts you’re talking about. I think the authentic Paul letters (and some other epistles, such as James) were written before 140, the Pastorals were written after 150, Acts of the Apostles was written in the 160s or 170s, the gospels between 125 and 155, Revelations in the 110s, and some of the non-canonical apocrypha, including some texts found at Nag Hammadi might even be earlier than 100. As time went on, there was an increasing number of readers and writers in the communities, each with their own cultural, philosophical, and theological agendas.

      I do think that by 180, the population was indeed growing, and I also think there was a solid population of Christians in Rome – in fact, I think Christianity had some Roman support by that point (Stephan Huller seems believes this as well, but I did manage to suspect that without reading him. Huller says he thinks Irenaeus had Roman backing).

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s