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Katabasis of Ancient Greek Myth as a Parable of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and

the Effect of these Mysteries on the Early Christian Church

By: Billah Muhammad


In ancient Greek myth, there are instances where the heroes Orpheus, Dionysus, Persephone,

Heracles, Odysseus, Psyche, and Aeneas are required or impelled into situations that require them to

make descents into the underworld and then return back to the surface. In the ancient Greek language, the

name for these descents into the underworld (the underworld was called by the Greeks, Hades, which

means “the unseen”) is katabasis; the corresponding word for the ascent back to the surface is anabasis.

Further analysis of these instances of katabasis and anabasis from the ancient sources suggests that in all

cases the tales told in the mythologies were quite obviously representative of the initiation rites of the

secret Mystery Cults, in particular those ones that were celebrated for nearly two thousand years at

Eleusis, near Athens. This is something that would have been obvious to any ancient who was reading the

myths that involve such journeys, but it is something that is seldom known or understood in modern

times. In addition, it can be shown that these Eleusinian Mysteries instilled in their initiates a doctrine of

death, rebirth, and the immortality of the soul with a maxim demonstrating a system of rewards and

punishments after death that critically influenced the earliest church fathers of Christianity, through the

effective and persuasive vocabulary and ideas used in their sermons to sway adherents to the burgeoning

Christian religion, most of whom would have been very familiar with the rites of the Mystery Cults and

the corresponding vocabulary used by the first apostles. In order to show the truth of these assertions, it

will be necessary to analyze a wide variety of mythological, philosophical, theological, and

archaeological resources spanning a period of almost three thousand years.

Archaeological evidence for a possible cult at the site of the later Mysteries begins in the

Mycenaen Period (fifteenth century B.C.E.) (Foley 65). The Eleusinian mysteries began at the village of

Eleusis, which is about ten miles from Athens. According to Apollodorus, the shrine and rites were

instituted by the goddess Demeter (the goddess of the harvest, grains, and seasons) during the search for

her daughter Persephone. The mythology says that Demeter‟s daughter, Persephone was carried off by

the god of the underworld, Hades, and that when she found this out, Demeter became distraught, quitted

heaven, and searched all over the world for her. She eventually came to Eleusis where the king of the

gods, Zeus, ordered Hades to return Persephone to the surface. Before Persephone was released by Hades,
he seduced her into eating a few seeds of a pomegranate with the consequence being, unbeknownst to her,

that because of the pomegranate seeds eaten in the underworld, she would be required to spend a part of

every year with him there in Hades. Persephone then becomes the consort of Hades and the goddess of

the underworld. The time that Persephone has to spend in the underworld is the time when plants do not

grow, i.e. winter (Frazer 35-41). It is difficult to find information on exactly what happened during the

presentation of the ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries because the acolytes were all required to take a

very strict vow of silence, the breaking of which was punishable by death. No exact description of the

rites comes down to us, but there are bits and pieces explained in various literature by many authors from

the ancient world that can be pieced into a somewhat comprehensive view of the nature and forms of the

rites.

From what can be gleaned of the proceedings, the first three days of the festival of the mysteries

involved purification rites with holy water, and at the sea side, fasting, and the sacrifices of pigs. At the

breaking of the fast on the third day, sacred foods were partaken of: seed cakes, wheat, salt,

pomegranates, and wine mixed with milk and honey. On the fourth to seventh days, there was a

procession to and from Athens that involved the adoration of statues of Demeter and Dionysus, the god of

wine, and the carrying of holy baskets which held secret and sacred objects inside. Sesame, wool, salt,

wheat, pomegranates, plaited reeds, ivy, and serpents were carried in the procession to the music of kettle

drums and wild songs. On the eighth day were sacrifices of sheep and cows to Demeter and Persephone.

The ninth day involved a fertility ceremony involving a katabasis into a cave, and the anabasis to the

surface where the initiates adored a golden sheaf of wheat. This ceremony was representative of a seed

descending into the underworld and then ascending as a grown plant and an allegory of the soul

descending to Hades and sprouting, being reborn as something superior and more pure than what it was

before. On the tenth day, the initiates returned home (Wright 48-63).

Prior to the start of the celebration of the Mysteries in the Fall, there was an initiation ceremony

for the first degree of the Mysteries at the start of the Spring. The hereditary priests who conducted and

led the ceremonies for all parts of the ceremonies of the Mysteries were called Hierophantes (feminine,
Hierophantide). Prior to the initiation for the first degree, the initiate was required to pray, fast, and be

chaste for nine days. There were prayers and sacrifices and the initiate was made familiar with the myth

of Demeter and her search for Persephone. There were secret night time ceremonies, and the neophyte

was taught certain mystic symbols. The initiate was then smeared with earth and there was a baptism and

purification with holy water. At the end of these ceremonies, the neophyte was deemed an initiate of the

first degree, or Lesser Mysteries. Later on, in the Fall, during the nine days and nine nights of the

Eleusinian Mysteries, there was on the night between the sixth and seventh days an initiation into the

second degree of the Mysteries, called the Greater Mysteries. During the night between the seventh and

eighth days of the festival were the initiations into the third degree of the Greater Mysteries. The second

degree was reached in the Fall, and it was required that the initiate be already admitted into the first

degree. For the two days prior to the initiation for the second degree, the neophyte was required to fast

and had to abstain from certain foods. Objects used at this stage of the initiation were Myrtle wreaths

(representative of Dionysus), salt, laurel boughs, barley, and the skins of young does. The initiates were

then blindfolded and led into the temple, where they washed their hands with holy water. (Wright 78-82)

Within a few minutes the apartment in which they were was plunged in total darkness.

Lamentations and strange noises were heard; terrific peals of thunder resounded,

seemingly shaking the very foundations of the temple; vivid flashes of lightning lit up the

darkness, rendering it more terrible, while a more persistent light from a fire displayed

fearful forms. Sighs, groans, and cries of pain resounded on all sides, like the shrieks of

the condemned in Tartarus. The novitiates were taken hold of by invisible hands, their

hair was torn, and they were beaten and thrown to the ground…The gates of Tartarus

were opened and the abode of the condemned lay before them. They could hear the cries

of anguish and the vain regrets of those to whom Paradise was lost forever…they saw, as

well as heard, all the tortures of the condemned...Howling dogs and even material

demons are said actually to have appeared to the initiates…At length, the gates of

Tartarus were closed, the scene was suddenly changed, and the innermost sanctuary of
the temple lay open before the initiates in dazzling light…heavenly music entranced the

souls; a cloudless sky overshadowed them; fragrant perfumes arose; and in the distance

the privileged spectators beheld flowering meads, where the blessed danced and amused

themselves with innocent games and pastimes (Wright 81-83).

At the culmination of these rights for the second degree of the Mysteries, the initiate was called a mystes.

The word mystery (mysterion in Greek) derives from the Greek verb myein, “to close,” referring to the

closing of the lips of the eyes. This “closed” character of the mysteries may be interpreted in two ways.

First of all, an initiate, or mystes (plural, mystai) into the mysterion was required to keep his or her lips

closed and not divulge the secret that was revealed at the private ceremony (Meyer 4). To be initiated into

the third degree of the Greater Mysteries, the mystes had to have spent at least one year at that level. The

initiation for the third degree took place during the night between the seventh and eight days of the

ceremonies. During this ritual, the hierophant and hierophantide descended into a cave while the mystai

waited outside with extinguished torches. After a time, they would ascend back to the surface holding a

golden sheaf of wheat, which was then adored by the waiting initiates. There was then drunk by all a brew

of barley meal and pennyroyal called kykeon, and the initiates recited, “I have fasted, I have drank kykeon.

I have taken from the kystos, and after having tasted of it, I placed it in the kalathos. I then took it from

the kalathos and put it back in the kystos” (Wright 89). The meaning of the word kalathos and kystos are

unknown to the present observer, but they had something to do with a woven basket that contained some

unknown object that was eaten. The meaning of these words is to this day hidden because of the

aforementioned very strict vows of secrecy taken by all initiates regarding the mysteries. This recitation

was the “password” to enter the third degree, which bestowed on the mystes the new title, epoptes. The

highest stage of initiation in the Eleusinian mysteries is that of epopteia, “beholding,” and an initiate into

the third degree of the Greater Mysteries was called an epoptes, “beholder” (Meyers 5). Thus, an initiate

of the highest degree became someone who could behold the unseen (Hades) and had, in allegorical

terms, had their eyes open (they went from mystes, closed, to epoptes, beholder), this being much akin to

the Eastern ideas of an enlightened one being “awakened”. The cave that the hierophante and
hierophantide descended into is said to be the most ancient area of the temple site of Eleusis, “Indeed,

Noack has suggested that the site of the original cult of the mysteries was in the area around the

Ploutonion (Plouto, also Pluto was another name for Hades)” (Mylonas 41) and, “the Ploutonion, with its

entrance to the lower world” (Mylonas 86). Thus, in the process of the initiations for the various degrees

to the Greater mysteries at Eleusis, the acolyte was shown a simulated view of the underworld, then a

view of a simulated paradise that could only be reached if they became more pure during their life. At the

initiation of the last and highest stage, the initiate was shown an allegory of a seed descending into a cave

to the underworld and ascending back into the light as a golden sheaf of wheat, this being a veiled parable

of the katabasis and anabasis of the soul. The select people who were privy to this sacred knowledge

being called epoptes, which can be translated as “those who can see.” Many of the most illustrious of the

ancients of Greece and Rome were initiates of these mysteries, including Roman Emperors Augustus,

Claudius, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. Mythological figures said to be initiated into the mysteries were

Heracles, Dionysus, Ausclepius, and Orpheus. John the Baptist may well have taken the ritual of baptism

from what he knew of these rites, which were widespread and well known during his time.

Hades in Greek myth, besides being the name of the god, was the place where all souls proceeded

to after death. The geography of the place was solidified in much the same form in all of the mythologies

of the Greek and Roman world. Entrances to the underworld were located in certain caves, the most

famous of which was one called Taenarum, near Sparta. The approach and routine used to enter Hades

and bypass the inherent obstacles there were much the same in all of the ancient Greek myths. After

passing through the entrance of the cave, it was required to journey downwards in a katabasis, passing

amongst the shades of the dead until you came to the river Styx where you had to pay a toll of an obol

coin to the boatman Charon, whose duty it was to ferry you across to the entrance proper of Hades, which

was guarded by the dog, Cerberus. Cerberus would sometimes allow people to enter Hades, but did not

allow anyone to leave the domain of the god of the underworld, so usually. He is variously reported to

have had two, three, fifty, or one hundred heads, with the figure in later antiquity crystallizing at three.

Some scholars have traced the origination of the myth of the dog of the underworld to ancient Hindu lore,
“Yama, the regent of hell, has two dogs, according to the Puranas, one of them named Cerbura, or varied

(as in a spotted coat); the other Syama, or black” (Bloomfield 33). The similarity between the name of

Yama‟s dog and Hades‟ dog is apparent, as is the fact that both dieties were mythological kings of the

underworld. After passing Cerberus, one was into Hades proper; the path to the right led to the Elysian

fields, a place of bliss for the souls of fallen heroes and the path to the left led to Tartarus, a pit of

darkness and infinite suffering and torture. There were said to be in the underworld six rivers; Acheron

(Sorrow), Cocytus (Lamentation), Phlegethon (Fire), Lethe (Forgetfulness), Styx (Hate), and Mnemosyne

(Memory). Only initiates of the Mysteries could drink from the spring of Mnemosyne after death, every

other soul forgetting everything of the loftier life of the world above. The meaning of the word Hades is

nearly identical to the word Sheol used many times in the Hebrew Old Testament, both words meaning

“the underworld” and being used in the same sense (OED). The dreariness of the underworld can be

summed up with Achilles‟ quotation to Odysseus, “Say not a word in death‟s favor; I would rather be a

paid servant in a poor man‟s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead” (Butler 142).

As a very warlike hero of the Trojan War, and “a great prince among the dead” (Butler 142), Achilles

would have had the best fate in the underworld possible for any dead human, but he reviled even that lot.

Now that we have become familiar with the terminology of the Eleusinian Mysteries and with the

geography and trials present in the Greek underworld we can turn to the separate myths of Orpheus,

Odysseus, Heracles, Psyche, and Aeneas, and examine them and their connection to each other and to the

secret rites of the Mysteries of Eleusis in detail.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is well known. Eurydice died on her wedding day to the bite of

a snake, and Orpheus, her husband, who was the best musician in the world, became grief stricken at her

death, and entered Hades to try to win back her life:

When the bard…had mourned her to the full in the upper world, that he might try the

shades as well, he dared to go down to the Stygian world through the gate of Taenarus (a

cave)…He came to Persephone and him who rules those unlovely realms, lord of the

shades (Miller 65).


His skill on the lyre made everyone in the underworld weep, and neither Persephone nor Hades were able

to deny him his request. The instructions given him were that he could ascend to the surface with her in

tow, but he must not look back at her shade, or Eurydice will have to return to the underworld, never to

live again:

And now they were nearing the margin of the upper earth, when he, afraid that she might

fail him, eager for sight of her, turned back his longing eyes; and instantly she slipped

into the depths (Miller 69).

The poet Virgil in his Georgics gives her last words as:

Who, Woe‟s me! She cries, hath destroyed me, and thee with me, Orpheus? What frenzy

is this? Lo, again the cruel fates call me backward, and sleep hides my swimming eyes

(Mackhail 350).

The theme of the underworld being connected to sleep is repeated many times in mythology, and this is

why the initiate of the highest degree at the Eleusinian mysteries was called epoptes. Orpheus was said to

have started a mystery cult that would have most likely been the same as those celebrated at Eleusis,

“Orpheus also invented the mysteries of Dionysus” (Frazer 19). Diodorus Siculus seems to suggest that

Orpheus learned of the rites of the mysteries in Egypt:

He journeyed to Egypt, where he further increased his knowledge and so became the

greatest man among the Greeks, both for his knowledge of the gods and for their rites

(Oldfather 425)

The Orphic Hymn to Pluto mentions the kidnapping of Persephone, and Eleusis as well:

With captive Proserpine (Persephone), thro‟ grassy plains

Drawn in a four-yok‟d car with loosen‟d reins

Rapt o‟er the deep, impell‟d by love, you flew

„till Eleusina‟s city rose to view

There in a wondrous cave obscure and deep

The sacred maid secure from search you keep


The cave of Atthis, whose wide gates display

The entrance to the kingdoms void of day (Taylor 143)

Here is Eleusis shown clearly by Orpheus to be one of the entrances to the underworld. A difference

between the tale of Orpheus and other katabasis instances is that Orpheus has no person acting as a

hierophante to give him instructions and to guide him as how to enter and return to the surface. Orpheus

was his own hierophante, which explains why he was able to start his own Mystery rites.

Odysseus‟ voyage to the underworld in Book XI of the Odyssey was known to the people of the

ancient world as Nekyia, which in Greek means “a questioning of the dead”. This is another motif that

crops up in most mythical journeys to the underworld, a tête-à-tête between the living and the dead. The

method that Odysseus uses to contact the shades echoes many of the rites that were involved in the

Eleusinian mysteries. At the end of Book X of the Odyssey, Circe, the sorceress acts as hierophantide and

gives Odysseus his instructions of the rites to use to successfully contact the dead and the method for

returning safely to the land of the living. The instructions are that Odysseus must sail to the Western edge

of the Ocean, where he will find an entrance to Hades‟ kingdom. When he reaches the correct spot at the

convergence of several rivers of the underworld, he is to dig a trench:

Dig a trench a cubit or so in length, breadth, and depth, and pour into it a drink offering to

all the dead, first, honey mixed with milk, then wine, and in the third place water-

sprinkling white barley meal over the whole (Butler 129).

This drink that he pours into the trench is the same that was drunk by the initiates of the Eleusinian

mysteries when they broke their fast on the third day of the festival – wine, milk, honey and barley,

mixed. His instructions are then to sacrifice a cow and sheep, again these being the same sacrifices

required on the eighth day of the Eleusinian mysteries on the morning after the epoptes are initiated into

the third degree. Odysseus then speaks with the prophet Tiresias, who tells him everything that is to befall

him in the future, how he is to take back his kingdom when he returns to Ithaca, and how to avoid the

pitfalls along the way. After Tiresias foretells his future, Odysseus speaks with his deceased mother, who

explains to him the nature of the soul after death when he tries to embrace her but embraces only air:
My son, most ill-fated of mankind, it is not Persephone that is beguiling you, but all

people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones

together; these perish in the fierceness of the consuming fire as soon as life has left the

body, and the soul flits away as though it were a dream (Butler 136).

After speaking to various dead comrades, Odysseus becomes afraid, and abruptly sets sail back to Circe‟s

isle. Book XI of the Odyssey shows that at the time when Homer’s Odyssey first went down onto paper

(and it is probable, long before), the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries that had to do with the descent into

the underworld were most likely already quite well established.

Heracles had as one of his last labors, the task of capturing the dog Cerberus that guards Hades‟

lair in the underworld. Apollodorus says that it was his 12th labor, and Diodorus says that it was his 11th.

As it was one of the last labors, it was deemed to be one of the, if not the most difficult. Both Diodorus

and Apollodorus agree in saying that in preparation for the labor and katabasis, Heracles first became an

initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries:

He received a Command from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus up from Hades to the light of

day. And assuming that it would be to his advantage for accomplishment of this Labour,

he went to Athens and took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, Musaeus, the son of

Orpheus, being at that time in charge of the initiatory rites (Oldfather 425)

And also:

A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this

Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all

sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at

Eleusis, wishing to be initiated (Frazer 233).

Heracles was successful in his task, which he completed by wrestling the hound into submission and

chaining it. After showing Cerberus in the upper world, Heracles returned him to Hades. These two

mythographers show that to speed Heracles in his difficult task of entering and exiting the underworld, he

found it most expedient to learn the proper method for the katabasis and anabasis by being initiated into
the Eleusinian mysteries. It also must be noticed that Diodorus states that at the time of this labor, the son

of Orpheus was in charge of the initiatory rites at Eleusis. In the timeline of Greek legend, these events

preceded the Trojan War, which would set them sometime around 1300 BC. Thus are connected Orpheus,

the Eleusinian Mysteries, Heracles, and a mystical descent into the underworld.

The story of Psyche and Eros is a parable of the Mysteries, and the myth shows the ancient Greek

idea of the body being the sepulcher of the soul. The word psyche in fact means “soul.” Plato has Socrates

state in the Cratylus:

Some say that the body (Greek: soma) is the grave (Greek: sema) of the soul (Greek:

psyche), which may be thought to be buried in our present life…probably the Orphic

poets were the inventor of the name, and they were under the impression that the soul is

suffering the punishment of sin and that the body is an enclosure or prison in which the

soul is incarcerated (Jowett 672)

The words grave and body (sema and soma, respectively) are very similar in the ancient Greek language,

and according to Plato this was because the words had in a philosophical sense, a very similar meaning. In

the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, Psyche, “hated in herself that beauty of hers which the world found so

pleasing” (Hanson 245).Consequently, the soul does not delight in its physical appearance or corporeal

form. As Psyche is going to the top of a mountain to fulfill the prophecy to meet her husband, “a tearful

Psyche marched along, not in her wedding procession, but in her own funeral cortege” (Hanson 249).

Marriage is bodily act, and as you can see, Psyche, as a parable of the soul, is not excited to engage in the

corporeal act. Psyche though, eventually finds out that her husband is in fact Eros, whose name in English

signifies the word “love,” but at the moment of this realization, Eros flees. Looking at this as a parable,

the soul (psyche) is only happy when she finds that she is wedded to love (eros), i.e., the soul finds

harmony when with love. After Eros fled from Psyche, Psyche is hunted by Venus who is very angry with

her. Psyche “wandered this way and that, restlessly tracking her husband day and night” (Hanson 313).

Eventually, she came to Demeter‟s shrine at Eleusis, where she tried to win Demeter‟s favor, and asked

for Demeter to hide her there at the shrine at Eleusis. Demeter denies her sanctuary, declaring:
Your tearful prayers move me deeply and I long to come to your aid, but Venus is my

relative and we have old ties of friendship. Besides, she is a good woman, and I cannot

risk causing bad feelings between us. So depart from this house (the shrine at Eleusis) at

once, and count yourself lucky that I did not detain you as my prisoner (Hanson 317).

Eventually, Venus catches up to Psyche and makes her a slave, forcing her to perform laborious tasks the

last of which is a katabasis to Hades to retrieve a jar of beauty from Persephone, the Queen of the

underworld. Psyche thinking the task impossible, makes to fling herself off of a tower so that she can die

and get to Hades that way, but at the last moment, the tower speaks and and after calming her down and

filling her with hope for the completion of her task, acts as her hierophant, explaining to her the way to

enter and exit Hades safely. The tower instructs her to enter the underworld at Taenarus, which is the

same entrance to the underworld that was used by Hercules in his labor to capture Cerberus and also by

Orpheus when he endeavored to bring Eurydice back to the surface. Psyche‟s instructions are:

You must not go forward into that shadowy region empty handed. In each hand you must

carry a barley cake soaked in mead, and hold two coins in your mouth… Very soon you

will come to the river of the dead, where the administrator Charon immediately demands

the toll… For your fare you will give that filthy old man one of the coins you are

carrying… There is a huge dog with a triple head of vast size… If you restrain him with

one cake for prey, you will easily get by him (Hanson 343-347)

Furthermore, when Psyche reaches Persephone‟s presence, she is not by any means to sit at the table and

partake of the sumptuous banquet, but must sit on the floor and eat only common bread. She is then to

retrieve the jar of beauty from Persephone, and then to use the remaining drugged barley cake and coin to

get again past Cerberus and Charon to make her anabasis to the surface. Just after returning to the

surface, curiosity seizes Psyche, and she opens the bottle of beauty, which was full of, “just sleep-

deathlike and truly Stygian sleep” (Hanson 349) which makes her sleep like a corpse. Eros flies to her aid,

and awakens her, and then chides her, “See, you almost destroyed yourself again, poor girl, by your

incurable curiosity” (Hanson 349). The analogy here being that psyche (the soul) is defeated by sleep,
sleep which is analogous to the underworld, and also to the corporeal body (soma) and grave (sema). The

sleeping soul can only be saved by eros, love. After Psyche awakens, she returns to Venus with the jar of

beauty, completing her tasks, and then Eros by the will of Zeus takes Psyche as his wife. The tale of

Psyche and Cupid is thus analogous to the ritual performed during the mysteries when the initiates reach

the highest degree, the soul descending to the underworld, and coming back to the surface where it is

reborn as something higher. In the case of the Eleusinian mysteries this was represented by the

hierophante and hierophantide emerging after much suspense from the darkness of the cave of the

Ploutonion with a golden sheaf of wheat.

As Plato has rightly written teleitan teleisthai, „to die is to be initiated‟, we might reverse the

order and say, „to be initiated is to die‟ (Hastings 318). To Plato and other ancient philosophers, it was

self evident that the mysteries had to do with the immortality of the soul, and most likely also an early

belief in monotheism. It seems that the ancient mystery cults showed to their initiates an idea of the

universe that involved a unity of godhead that disregarded the common polytheism of the time. Eusebius‟

Preparation for the Gospel, Book XII gives a very long list of Plato quotes that echo later Christian

ideals. An 18th century writer states:

The mysteries inculcated the unity of God and explained the fables of mythology (de

Septchenes 141).

And he also says:

Having explained what was necessary to understand by that multiplicity of the gods, the

objects of public veneration, they arose to the supreme intelligence (monotheism) who

comprehends them all, and from whom they are but an emanation (de Septchenes 141).

Aristotle‟s On the Soul says, “When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it

is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal” (Smith 83). Plato in his Phaedrus declares, “The

soul through all her being is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal” (Jowett 250). Other

authors have also commented on these ideas:


It is generally supposed that the mysteries were the fountain from which Greek

philosophy derived the two great ideas of monotheism and immortality (of the soul)… If

the idea of monotheism was naturally developed into a distinct form by Greek thought,

and that only in comparatively late times, it was therefore adopted into the mysteries, and

especially some of the Orphic ones, and doubtless taught in them to those who had gone

through the various stages (Smith, Wayte, and Marindin 204).

Plutarch says in his Moralia that at the time of death, the soul, “has an experience like that of men who

are undergoing initiation into great mysteries” (Babbitt 317). These sources thus show that it is commonly

thought, and has been commonly thought that the ancient mysteries were strongly related to the

immortality of the soul and also showed an early belief in monotheism. These ideas carried over into early

Christianity and were a boon to the first church fathers who used the ideals of the mystery religions to

gain adherents to the fledgeling church.

Paul of Tarsus wrote in the first book of Corinthians a parable of the soul as a seed growing into a

stalk of grain in terms that are almost exactly the same as those that were first taught in the Eleusinian

Mysteries 1500 years before his time:

But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they

come?" How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow,

you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something

else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its

own body. All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another,

birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly

bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the

earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the

stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of

the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in

dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a


natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual

body. (1 Cor. 15. 35-44 New International Version)

One of the earliest church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, in his Exhortation to the Greeks states, “Then

shalt thou see my God, and be initiated into the sacred mysteries” (Wilson 108). He again compares the

Christian religion to the much more ancient mystery religions of Greece:

Thus the lord did not hinder from doing good while keeping the Sabbath; but allowed us

to communicate of those divine mysteries and of that holy light, to those who are able to

perceive them (Wilson 356).

The earliest Christians would have recited the Apostles Creed, one of the first Christian liturgies, a part of

which mentions a katabasis and anabasis of Jesus Christ after his death on the cross:

He descended into Hell;

the third day, he rose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven (Apostles Creed).

From the point of view of an initiate into Christianity 1800 or 1900 years ago, there would have been

many ideas of the religion that would have been readily apparent and familiar to the early neophytes of

the religion. These ideals were used by the first Church fathers to widen the appeal of their religion to the

general populace of the Mediterranean world, which at that time was for the most part Latin and Greek

speaking, and so the new adherents would all have been familiar with all of the mythologies mentioned

above. Without so many references to the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis, which at the start of Christianity

were already hoary with old age, it is very possible that the Christian religion would not have grown

nearly as rapidly as it did, and this would have been obvious to the first Christian proselytizers, thus their

methods and vocabulary.

It has been shown that the katabasis of the mythological heroes of the Greeks were veiled

references to the Eleusinian mysteries celebrated for almost two thousand years near Athens. These rites

predated Christianity by many centuries, but had a similar doctrine of the immortality of the soul,

monotheism, and the system of rewards and punishments after death. Like Christianity, these rites were
said to make an initiate a better person, and Christianity acquired the ideas from the mystery religions.

The point of the ancient mystery religion was in its basest sense to give the initiates a happy death where

they looked forward to a brighter tomorrow, by teaching them virtue through a display of the sufferings

due to the sinner after death. By putting ourselves into the shoes of an initiate of the Greater Mysteries,

we can come to a much better understanding of ancient Greek myth and of the foundations of the

Christian religion. Cicero‟s words about the Eleusinian Mysteries could also be used by a modern

Christian when speaking of the purgative effect of religion on human life:

For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has

brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those

mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage

mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called

"initiations," so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have

gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope. (Keyes 415)
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