Epilogue: What Do Pre-Christian Sources Tell Us About The Ancient Mysteries?


After my discussion with Chris Winchester, which can be viewed here, I realized that I relied primarily on sources from the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris and its Hellenistic counterpart, neglecting sources pertaining to the other mystery religions of antiquity. As for the Osirian sources, here is a brief summary of what has thus far been established in the way of soteriological similarities:

According to Book 11 of ‘Metamorphoses,’ which Mircea Eliade describes as “the most valuable document of all ancient writings on the Mysteries,” the participant in the cult of Isis “approached the frontiers of death” in unison with Osiris, and, by “a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace,” they “returned … in a manner reborn … set once more upon the course of renewed life” (11.21-23). Likewise, the Christian neophyte is “baptized into Christ Jesus … into his death … buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … [they] too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

Both passages reflect the parallel interaction between deity and devotee in the ancient Egyptian formula: “Even as Osiris lives, he also will live; even as Osiris is not dead, he also will not die” (Adolf Erman, “A Handbook of Egyptian Religion,” trans. A. S. Griffith [London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1907], 95). This soteriological formula is repeated in Firmicus Maternus’ ‘The Error of the Pagan Religions:’ “You should die as he dies, and you should live as he lives.” Likewise in the New Testament: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

Admittedly, Metamorphoses is 2nd century CE, and Firmicus Maternus is 4th century CE, though their concepts of salvation correspond to the ancient Egyptian formula. So, it is reasonable to suspect that the ancient Egyptian tradition was their source. However, what can we learn from relying strictly on pre-Christian sources related to various mystery traditions? In what follows, I will quote several sources and provide commentary that briefly summarizes what each reveals:

“On this lake it is that the Egyptians represent by night his sufferings whose name I refrain from mentioning, and this representation they call their Mysteries. I know well the whole course of the proceedings in these ceremonies, but they shall not pass my lips.” -Herodotus (5th C. BCE)

Greeks are familiar with Egyptian mysteries by the 5th century B.C.

“Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries! But he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.” –Hesiod (7th C. BCE)

“Happy he who has seen this before descending underground! He knows the end of life! He also knows its beginning!” –Pindar (5th C. BCE)

“Thrice happy those among mortals who, having seen those Mysteries, will go down to Hades; only they can have true life there; for the rest, all there is evil.” –Sophocles (5th C. BCE)

“Initiates” can expect a happy afterlife. They are “thrice happy” as Dionysus was thrice born (See Below). The uninitiated can expect “darkness and gloom,” where “all there is evil.”

Written in the 5th century B.C., “Euripides’ play ‘The Bacchae’ contains an invocation to Dionysus,” in which he is addressed as the “thrice-born, Bacchic lord” (Michael Rice, “The Power of the Bull,” [New York: Routledge, 1998], 227).

“The Epicurean Philodemus, a contemporary of Cicero, speaks of the three births of Dionysus, ‘the first from his mother, the second from the thigh, and the third when, after his dismemberment by the Titans, Rhea gathered together his limbs and he came to life again’” (Mircea Eliade, “A History of Religious Ideas: Volume 1,” [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978], 369-70).

Similarly, the first century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus relates, “his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time” (Diodorus of Sicily, trans. C. H. Oldfather, “Library of History: Book III,” [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967], 289).

Dionysus was a thrice born god, who was dismembered, reassembled by a goddess, and brought back to life, just as Osiris was. In fact, the ancient historian Plutarch, though a late 1st century source, identifies Dionysus with Osiris:

“That Osiris is the same as Dionysus, who ought to know better than you, Clea? … Furthermore, the tales regarding the Titans and the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis” (Plutarch, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, “On Isis and Osiris,” [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936], Section 35).

In addition to early Greek familiarity with Osirianism, there was demonstrable syncretism with the cult by the 1st century BCE.

Gold leaves found in graves from the 4th century B.C. state, “Now you have died and now you have come into being, O thrice happy one, on this same day. Tell Persephone that the Bacchic One (aka Dionysus) himself released you.” (Sarah Iles Johnston and Fritz Graf, “Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets,” [New York: Routledge, 2007], 36–37, citing Tablet from Pelinna).

Death is followed by new life, or rebirth. Again, the devotee is “thrice happy” as Dionysus was thrice born, revealing the mystical parallelism between man and his god.

“…they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them, no one knows what awaits us” (Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, “The Republic,” [Lawrence: Digireads Publishing, 2008], 36).

There is greater hope in store for those who’ve taken part in the mysteries and their rituals, which “are equally at the service of the living and the dead.”

The devotees of Zalmoxis “claim to be immortal,” states Herodotus, for “they believe that they do not die, but that he who perishes goes to the god” (Mircea Eliade, “A History of Religious Ideas: Volume 2,” [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978], 175). Herodotus further notes that he “entertained and feasted the chief among his countrymen and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants should ever die, but that they should go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things” (Ibid., 176).

Devotees of Zalmoxis believed that, upon perishing, they would go to Zalmoxis, “to a place where they would live forever and have all good things.” Zalmoxis was likely believed to have risen from the dead, as Dr. Richard Carrier aptly argues, and his devotees would have a share in his fortune.

“Certain ancient authors, as well as a number of modern scholars, have connected Zalmoxis with Dionysus and Orpheus,” since, not only is Zalmoxis of Thracian origin, but also the characteristics of his cult are remarkably similar (Ibid., 178).

All told, devotees are initiated and partake in rituals, they expect a happy afterlife and avoid “the pains of hell,” and they share in the fate of their risen god. Moreover, many of their fundamental practices and beliefs are demonstrably tied to the ancient Egyptian mysteries, in which mystical identification with the deity had been a constant for two millennia.

By the time Paul of Tarsus is writing in the mid-first century CE, the primary ingredients to his ‘mystery’ are readily available, and likely transmitted via Hellenized Judaism. His salvation scheme, whereby the Christian neophyte shares in the fate of the risen Christ, having been mystically identified with him in baptism, is plucked right from the culinary menu of the times. And, this, whether Paul was consciously aware of it or not.

The only thing that he might have innovated, in addition to synthesizing Judaism into the mix, is the notion of new life, or rebirth, issuing from ritual initiation in this life, prior to death. But, even that seems doubtful, given that initiation rituals had long been in place under the Greek system by his time. Upon initiation, the participant likely achieved his mystical identification with the god, here and now, just as we see in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.



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