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Fallow Fields
Death, Initiation, and the Extension of the Self; The Quest for a New Inner Territory
Monday, May 29 2006 @ 10:31 AM PDT
Contributed by: Joshua_Gentzke


Death, Initiation, and the Extension of the Self; The Quest for a New Inner Territory

by Joshua L. I. Gentzke

In the following essay we will be examining the ways in which the western idea of the individualized self has come to be perceived and understood. This concept of self is intrinsically tied to how we make sense of our relation to the world that confronts us everyday, as well as to the concepts that we feel lie beyond direct and at-hand experience. It is with this general agreement that we turn to what is perhaps one of the most intrinsically human ways of experiencing the world and the self, the realm of the sacred or the religious. It is within the flowerings of religious tradition, and the expression of man’s quest for meaning and reality, that we find the formulization of the question of the self and it’s contextual meaning within the All expressed in the most eloquent and sincere terms. Man as a mortal, that is, one who will inevitably experience death, is an identity that shapes the whole of humanity in its understanding of life, in its most basic or essential forms. Thus, it is only natural that we should turn to some of the eschatological traditions that have helped shape the western understanding of the individualized self, and its experience of the world through the consciousness of the impermanence of its own existence, to explore these issues. It is our hope that through looking closely at the changing ways in which the self was, and is conceived through the spiritual genius of man, that we may gain insight into the ongoing, and often mystifying debate of what it truly means to exist as a finite being: To be framed within a life that moves unalterably towards its climax in death. The way that we understand this finality of life, and the values that we imbue it with speak intimately of the manner in which we think being in this world. It is the self who experiences this being-in and being-to the world. We are at once inseparably close to this self, and yet this self remains a mystery wrapped in the most impenetrable veils of obscurity. To know oneself is, in a sense, to be divided from oneself. The space of inner emptiness, so integral to the human condition, is in fact what allows our coming-forth as beings. It is in this space, this lack, that we are able to seek ourselves. It is then, perhaps our own face that we shall see staring back at us, both strange and familiar, from the realm of the spiritual. For this realm is one that lies behind and beyond our direct experience of this world of impermanence, and yet, it is immanently contained within it.

* * *

The western conception of the individualized self is unique, in that its very existence is defined both by finitude and transcendence. Between these two extremes we exist in a state of tension. Neither force is fully able to nullify or resolve the other. The most basic points of orientation in our existence, those that enable us to conceive of our selves as selves at all, are the spatial and temporal senses of being. Both the spatial and the temporal coordinates of our existence function in terms of extension and limitation. In the world of objects, or things, we are a distinct presence that is seen to exist within the limits of our bodily self. At the same time, the connected effects that our presencing enables in the world exist far beyond our corporeal boundaries. Our presence in time however is perhaps even more problematic and harder to commit to a practical definition. We exist within a seemingly un-halting slipstream of moments that push us forward from behind and, at the same time, extend us outwards into the unforeseeable future. The past however is not separate from the future, but defines it in a way that cannot be truly conceived of through viewing time in a strictly linear manner[1]. The ultimate event that forms the very horizon of the self is death. Death is paradoxically both the negation of life and the event that enables its actualization. Here we have one essential characteristic that defines the individualized human self: finitude. A person ultimately is defined by separation, and the extreme realization of that separateness is the ceasing of the individual as an inter-relative process in death. Moreover it is only man who can truly be said to experience death, as such. Only man, as far as we are aware, is fully conscious of death as an imminent outcome of his existence. It can be said that a person is what is absent from the world upon their demise. However, as we had previously mentioned, the delineation of an individual self is shaped by the constant flux of the interdependent forces of extension and limitation. This fluctuation of seemingly polemical forces demands that transcendence also be inherent to the essential human experience of existence. It is in man’s capacity as a religious being, or as one who creates religious valuations of existence, that this tendency can be seen most clearly and completely. As we extend past the confines of the moment into the past and the future, so also do we ultimately confront and overcome the finitude of death by the process of (re)-valuation. We conceive of extending beyond this boundary. Indeed, he who believes in the spiritual continuity of being beyond even the final earthly possibility of death now transforms the concept of death into a transition rather than an end. It is through this alchemical-like process that the self is also elevated past its former confines and reaches a higher and fuller state of being. This idea of coming to the self by overcoming the self can be seen as an expression of the most deep seeded spiritual impulse(s) within man. As expressed by Mircea Eliade, “One becomes truly a man in proportion as one ceases to be a natural man and resembles a spiritual being.”[2] In this conception of the spiritual, the main point of differentiation between the world of man and the world of the gods revolves directly around the issue of finitude verses permanence, for it is by the extent to which one is seen to possess these qualities that one is given either the place of a god or the place of a mortal. Death, and the ways that a culture approaches it are determinate of, and in turn determined by, the expression of self-consciousness within that culture as an individualized self. The valuation given to death informs and gives value to life.[3]

Mircea Eliade, while ostensibly attempting to find an entry point into the study of the much obscured realm of the so-called Greek Mystery Religions, in his essay Patterns of Initiation In Higher Religions[4], confronts the movement of values whereby death becomes a point of transition in the spiritual life of man rather than remaining an impending and insurmountable advent of nullity. In this capacity death can be seen in a (re)-valuated light, along with the individualized identity that is conscious of it, through the process of what is a fundamental, and all but ubiquitously recurrent pattern of initiation within the religious thought of mankind. The formal sequence of this purportedly cross-cultural “initiation pattern”, which many have somewhat vaguely termed as “Shamanic”[5], can be broken down into the following basic stages. The first stage commences with the preparation of the one about to be initiated. This generally involves a reversal of many of the social customs and realities of the would-be initiate; he or she is expected to do the opposite of “what is done in this world”, or “what men do as men”[6]. Whether this is accomplished through the psycho-physiological techniques of the Buddhist yogi, the asceticism of the Hindu, or the practices of mourning and withdrawal found often in Greek cultic initiatory rites[7], one must enact a rite of separation from the everyday world that one wishes to transcend. The movement of man from natural man to cultural man is realized through the process of both the development of one’s racial ancestry, as well as the individual process of growth since one’s conception. Now, however, in order to obtain the conditions necessary to facilitate a second birth, a return to a state of un-being, or chaos[8] must be enacted.[9] The initiate must cultivate himself, in order to be able to become a fertile ground for the teachings and actions of the initiation that is to come. An existential change must begin to occur.

The second stage can roughly be said to consist of a ritual enactment of death. The initiate, in some ritualized manner, undergoes, and therefore actively confronts the event of death. In undergoing death while the initiate is still counted among the living, the initiate is given a sort of mastery over the unspeakable horror of death. This mastery constitutes the sanctification[10] of death itself and brings the initiate to a ground that is existentially above, or beyond the realm of the merely mortal. Here it can be seen again, that the valuation of death is directly relational to the conception of the individualized self and its relation to the event of its Being. The passage through initiation of ritualized death extends the limits of the initiate further into the temporal and spatial realm of the supra-human.

This stage has drawn the most comparisons with image of the Shaman and his or her mystical-magical practices. The shamanic tool of pain to achieve the mind and spirit expanding state of ecstasis can be seen to correlate closely to this ritualized act of Imitatio Mortis. The mythology of Indo-European Culture is especially rich in examples that can be seen to exemplify to varying extents, this motif. Among the most well known of the “suffering god(esse)s” of sacred myth are, among others, Dionysus, Odin, Demeter/Persephone, and of course, Christ[11]. The suffering of this archetypical deity in mythology is usually characterized by extreme bodily mutilation, often culminating in the partial or complete dismemberment of the deity. This experience of dismemberment can perhaps be seen as being analogous to the extension of the self, via initiation, past the formal boundaries of its corporeal limitations[12]. In the violence that is enacted upon the god, in some cases from an external force, and in certain other circumstances, namely that of the Germanic god Odin, by the deity himself, a transformation is seen to occur. Within the myths a preparatory step for a mystical-magical rebirth has occurred, and it is often this exact step that is essential to the actualization of their divine status. Thus, this passage is, strictly speaking, truly ontological rather than ontic.

The final stage in this process is the realization, and in some cases the maintenance of, the rebirth previously discussed. The change brought about by the act of Initiatory death differs in many respects from the more common usage of the word “initiation”. The experience was of an inner change, one that was fully existential, and as already expressed, ontological. Rites of this sort did not establish a communal change that inducted the individual into a society, as in the common cross-cultural rites of puberty ceremonies. Nor did these rites, except perhaps in very certain cases[13], form lasting social ties or serve as grounds for maintaining practical bonds between certain social groups or sexes. The experience of the sacred that lifted the identity of the participant into the presence of the deity was indeed an unique and personal experience, much akin to the lone Shaman who became, in his or her very being, a bridge between the world of man and the world of the spirits.

Portrayed in the realm of mythology, the Hieros Logos, which was the story intimately connected to many of what would become ritualized forms of initiation, often took the form of the Katabasis, or myth of the descent to the underworld. Characteristically this descent was undertaken by an individual[14], either of semi-divine, or fully divine status, who was brought by specific circumstances to attempt to undertake the fundamentally transgressive action of journeying to the underworld, or next-world. The accounts of Katabasis are replete with detailed descriptions of the geography and denizens of this otherworld, and function as a wonderful vehicle of expression for this new extension of the human consciousness-via-the valuation of death, in the manner of creating a relatable description of this spatial change. The otherworld, as a place that one can journey to, functions as a territory of conquest. It is however fundamentally an inner territory that is sought and gained; the new dimension of the conscious self is the reward of the seeker. The interpretation of this body of mythology as a Heiros Logos, which exists in direct relation to the rite of undergoing the initiation of ritualized death, necessitates that the question be posed whether this mythology is indicative of a change, or transition in the self-consciousness of mankind that happened at a historical point in time. As has been conjectured by many, there seems to have been a point in the evolution of humanity that can be termed as pre-historical, or pre-conscious, in the way that we understand these terms as they relate to modern man. If indeed there was such a point in the collective historical development of man, then it remains to be asked; is this quest of the otherworld part and parcel of this movement towards a state of self-reflective consciousness?

The first known examples of this motif, at least among the Indo-European, or Indo-Iranian peoples can be found within the cultural matrix of the Persian Religion of Zoroastrianism. These early examples of the myth of the otherworldly journey are generally instances where an individual undertakes a heroic journey to the otherworld on behalf of the community they are part of. This aspect of undertaking the quest for the good of the community, rather than for directly personal reasons of spiritual fulfillment, would seem to make these accounts more resonant with the archetype of the Shaman, than they would with the theology of the Hellenistic Religions and their Mystery Cults. However, this may also be indicative of a concept of self, which had not yet fully come to its self, in the sense that it is understood in modern terms. The border between the identity of the individual and the community was perhaps not as sharply delineated and therefore the mission could still be seen to have as its goal the extension, or divine fulfillment of the self, viewed in a manner in which it manifested as a collective consciousness rather than a fully individualized one.

The Zoroastrian text, which details this motif to the greatest extent, is the Adra Wiraz Namag text (9th-10th century C.E. from The Book of the Righteous Wiraz). In this text the seeker, Wiraz, is a man of good spiritual and social standing that is chosen by his community to reaffirm the correctness, or effectiveness, of the community’s ties with the supreme Deity that they worship, Ahura Mazda. Wiraz seems to be chosen for somewhat mundane reasons, rather than by virtue of possessing any sort of supra-human qualities or particularly mystical connection to the Deity. Entering a trance through the ingestion of henbane and wine, Wiraz undertakes a trip replete with angelic guide-figures, definite and imaginative geography, such as the bridge that he must literally cross between worlds, and finally the appearance of, and conversation with, the supreme Deity himself.[15] In the end Wiraz confirms the relationship between the community he is part of and the Deity that embodies the highest and ultimate spiritual realities for them. This journey has not only confirmed for the believers the religious tradition that they are part of, but it also has, in a very real and concrete way, confirmed the part of mankind that exists within the realm of the spirit. The valuation of life, death, and the self’s experience of the world, have been infinitely enriched by the affirmation of another entire dimension and meaning that can be appended to this experience. The level of self-reflection illustrated in this text should not be overlooked. Whether or not this self that reflects, and in turn is reflected upon can, or cannot be conceived of in the modern sense of the word, it should in no way be thought to be lacking in complexity or maturity. The image of a pre-modern man as experiencing life in a one dimensional, and fully immediate manner does not seem to be justified here. The community experienced doubt about their connection with the world of the spirit, and indeed their method of approach towards the absolute, and from this doubt was born a need to experience these religious speculations in a direct and immanent manner. The journey that Wiraz made was made for both the self and the community, and it was in the ability to conceive of the actualization of this journey that the collective of individual selves, which made up the community were able to extend themselves beyond the immediate into another dimension of existential being.

A direct point of contact between the manifestation of the religious genius of man in the form of mythology or the Heiros Logos, and its manifestation in the rites and rituals that embody the practice of a tradition, can be found in the so-called Greek Mystery Religions. It is to the Rites of Eleusis that we will first turn. The Roman statesman and orator Cicero (106-43 B.C.E), is recorded as having said of these rites, “In the mysteries, the last things become part of a comprehensive, richly symbolic teaching of ‘life’ which mediates ‘knowledge’. This knowledge is ‘fundamental’ and ‘universal’, for the mysteries of Eleusis are, as part of the Demeter Religion, “a religio common to all people.”[16] True to this statement it would seem that the matters that were dealt with, and the nature of the seeking that was the warp and woof of the Eleusinian Mysteries, are connected with the most deeply rooted questions of human existence. As far as the exact rituals in which these “mysteries” were expressed, very little is known. Fragmentary references by officials and initiates[17], writings of early church patriarchs, and artistic depictions on inner chambers and on pottery, are all that we have to try to envision the particulars of these “unspeakable” ordeals. But, it is perhaps ultimately, at least in the sense of gaining a true understanding of the experience of the initiate, of no overriding importance that we cannot formulaically reconstruct the rites. A reconstruction would, by in nature, move the original experience out of the grounds from which it arose, and thus, in which it was experienced. In fact it has been suggested that the secret of these “mysteries”, and the reason why they remained so, was not dependent upon a teaching or rite that could be disclosed at all. The “mystery” was one that had to be experienced within specific contexts that could only be understood by undergoing them.[18] This would seem an important thing to keep in mind in the course of studying rites and practices of a religious or magical-mystical nature that are so far removed from our current situation. The religious experience of an individual or a culture cannot be contained within the records or material remnants of that belief.[19] However what is known about this particular cult is that it was centered around, and had adopted as its sacred mythology, the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The basics of this myth are rather well known, but to give a very abbreviated plot line, the story involves the fertility goddess Demeter and the capture and subsequent rape of her daughter Persephone[20] by the god of the underworld, Hades. Integral to these events is the descent of Persephone to the underworld, the katabasis[21] motif that we have shown to be an apt means for the communication of this existential quest to extend the self past the realm of death. As Persephone is abducted and taken from the world of the living to the world of the dead by the ruler of this latter realm, Demeter undergoes a period of intensive grieving while searching for a way to regain, or redeem, her daughter from the grips of Hades. The Demeter/Persephone myth is rife with the imagery of the natural cycles of “death” and “rebirth” which are seemingly undergone by most vegetation, and by the seasons themselves that determine these changes. Hence summer is withheld from the world as Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter, and the crisis of Persephone’s abduction is turned into one of universal import. Also, in the aesthetics of the cult that was centered on this mythos are found reoccurring imagery and references connecting, both the mythology of this cult and its expression in the actual rites and rituals that were conducted in its name, with grain. While this connection is obvious to the “death and rebirth” themes dealt with in the mystery cults, and in particular the cult of Eleusis, it would be a gross oversimplification to explain away the core of these mysteries being as merely an imaginative interpretation of an agrarian society that deified the elements of nature most important to its survival. It has been argued[22] that one of the special qualities of the truly mythic, or sacred story, is that it can function simultaneously, or throughout the course of its historical life, on several different but non-conflicting levels of meaning. Thus, it can be deduced that, on one level, the Demeter/Persephone story functioned on the level of sacred story or myth, that is an event that actually took place, although in illo tempore as opposed to the world of the historical[23]. On another level, the story could be a nature allegory, but an allegory which should be understood as not being devoid of sacred meaning within the culture from which it arose. And finally, especially in the later life of the Eleusinian mysteries, a fully metaphysical interpretation of the mysteries could be seen as being equally valid.[24]

Perhaps the real significance of the Eleusinian Mysteries, at least in the context of our investigation, is that they actively integrated the religious community that these beliefs were part of, into the sacred myth and the quest for the extension of the individualized self, via the conquest of the spatial and temporal reality of death. Whereas earlier accounts were recorded and presumably read[25]at different festival times, and in this manner reaffirmed the connection of the community with the deity that they worshipped, these Mystery Rites actively involved a personal and subjective experience of the their truths that could only be expressed through a direct process of initiation. The Mystery Rites became a vehicle in which the initiate could experience, as had in other cultures the lone figure of the Shaman, the intimate and immediate presence of the sacred or divine. The initiate became, in their very own being, a bridge between worlds through the process of initiation, and directly confirmed the extension of his own self into the realm of the spirit. Hence, a real and fully existential change occurred within the course of the initiation, if the initiate was sufficiently “open” to the presence of the divine, then he or she was guaranteed a new identity, which was now identified with the divine and the realm of the spirit. In affirming this possibility of the spiritual and of the afterlife an entire new dimension was added to the person’s understanding of their innermost self.

The valuation of death, as we discussed earlier, exists in direct relation to the understanding of the inner and outer life of the self within the context of being-in and being-to this world. We conceive of ourselves in terms of limitation and extension, our concept of self is defined and delineated by our ideas on where the I-that-is-our self begins, and where that I ends. The Eleusian Rites truly did offer not only a “better hope for the afterlife”, but also a better hope for this life, in that they established a continuity of being, and a context of being, which infinitely enriched the spiritual identity of man. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that they brought man closer to his true being, in that “One becomes truly a man in proportion as one ceases to be a natural man and resembles a spiritual being.”[26]

Works cited:

Albinus, Lars. The House of Hades; Studies in Ancient Greek Eschatology. Aarhaus University Press 2000, Mycenae, Greece.

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. 1987, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Cancik, Hubert. “The End of the World, of History, and of the Individual in Greek and Roman Antiquity.” The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Vol 1; The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity. Ed. John J. Collins. Continuum Publishing, 2001.

Coe, David K. Angst and the Abyss; The Hermeneutics of Nothingness. Academy Series/ American Academy of Religion. 1995. University of Hawaii, Manoa, Hawaii.

Détienne, Marcel. “Dionysus Slain”. (p.68-94), excerpted in, The Encyclopedia of World Religions, Ed. Mircea Eliade.

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation; The mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. Harper Torchbooks, Academy Library. 1956, Harper & Row, NY, NY.

Eliade, Mircea. Death, afterlife, and eschatology; a thematic source book of the history of religions. 1974, Harper & Row. NY, NY.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (Sein und Zeit).Translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. 1962. New York, Harper & Row. Ny, Ny.

Hultgard, P. “Persian Apocalypticism” The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Vol 1; The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity. Ed. John J. Collins. Continuum Publishing, 2001.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The primacy of perception, and other essays on phenomenological psychology, the philosophy of art, history, and politics. Northwestern University Press, 1964.

West, M.L. The Orphic Poems, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983



[1] Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), in his seminal work Sein und Zeit (“Being and Time”) refers to the individualized self as Dasein, or “being-there”. The advantages of utilizing this term lie primarily in its ability to communicate the idea of the human being in a way that imposes upon it, as few presuppositions as possible. Also, the term Dasein does not fall prey to the Cartesian dogma of conceiving of the self as an essentially hermeneutic entity, which exists outside of the temporal and spatial conditions and situations within which it is enmeshed. Dasein, as a conscious tension between its status as a being, and the overall context of Being, is intimately connected with time. It is with this view that Heidegger states, “In its factual Being Dasein always is as and ‘what’ it already was. Whether explicitly or not, it is its past. It is its own past not only in such a way that its past pushes it along ‘behind’ it and that it possesses what is past as property that is still at hand and occasionally has an effect on it. Dasein ‘is’ its past in the manner of its

being which, roughly expressed, actually occurs out of its future.

[2] Eliade, Mircea. “Patterns of Initiation in Higher Religions.”

[3] Here we are reminded of Heidegger’s statement that, “Dasein ‘is’ its past in the manner of its Being which, roughly expressed, actually occurs out of its future.” (see first footnote) Death, or rather the self-consciousness of death, is a shadow that is cast before Dasein. It is a realization that inseparably binds the event of our existence with the possibility of ceasing to be.

[4] Eliade, Mircea (1965)

[5] The term Shamanic is, in its self, problematic. The term is taken from a word in the East-Siberian language of Tungus, which in turn stems from a Sanskrit word sramanas meaning “ascetic”. (New American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973, ed. William Morris, Houghton Mifflin Company, NY, NY.) However the meanings ascribed to this term, especially when used outside of its direct cultural context, differ in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways from writer to writer. To avoid being sidetracked by the nuances of this term, we shall simply state that this word, in the manner in which we make reference to it, designates the actions of an individual that exists within a particular culture, and plays the unique role of being a link between the world of the mundane and the world of the spirit. Characteristic of this individual is the modus operandi with which they achieve and maintain this link. This is directly tied to the ability to come into direct contact with the other-realm through the means of out-of- body journeys made in an ecstatic state, often brought on by the overloading of the senses through the medium of pain. In this respect it can be said that a Shaman is one whom is able to overcome the force(s) of the limitation of the normal human state of being. The Shaman can extend him- or herself further outwards towards the gods than the rest of the members of his or her culture. The Shaman moves in a different spatial-temporal reality than the others.

[6] Mircea Eliade.(1965), p. 106.

[7] It is known that the Eleusinian Rites entailed a process of ritual imitation of the mourning undergone by the suffering deity Demeter, and following this, an embrace of the ecstatic state, via mimesis, of the release from this mourning which accompanied the resurrection of Persephone and hence; the experience of rebirth that was undergone by the now-changed initiate.

[8] This is interesting to compare with the work of the French theorist Maurice Marleau -Ponty, who spoke of the state prior to a child’s formation of a rational and dualistic conception of the self as the pre-discursive state. Ponty conceives of the body as an interplay between the complimentary forces of interiority and exteriority, which ultimately defend themselves against a background of the Other(s), and an outside territory. Ponty charts the natural unfolding of a consciousness that is unable to be isolated, to one that exists in a relative and delineated form among, and against, an external world. It is this state of pre-discursiveness that is hoped to be obtained by the “backwards” movement of the self from cultural being, to natural being. (See Marleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception.)

[9] Eliade is careful to state that however apt the comparison may be between the “Shaman”, ritual Initiate, and the Mystic; their goals should not be thought of as the same. It is, in fact, not the religious experience that he wishes to communicate, but the structure of this experience. Here is not the place discuss the complex differences inherent in these paths; a single and striking example being the quest of the Mystic, who, past a certain stage in his or her path, can truly be said to practice without a goal at all.

[10] M. Eliade. Patterns, pg. 132.

[11] The figure of Christ, and its inherent mythology is of course not, properly speaking, “Indo-European”. However, the contextual grid, and much of the resulting mythology that this figure is placed within, can, to some extent be seen to be a European, and in this case mostly Medieval mythology. This is meant in a strictly formal sense, as a statement about the mythological figure of Christ, transfigured as it was within the cultural streams of the occident. Blatant illustrations of this contextualizing can be found in, among other sources, art, literature, and perhaps most fascinating, due to its “organically” occurring nature; the European folk song tradition. A well-known example of this is the 17th century anonymous carol The Seven Virgins, which envisions Christ “nail'd to a big yew-tree”.

[12] The act of dismemberment can be seen to be the spatial equivalence of the temporal movement of the initiate backwards to a pre-discursive state, or a state of unbeing, which readies the initiate to experience a second birth. The body, and with it the spatial limitations that the body confers upon the conceptualization of the self, are literally de-constructed, which readies the initiate for (re) construction of a new self.

[13] Walter Burkert, in Ancient Mystery Cults, Harvard University Press (1987), points out that the Mystery Religion of the Cult of the, originally Persian, god Mithras, was in many cases an exception to the generalizations often made about cults centered on initiatory rites. Though the Hieros Logos, or sacred story that corresponded to this cult is not known, it is known that those who participated in its rites formed what could be thought of as a closely-knit subculture, and who, beyond the extent of most other cults, maintained those ties throughout their lives. The other innate difference is that the Cult of Mithras was restricted to males. It functioned as a community of and for men, such as Roman Soldiers and traveling merchants that were not “of the household life”. Mithras was said to be the “god who is hostile towards women and the household.”

[14] Hubert Cancik states in his essay, The End of the World, of History, and of the Individual in Greek and Roman Antiquity” (The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Vol. I., Ed. John Collins. Continuum: 2000), that there are three general “types” that this journey is undertaken by: the Hero, the initiate, and the Priest. Furthermore he states that this quest can be envisioned to occur as a descention, or as an ascension. As examples par excellence, he names Orpheus, Hercules, and Theseus.

[15] See Hultgard; “Persian Apocalypticism: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity”(The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Vol. I. ed. John J. Collins. Continuum Publishing, 2001.)

[16] Cicero, In Verrem 2.4.114f, as referenced by Hubert Canik in, “The End of the world, of History, and of the Individual in Greek and Roman Antiquity. The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity”, in: The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Vol. I. ed. John J. Collins, Continuum Publishing, 2001.

[17] The very same Cicero that was quoted above was, if we can trust his own statements, in fact an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

[18] Walter Burkert proposes this possibility in his book, Mystery Cults. He states that is perhaps likely that the mysteries were unspeakable (arrheta), not just in the sense that they were kept secret, but in the sense that they could not be spoken due to their very nature. He suggests that one could never convey the reality of the initiation (pathein), or learn the secret of the cult, without first hand experience of the initiatory ritual. Although Burkert tempers these sentiments by stating “learning is not denied in the mysteries but rather is presupposed.” (Walter Burkert, Mystery Cults)

[19] It is of the nature of the religious experience that it is just that, an experience. Also due to the fact that things of this nature deal with truths and expressions of the human experience that cannot be in any way reduced or codified within rational or historical contexts, it is very hard to excise the core of a belief and hold it up to the light of rationalistic study outside of its passage in time. These difficulties have always plagued those who have wished to “resurrect” or resuscitate a religious tradition after it has been dormant for sometime. For instance today’s neo-pagan movements have had difficulty in bringing about an authentic revival of the religion they wish to reawaken, even though at one time this very religion arose out of the cultural and racial heritage of the very countries that now view it as strange or alien religious expression. A religious belief must either arise in a fully organic manner from within the believers life-world, or the one who wishes to receive a belief, to convert to a belief, must cultivate oneself before that belief can be genuinely received.

[20] Persephone was known locally, that is to the residents of Eleusis, as Pherephatta, or just “the maiden” Kore.

[21] Or, in this particular example the terms Kat-hodos and an-hodos, referring to the Descent and Return of the Goddess poetry”.

[22] Walter Burkert argues this way of viewing the overlapping meanings of the mythology and its imagery very convincingly in Mystery Cults. He states that Demeter offered to her devotees two gifts, one being grain, which could be seen to be the representation par excellence of civilization, and all that is inferred by this term, to the Greeks, and also of a “better hope for the afterlife.” Thus this Religious Cult, as mentioned in the previously quoted statement of Cicero, was truly one that contained a “Universal Religio”, in that it offered a complete and fully developed life-world to the initiate or believer. Demeter offered the promise of civilization, which can be seen to represent, at least in the mindset of the Greeks, the highest development of mankind within this life; for it is civilization that is the literal ordering of the apparent chaos that opposes life in this world, and therefore this process can take on inherently religious dimensions in its function as the fundamental movement of the human mind toward imposing or constructing a meaning upon the vastness of life. On the other hand, Demeter offered the possibly of a “hope for a better life in the afterworld”, thus offering the fullest of possibilities for overcoming the fear of the senselessness of life, which can be seem to be illustrative of the impermanence of all things in this world.

[23] The idea of an event “taking place” in illo tempore, or in sacred time, as opposed to events that were thought to have taken place in historic, or mundane time, is an important concept to keep in mind in the study of religious or mythic realities. An event, such as the abduction of Demeter would have been understood as actually happening, but that “actually happening” cannot be understood as an event in history, which had a specific location in space and time, and which once actualized moved in the irreversible context of the past. Events in illo tempore were thought of as such that they were eternally recurrent, and thus eternally relevant. When the participants in the Rites of Eleusis made the pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis and enacted the mournful quest of Demeter, they were actualizing these events in a way that they came to share in the event and become identified with the Goddess. This distinction is sometimes overlooked when the interpretation of a sacred mythology errs either too much to the side of the mundane understanding of allegory, or an the other hand, as being illustrative of a “primitive” or “pre-scientific” Weltanschauung which simply saw every event as having an unquestioned supernatural origin. For a sacred story to be truly grasped the tension that it opens between meanings must be allowed to remain open, it is part of the nature of expressing truths and ideas that transcends the world of the empirical.

[24] According to W. Burkert’s view these levels of meaning emerged in a discernable historical sequence, which moved from the Homeric, to the Pre-Socratic, to the Platonic. It is by the incorporation of the imagery and language of the Hellenistic Mystery Religions by the Platonic, and Neo-Platonic philosophers, that he understands these Mysteries to have taken on fully metaphysical dimensions. Be this as it may, we would like to suggest that this not be understood as being a fully temporal or historical process. There appears to be no convincing reason to doubt the existence of fully metaphysical implications within the teachings of the Mystery Cults from their very conception. In fact it could be suggested that this indeed was the ground from which they arose. While it is not doubted that in different times and places these Rites took on differing nuances of meaning, as is perhaps true within the context of this very essay, it must be kept in mind that the mysteries would contain very different levels of meaning for various people, according to their capability to understand the more nuanced levels of meaning contained within the teachings and mythologies that were part of these cults.

[25] See; Hultgard; Persian Apocalypticism.

[26] M.Eliade, Patterns of Initiation in the Higher Religions. (pg.133)

     



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