Friday, March 20, 2009

The Ancient Mysteries

In my last post, I wrote about how some members in Hellenistic society started to become skeptical of Zeus because of changes in their society and way of life. Then, I attempted to draw a parallel between the atheos of antiquity and the atheist of today.

Since then, a commenter pointed out that perhaps I stretched the usage and interpretation of the word atheos. Perhaps my comparison of the atheos of antiquity and the atheist of modern times was not appropriate. I will leave that for everyone to ponder. Personally, I'm still chewing on this idea. I have not made up my mind. Yet, that point is worth mentioning and reviewing. I don't want to spread continue to spread a false notion.

Regardless of whether I misused the word atheos in my previous post, members of Hellenistic society started to have new ideas about the gods as their society changed. I'd like to mention one particular result that came about due to these changes in their society. A group of obscure cults known as the Mystery Religions or the Ancient Mysteries grew in popularity. For me, leaning about the cults eventually disturbed my religious faith.

Mystery Religions usually (not always) focused on one deity. Often, the divine nature of a Mystery Religion deity was a human or animal incarnated. (Hey, was that redundant? Human or animal incarnated? Aren't humans animals?)

Sometimes the deity was incarnated as human and animal both at the same time-- like a human and a bull, in the Mithras cult.

The deities were also closely tied to the cycle of life and death. Often, these deities metaphorically died and rose again in accordance with the harvesting of crops. The death of such deities brought about newness of life on some level. Sometimes this new life only came in the growing of crops from season to season. But sometimes this new life came in the form of rebirth for the followers.

Usually the initiates of Mystery Religions engaged in some sort of ceremony or religious rites to become a follower. Activities like baptism, sacred meals, sporadic moments of euphoric prophesy and / or ecstatic speech (like tongue speaking) often happened during initiation. This could also be part of normal worship practices, too.

Initiates identified with their deity by having some symbolic or even literal eating of the incarnated flesh and drinking of blood from their deity. This symbolic or literal eating the flesh of their deity allowed the initiates to become partakers of the life-death-rebirth experience. Symbolic, sacred meals often utilized bread to represent the flesh of their deity; water or wine (sometimes mixed) would represent the blood. And as I said before, some deities were personified as an animal. Thus, the raw flesh of the animal was eaten to partake of the divine nature. Also, the death of the animal brought the expectation that new life. For example, one cult depicted pictures of a bull with wounds that would spout grain-- life literally growing out of death. The human incarnation of the deity would pierce the animal version of himself, spilling blood that brings life. Spouting grain that represents new life as a result.

When Christianity finally came along, early Christian apologists had to deal with criticisms from the initiates of Mystery Religions concerning the claim that Christianity was unique. Converts between various Mystery Religions and Christianity accused each other of being an imitation of the truth.

Personally, the similarities between Christianity and the Mystery Religions were disturbing to my former faith. Learning about them has forced me to consider that Christianity is a product of the Hellenistic period rather than a divine revelation from God.

Should anyone find a solid way to reverse my outlook on this topic, they could potentially cause me to rethink my deconversion process.

That won't be easy, though. But if you've "got the goods", I'd like to see 'em.

The Ancient Mysteries pre-date Christianity by a few hundred years. That bothers me, too. Were these Mysteries counterfeit versions of Christianity? Was Christianity the true Mystery Religion and the others were only shadows of the truth?

Or was Christianity just one more variant of a string of pagan beliefs?
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