(μυστήριον), a term employed in the Bible (N.T.), as well as in some of the pagan religions, to denote a revealed secret. See Grossmann, De Judaeorum arcani disciplina, SEE ESSENES (Lips. 1833-4); and on the Christian "secret discipline," the monographs cited by Volbtdiing, Index Programm. page 138 sq.
I. Etymology of the Word. — Some have thought to derive the Greek μύστηριον, from which the English mystery is plainly a transfer, from a Hebrew source, but sound philology forbids this. It is clearly a derivation, through μύστης, an initiated person, from μυεῖσθαι, to initiate, and thus ultimately from μύω, to close the eyes or mouth, i.e., to keep a secret. The derivative μυστήριον had always a reference to secrets of a religious character, and this sense is retained in the Bible.
II. Pagan Mysteries in general. — These were ceremonies in which only the initiated could participate. The practice may be obscurely traced to the early Orient, in the rites of Isis (q.v.) and Osiris (q.v.) in Egypt, in the Mithraic solemnities of Persia, and in the Greek festivals connected with the worship of Bacchus and Cybele, and may be even faintly, recognised in our day in the ceremonies of freemasonry. They consisted in general of rites of purification and expiation, of sacrifices and processions, of ecstatic or orgiastic songs and dances, of nocturnal festivals fit to impress the imagination, and of spectacles designed to excite the most diverse emotions — terror and trust, sorrow and joy, hope and despair. The celebration was chiefly by symbolical acts and spectacles; yet sacred mystical words, formulas, fragments of liturgies, or hymns, were also employed. There were likewise certain objects with which occult meanings that were imparted to the initiated were associated, or which were used in the various ceremonies in the ascending scale of initiation. The sacred phrases, the ἀπόῤῥητα, concerning which silence was imposed, were themselves symbolical legends, and probably not statements of speculative truths. The most diverse theories have been suggested concerning the origin, nature, and significance of the Hellenic mysteries. As Schunemann remarks ( Griechische AIterntiimer, 3d ed., Berlin, 1873), the very fact that it was not permitted to reveal to the uninitiated wherein these cults consisted, what were the rites peculiar to them, for what the gods were invoked, or what were the names of the divinities worshipped, has been the cause of our extremely incomplete information in regard to them.
The oldest of the Hellenic mysteries are believed to be the Cabiric, in Samothrace and Lemnos, which were renowned through the whole period of pagan antiquity.
Though they were only less august than the Eleusinian, nothing is certain concerning them, and even the names of the divinities are known to us only by the profanation of Manaseas. (See below.) The Eleusinian were the most venerable of the mysteries. "Happy," says Pindar, "is he who has beheld them, and descends beneath the hollow earth; he knows the end, he knows the divine origin of life." They composed a long series of ceremonies, concluding with complete initiation or perfection. The fundamental legend on which the ritual seems to have been based was the search of the goddess Demeter, or Ceres, for her daughter Proserpine, her sorrows and her joys, her descent into Hades, and her return into the realm of light. The rites were thought to prefigure the scenes of a future life. The same symbol was the foundation of the Thesmophoria, which were celebrated exclusively by married women, rendering it probable that initiation was designed to protect against the dangers of childbirth. (See below.) The Orphic and Dionysiac mysteries seem to have designed a reformation of the popular religion. Founded upon the worship of the Thracian Dionysus, or Bacchus, they tended to ascetic rather than orgiastic practices. Other mysteries were those of Zeus, or Jupiter, in Crete; of Hera, or Juno, in Argolis; of Athene, or Minerva, in Athens; of Artemis, or Diana, in Arcadia; of Hector in Egina, and of Rhea in Phrygia. The worship of the last, under different names, prevailed in divers forms and places in Greece and the East, and was associated with the orgiastic rites of the Corybantes.
More important were the Persian mysteries of Mithra, which appeared in Rome about the beginning of the 2d century of the Christian sera. They were propagated by Chaldaean and Syrian priests. The austerity of the doctrine, the real perils of initiation which neophytes were obliged to encounter, the title of soldier of Mithra which was bestowed on them, and the crowns which were offered them after the combats preceding every grade of advancement, were among the peculiarities which gave to these rites a military and bellicose character; and Roman soldiers eagerly sought initiation into them. The fundamental dogma of the Mithraic doctrine was the transmigration of souls under the influence of the seven planets, over whose operations Mithra presided. The whole fraternity of the initiated was divided into seven classes or grades, which were named successively soldiers, lions, hysenas, etc., after animals sacred to Mithra. The sacrifice of the bull was characteristic of his worship. On the monuments which have been found in Italy, the Tyrol, and other parts of Europe, inscribed Deo Mithrae Soli Invicto, Mithra is usually represented as a young man in a flowing robe, surrounded with mystical figures, seated on a bull, which he is pressing down, or into which he is plunging the sacrificial knife. A dog, a serpent, a scorpion, and a lion are arranged near him. Nothing is certain concerning the signification of this scene. After the adoption of some of the ideas connected with other religious systems, as those of the Alexandrian Serapis, the Syrian Baal, and the Greek Apollo, the Mithra worship disappeared in the 5th or 6th century. SEE MITHRA.
See Creuzer, Symbolik Mythologie (181)-12), translated into French, with elaborate annotations, by Guigniant and others (1825-36); Sainte-Croix, Recherches historiques et critiques sur les Mysteres du Paganisme, edited by Sylvestre de Sacy (1317); Seel, Die Mithra-Geheimnisse wahrend der vor- und christlichen Zeit (1823); Limbourg-Brouwer, Hist. de la Civilization morale et religieuse des Grecs (1833-41); Lajard, Recherches sur le Culte public et les Mysteres de Mithra (1847-8); Maury, Hist. des Religions de la Grace antique (1857); Preller, Romische Mythologie (2d ed. 1865); and Griechische Mythologie (3d ed. 1872); Enfield, Hist. of Philosophy, pages 20, 39, 50, 65; Puffendorf, Religio gentilium arcana (Lips. 1772); Osiander, De mysteriis Eleusiniis (Stuttgard, 1808); Ousvaroff, Sur les mysteres d'Eleusis (Paris, 1816).
III. The Grecian Mysteries in particular. — These mysteries certainly were always secret; but all Greeks, without distinction of rank or education — nay, perhaps even slaves — might be initiated (μνεῖσθαι); such was the case, for instance, in the Eleusinian mysteries. It is the remark of Josephus that "the principal doctrines of each nation's religion were made known, among heathens, only to a chosen few, but among the Jews to the people no less than to the priests." It appears that in many of these mysteries certain emblems or symbols (thence called themselves mysteries) were displayed either to the initiated, in the course of their training, or to the people; and that the explanation of these to the initiated was the mode in which they were instructed.
The names by which mysteries or mystic festivals were designated in Greece are μυστήρια, τελεταί, or ὄργια. The name ὄργια (from ἔοργα) originally signified only sacrifices accompanied by certain ceremonies, but it was afterwards applied especially to the ceremonies observed in the worship of Bacchus, and at a still later period to mysteries. Τελετή in generalΤελετή signifies, in general, a religious festival, but more particularly a lustration or ceremony performed in order to avert some calamity, either public or private. Μυστήριον signifies, properly speaking, the secret part of the worship; but it was also used in the same sense as τελετή, and for mystic worship in general.
These mysteries in brief may be defined as sacrifices and ceremonies which took place at night or in secret within some sanctuary, which the uninitiated were not allowed to enter. What was essential to them were objects of worship, sacred utensils, and traditions with their interpretation, which were withheld from all persons not initiated.
The most celebrated mysteries in Greece were of three kinds, chiefly those of Samothrace and Eleusis, which may be briefly described as follows:
1. The Cabiria (καβείρια) were mysteries, festivals, and orgies solemnized in all places in which the Pelasgian Cabiri were worshipped, but especially in Samothrace, Imbros, Lemnos, Thebes, Anthedon, Pergamus, and Berytus. Little is known respecting the rites observed in these mysteries, as no one was allowed to divulge them. The most celebrated were those of the island of Samothrace, which, if we may judge from those of Lemnos, were solemnized every year, and lasted for nine days. Persons on their admission seem to have undergone a sort of examination respecting the life they had led hitherto, and were then purified of all their crimes, even if they had committed murder.
2. The Thesmophoria (θεσμοφόρια) were a great festival and mysteries, celebrated in honor of Ceres in various parts of Greece, and only by women, though some ceremonies were also performed by maidens. It was intended to commemorate the introduction of the laws and regulations of civilized life, which was universally ascribed to Ceres. The Attic thesmophoria probably lasted only three days, and began on the 11th of Pyanepsion, which day was called ἄνοδος or κάθοδος, because the solemnities were opened by the women with a procession from Athens to Eleusis. In this procession they carried on their heads sacred laws (νόμιμοι βίβλοι or θεσμοί), the introduction of which was ascribed to Ceres (θεσμοφόρος), and other symbols of civilized life. The women spent the night at Eleusis in celebrating the mysteries of the goddess. The second day, called νηστεία, was a day of mourning, during which the women sat on the ground around the statue of Ceres, and took no other food than cakes made of sesame and honey. On this day no meetings either of the senate or the people were held. It was probably in the afternoon of this day that the women held a procession at Athens, in which they walked barefooted behind a wagon, upon which baskets with mystical symbols were conveyed to the thesmophorion. The third day, called καλλιγένεια, from the circumstance that Ceres was invoked under this name, was a day of merriment and raillery among the women themselves, in commemoration of Iambe, who was said to have made the goddess smile during her grief.
3. But far more important, so much so indeed as almost to monopolize the term " mystery" among the Greeks, were the Eleusinian mysteries (ἐλευσίνια), a festival and mysteries, originally celebrated only at Eleusis in Attica, in honor of Ceres and Proserpina. The Eleusinian mysteries, or the mysteries, as they were sometimes called, were the holiest and most venerable of all that were celebrated in Greece. Various traditions were current among the Greeks respecting the author of these mysteries; for, while some considered Eumolpus or Mussaus to be their founder, others stated that they had been introduced from Egypt by Erechtheus, who at a time of scarcity provided his country with corn from Egypt, and imported from the same quarter the sacred rites and mysteries of Eleusis. A third tradition attributed the institution to Ceres herself, who, when wandering about in search of her daughter, Proserpina, was believed to have come to Attica, in the reign of Erechtheus, to have supplied its inhabitants with corn, and to have instituted the mysteries at Eleusis. This last opinion seems to have been the most common among the ancients, and in subsequent times a stone was shown near the well Callichorus at Eleusis on which the goddess, overwhelmed with grief and fatigue, was believed to have rested on her arrival in Attica. All the accounts and allusions in ancient writers seem to warrant the conclusion that the legends concerning the introduction of the Eleusinia are descriptions of a period when the inhabitants of Attica were becoming acquainted with the benefits of agriculture and of a regularly constituted form of society. In the reign of Erechtheus a war is said to have broken out between the Athenians and Eleusinians; and when the latter were defeated, they acknowledged the supremacy of Athens in everything except the mysteries, which they wished to conduct and regulate for themselves. Thus the superintendence remained with the descendants of Eumolpus, the daughters of the Eleusinian king Celeus, and a third class of priests, the Ceryces, who seem likewise to have been connected with the family of Eumolpus, though they themselves traced their origin to Mercury and Aglauros. At the time when the local governments of the several townships of Attica were concentrated at Athens, the capital became also the centre of religion, and several deities who had hitherto only enjoyed a local worship were now raised to the rank of national gods. This seems also to have been the case with the Eleusinian goddess, for in the reign of Theseus we find mention of a temple at Athens called Eleusinian, probably the new and national sanctuary of Ceres. Her priests and priestesses now became naturally attached to the national temple of the capital, though her original place of worship at Eleusis, with which so many sacred associations were connected, still retained its importance and its special share in the celebration of the national solemnities.
We must distinguish between the greater Eleusinia, which were celebrated at Athens and Eleusis, and the lesser, which were held at Agrae on the Ilissus. The lesser Eleusinia were only a preparation (προκάθαρσις or προάγνευσις) for the real mysteries. They were held every year in the month of Anthesterion, and, according to some accounts, in honor of Proserpina alone. Those who were initiated in them bore the name of Mystae (μύσται), and had to wait at least another year before they could be admitted to the great mysteries. The principal rites of this first stage of initiation consisted in the sacrifice of a sow, which the mystea seem to have first washed in the Cantharus, and in the purification by a priest, who bore the name of Hydranus ( ῾Υδρανός). The mystae had also taken an oath of secrecy, which was administered to them by the Mystagogus (μυσταγωγός, also called ἱεροφάντης or προφήτης), and they received some kind of preparatory instruction, which enabled them afterwards to understand the mysteries that were revealed to them in the great Eleusinia.
The great mysteries were celebrated every year in the month of Boedromion during nine days, from the 15th to the 23d, both at Athens and Eleusis. The initiated were called ἐπόπται or ἔφυροι. On the first day those who had been initiated in the lesser Eleusinia assembled at Athens.
On the second day the mystae went in solemn procession to the sea-coast, where they underwent a purification. Of the third day scarcely any thing is known with certainty; we are only told that it was a day of fasting, and that in the evening a frugal meal was taken, which consisted of cakes made of sesame and honey. On the fourth day the κάλαθος κάθοδος seems to have taken place. This was a procession with a basket containing pomegranates and poppy-seeds; it was carried on a wagon drawn by oxen, and women followed with small mystic cases in their hands. On the fifth day, which appears to have been called the torch day (ἡ τῶν λαμπάδων ἡμέρα), the mystee, led by the δᾷδοῦχος, went in the evening with torches to the temple of Ceres at Eleusis, where they seem to have remained during the following night. This rite was probably a symbolical representation of Ceres wandering about in search of Proserpina. The sixth day, called lacchus, was the most solemn of all. The statue of Iaccllus, son of Ceres, adorned with a garland of myrtle and bearing a torch in his hand, was carried along the sacred road amid joyous shouts and songs, from the Ceramicus to Eleusis. This solemn procession was accompanied by great numbers of followers and spectators. During the night from the sixth to the seventh day the mystae remained at Eleusis, and were initiated into the last mysteries (ἐποπτεία). Those who were neither ἐπόπται nor μύσται were sent away by a herald. The mystue now repeated the oath of secrecy which had been administered to them at the lesser Eleusinia, underwent a new purification, and then they were led by the mystagogus in the darkness of night into the lighted interior of the sanctuary (φωταγωγία), and were allowed to see (αὐτοψία) what none except the epoptue ever beheld. The awful and horrible manner in which the initiation is described by later, especially Christian writers, seems partly to proceed from their ignorance of its real character, partly from their horror of and aversion to these pagan rites. The more ancient writers always abstained from entering upon any description of the subject. Each individual, after his initiation, is said to have been dismissed by the words κόγξ, ὄμπαξ, in order to make room for other mystue.
On the seventh day the initiated returned to Athens amid various kinds of raillery and jests, especially at the bridge over the Cephisus, where they sat down to rest, and poured forth their ridicule on those who passed by. Hence the words γεφυρίζειν and γεφυρισμός. These σκώμματα seem, like the procession with torches to Eleusis, to have been dramatical and symbolical representations of the jests by which, according to the ancient legend, Iambe or Baubo had dispelled the grief of the goddess and made her smile. We may here observe that probably the whole history of Ceres and Proserpina was in some way or other symbolically represented at the Eleusinia. The eighth day, called Epidauria (Ε᾿πιδαύρια), was a kind of additional day for those who by some accident had come too late, or had been prevented from being initiated on the sixth day. It was said to have been added to the original number of days when AEsculapius, coming over from Epidaurus to be initiated, arrived too late, and the Athenians, not to disappoint the god, added an eighth day. The ninth and last day bore the name of πλημοχοαί, from a peculiar kind of vessel called πλημοχοη, which is described as a small kind of κότυλος. Two of these vessels were on this day filled with water or wine, and the contents of the one thrown to the east, and those of the other to the west, while those who performed this rite uttered some mystical words.
The Eleusinian mysteries long survived the independence of Greece. Attempts to suppress them were made by the emperor Valentinian; but he met with strong opposition, and they seem to have continued down to the time of the elder Theodosius.
Respecting the secret doctrines which were revealed in them to the initiated, nothing certain is known. The general belief of the ancients was that they opened to man a comforting prospect of a future state. But this feature does not seem to have been originally connected with these mysteries, and was probably added to them at the period which followed the opening of a regular intercourse between Greece and Egypt, when some of the speculative doctrines of the latter country and of the East may have been introduced into the mysteries, and hallowed by the names of the venerable bards of the mythical age. This supposition would also account, in some measure, for the legend of their introduction from Egypt (Smith, Dict. of Class. Antiq. s.v.). It does seem, indeed, as if the vague speculations of modern times on the subject were an echo of the manifold interpretations of the various acts of the mysteries given by the priests to the inquiring disciple — according to the lights of the former or the latter. Some investigators, themselves not entirely free from certain mystic influences (like Creuzer and others), have held them to have been a kind of misty orb around a kernel of pure light, the bright rays of which were too strong for the eyes of the multitude; that, in fact, they hid under an outward garb of mummery a certain portion of the real and eternal truth of religion, the knowledge of which had been derived from some primeval, or, perhaps, the Mosaic revelation; if it could not be traced to certain (or uncertain) Egyptian, Indian, or generally Eastern sources. To this kind of hazy talk, however (which we only mention because it is still repeated every now and then), the real and thorough investigations begun by Lobeck, and still pursued by many competent scholars in our own day, have, or ought to have, put an end. There cannot be anything more alien to the whole spirit of Greek and Roman antiquity than a hiding of abstract truths and occult wisdom under rites and formulas, songs and dances; and, in fact, the mysteries were anything but exclusive, either with respect to sex, age, or rank, in point of initiation. It was only the speculative tendency of later times, when Polytheism was on the wane, that tried to symbolize and allegorize these obscure and partly imported ceremonies, the bulk of which had undoubtedly sprung from the midst of the Pelasgian tribes themselves in prehistoric times, and which were intended to represent and to celebrate certain natural phenomena in the visible creation. There is certainly no reason to deny that some more refined minds may at a very early period have endeavored to impart a higher sense to these wondrous performances; but these can only be considered as solitary instances. The very fact of their having to be put down in later days as public nuisances in Rome herself speaks volumes against the occult wisdom inculcated in secret assemblies of men and women (Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.).
IV. Biblical Use of the Term "Mystery." — A most unscriptural and dangerous sense is too often put upon the word, as if it meant something absolutely unintelligible and incomprehensible; whereas in every instance in which it occurs in the Sept. or New Testament it is applied to something which is revealed, declared, explained, spoken, or which may be known or understood.
1. It is sometimes used to denote the meaning of a symbolical representation, whether addressed to the mind by a parable, allegory, etc., or to the eye by a vision, etc. Thus our Lord, having delivered to the multitude the parable of the sower (Mt 13:3-9), when the disciples asked him (verse 10) why he spoke to them in parables, replied, " Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but unto them which are without it is not given" (Mr 4:11); "Therefore I speak to them in parables" (Mt 13:13); "But your eyes see, and your ears understand" (verse 16): here our Lord applies the term mysteries to the moral truths couched under that parable, that is, to its figurative meaning. Again, the mystery or symbolical vision of the "seven stars and of the seven golden candlesticks" (Re 1:12,16) is explained to mean "the angels of the seven churches of Asia, and the seven churches themselves" (verse 20). Likewise the mystery or symbolical representation "of the woman upon a scarlet-colored beast" (Re 17:3-6) is explained, "I will tell thee the mystery of the woman," etc. (Re 17:7). When St. Paul, speaking of marriage, says "this is a great mystery" (Eph 5:32), he evidently treats the original institution of marriage as affording a figurative representation of the union between Christ and the Church (Campbell, Dissert. page 10, part 3:§ 9).
2. The word is also used to denote anything whatever which is hidden or concealed, till it is explained. The Sept. uses it to express רו, a secret (Da 2:18-19,27-30,47; Da 4:6), in relation to Nebuchadnezzar's dream, which was a secret till Daniel explained it, and even from the king himself, for he had totally forgotten it (verses 5, 9). Thus the word is used in the New Testament to denote those doctrines of Christianity, general or particular, which the Jews and the world at large did not understand till they were revealed by Christ and his apostles: Great is the mystery of godliness," i.e., the Christian religion (1Ti 3:16), the chief parts of which the apostle instantly proceeds to adduce — "God was manifest in the flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen of angels," etc. —facts which had not entered into the heart of man (1Co 2:9) until God visibly accomplished them, and revealed them to the apostles by inspiration (verse 10). The apostle is generally thought here to compare the Gospel with the greater Eleusinian mysteries (for which see Diod. Sic. 4:25; Dem. 29, ult. Xen. H.G. 1:4, 14; or Leland's Advantage and Necessity of the Christian Revelation, part 1, chapters 8, 9; or Macknight's Preface to the Ephesians, § 7). Thus also the Gospel in general is called "the mystery of the faith," which it was requisite the deacons should "hold with a pure conscience" (1Ti 3:9), and the mystery which from the beginning of the world had been hid with God, but which was now made known through means of the church" (Eph 3:9); the mystery of the Gospel which St. Paul desired "to make known" (Eph 6:19); "the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ," to the full apprehension or understanding of which (rather than "the acknowledgment") he prayed that the Colossians might come (Col 2:2; comp. the use of the word ἐπίγνωσις, 1Ti 2:4; 2Ti 3:7); which he desired the Colossians to pray that God would enable himself and his fellow-apostles "to speak and to make manifest" (Col 4:3-4); which he calls "the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest and known to all nations" (Ro 16:25); which, he says, "we speak" (Corinthians 2:7), and of which the apostles were "stewards" (1Co 4:1). The same word is used respecting certain particular doctrines of the Gospel, as, for instance, "the partial and temporary blindness of Israel," of which mystery "the apostle would not have Christians" ignorant (Ro 11:25), and which he explains (ver. 25- 32). He styles the calling of the Gentiles "a mystery which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph 3:4-6; comp. 1:9, 10, etc.). To this class we refer the well-known phrase, "Behold, I show you a mystery (1Co 15:51): we shall all be changed;" and then follows an explanation of the change (verses 51-55). Even in the case of a man speaking in an unknown tongue, in the absence of an interpreter, and when, therefore, no man understood him, although "by the Spirit he was speaking mysteries," yet the apostle supposes that the man so doing himself understood what he said (1Co 14:2-4). In the prophetic portion of his writings, "concerning the mystery of iniquity" (2Th 2:7), he speaks of it as being ultimately "revealed" (verse 8). (See below.) Josephus applies nearly the same phrase, μυστήριον κακίας, a mystery of wickedness, to Antipater's crafty conduct to ensnare and destroy his brother Alexander (War, 1:24, 1); and to complete the proof that the word " mystery" is used in the sense of knowable secrets, we add the words, " Though I understand all mysteries" (1Co 13:2). The Greeks used the word in the same way. Thus Menander, μυστήριον σου μὴ κατείπης τῷ φιλῷ, "Tell not your secret to a friend" (page 274, line 671, ed. Clerici). Even when they apply the term to the greater and lesser Eleusinian mysteries, they are still mysteries into which a person might be initiated, when they would, of course, cease to be mysteries to him. The word is used in the same sense throughout the Apocrypha as in the Sept. and New Testament (Tobit 12:7; Judith 2:2; Ecclus. 22:22; 27:16,17, 21; 2 Macc. 13:21); it is applied to divine or sacred mysteries (Wisd. 2:33; 6:22), and to the ceremonies of false religions (Wisd. 14:15, 23). See Bibliotheca Sancta, January 1867, page 196; Whately, St. Paul, page 176; Contemp. Rev. January 1868, page 182.
V. Ecclesiastical Use of the Term. — The word "mysteries" is repeatedly applied to the Lord's Supper by Chrysostom. The eucharist was the last and the highest point of the secret discipline, SEE ARCANI DISCIPLINA; and the name which it received on this account was retained so long as the superstitious doctrine of the miraculous presence of the body and blood of Christ gained ground. By the usage of the Christian Church it denotes the inscrutable union in the sacrament of the inward and spiritual grace with the outward and visible sign. In the early Church the term derived a still greater force from the secrecy which was observed in the administration of those ordinances. SEE SACRAMENT.