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The name given by the Greeks, and later also by the Romans, to various kinds of secret worships, which rested on the belief that, besides the general modes of honouring the gods, there was another, revealed only to the select few. Such religions services formed in almost all the Greek states an important part of the established worship, and were in the hands of an important body of priests appointed by the State. If any one divulged to the uninitiated the holy ceremonies and prayers, or sometimes even the names only, by which the gods were invoked, he was publicly punished for impiety. Some mysteries were exclusively managed by special priests and assistants to the exclusion of all laymen. To others a certain class of citizens was admitted; thus the Attic Thesmophoria could only be celebrated by women living in lawful wedlock with a citizen, and themselves of pure Athenian descent and of unblemished reputation. At other mysteries people of every kind and either sex were allowed to be present, if they had carried out certain preliminary conditions (especially purification), and had then been admitted and initiated. The usages connected with the native mysteries were similar to the ceremonies of Greek divine service; in the course of time, however, many other elements were borrowed from foreign modes of worship. They consisted usually in the recital of certain legends about the fortunes of the deity celebrated, which differed from the ordinary myths in many respects (e.g. the names and genealogies), and were often accompanied by a dramatic representation, with which was connected the exhibition of certain holy things, including symbols and relics. In many cases the symbols were not hidden from the public eye, but their meaning was revealed to the initiated alone. Of native mysteries those considered most holy were the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter; we know more about the ceremonies in this case than in any other. (See ELEUSINIA.) Next to these came the Samothracian mysteries of the Cabiri (q.v.), which in cource of time appear to have become very similar to the Eleusinian. In these two mysteries, as indeed in all, no deeper meaning was originally attached to the legends, usages, and symbols. But, as time went on, these initiations were supposed to have a peculiar power of preserving men amid the dangers of this life by purification and expiation, of giving him a temporary blessedness, and above all of conferring a sure prospect of a state of bliss after death. [Isocrates, Paneg. § 28.] This change is in great part due to the influence of a sect, the Orphici (See ORPHEUS). Following Oriental, Egyptian,and also Pythagorean doctrines, they taught that expiation and sanctification were necessary for this and for a future life, and that these must be effected by means of the initiations and purifications which they pretended Orpheus had revealed to them. Those who enjoyed these revelations of Orpheus constituted a religious society which gradually extended to every Greek country. Their religious services were also called mysteries, not only because the initiated alone could take part in them, but because the representations and usages connected with them had a hidden mystic meaning. It was chiefly owing to their influence that foreign mysteries were introduced into Greece, and that thus the various systems were blended together. Among foreign mysteries must be mentioned the wild and fanatic orgies of Dionysus (or Bacchus), Sabazius, and Cybele. The first of these gained a footing in Rome and Italy under the name of Bacchanalia, and in 186 B.C. had to be firmly suppressed by the government on account of the excesses connected with them [Livy xxxix 8-19]; while the last-mentioned were most widely spread even in early imperial times. (See RHEA.) The mysteries connected with the worship of Isis and of Mithras (q.v.) were also held in high esteem by Greeks and Romans down to a late period. The whole system of mysteries endured to the very end of the pagan times, for the deeper meaning of its symbolism offered a certain satisfaction even to the religious requirements of the educated, which they failed to find in the empty forms of the ordinary worship. (Cp. ORGIES.)
Type: Standard
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