What or Who are Pagans?
It is time to look in greater detail at the pagan mystery religions. If, like me, you find words fascinating, there is one word which begs for definition, the word ‘Pagan.’ What does it mean? Off I go to my infallible guide The Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD.)
Pagan means heathen. Could do better C.O.D.! Off I go to the aitches. Heathen means unenlightened. I suppose any normal person would leave it at that, but no, I flex my muscles and lower volume two of The Shorter Oxford Dictionary from its place on the shelf.
Now we are getting somewhere. Pagan enters the English language in the late Middle English period (1150 – 1500) via the Latin Paganus. Christians took to calling themselves soldiers of Christ. Pagans or heathens were simply civilians.
This evolved further into a rural person, some one belonging to a rural community with heathenish ways and finally into one who does not worship the true God. So Pagans were not, are still not, defined by themselves but as they are perceived by Christians. So Pagans are unenlightened country bumpkins with heathenish habits who had the misfortune not to worship the true God. That presents we Christians with a problem.
So how did they produce:
- The Stunning architecture of the Parthenon
- The Gaza Pyramids
- The sublime sculptures of Phidias
- The plays of Euripides and Sophocles
- The philosophy of Socrates and Plato
- The Olympic Games
- Vast libraries of accumulated wisdom both philosophical and scientific
- The knowledge that the earth was round and not the centre of the Universe, for believing which Galileo Galilei was in danger of being executed by the Inquisition branch of the Vatican in 1615, forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
- Having the mathematical and astronomical skill to calculate the circumference of the world to a high degree of accuracy.
Some country bumpkins these. It is time we began taking them seriously on their own terms. So let’s pay a visit to the shrine of the Mother Goddess and the God/man Dionysus at Eleusis 18 kilometres north west of Athens, let’s say around the year 700 BC
Freke and Gandy pp 18 – 22
DIONYSUS at ELEUSIS
The central dogma of the Mysteries was the myth of the dying and resurrecting god/man. But this was not taught as a piece of inert, historical truth demanding intellectual acceptance. It was more akin to a form of liberation which came about by understanding the meaning behind the myth.
This was achieved by a theatrical presentation producing an altered state of awareness through the use of fires, lights, drums, cymbals gongs by turns terrifying and soothing. The high priest was dressed as the God/man, Dionysus.
The god/man’s trials and tribulations were re-enacted and the initiate absorbed the need to approximate his/her life ever closer to the deity with ever greater levels of purity by overcoming all tendencies to selfish and self centred behaviours.
Thus life triumphs over death and joy is born out of sorrow. The initiates were not spectators in these divine dramas but participants sharing in and experiencing the death and resurrection of the god/man.
Freke and Gandy pp 22 – 25
MYTH and MYTHOS
To us the word ‘myth’ means something which didn’t happen and is therefore not true. Or as my old friend the Shorter Oxford Dictionary put it: A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons embodying popular ideas on natural phenomena etc. A fictitious person or thing.”
That’s pretty categorical as to what we mean by ‘myth’. But that is not at all what mythos meant. The entire focus was not on literalness but on meaning. Mythos was a frequently used teaching metaphor. This is a fundamentally important truth to which we shall return again and again.
“The ancient philosophers were not so foolish as to believe that the Mystery myths were literally true, but wise enough to recognise that they were an easy introduction to the profound mystical philosophy at the heart of the Mysteries.”
Or as Sallustius pithily put it: “To wish to teach all men the truth of the gods causes the foolish to despise, because they cannot learn and the good to be slothful, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the former from despising philosophy and compels the latter to study it.”
(Freke and Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries pp (25-26)
The initiate was instructed one on one through various stages of initiation until he/she attained ‘friendship and interior communion with God’
The shrine at Eleusis was destroyed by marauding Christian monks in 396 AD after having celebrated the pagan religion for 1,100 years.
Freke and Gandy pp 25 – 29
OSIRIS in EGYPT
In Egypt the name of the god/man whose death and resurrection was celebrated annually before thousands of spectators was Osiris. It was essentially the same message as at Eleusis, the passion, death and resurrection of Osiris and the lessons it contained for his followers.
There were two differences in the Egyptian version of the god/man; the ceremonies were open to the public, no secrecy, and they could be traced back to 4,500 BC.
Pythagoras (581-497) was an initiate of the Egyptian Mysteries and it was his followers who were instrumental in establishing the Mysteries of Dionysus at Eleusis.
The Osiris and Dionysus religions are remarkable enough in their own right, occurring as they do in different countries and at different times. But although they are the two most famous Mystery religions, they are far from the only ones.
What is most remarkable is that all around the Mediterranean in the centuries before Jesus, in different countries with different cultures and languages Mystery religions taught the birth, death and resurrection of pagan god/men. Why?
What made this story so universally popular? Could it be that it presented we mortals with the concept that each of us contains a spark of the divine buried in our human flesh and if we can rise above our carnal selves by the quality of our lives we too can enjoy the life after death like the gods.
This was the sophisticated religious atmosphere into which the Jesus story arrived in what later began to be called ‘the Christian era’.
Freke and Gandy pp 29- 32