Friday, April 6, 2012

Pagan Easter 2

Life includes death
The opposite of life is not death, the opposite of death is rebirth. Life has no opposite.
Carl Moschkau
To continue Carl’s meditation, death is part of life, and we experience little deaths every day—losses, failures, and disappointments that can spur us to be transformed. Life is a series of changes and each change is a little death and resurrection. Christians and other non-materialists have confidence that the final death of the body we presently inhabit does not mean the end of us. It is a rebirth, the beginning of a new life.
Eleusinian Mysteries
Before the life of Christ modeled the dying and rising motif central to every human life, the myths of non-Christian religions played it out. For close to two thousand years the most revered religious rites among Greeks and, for some centuries the Romans, were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which commemorated events in the lives of Demeter and Persephone. This divine Mother and Daughter pair prefigured the Father and Son deities of Christianity.

A Homeric hymn to Demeter, Goddess of earth’s fertility, by an unknown author c. 600 BCE gives the official story celebrated and recreated in the Mysteries. Demeter’s daughter Persephone also was the daughter of Zeus, lord of the sky and of Mount Olympus, dwelling of the gods. While playing in a field and gathering flowers, Persephone was abducted by Hades and forced down into the underworld, abode of the dead where Hades was lord. He did it with the consent of Zeus, his brother. Demeter heard Persephone’s cries but didn’t know where they came from. Grieving lamentably, she wandered the earth looking for her beloved daughter.

On the 10th day she heard the truth from Helios. Angry at Zeus, Demeter vowed never again to let the earth be fruitful or to set foot on Olympus until she saw her daughter. Zeus gave in and made Hades send back Persephone. But because he had given her pomegranate seeds to eat and she had eaten food from below, Persephone had to spend a third of the year with the dead before ascending to Demeter and the other Olympian deities. Demeter returned fruitfulness to the earth and stopped her wanderings at Eleusis, where she was hospitably received. There she requested and received a certain potion to drink, and she rewarded their hospitality by teaching the leader of the people her mysteries. This was the beginning of the Eleusinian Mysteries commemorating Demeter’s gifts to humanity.

Many parallels exist between the Greek and Christian myths:
·         The Homeric Hymn attributes the Mysteries to Demeter, as Christianity claims that Jesus founded our religion.
·         Hades lives in Christian mythology as the abode of the dead. In the Apostles Creed we say, “He descended into hell (etymologically related to Hades).”
·         In the Greek myth it is the daughter, rather than the son, who descends to the dead and rises again, symbolizing transformation.  
  • The Mysteries took place in spring over the course of weeks—like Lent, Holy Week, and Easter—not far from Corinth where Paul established a Christian community.
  • Christian rites are called “mysteries,” having borrowed the term from pagan rites.
  • A certain drink taught by Demeter had importance in the Mysteries, as a drink of wine has importance in the Mass.
  • The Mysteries included sacred objects, fasting, a procession, and a stupendous spectacle contrasting darkness and light with fire to effect a mix of contrasting emotions in those participating.
Under pain of death, participants were prohibited from revealing what happened in the sacred culminating ceremony (mysterion meant “secret”), leaving historians to guess the proceedings with difficulty, but ancient writers such as Plato, Pindar, and Plutarch found rich meaning in them and described a state of exaltation. Like Christian rites, the Mysteries focused participants on inward truth apart from outward bustle. They conveyed a new spiritual status, a closer relationship with the Holy, and hope of blessedness in the hereafter.

Some ruins at Eleusis still stand and give evidence of the religion’s breadth. Beginning from about the thirteenth century B.C.E., the complex of buildings went through periods of construction lasting seventeen centuries. In the center stands the temple of Demeter, the Great Mother credited with revealing the knowledge of agriculture because she allowed the earth to become productive again when her dying and rising daughter Persephone returned from Hades.

In 364 C.E., Catholic Emperor Valentinian prohibited nocturnal celebrations with the aim of abolishing the Mysteries. Horrified, a proconsul in Greece said it would make life unlivable for Greeks if they were prevented from observing the sacred Mysteries, “holding the whole human race together.” Here we see another parallel to Christians, those who believe Christ saved the whole human race and cannot imagine the Holy working outside of their own religion.

This post is titled "Pagan Easter 2" because it follows the first "Pagan Easter,"  and I say more on the Eleusinian Mysteries  in "Easter Symbolized." I invite readers to contact me for sources to this information compiled from books in the St. John's Library. It's worth repeating that correctly reporting pagan history does not invalidate the core Christian message but does invalidate exclusive claims and literal interpretations.


Pagan Easter Response, April 18
The information in my “Pagan Easter” post pleased many, and their responses please me, because it shows that Christians are growing up, opening up to unfamiliar brands of spiritual food. Notice also the comment of my favorite ultra-conservative Florian. I used to answer his charges but now I just let readers do it on their own. Let me know if you’d like me to address particular points of his.  The following email responses were so good that I asked permission to quote:
Brenda Asterino: 
I like this very much.   And one might say that this is again hidden in Christianity in that Mary was also a virgin birth (many Catholics believe this), which means she came before Jesus and according to Catholicism...she ascended without dying.   When one gets into this... it gets us back to the Magdalenes [religious groups in medieval times] and their beliefs which were not unlike Druidic in many ways.    

I also love the books by Tim Wallace-Murphy because he shows that connections between the Essenes, the Druids, the Egyptians, the ancient Persians, the …—can’t think of it...but one of the Indian belief systems—all overlap and they shared their advances through alchemy with each other..... and all had to be hidden from the marauding groups working to delete herstory and only have one history.
It is Enough.   .... and time for change!  
Malcolm Nazareth:
You keep reminding us that Christianity needs to give up its pretensions of having fallen clean from the sky. We are from earth, of earth.
We are made of myths, beliefs, and practices recycled from earlier wisdom traditions and religious streams.

Our "unique" religion gradually took on the accoutrements of systems of domination and oppression down the centuries as a glacier picks up elements on its journey and makes it part of its own corpus. . . Today, at our own peril, we neglect to recognize and 'fess up to the history of our fashioning.
We risk becoming the most widespread, dominant, and therefore also the most oppressive religious tradition to plague humankind and planet earth. 
As promised before, I plan to post some wonderful songs and readings by Jann Aldredge-Clanton honoring the Divine Feminine.

1 comment:

Florian said...

"It's worth repeating that correctly reporting pagan history does not invalidate the core Christian message but does invalidate exclusive claims and literal interpretations."--Jeanette

Exclusive claim and literal interpretations are a part of the core Christian message. They are part of the gospel. So, you are lying.

In any case, pagan history does not invalidate authentic Christianity. Pointing out parallels does not prove anything.

As usual, the "parallels" are artificially inflated for the reader by using Christian language, such as "dying and rising." If we are careful, we notice that Persephone does not actually die. Just as Osiris does not die and rise, but rather is, at best, "dismembered and reassembled."

When we add that the pagan myths emerged from contemplative reflection on the agricultural cycles, the so-called "parallels" become unimpressive (yawn). By contrast, the origin of the Christian myth is quite un-paralleled. In fact, it is not a “myth.” Ancient myth does not serve as the basis of Christianity... an historical event serves as the basis. At least you cannot deny that the first Christians insisted that the dying and rising event of Jesus was historical.

The first Christians were also devout Jews, who would have been suspicious of pagan contamination of their religion. (The same is true of Paul, so Pauline Christianity is not an exception.)
This all casts serious doubt on these ideas about borrowing from pagans.