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Saturday, June 5, 2021

Mystery religions as a response to concepts of a bleak afterlife

Yesterday I posted about incense and the types of incense required for each Olympian god or hero as specified in the Orphic hymns.  

"Faced with the thought of a bleak existence in the Underworld, some individuals in the ancient Mediterranean sought to improve their lot while they were alive. Virtuous behavior might not be sufficient, and one way to obtain a happier afterlife was thought to be through initiation into mystery cults associated with Orpheus and Dionysos. Self-styled preachers offered followers transformative experiences that mainstream practice could not provide. Their rites were shrouded in secrecy and remain little understood today" - J. Paul Getty Museum

Initiates were sometimes buried with thin sheets of gold, termed Orphic tablets by modern scholars, inscribed with guidance for their journey into the Underworld much like the Book of the Dead for ancient Egyptians, although much shorter. The text might reference landmarks along the journey, such as a spring, a cypress tree, or the Lake of Memory.

Average Greeks did not view the afterlife as an eternal paradise, except for a select few, heroes related to the Olympian gods, but rather a bleak existence characterized primarily by the absence of life's pleasures.  The idea of moral judgment and an expectation of the good rewarded and evil punished did not arise until the early 5th century BCE.  

"Drawing on abstract speculation as much as popular belief, Plato (about 428–347 BCE) described separate destinations for the good and the bad, as well as cycles of penance and reincarnation. But for determining what the majority of ancient Greeks thought about the afterlife, his most revealing assertion may be that individuals dismiss the stories told about what goes on in Hades—until they face death themselves." - J. Paul Getty Museum

The comic playwright Aristophanes provided more color, describing wrongdoers lying in mud and dung, while initiates dance in myrtle groves (Frogs, 405 BCE).

The mystery cults, however, offered practices designed to achieve a more favorable sojourn after death. 

"In contrast to public festivals and sacrifices, which were typically organized at a communal or civic level, the rituals of mystery cults were performed privately for individuals or small groups. Self-styled priests offered followers transformative experiences that mainstream practice could not provide and that marked the initiate as special." 

"Armed with this privileged information as to where to go in the Underworld and what to say, the deceased could feel secure in the face of death. Although the tablets like this have been found across a wide area—in Sicily and southern Italy, northern Greece, the Peloponnese, and Crete—they are exceedingly rare. Their owners were a select few, who subscribed to beliefs that would have appeared esoteric and eclectic to their contemporaries." - J. Paul Getty Museum

I find it interesting that, although the Romans adopted much of Greek mythology and philosophy, their view of the afterlife was significantly different. They believed in the immortality of the soul but believed that when one died, one was met by Mercury, the messenger god and son of Jupiter and taken to the river Styx, that flowed nine times around the underworld. There they paid the ferryman, Charon, a fee to cross the river where they were met and judged by Minos, Aenaeus, and Rhadymanthas.

"However, the ancient Romans did not believe in eternal damnation. Therefore, after one was judged he was sent either to the Fields of Elysium, if one was a warrior or other type of hero, or to the Plain of Asphodel, if one was an ordinary citizen. However, if one was judged to have committed a crime against society, one would have been sent to Tartarus to be tortured by the Furies until such time as one's debt to society was deemed to have been paid in full. At that time, one was released. " - All About History: https://www.allabouthistory.org/ancient-romans-faq.htm

This example of an Orphic tablet, now in the collections of the Getty Villa, takes the form of a dialogue between the dead initiate and a spring in the Underworld:
(Initiate): I am parched with thirst and perishing!
(Spring): Then come drink of me, the Ever-Flowing Spring. On the right there is a bright cypress. Who are you? Where are you from?
(Initiate): I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven. But my race is heavenly.
(Translation by Roy Kotansky (2017)). Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Mixing Vessel with Odysseus Summoning the Shades from the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Lucania, 390–380 BC; found in Pisticci, Italy, terracotta. Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Dolon Painter. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 422. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Closeup of Mixing Vessel with Odysseus Summoning the Shades from the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Lucania, 390–380 BC; found in Pisticci, Italy, terracotta. Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Dolon Painter. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 422. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Storage Jar with Athena, Herakles, and Kerberos (detail), Greek, made in Athens, 530–510 BC; found in Vulci, Italy, terracotta. Bilingual amphora attributed to the Andokides Painter. Musée du Louvre, Départment des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, Paris, F204. Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Fragment of a Funerary Relief with Underworld Figures, Greek, made in South Italy (Taras), 325–300 BC, limestone. State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich, GL 494. Photograph by Renate Kühling. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Seated Musician thought to represent Orpheus, Greek, made in South Italy (Taras), 330–300 BCE, terracotta with traces of pigment, that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

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