One of the four painted wood slabs of Pitsa, found in 1934 near Sicyon, Corinth, 6th century BC
The ancient Eleusinian mysteries, the Phrygian mystery cult of Cybele (Magna Mater), the wild Dionysian mysteries, the enigmatic Orphic secret rites, the Egyptian mysteries of Isis, the Roman Mithraism. Numerous mystery cults have engaged the spirits of the Mediterranean population for millennia. Providing an exclusive knowledge (secret and fiercely guarded), all those practices attracted thousands of adepts offering them a seductive intimacy with the deities presiding over the cults as well as reassuring promises for a possible afterlife. The glory of the ancient mystery cults has waned long ago. Even though, they have left traces in our language. Here I present you some of them:
Mystery – Initiate – Drama – Orgy – Neophyte
Fresco from the Villa dei Mysterii, Pompeii
The root of the English word mystery could be easily traced back to the ancient Greek. Determining to what exactly Greek word is related, though, is not such a simple process. Two verbs could play in the contest: the one is the ancient Greek verb μύω (mjU-o), and the other is μυέω (mju-E-o). The primary meaning of μύω is “to close, to be shut” and it was used in the classical texts to express closing the eyes of persons or animals. As the verb could denote the shutting of any opening, it also often described the closing of the mouth (giving, by the way, the English adjective mute). The idea of someone who doesn’t (want to) open and keeps shut his lips is considered as the link to the mystery practices of the Antiquity. The ancient secret rites were performed to a restricted number of people who made a vow not to reveal anything of the rituals. The taboo was so strictly followed (no wonder here, as the divulgation was penalized with death) that today the scientists have difficulties in reconstructing some of the most important rites of the ancient secret cults – they remain a mystery for us! The verb μυέω could also be pointed as a possible etymological source of the word mystery. Although it originally meant “to teach, to instruct someone,” it has acquired the meaning of “to initiate into mysteries” in a very early period. That is quite understandable, as, during the secret rituals, the participants were introduced to a new, fundamentally different knowledge of life and death. They were taught how to communicate with the deities of the respective mystery cult, how to maintain a special relationship with them and in what manner they could benefit from that.
Triptolemus initiated by Demeter and Persephone in the Eleusinian mysteries, relief from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
The whole process of getting and experiencing a new religious knowledge was called initiation. That word, as well as the English verb initiate, derived from the Latin noun initium, ii, n (in-It-i-um) – “beginning, commencement” and the verb initiare (in-it-i-A-re) – “to begin, to originate.” The latter meaning of the verb, though, belonged only to the late Latin language. In the classical Latin, initiare meant precisely “to admit to secret rituals, to instruct in mystery cults.” On the other hand, while the noun initium has always kept its sense of a beginning (and thus of a first principal, esp. in science), it was frequently used to denote the secret rites of the mysteries (Latin: initia) too. That word, altogether with initiare, were part of the sacred Latin vocabulary of the ancient mystery cults and represented the nucleus of their lexical body. Today, we can see that the English verb initiate has preserved all the interrelated meanings of its ancestor. According to Merriam-Webster, it denotes: 1. to cause or facilitate the beginning of something 2. to induct into membership by or as if by special rites 3. to instruct in the rudiments or principles of something
The Ninnion Tablet, a votive plaque representing elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries, discovered in the sanctuary at Eleusis , 4th century BC
One of the very substantial elements of the mystery rituals was - and I mean it literally - the drama part. The word came from the verb δράω (drA-o) – “to do, to accomplish” and was often used to express war deeds, but also the performing of mystical rites. The Great Eleusinian Mysteries were known for their three main types of sacred rituals: - λεγόμενα (le-gO-me-na): things said (listening to a sacred narrative) - δεικνύμενα (deik-nU-me-na): things shown (observing special rites and displaying of sacred objects) - δρώμενα (drO-me-na): things done With the latter term (a past participle of the verb δράω) ancient Greeks named the ultimate mystical experience in Eleusis. Scholars think that was probably a dramatic reenactment of the central Eleusinian myth - the abduction of Persephone – represented by the priests and the priestesses. While the exact character of that “sacramental drama” is not known (despite some early Christian authors’ suggestion that it had a sexual nature), the dramatization of a sacred tale is relatively sure. Even though there are no direct descriptions of this mystical ritual (remember the taboo!), we could suppose that they were performed in a form of a play or dance, accompanied by music and/or declamations and narratives. Nowadays, the word drama has been completely desacralized, but its derivative verb “to dramatize” still implies the ancient habit of performing a role, of re-creating someone’s else actions, movements, and gestures. The primordial connotation of a serious act consisting of humorless elements is also heavily present.
William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Youth of Bacchus, 1884
Believe it or not, but the English word orgy came from another Greek term used to describe ancient mystery rites. The term, in the classical texts usually in plural - ὄργια (Or-gi-a), derived from the noun ἔργον (Er-gon) with a primary meaning of “work.” It is also akin to the noun organ, as they share the same PIE root *werg- "to do." The explicit action contained in the root of orgy and drama is behind the hypothesis that the final stage of the mystery initiation consisted of a ritual dramatization of a sacred myth. It might have been performed through dance or pantomime, by the priests or by all initiates – the physical representation was definitely there. Nevertheless, the word ὄργια had kind of interesting usage in the ancient texts. It usually described the rites of one particular mystery cult – those of Dionysus. The drunken and festive nature of these notoriously unbridled practices, most likely, transmitted its meaning in the notion of the modern word orgy. In English, it was first used in the sense of “licentious revelry” in 1660.’
Fragment of fresco of the Villa dei Mysterii, Pompeii
Those who have undergone secret mystery rituals were called μύσται (mjUs-ta-i) and those who attended them for the first time were referred to as νεóφυτοι (ne-O-fjut-oi). Neophyte is a combined word (from Greek νέος – “new” + φυτεύω – “to plant”) and its literary meaning is “newly planted.” In this sense, the word was freely used in different ancient Greek texts, but when it appeared in mystery cults context, it meant a “new convert.” Neophyte is still used at the present in its both meanings: - a person who is new to a certain activity - an individual who has recently joined a religious group