Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Ancient Mysteries.

The origin of the ancient mysteries may, with the greatest probability, be ascribed to the same weakness which forms associations of brotherhood among ourselves, and which established congregations under the direction of the Jesuits. It was probably this want of society which raised so many secret assemblies of artisans, of which scarcely any now remain besides that of the Freemasons. Even down to the very beggars themselves, all had their societies, their confraternities, their mysteries, and their particular jargon, of which I have met with a small dictionary, printed in the sixteenth century.

This natural inclination in men to associate, to secure themselves, to become distinguished above others, and to acquire confidence in themselves, may be considered as the generating cause of all those particular bonds or unions, of all those mysterious initiations which afterwards excited so much attention and produced such striking effects, and which at length sank into that oblivion in which everything is involved by time.

Begging pardon, while I say it, of the gods Cabri, of the hierophants of Samothrace, of Isis, Orpheus, and the Eleusinian Ceres, I must nevertheless acknowledge my suspicions that their sacred secrets were not in reality more deserving of curiosity than the interior of the convents of Carmelites or Capuchins.

These mysteries being sacred, the participators in them soon became so. And while the number of these was small, the mystery was respected; but at length, having grown too numerous, they retained no more consequence and consideration than we perceive to attach to German barons, since the world became full of barons.

Initiation was paid for, as every candidate pays his admission fees or welcome, but no member was allowed to talk for his money. In all ages it was considered a great crime to reveal the secrets of these religious farces. This secret was undoubtedly not worth knowing, as the assembly was not a society of philosophers, but of ignorant persons, directed by a hierophant. An oath of secrecy was administered, and an oath was always regarded as a sacred bond. Even at the present day, our comparatively pitiful society of Freemasons swear never to speak of their mysteries. These mysteries are stale and flat enough; but men scarcely ever perjure themselves.

Diagoras was proscribed by the Athenians for having made the secret hymn of Orpheus a subject for conversation. Aristotle informs us, that Æschylus was in danger of being torn to pieces by the people, or at least of being severely beaten by them, for having, in one of his dramas, given some idea of those Orphean mysteries in which nearly everybody was then initiated.

It appears that Alexander did not pay the highest respect possible to these reverend fooleries; they are indeed very apt to be despised by heroes. He revealed the secret to his mother Olympias, but he advised her to say nothing about it — so much are even heroes themselves bound in the chains of superstition.

“It is customary,” says Herodotus, “in the city of Rusiris, to strike both men and women after the sacrifice, but I am not permitted to say where they are struck.” He leaves it, however, to be very easily inferred.

I think I see a description of the mysteries of the Eleusinian Ceres, in Claudian’s poem on the “Rape of Proserpine,” much clearer than I can see any in the sixth book of the “Æneid.” Virgil lived under a prince who joined to all his other bad qualities that of wishing to pass for a religious character; who was probably initiated in these mysteries himself, the better to impose thereby upon the people; and who would not have tolerated such a profanation. You see his favorite Horace regards such a revelation as sacrilege:—

. . . . Vetabo qui Cereris sacrum

Fulgarit arcanæ sub iisdem

Sit trabibus, vel fragilem que mecum

Solvat phaselum.

— Horace, book iii, ode 2.

To silence due rewards we give;

 And they who mysteries reveal

Beneath my roof shall never live,

 Shall never hoist with me the doubtful sail.

— Francis.

Besides, the Cumæan sibyl and the descent into hell, imitated from Homer much less than it is embellished by Virgil, with the beautiful prediction of the destinies of the Cæsars and the Roman Empire, have no relation to the fables of Ceres, Proserpine, and Triptolemus. Accordingly, it is highly probable that the sixth book of the “Æneid” is not a description of those mysteries. If I ever said the contrary, I here unsay it; but I conceive that Claudian revealed them fully. He flourished at a time when it was permitted to divulge the mysteries of Eleusis, and indeed all the mysteries of the world. He lived under Honorius, in the total decline of the ancient Greek and Roman religion, to which Theodosius I. had already given the mortal blow.

Horace, at that period, would not have been at all afraid of living under the same roof with a revealer of mysteries. Claudian, as a poet, was of the ancient religion, which was more adapted to poetry than the new. He describes the droll absurdities of the mysteries of Ceres, as they were still performed with all becoming reverence in Greece, down to the time of Theodosius II. They formed a species of operatic pantomime, of the same description as we have seen many very amusing ones, in which were represented all the devilish tricks and conjurations of Doctor Faustus, the birth of the world and of Harlequin who both came from a large egg by the heat of the sun’s rays. Just in the same manner, the whole history of Ceres and Proserpine was represented by the mystagogues. The spectacle was fine; the cost must have been great; and it is no matter of astonishment that the initiated should pay the performers. All live by their respective occupations.

Every mystery had its peculiar ceremonies; but all admitted of wakes or vigils of which the youthful votaries fully availed themselves; but it was this abuse in part which finally brought discredit upon those nocturnal ceremonies instituted for sanctification. The ceremonies thus perverted to assignation and licentiousness were abolished in Greece in the time of the Peloponnesian war; they were abolished at Rome in the time of Cicero’s youth, eighteen years before his consulship. From the “Aulularia” of Plautus, we are led to consider them as exhibiting scenes of gross debauchery, and as highly injurious to public morals.

Our religion, which, while it adopted, greatly purified various pagan institutions, sanctified the name of the initiated, nocturnal feasts, and vigils, which were a long time in use, but which at length it became necessary to prohibit when an administration of police was introduced into the government of the Church, so long entrusted to the piety and zeal that precluded the necessity of police.

The principal formula of all the mysteries, in every place of their celebration, was, “Come out, ye who are profane;” that is, uninitiated. Accordingly, in the first centuries, the Christians adopted a similar formula. The deacon said, “Come out, all ye catechumens, all ye who are possessed, and who are uninitiated.”

It is in speaking of the baptism of the dead that St. Chrysostom says, “I should be glad to explain myself clearly, but I can do so only to the initiated. We are in great embarrassment. We must either speak unintelligibly, or disclose secrets which we are bound to conceal.”

It is impossible to describe more clearly the obligation of secrecy and the privilege of initiation. All is now so completely changed, that were you at present to talk about initiation to the greater part of your priests and parish officers, there would not be one of them that would understand you, unless by great chance he had read the chapter of Chrysostom above noticed.

You will see in Minutius Felix the abominable imputations with which the pagans attacked the Christian mysteries. The initiated were reproached with treating each other as brethren and sisters, solely with a view to profane that sacred name. They kissed, it was said, particular parts of the persons of the priests, as is still practised in respect to the santons of Africa; they stained themselves with all those pollutions which have since disgraced and stigmatized the templars. Both were accused of worshipping a kind of ass’s head.

We have seen that the early Christian societies ascribed to each other, reciprocally, the most inconceivable infamies. The pretext for these calumnies was the inviolable secret which every society made of its mysteries. It is upon this ground that in Minutius Felix, Cecilius, the accuser of the Christians, exclaims:

“Why do they so carefully endeavor to conceal what they worship, since what is decent and honorable always courts the light, and crimes alone seek secrecy?”

Cur occultare et abscondere quidquid colunt magnopere nituntur? Quum honesta semper publico gaudeant, scelera secreta sint.

It cannot be doubted that these accusations, universally spread, drew upon the Christians more than one persecution. Whenever a society of men, whatever they may be, are accused by the public voice, the falsehood of the charge is urged in vain, and it is deemed meritorious to persecute them.

How could it easily be otherwise than that the first Christians should be even held in horror, when St. Epiphanius himself urges against them the most execrable imputations? He asserts that the Christian Phibionites committed indecencies, which he specifies, of the grossest character; and, after passing through various scenes of pollution, exclaimed each of them: “I am the Christ.”

According to the same writer, the Gnostics and the Stratiotics equalled the Phibionites in exhibitions of licentiousness, and all three sects mingled horrid pollutions with their mysteries, men and women displaying equal dissoluteness.

The Carpocratians, according to the same father of the Church, even exceeded the horrors and abominations of the three sects just mentioned.

The Cerinthians did not abandon themselves to abominations such as these; but they were persuaded that Jesus Christ was the son of Joseph.

The Ebionites, in their gospel, maintain that St. Paul, being desirous of marrying the daughter of Gamaliel, and not able to obtain her, became a Christian, and established Christianity out of revenge.

All these accusations did not for some time reach the ear of the government. The Romans paid but little attention to the quarrels and mutual reproaches which occurred between these little societies of Jews, Greeks, and Egyptians, who were, as it were, hidden in the vast and general population; just as in London, in the present day, the parliament does not embarrass or concern itself with the peculiar forms or transactions of Mennonites, Pietists, Anabaptists, Millennarians, Moravians, or Methodists. It is occupied with matters of urgency and importance, and pays no attention to their mutual charges and recriminations till they become of importance from their publicity.

The charges above mentioned, at length, however, came to the ears of the senate; either from the Jews, who were implacable enemies of the Christians, or from Christians themselves; and hence it resulted that the crimes charged against some Christian societies were imputed to all; hence it resulted that their initiations were so long calumniated; hence resulted the persecutions which they endured. These persecutions, however, obliged them to greater circumspection; they strengthened themselves, they combined, they disclosed their books only to the initiated. No Roman magistrate, no emperor, ever had the slightest knowledge of them, as we have already shown. Providence increased, during the course of three centuries, both their number and their riches, until at length, Constantius Chlorus openly protected them, and Constantine, his son, embraced their religion.

In the meantime the names of initiated and mysteries still subsisted, and they were concealed from the Gentiles as much as was possible. As to the mysteries of the Gentiles, they continued down to the time of Theodosius.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25