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Coffee & Wisdom 02.85: Mystery and the Inner Sactum Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about hidden knowledge.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom and the first of our summer wisdom in which we will be here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This week, I want to look a little bit at Mystery and the Inner Sanctum. What’s that? Well, there is this persistent idea among human beings that there is some kind of “mystery”. The truth is out there somewhere. And if we just keep digging, we can find it. Although a contemporary guru will say, “Truth is not hidden, you’re hiding from it.” Well, I don’t know which of those two is true, but. Or maybe both. Who knows? But there has been a lot of search for hidden things over time within a spiritual religious realm. You can get out your crystal ball and and talk to the crystal ball of people who can tell you something. Look, here it is. “The Lost Principle kept hidden from humanity”, the real law of attraction, by golly. And it’s right there. And apparently, I guess you need to pay something probably to access this knowledge. I don’t know about that. Of course, the tarot cards are always a very popular way of talking about that, which is hidden. And you can pay certain people to reveal those truths to you. And there’s all kinds of things like this when you start digging around the real story of the stunning discovery of hidden knowledge in the first five books of the Bible, “Cracking the Bible Code”, whatever could that mean? Well, actually, numerology and counting the letters of the Bible in various languages has been around for a very long time. And also we’ve got “5 Hidden Magical Secrets That Can Transform Your Life”. Again, one assumes there’s something to do with paying somebody something or buying something when this is involved. Of course, there are very old ones such as the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is ancient mystic Jewish religion and is very much part of the tradition, but also has some kind of new age elements to it, too. It’s according to who you talk to, Alister Crowley, famous romanticist, “And the Hidden God”, again all kinds of hidden knowledge out there that you can find out all you gotta do is buy the book. Well, there’s also hidden knowledge that is very much hidden in plain sight. This is from a late 19th century painting. John Collier’s “The Priestess of Delphi”. He had studied the actual historical way. We think this actually worked. The Pythia this is the woman in the chair sat on a tripod chair holding laurel reeds and a dish of spring water. There she is. And you see the gas emanating from the bottom under this big crack and that has been studied over time. Did this really occur? What kind of gas was it? Was it hallucinogenic in some way? We don’t really know. There’s also some ideas that it was snake venom that was used to cause some kind of hallucinogenic state, or maybe it was a group of women who were out of power, obviously in a very patriarchal Greece of the day, and that they were stacking those cards by deciding what kind of fortunes they were going to tell at as the Oracle of Delphi.

It was a sisterhood of women who were brought in. They had to fast, they had to ritually bathe, and to get into the sisterhood. And then they became for a very short time, one of the Priestesses of Delphi. We don’t really know. We do know that the Oracle at Delphi was the most long lived of all the real, actual Greek religious sites. Over time, it’s mentioned by Socrates, it’s mentioned by Plato, it’s mentioned by Aristotle and it is attested to all the way into the Roman Empire period. Above the door of the Oracle Temple, which is now in ruins, there are just bits of it left, there was several things carved. The top three were “gnothi seauton, Know Thyself”, which is the famous one, really. Then “meden agan, “Nothing in Excess”, and the weird one is “eengia para d’ate, Surety brings ruin.” So these were the ancient wisdoms that sayings that the Delphi Oracle was trying to communicate to us, so “Know thyself”. That makes some sense in a Western European kind of idea of the self being important to explore, this “Nothing in Excess”. Meden, of course, becomes the word medium in English. So this middle way, the golden mean, temperance in all things. But how “Surety Brings Ruin” is still kind of a little bit vague because the words could mean something about contracting. It could be something about promising others something, we really don’t know. But “Know thyself” was definitely there and that nothing in excess. So these become central in many ways within the Western tradition of people going to the Oracle and learning something. Now, part of the idea here is that we don’t know if was it the actual Oracle saying something and then people say, oh, aha, that must be it. Or some interpreters think, and it could have changed over time because this was an institution that lasted for a couple of thousand years, it could be that there was an interpreter who stood outside the door of the inner sanctum and listened to the Oracle and then interpreted what she was saying. We really don’t know. Was she really under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs? We don’t know. But certainly this becomes a very, very important part of Greek culture. And even the great philosophers who were skeptical in most things did go to consult this oracle. Now, that brings me to another idea from Greco Roman world, and that is the mystery religions. The “Mystery Religions” are the great bridge between the ancient world of the Mediterranean and the various religions that developed there, including Judaism and various various kinds of other religions in the Mediterranean basin. The mystery religions develop in Turkey, Greece, in that area, and then spread through the Mediterranean basin and then through the Roman Empire itself.

Now, one of the things we have to remember about these great mystery religions is that mystery actually meant something different in the Greek and Roman ages. “Mystes” in Greek means initiate. So you become a “mystes” and then mystical means that which awaits disclosure or interpretation. But it’s not a mystery that can never be revealed. It’s a mystery that is revealed to those who join up with a particular mystery religion. This is really important to remember when we start talking about the ancient mysteries. It sounds all very mystical and mysterious, but it really isn’t all that. There were several of these that developed in during the late Greek and during the Greco Roman period, the Dionysian Cult. We’ve all heard about that, probably Dionysus, the God of Wine. And so, yeah, you’re going to get drunk and do some dancing when you’re in the Dionysian Cult. Mithridates, a later God who becomes that this part of a of the Roman army that spreads through and we even see temples to Mithras in England itself, so it was quite, quite widespread at one time. These Cybele Cult the “Magna Mater”, the big mother of them all, Cybele, the Sabazios Cult, the Isis Cult, another female fertility God, the Cabeiri Cult, and then the Eleusinian Mysteries. And this is the most well known of these. All of them had very similar kinds of patterns to them. They were mystery religions. You went into them to find out something hidden and then that hidden thing was revealed to those who stuck with it and went up to the degrees of the mystery religion, that’s part of the idea here, that they all do follow a pattern, which we know fairly well, actually. So the rites were all tied to the seasons, most of them to the fall and for harvest, but some to the spring as well. At some time, a secret about the God they are worshiping is revealed to the initiates. Something about Demeter will be told to you, something about Isis will be told to you as you enter into this wisdom idea. Then the cult claims some kind of a myth of victory. Either it’s political, we will win eventually, or you can get life after death if you begin to follow us. Now this, as you’re going to see, goes into more contemporary religious traditions. In the ancient world, people weren’t all that worried about life after death, but for some reason in the first and second centuries, this becomes a very important idea for a lot of people in the Roman Empire area. So a cult that claimed some sort of victory. Then the cult focused on emotion, not creed or theology. It’s all about how you feel. And that’s why we don’t know all that much about them. They didn’t write things down. There wasn’t a theology to write down. And then the cults aimed at some kind of mystical experiences, we would call it, and contemporary mystery. That would be some sort of epiphany or realization. And that is the final stage of the great mystery religions.

The Eleusisian Mysteries are named after where they come from, and they’re the best documented of all of the mystery religions; they ran for over two thousand years. The Eleusinian mysteries were closed down by the Christians in the three hundreds of the common era after the Christians took over the Roman Empire. The entry requirements were pretty simple. You could not have committed murder and you had to speak Greek. So most of us could get into at least one of those two. And it also was a harvest festival. It was worshiping the goddess Demeter. You see her here in this 19th century painting. Demeter is the mother of Persephone and Persephone was taken down by Hades into Hades and to live. He fell in love with her and kidnaped her. Demeter felt so bad about her daughter being kidnaped, she cried and cried and she was the goddess of grain. And as long as she was sad, no grain would grow. So that’s why we have winter, according to Greek mythology. When she meets up with her daughter once a year, because Zeus finally said, “This has to stop. She has to let the grain grow.” So in the spring she does meet up with her. And this is the great scene we will see here of Persephone reaching out her arms to mom as they are reunited. And this would be the springtime, but it was mostly a harvest festival so that we would celebrate Demeter, who was the goddess of wheat.

And here we see one of the pieces from this area that’s still in existence. And we see the wheat there on the side of the stone. There’s a staunce hymn to her that starts out, “I begin to sing of Demeter, the Holy Goddess with the beautiful hair.” I bet that it is looks a lot like golden wheat, right? Part of the Eleusisian Mysteries that we know about is the drinking of Kykeon on which was a mixed drink usually of wine, barley and goat cheese. Yum. It’s some kind of a smoothie, I guess. I don’t know. But the argument is that probably it contained a fungus that did have psychedelic alkaloids in it. These alkaloids have actually been found in some of the wheat that has been discovered in the temple site. So this could be where people were getting the grand hallucinogenic psychedelic revelations of the gods from there. We really don’t know. But it was a drink of the peasant class that then was used in certain kinds of religious festivals of the time. And apparently then at the very end of the of the festival, some initiates went to the highest level in which they were they were shown some kind of sacred objects. This is part, again, of mystery religions in general. We know this from several different religious sources, which we’ll talk about on Thursday. Aristotle did know about the Eleusinian Mysteries and he said that the initiation did not teach a “mathein ti”, but rather conveyed an experience, a “pathein ti.” “Mathein” is something about teaching, something about knowledge learned. It’s not about knowledge, it’s about “pathein”, it’s about where we go. It’s about experience. And so it was an ecstatic experience that was revealed in this mystery religion. Well, the common features of the mystery cults lead directly into what we call Christian Gnosticism today. You probably, if you were looking at that list, thought, wait a minute, rites are tied to the seasons. Oh, so are Christian rites, a secret about the God is revealed to initiates? Oh, yeah, Jesus is the son of God. The cult claimed a myth of victory, either political life after death. Oh, Jesus is coming back and I get to live forever. Wow. The cults focused on emotion, not creed or theology. The early Gnostics did that, although the later Roman Catholic tradition begins to put creed and theology into this, these belief systems, and then the cults aimed at a mystical experience. What in Roman Catholicism begins to be called an epiphany. You realize something that can only be realized on an emotional level. So, yes, it appears that the mystery religions feed directly into Christianity through what we nowadays call Christian Gnosticism. Which, of course, you can read about. Elaine Pagels book, “The Gnostic Gospels”, is the most available book. It’s been out for several years now. It’s probably in your local library. Another one goes into the Gospel of Mary, which is part of the Gnostic tradition that Mary Magdalene was indeed the first female apostle and was actually married to Jesus.

That’s where all of that comes from. And then there were these ideas in Gnosticism that don’t go into later Christianity, for example, the idea of a demigod that the the God of the of the ancient Hebrews was a confused God. But now we know the real one, which was revealed through Jesus and these kinds of ideas. Gnostic, though, goes back to that idea of knowing, knowing yourself and knowing hidden wisdom. And that’s the idea. So these mystery religions really are the bridge between the ancient world and the mysteries, the traditions of the ancient pagan Mediterranean feeding then into Christianity through various practices that developed during the Roman Empire period, probably a couple hundred years before the common era, and then a couple or three centuries after when these all were more or less existing in the same time period in the same plane of existence. So that’s what I wanted to talk about today, is “Mystery and the Inner Sanctum.” And on Thursday, I do want to talk a little bit about how these are they are carried on into our more contemporary time, because as I showed you with those those cool pictures, there’s all kinds of ideas about there still has to be some kind of mystery out there. And so what is it? Who’s got it and how can I find out? We’ll talk about that on Thursday. Thanks a lot for listening today, and I’ll see you on Thursday.

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