excerpt joseph campbell
The mysteries of Eleusis - a wonderful shrine just west of Athens that was a sacred spot for the Athenians date from the Bronze Age. Eleusis flourished in the Classical world and survived in Roman times until the conversion of the Roman Empire into a Christian empire. Under Constantine, around A.D. 327 or so, Christianity was recognized as one of the permitted religions in the Roman Empire. Very shortly thereafter, with Theodosius, Christianity - but only the specific form of Christianity practiced by the Byzantine throne - was declared to be the only permitted religion in the Roman Empire. And so began a system of violent persecution and vandalism of shrines, and the more sacred the shrine, the more violent the damage. The destruction of Eleusis in A.D. 395 is a good example of what happened.
Prior to that spiritual crisis in Western civilization, however, during the Hellenistic period, many of the earlier mystery cults had come back into manifestation.
It's my belief that St. Paul's great insight on the road to Damascus was that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross could be interpreted in terms of the mystery religions' understanding of the death and the resurrection of the savior - that is, as the death of one's purely material, animal existence and the birth, then, of the spiritual life. This is symbolized in Christian terminology by the transformation of the old Adam into the new Adam. Then we have the refrain of O felix culpa, "O happy fault" - original sin - and the notion that the fall of man into the field of time out of the timeless rapture of Eden was followed by the coming of the Savior, who represented a sublimation - a higher manifestation of the consciousness of humanity than that which had been represented in the garden - and so, without the fall, there would have been no savior. Well, all of this is really mystic language from the Greek mysteries.
We actually know very little about the Greek mystery religions because they did remain mysteries. No one was allowed to betray or talk about what went on in the inner sanctuaries. We have to depend on outside observations, some by people like Clement of Alexandria who were attacking the classical mysteries. From them we can glean something of what the rituals were like, but I think the best evidence
is in the art - the ceramics, sculpture, and so forth - which provides small clues that convey some sense of what the rituals intended and what their forms might have been.
In the classical world, the planting time was in the fall, the harvest was in the spring, and the fruits of the harvest, the grains, were stored in silos in the ground during the fierce heat of the summer for planting again the following fall. Consequently, the richness, the wealth of the community, was in the keep of the underworld, in the keep of the chthonic underworld divinity, Pluto. This votive tablet from fifth-century Athens shows Athena giving the grain to Pluto in his aspect as puer eternis, the eternal boy.
A deity like Pluto - Merlin in the Celtic stories - can be represented either as a youth or as an old man, the aged one. He is frequently pictured with a cornucopia, the bounty of our life in his keep. Athena sits near a serpent like the one in the Indian seal from 3000 B.C. The mythological notion of the cult was that Eleusis was the place where grain agriculture was first invented by Demeter, the goddess of the telluric earth. That's just a mythological idea. We all know that Eleusis was not the place where grain agriculture originated, but for the cult, it was.
The notion that it's out of the darkness of the abyss, the chthonic realm, that life comes is an important mythological motif. And so these cults were very much associated with a cycle of death, descent into the underworld, and then life reborn again. By analogy, this was symbolized in the agricultural cycle of the harvest death, the planting of seed, and the plant - coming to life again. In other words, agricultural imagery was used to render a spiritual message.
This is from a vase in a museum in Brussels. The candidate for illumination is being received by the psycho-pompos, the guide of the sanctuary. On the right stands a figure, and the club beside him tells us who it is: Herakles, or Hercules, and we're going to see him in an interesting situation a little later in the ceremonial adventure. And so, carrying a torch - which means we're going into the dark realm - the candidate is conducted into the shrine.
This sarcophagus, from a palace in Rome, shows step by step something of what went on in these ceremonies. On the left is a laurel tree, which is apotropaic; that is to say, it defends the threshold against evil presences. It has a sanctifying power as a threshold tree. Beside it is an aspect of Bacchus - or Dionysos, it's the same deity - known as Iacchus, which is the cry of greeting that was uttered at a certain moment in the ceremony when the revelation of the new birth was rendered. Iacchus stands by an altar bearing the fruits of offering, and he holds a torch, which - again - always indicates the underworld, or chthonic, adventure.
In the center are the two great goddesses - Demeter, seated on the sacred basket with the serpent, and her daughter, Persephone, the one who dies and is resurrected, who is abducted and then returns - the Anodos and Kathodos of the maiden. The torch of Demeter is held upward, purifying the upper regions. That of Persephone is downward, purifying the lower. So this is a purification passage, and in this cult these two are going to be the dominant figures - the dual goddess - the goddess of life and the goddess of the underworld, out of which new life comes.
In the tableau on the right we see the candidate with his head covered, for he is going to experience a revelation, an epiphany - the showing forth of the mystery to a person who experiences it for the first time. The guide is pouring offerings, and facing him is Bacchus-Dionysos. The figure behind him is Hecate, the dark, negative aspect of the goddess, often associated with witchcraft.
Some very interesting research concerning the plants associated with these cults has shown that the people who were going to go through the great ceremony consumed a barley drink before attending the rites. One of the historically important hallucinogens is ergot, which is produced by a fungus that grows parasitically on barley. Since one family was for centuries in charge of the rites, many now believe that this barley broth contained a bit of ergot. There is a very fine study called The Road to Eleusis, written by Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD; R. Gordon Wasson; and classical scholar Carl A. P. Ruck. This book deals with the entire ritual of Eleusis in detail as a ceremonial matching of the rapturous state of the people who have taken the drink with a theatrical performance that is rendered as an epiphany. So there's an inward readiness and an outer fulfillment. Socrates himself is reported to have spoken about the importance to him of the experience at Eleusis. Something in the way of a revelation was actually experienced there.
Now the story of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, is that she's out picking flowers in the spring, and suddenly Hades appears in his chariot and carries her off to the underworld. Just as Isis was bereaved of Osiris, so Demeter is of Persephone. She goes to find her lost daughter. When Demeter comes to Eleusis, she sits down by a well, just as Isis sat down by the well outside the palace where her husband's body and sarcophagus were enclosed in the pillar. That well at Eleusis is still there, at least a reconstruction of it.
The people come out to the well and try to comfort Demeter, but she is disconsolate until a little creature named Baubo does an obscene dance, and then Demeter has to laugh, that's all she can do. This is a wonderful motif - the obscenity provides another perspective. You move out of the sphere of the developed person, back into the sphere of the nature dynamics of generation and regeneration, and are released from the bondage of your grief.
An equivalence to Persephone is the golden stalk of wheat. Clement of Alexandria mocks the Eleusinian mysteries and says what a silly thing to have the culminating moment be that of the elevation of a grain of wheat. Yet the culmination of the Roman Catholic mass is the elevation of a wafer of wheat. It's not the object, it's the reference that is the sense of a ritual. Any object can become the center of the cult. At Eleusis, the central cultic object was the wonderful food plant, which nourishes our physical life and, when consumed with the understanding that it is a divine gift, our spiritual life as well.
In the earliest primitive rites associated with food plants, the typical underlying myth is of a deity of some kind who has been killed, cut up, and buried. And out of the buried parts of the deity comes the grain or whatever the food plant. Longfellow's Hiawatha speaks of the visionary experience of a young man on a vision quest. A young deity comes to him, wrestles with him for three nights, and then on the fourth night says, "Now you're going to kill me and bury me." Hiawatha does so, and out of his buried body comes maize.
The meditation is that we are eating divine substance and this divine substance is what is feeding us. It isn't just physical substance, and that's part of the meditation: how our whole life is supported by the giving and yielding of some transcendent power.
People sometimes ask me, "What rituals can we have?" You've got the rituals, only you're not meditating on them. When you eat a meal, that's a ritual. Just realize what you're doing. When you consult your friends, that's a ritual. Just think what you're doing. When you beget a child or give birth to a child - what more do you want?
Here is the youth Philophates, who is going to go forth with the grain. He is being blessed by Demeter and Persephone. He is the vehicle. On one side of this vase he is pictured as an old man, on his mystic vehicle, bringing the blessing of the wheat, the grain. Hermes is leading him with the caduceus as his staff. Turning this vase around, we see Dionysos with a chalice, on the same vehicle, being led by a satyr. There are the bread and the wine of the mass. The rituals of the early Christian tradition were built on rituals that were already in place. So we get a sense of how rites and myths develop organically without breaking off: new readings, new vocabularies, new sophistications are brought in. This is the chalice of the mass with the blood of Dionysos, which is the wine, the transubstantiated wine. But in this ritual it doesn't have to be transubstantiated because it is already the divine wine.
Now the story of Dionysos' birth is that he was born from the thigh of Zeus. Zeus had a way of giving birth to children. He swallowed Athena's mother when he knew that she was pregnant. Then, of course, one day he has a fine headache. She has given birth, and he's got to be the medium, and he's screaming with a headache when Hephaistos, the mechanic of the gods, comes in with an axe, splits Zeus' head open, and out jumps Athena, fully born. Voila!
We have a similar thing now with Dionysos. Semele, Dionysos' mother, had slept with Zeus, and she had the indiscretion to boast of this to Hera, Zeus' wife. Hera said, "Yes, darling, but Zeus has not revealed himself to you in the same majesty with which he has revealed himself to me." So next time Zeus comes along, Semele is sulking, and he says, "What's the matter?" She says, "Well, you haven't revealed yourself to me in the same majesty as to Hera." "Look out," he says, "you're not quite ready for this." She says, "Well, you've always told me you'd do anything I asked." So Zeus says, "All right, look out, girlie." Bang! That was the end of her.
But he was very much concerned about the fetus in her womb, and so he took it out and slit open his thigh and put Dionysos in there. So Dionysos is the "one of two wombs" - the female mother life and then the male initiation life. Then Zeus has a pain in his leg one day, and Hermes comes to
receive the newly born child on a golden cloth, and he turns him over to the three nymphs. So little Dionysos is raised by the nymphs.
Here is Dionysos at the tree. Notice the serpent. Here's the whole story again. It's wonderful the way these
things recur. It doesn't take too much time and study to learn this pictorial vocabulary. It's a pictorial script, and rearranging the forms rearranges the order of the experience, the depth of the experience, or the precise relevance to this or that myth.
The Apollonian religion of the Olympians - of Zeus, and so forth - was light-oriented. Dionysos represents the dynamic of the dark, and so he's properly associated with these mystery rituals. The best discussion, in my opinion, of Dionysos and Apollo is in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, where they are shown in relation to the whole world of the classical arts. Nietzsche writes of Dionysos as the dynamic of time that rolls through all things, destroying old forms and bringing forth new with, what he terms is, an "indifference to the differences." In contrast to this is the light world of Apollo and its interest in the exquisite differences of forms, which Nietzsche calls the principiurn individuation is. The power of Dionysos is to ride on the full fury of the life force. That's what he represents. So, the essential message of the rites, apparently, is that of a realization in a properly prepared way of the dynamic of inexhaustible nature which pours its energy into the field of time and with which we are to be in harmony, both in its destructive and in its productive aspects. This is experience of the life power in its full career.
This picture is of Dionysos and Semele, his mother. Between them is the cup of his blood, the chalice of the mass. I am reminded of medieval pictures of the coronation of the Virgin by her son, Jesus. The two are shown at about the same age, thirty-five or so.
This golden bowl, called the Pietroasa bowl, was dug up about one hundred years ago in Rumania, with a whole hoard of gold objects. It was taken to the British Museum and reproduced. This is from the reproduction. During World War I, when the Germans were moving into Rumania, it was thought that it would be good to protect this bowl, so it was taken to Russia, where it was, of course, melted down. So we don't have it. We have to deal with the reproduction. So I've had a photograph turned into a drawing so that we can go through the story step by step. This will be our initiation.
Seated in the center of the bowl, on the basket with the vine that produces the wine that is in her chalice - or in the Grail - is the goddess, the mother universe with the blood of her child, her son.
There are sixteen figures roundabout. This is Orpheus, the fisher. The theme of the fishing of fish out of the water into the light is associated with initiation. Here we are lost in the waters of ignorance, and Orpheus the fisher will fish us out. In the Grail romances, this is a theme related to the Fisher King. In the Christian tradition, when Jesus called his apostles, who were fishermen, he said, "I will make you fishers of men." That's the same Orphic idea. The Pope's ring is known as the fisherman's ring, and on it is an engraving of the hall of fishes. So here we have Orpheus with his fishing rod and his net, and lying at his feet is a fish.
Proceeding clockwise, we see the candidate, bearing a torch. As he enters the sanctuary, he takes a pine cone from a basket on the head of a door guardian. The door guardian is represented as a small figure, simply to be able to fit the whole thing on the bowl. Part of a magnificent, full-sized statue of one of these door guardians, with the sacred basket still on her head, is in the museum at Eleusis. It's one of the pieces that was smashed by the zealots of love.
So, the candidate takes a pine cone from the basket. Why a pine cone? It's a significant symbol. In the Vatican there is a twelve-foot-high bronze pine cone that was formerly in the Roman Field of Mars. What is it that is important in a pine cone? What is important is the seed and not the cone. And so, in each of us, what is important is the seed of consciousness which is to be released - the new Adam, the one reborn after the death of the old.
A Christian lamp of about the third century is decorated with the Jonah legend, which is symbolic of the coming of the human out of the fish condition. So you can take a legend and read into it a mystic reading which
may or may not have been there in the first place. The Jonah story is that he was a missionary who was told by God to preach in Nineveh, but he fled on a ship and was a source of trouble to everyone. Evidently off center and a negative presence, he was thrown overboard and consumed by a fish, but later he came out of the fish. This motif is known as the "night sea journey." It's an old, old story. Hiawatha was consumed by a fish, the raven hero of the Northwest Coast Indians was consumed by a fish, and so forth. This is the going down into the abyss and coming out again-the same mythologies that we're dealing with here.
So our friend has taken the pine cone and now, led by a female guide with the little pail of the elixir of immortality, he is brought to the sanctuary of the two goddesses.
Demeter, with the raven of death on her shoulder, is the one in the field of birth and death - what we call the telluric earth, the earth from which the plants grow. Beside her is Persephone, with the torch, who represents the chthonic earth, the deep caves of the abyss.
This is the first stage of his initiation. We do not know what the rites were that were associated with this pair, but we do know what the message is - to come into harmonious relationship with these two aspects of our being.
When the hero has gone through this, he is symbolically older, so he is now represented with a beard, and he's being blessed, then, by Fortuna, or Tyche. He's now completed the first grade of initiation, initiation through the goddesses.
We next see our candidate, the mystes in the aspect of youth again, about to experience the second grade of initiation, initiation into the ultimate depths. Before him is Pluto, or Hades, the god of the abyss, with a kind of alligator monster of the abyssal waters under his feet and an enormous cornucopia in his arm. In the candidate's left hand is a palm, the palm of the pilgrim, and scholars suggest that in his right hand is a poppy plant, which is associated with dream and sleep and vision. What is to be the fruit of this experience of the ultimate depth?
One of the experiences of this initiation is to be about transcendent androgyneity, the realization that we are, as beings in time, simply one fraction of what we truly are. Hence Herakles, the most macho of all the gods, is sometimes pictured in women's clothes. And so the next figure depicted is our hero as the androgyne. His hair is long, on his head are the wings of the spirit, and in his hand is an empty bowl. He is both male and female. But the sense of this final initiation is not only of the androgyneity, the transcendence of the pair of opposites of our sexual identification, but also of the recognition that our mortality and our immortality are one - the union of the lunar and the solar consciousness that I've talked about before.
Accordingly, the next two figures are the twin heroes Castor and Pollux, who are regarding each other. Castor is mortal and Pollux is immortal. And so are we, both mortal and immortal. Notice the raven of death on Castor's shoulder: we've come back, cycled around, and death is coming back to us.
And then we come forth from the initiation in one character - namely, mortal male, or mortal female - as
does our hero, whose bowl is now full of the fruit of wisdom.
The next figure, then, is a female guide, who leads us on and brings us to the very throne of Apollo, the Lord of Light. And isn't it wonderful: we have the Dionysian and the Apollonian principles in harmonious relationship here. Apollo holds the lyre of the music of the spheres, which sings to all things, and under his throne lies a deer, the animal associated with him.
Now I want to introduce you to the symbolism of this Apollonian idea as it was reawakened in the Renaissance, after having been lost during the deep Middle Ages. During the first three centuries of the Christian development in the Near East, developing alongside Christianity - I mean before Theodosius came down with "the axe of love" - were the classical Hermetic traditions and a body of text known as the Corpus Hermeticum. As I mentioned before, Cosimo de' Medici asked Marsiho Ficino to make a Latin translation from this Greek text that had been brought to Italy from Byzantium, and when he did so, art immediately took on a whole new radiance; for what was recognized was that the symbolic imagery of the pagan world was equivalent in its mystic meaning to the mystically interpreted symbology of Christianity. So artists of the time began to use both Old Testament and classical themes, and they were all singing the same song. This was a great moment, which brought forth a glory of art, and it came precisely from the inspiration of this translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, wherein the very symbols of the Christian cult - which, as we have seen, go back to the classical world - were reinterpreted in terms of Hermetic rather than of Mosaic mythology.
In the Vatican there is a great picture by Pintoricchio of the goddess Isis on a throne instructing two disciples. One of them is Hermes, and the other is Moses. These are the two ways of reading symbolic forms - Hermes being the Hermetic, symbolic way; Moses, the literal, prosaic, historical way. There are two aspects to the form, and you take the one you want.
A fruit of this great moment is this page from a book called Practicum Musica, by a man named Garforius. The date is 1493. What it depicts is the whole mystery of the nine muses and the three graces in relation to the Ptolemaic sequence of the planets - earth, moon, Mercury, Venus, sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars. Let's go through this schema in some detail. It's a wonderful summation of both Renaissance and classical mysteries.
Associated with each of the planets in this Ptolemaic sequence is a muse. There are nine muses, and they are clothed. Art is the clothing of a revelation. When we get up top, at the very throne of Apollo, where the revelation to which the arts are pointing is achieved, we have three graces naked. So, nine muses, and the square root of 9 is 3. When Dante beheld Beatrice, she was nine years old. At his second beholding of her, she was eighteen and so was he. And he said, "She is a nine because her root is in the Trinity." She was his muse. The muses are nine, and their root is in the Trinity, which in the Hermetic system is represented in the female form, whereas in the Christian, it is in male form - the three persons in the one substance of the divine Trinity in its mystery.
The same, unmoving substance is here personified as Apollo, male, and the moved aspects are female. The text says, "The radiance, the bliss, of the Apollonian mind moves everywhere the muses." The muses, the inspirations of poetry - which is also to say, of religion, of mythology - are moved by the radiance of God.
In the center of the page is Cerberus, the three-headed beast that guards the seat of hell, and rising up along the scale is the beast's fantastic serpentine tail, by which we come to the very throne of God. Notice the creature's three faces. When Dante is lost in a dangerous wood at the opening of The Divine Comedy, he is threatened by three animals. One is the lion, which represents pride, hanging on to ego, hanging on to yourself. The second is a leopard, representing lust - here it's a dog's face, desire. The third animal is a wolf, which represents fear, the past, which tears away what you've got. And so these three, they go together. This is the temptation of the Buddha. If he had hung on to his ego, lust and fear would have moved him. They didn't. Yet they're moving us, and so we're stuck.
The first of the muses - her name is Thalia - is shown under the ground. She's called "silent Thalia" because we can't hear her. As long as we're hanging on to ego, and fear, and desire - hanging on to our own personal problems - we're not hearing the voice of the universe. So, relax. I'm reminded of a picture showing the figure of Death playing the violin to the artist. Let Death talk to you and you break out of your ego pride. That means you've got to put your head in the mouth of the lion. Face the real experience of today. Don't reread it in terms of past experiences.
One of the problems addressed by Zen is that of having an experience. People talk about trying to learn the meaning of life. Life has no meaning. What's the meaning of a flower? What we are looking for is an experience of life, getting the experience. But we're shoving ourselves off the experience by naming, translating, and classifying every experience that comes to us. You fall in love. O.K., is this going to lead to marriage or is this illicit or whatnot. You've classified and lost the experience. So, put your head in the lion's mouth and just say, "I don't know what the hell is going on." And something will come out of it.
So we put our heads into the mouth of the lion and let come what may, and we experience an artistic exaltation that rises, along Cerberus' body, through the notes of the conjoint tetrachord - what we now would call the A-minor scale. On the right are the names of the corresponding Greek musical modes, and on the left are the names of the notes of the scale in their classical form.
So through our artistic exaltation we come finally to the Apollonian radiance that moves the three graces: Euphrosyne pouring the energy down into the world; Aglaia, splendor, carrying it back; and, in the middle, Thalia - the same name as the muse - uniting the two. Remember, this is a translation of the classical, pagan, Hermetic symbology. In the recognized biblical translation these three female forms become the male persons of the Trinity: Jesus, dying in love and pouring grace into the world; the Paraclete carrying us back; and the Father, whose right and left sides are these two powers. And again, at the top, instead of simply a radiant substance, we have a personification of that substance as Apollo. So Garforius's composition is a very compact statement of the relationship of the arts to exaltations and transformations of consciousness.
Let's now return to the middle of the Pietroasa bowl, to the inner circle of figures surrounding the pivotal deity with the chalice. The reclining human being is the mind that has not experienced the initiation. It is, as it were, in sleep. It sees a dog chasing a rabbit, two gazelles eating a plant, and a lion and a leopard about to eat the gazelles. "All is sorrowful, oh dear, oh dear." But the illuminated one knows that this is a manifestation in secondary forms of the dynamic process of being.
On the ceiling of Domatilla Catacomb, we have Orpheus playing the lyre. One would have expected to see the Christ. The surrounding panels depict Old Testament, New Testament, and pagan sacrificial scenes. In
other words, there was a coordination in early Christian Rome of not only the Old and New Testaments, but also the New Testament and the pagan tradition. And why not?
There was a great deal of discussion in the first four centuries whether Christianity had anything to do with Judaism. That is to say, was the Son, Jesus, the son of Yahweh, or of a higher power of which Yahweh was ignorant? Yahweh was called the fool because he didn't realize there was a higher power than himself. He thought he was God. And the son, then, who was to carry us past this, was a revelation of a higher light. And so Yahweh was associated with the demiurge who brought about all the agony and evil and sorrow in the world. This was a very definite thrust in the early Christian tradition, and it was simply a matter of fortune that the New and the Old Testaments were then united and that the New was seen as a fulfillment of the promise of
the Old. That's why, when you read a Bible, you'll see a lot of footnotes in the Old Testament pointing to predictions for text in the New, and vice versa: they were woven together. Well, you could have woven early Christianity back to the Greek traditions just as well. Those traditions also existed, and why should they be separated? So, read mystically - and this is the point I would like to bring out - read mystically, all of these traditions are telling us this great, great story of our identity with the eternal power and our loss of that sense of identity when we get involved in the ego-bound world of fear and desire.
The religious tradition that was put into you in infancy is still there. There's no use getting rid of it just because you can't interpret these forms in terms of modern scientific realizations. There cannot have been an ascension to heaven. There cannot have been an assumption to heaven. There is no heaven. Even at the speed of light those bodies would not yet be out of the galaxy. But we're taught that this assumption and this ascension were physical events when they can't have been. Such an interpretation is losing the message in the symbol. The coordination of earthly and spiritual realizations can be interpreted out of those symbols.
Another aspect of Orpheus is that he was torn apart, as Jesus was torn apart in the scourging and crucifixion. What does this represent in the older, let's say, Corpus Hermeticum way of reading it? First, that eternity is in love with the forms of time, but to come into those forms it has to be dismembered, and then, that you, as a separate entity in the form of time, in order to lose your commitment to this little instance, you must be dismembered and opened to the transcendent. So the cross, in this tradition, represents the threshold from eternity to time and from time back to eternity.
And that's also the symbology of the two trees in the Garden of Eden. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is the tree of going from unity into multiplicity, and the tree of eternal life is that of going from multiplicity to unity. It's the same tree in two directions. Some of the discussions in the rabbinical Midrash, during the first five centuries or so of the Jewish Diaspora, revolve around the question "What about the two trees in the garden?" They're seen in various aspects, but it all comes out in these two senses.
So, Orpheus comes into the world and is then torn apart. And his head is ripped off, but as it floats to Lesbos, it is still singing, singing the song of the muse.
And, finally, see what we have here: Orpheus-Bacchus crucified, from a cylinder seal of A.D. 300. There's the crucifixion as metaphysical symbol - Orpheus in the same sense as the Christ, and he goes to the cross like a bridegroom to the bride. Atop the cross is the moon - the death and resurrection motif - and above that, seven stars representing the Pleiades, known to antiquity as the Lyre of Orpheus. All you have to do is spend a little while with these things and they sing to you.
I'm going to make just a brief reference to what happened with Christianity in those early centuries. There was a conflict between two interpretations of the Christ: either as an example of the mystery hero who dies to be resurrected or as the unique incarnation. That was the big argument between the Gnostics and the Orthodox Christian community. The Orthodox community opted for the importance of the historicity of the incarnation, and to know what the Christian belief is, you have only to recite the credo known as the "Apostles' Creed" with attention to what you're saying.
"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." That's that. "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary … suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried." Now those last few phrases - "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried" - are the only historical statements inn that sentence. The rest of it is mythology. "He descended into hell." This is all to be taken literally. "The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead." Do you believe those things literally? "I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen."
Now as for the resurrection of the body, I can give you some assurance on that. You'll be thirty-five years old, the age of the body in its perfection. So, try to remember how it was back then, or get ready for a good-looking future condition, and you'll have life everlasting. Thirty-five years old, perfect - and won't it be a bore? O.K., that's the story.
The Mystery Religions of Ancient Greece
There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness – we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light. ~Plato, Phaedrus:250