NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 13.5
Today Tom Lee's continues this fascinating section where he explores the connection between Christianity and the Pagan Mystery Cults of Rome. As with last week's commentary it makes for fascinating reading in conjunction with last night's conclusion on Compass by the British theologian, Dr Robert Beckford, exploring the connections Jesus has with other religions.
The Third Century of Christianity – Part 13.5
The cult of Dionysus…
Another marginally popular, though for many, disreputable cult, that of Dionysus, originated in Thrace. When the Romans adopted the other Greek gods, Dionysus changed his name to Bacchus, but not his nature. His mysteries rivaled in prestige those of Demeter, the grain goddess, at Eleusis. But while the Eleusinian Mysteries were initiations through beholding, Dionysian initiations required active participation.
Dionysus was said to have been born from the union of Zeus with Persephone, goddess of the Underworld. Destined to be Zeus' heir, the jealous Titans lured him away while still a child, dismembered him and devoured every part of him except the heart, which Athena rescued and preserved.
Zeus in anger reduced the Titans to ashes and from their remains fashioned the new race of mankind. Thus each man contained a fragment of Dionysus within his earthly body. From the heart of the god was brewed a love potion given to Semele, a mortal who seduced Zeus to her bed. The encounter was so overwhelming it destroyed her, but the child she was carrying was saved and enclosed in the loins of Zeus himself until the time for its birth as the second Dionysus. The young god traveled all over the known world bringing knowledge of agriculture, arts and crafts, and especially grape cultivation and the making of wine. The juice of the vine is his, and likewise the many juices of life.
Bishops Clement's views on shaving and sex...
Bishop Clement of Alexandria maliciously dismissed Dionysus as "the one who touches the vulva". Dionysus was worshipped as "lord of the female sex". Clement formulated the "Alexandrian rule" of sexual conduct, which held that "pleasure sought for its own sake, even within marriage bonds, is a sin and contrary both to law and to reason". To indulge in intercourse without the intent to produce children, Clement thought, was to "outrage nature". His attack on paganism in his Exhortation to the Greeks includes a lengthy list of Greek gods who had male lovers as a way of discrediting Greek religion.
Clement revealed a keen anxiety about sex roles, deploring bright clothes, perfumes, and beardlessness as dangerous symptoms of effeminacy in men. He seemed to believe that any well-groomed man was a bisexual seeking to attract either sex or an obvious cinaedus (passive) who will "prove himself a woman at night". Shaving is an unnatural act: the human male, like the male lion and the male boar, should be shaggy and bristly.
Evidently Dionysian religion embraced extremes. There were Bacchantes who were said to tear to pieces living creatures and devour them raw. There were Dionysian initiations, specifically those of children that revealed the facts of life by practical demonstration and participation. Dionysus was believed to be present, not merely symbolically but actually, in the wine and raw flesh that his devotees consumed. But much of this information was put about by their rivals, especially the Christians. Dionysians were from time to time accused of eating babies, just as the Christians had been, so other accusations were almost certainly equally exaggerated.
Two other popular sects: the Orphics and the Pythagoreans...
For two other popular sects, the Orphics and the Pythagoreans, our existence on earth was forced upon us as expiation for our sins and they considered it a terrible thing for one's soul to be imprisoned in the physical body. Like the Hindus and Buddhists they believed that one had to pass through several lives to attain to the higher spheres of the after life.
The Pythagoreans believed their master, the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagorus, to have been an incarnation of Apollo. Born on the Greek isle of Samos, he studied philosophy at Athens, and then visited the Magi of Babylon and the heirophants of Egypt, before founding a school of spiritual science at Crotona in southern Italy. He died in 470 BCE, credited with being a centenarian.
For the Pythagoreans and the Orphics the universe was a hierarchy of different states of being, of which the very lowest was our tangible-world. Orpheus and Hercules were not gods, but mortal heroes who were elevated to Olympus after their deaths. The Pythagoreans revered both heroes as having been inspired by Apollo, if indeed they were not actual incarnations of the Sun God. Hercules was also a focus of aspiration for the Stoics, who admired him alongside Ulysses as an exemplar of heroic virtue and constancy.
Orpheus was deemed to have lived in Thrace in post-Homeric times and to have been a reformer of the cult of Dionysus. Like Jesus in Judaism and Buddha in Hinduism, he was rejected by followers of the old faith but succeeded in founding a new one. Orphism was an ascetic and speculative Dionysianism, aiming at the same goal of release from earthly conditions but pursuing it in a more conscious, controlled and intellectual way.
With the Neopythagorean revival of the last centuries BCE came the establishment of a literary canon, the Orphic hymns, an elaborate theogony and cosmogony, and Mysteries among whose initiates were Plutarch (46160) and, some say, the young Saul of Tarsus.
Oprhism – an elaborate theogony and cosmogony…
The ascetic teachings of the Orphics were perfectly at one with early Christian ethics, and the figure of Orpheus was borrowed in Christian iconography for representations of David and even of Jesus himself. To the pagan Romans, Orpheus, Hercules and Jesus seemed, all three, to have been born as demi-gods, performed miracles, and descended to the underworld before or after suffering cruel deaths. Their divine fathers afterwards raised them to Heaven, whence they radiated beneficent influences to their worshippers. If a Roman had a mystical and ascetic turn of mind, it must have been somewhat of a toss-up which sect would appeal the most.
In Rome, rediscovered in 1916, is a complete Neopythagorean basilica dating from the first century of the Empire. What astonished the discoverers was its similarity in form and decoration to the early Christian churches, with its apse and aisles and stucco reliefs of praying figures with hands outstretched in the ancient fashion. The full meaning of the scenes covering the vaulted ceiling and much of the walls has, however, never been completely elucidated. Most of the subjects are drawn from Greek mythology, including the rape of Ganymede by Zeus in the center of the vaulted ceiling.
There is a famous Opheus mosaic at Littlecote in England, discovered in 1727. Excavations have revealed that it forms the sanctuary to a church of the Orphic cult, built on a cruciform plan, exactly like later Christian churches.
In the third century, new forces were shaping-up outside the Roman sphere that would have far-reaching influence on Christianity in the future. Persian imperial expansion and organization were revived in 226, when the new dynasty of the Sasanids replaced the Parthians, reviving and aggressively promoting the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.
Persia also produced the third century equivalent of Mahomet, the prophet Mani (216-274). He began preaching in 242 a Gnostic, dualistic faith, blending elements from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Gnostic forms of Christianity. Though Mani himself was martyred at the instigation of the Zoroastrian priesthood, his movement grew and spread, gaining many converts from Christianity.
Under the High Priest Kartir, Zoroastrionism became likewise a proselytizing religion, especially outside Iran, where the missionaries tried to establish both their fire temples and orthodoxy among the Hellenized Magians and to convert those pagans who followed rites and beliefs similar to their own.
Within Iran, like a third-century Ayottolah, the high priest Kartir reacted strongly against both foreign religions and heresies, one reason why Mithraism, as we know it from Rome, is not also found in Iran. Kartir specifically attacked Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Nazoreans, Mandaeans (who regarded John the Baptist as Messiah), Christians and Manichaeans, destroying their centers and proscribing them. Kartir laid the basis for the power of the clergy of his state church which was, in time, to rival if not surpass the authority of the Persian nobility; a recurring motif in the history of the region.
Philip — first Christian emperor…
Back in Rome, murder had become the usual instrument of accession to the Imperial purple and it was by this decidedly un-Christian method that Philip, claimed as the first Christian emperor, attained the top job in 244. Son of a Bedouin Arab chieftain and a Christian mother, he accorded tolerance to Christians. He also extended to Bishop Fabian of Rome the right for clerics to possess property. Probably with Christian prompting, Philip outlawed the exsoleti, the male prostitutes of Rome, as exploiters of the immigrant population.
No doubt hoping to deflect attention from the empire's trouble spots, Philip decided to celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the foundation of Rome in 247. The millennial games in the Colosseum were attended by the emperor and his wife who took part in the cultic celebrations. His religion, if he was a Christian, did not seem to influence either his private life or his public actions. The Christians boycotted the games and refused to aid in the defense of the empire during the violent Gothic invasions that began in 248. Philip was killed in 249, battling against rebels, his death coinciding with an anti-Christian pogrom in Alexandria.
Philip's trusted lieutenant, the new emperor Decius, believed that the salvation of the State lay in a return to the pagan standards of ancient Rome. In 250 he issued orders that, on pain of death, everyone should obtain a certificate, witnessed by special commissioners, that they had sacrificed to the Roman gods. The sacred books of the Christians were sought out and destroyed. Along with the scriptures, manuscripts of calendars, martyrologies, liturgical documents and other records were burnt, so that there may be gaps in the list of popes.
Many Christians, deciding that there are always pleasures to be found in life, and none with any certainty thereafter acceded. The Christians who saved their lives by handing over documents were called traditores. In most places the church treated as lapsed all those who had sacrificed as well as those who had been able to buy certificates from friendly or bribable commissioners.
Bishops Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria went into hiding, secretly corresponding with their flocks. The bishops of Antioch and Aelia Capitolina were martyred. Fabian of Rome was slaughtered on the twentieth of January 250, and the Church at Rome was so disrupted and torn into factions during the persecution that no successor was elected until March 251, when competing groups elected two rival candidates. Emperor Decius, steely of purpose and barren of feeling, had succeeded in dividing, but he did not conquer.
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