Episode 12: Richard Seaford on the Mysteries

In this episode we discuss the unique and fascinating religious movements known as mystery-cults in their early Greek context. Students of western esotericism are very familiar with themes of initiation, silence, secrecy, and, of course, the idea of ‘mysticism’; the mystery-cults are the fountainhead of these themes in western culture. Professor Seaford knows a thing or two about the mysteries, and generously guides us through a basic overview of what they were, what they did, and what they might have meant. As usual with Professor Seaford, an erudite conversation arises, ranging freely across the whole spectrum of ancient literary and archaeological sources.

We narrow down the huge range of movements which travel under the name of ‘mystery-cult’ in antiquity to concentrate on the Eleusinian and Dionysiac mysteries of the classical period, the two movements most influential on later esotericism. We discuss the nature of mystery initiation as a kind of ‘rehearsal for death’. We explore our literary sources for what the mystery-rituals might have been like, and how we might interpret them. Other questions addressed in this episode include:

  • How secret were the mysteries?
  • What was the meaning of the ancient terminology for the mysteries, such as the words μυεῖν, τελετή, and ὀργία?
  • Initiation: what is it?
  • What did the mysteries offer which our modern civilisation lacks?
  • What can we say about the teachings delivered in mystic initiation?
  • How can a mystic initiate become a star through dance?

Interview Bio

For some information about Professor Seaford  check out Episode Four of the podcast, which features a cracking interview on the origin of the idea of a unified soul in sixth-century Greece and India.

Works Discussed in this Episode

  • Apuleius, Metamorphoses Book XI has an amazing description of Isaïc initiation, by one of our favorite esoteric Platonist thinkers.
  • An English translation of the Homeric Hymn  to Demeter.

Plutarch, Fr. 128 can be found at

  • Sandbach, F. (Ed.), 1967. Plutarch: Moralia VII. Teubner, Leipzig.

The edition of Euripedes’ Bacchae with which Prof. Seaford takes issue is

  • Dodds, E.R., 2017. Euripides: Bacchae. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

On the gold lamellae mentioned in the episode, see

  • Zuntz, G., 1971. Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

On the Olbia bone inscriptions, see

  • Graf, F. and Johnson, S., 2013. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. Routledge, London/New York, NY.
  • West, M., 1983. The Orphic Poems. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Recommended Reading

  • Bowden, H., 2010. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Bremmer, J. N., 2014. Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. de Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY.
  • Burkert, W., 1987. Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Graf, F. (2003). ‘Initiation: A Concept with a Troubled History’. In: Dodd, D. & Faraone, C. (Ed.), Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives: New Critical Perspectives, Routledge, pp. 3-24. Gives a useful survey of modern scholarly reception of the concept of mystery initiation.
  • Kingsley, P., 1995. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Metzger, B. M. (1984). ‘A Classified Bibliography of the Greco-Roman Mystery Religions 1924-73 with a Supplement 1974-77’, ANRW II : 1259-1423.
  • Meyer, M. W. (Ed.), 1987. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA. This book gives a nicely-organised survey of the diverse types of material one has to deal with when studying the mysteries.
  • Parker, R., 2005. Polytheism and Society at Athens. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Riedweg, C., 1987. Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon, und Klemens von Alexandrien (Untersuchungen zur Antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 26). De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY. A brilliant exposé of the use of mystic terminology and themes by Plato and two of his esoteric successors.
  • Seaford, R. (1987). ‘Pentheus′ Vision: Bacchae 918-22′, Classical Quarterly 37 : 76-78.
  • Seaford, R., 1996. Bacchae. Aris & Phillips, Warminster.
  • Kouremenos, T. Parassoglou, G. M. & Tsantsanoglou, K. (Ed.), 2006. The Derveni Papyrus. Leo S. Olschki, Florence.

Themes

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