The mystic sought within himself for forces, for beings which remain unknown to man so long as he is limited by the ordinary conception of life. The mystic formulates the great question about his own spiritual forces, which go beyond lower nature, and their laws. With his ordinary materialistic, logical conception of life, man creates gods for himself, or if he gains insight into this creation he disowns them. The mystic perceives that he creates gods; he perceives why he creates them; he can, so to speak, see beyond the natural laws of the creation of gods. It is the same with him as it would be with a plant if it suddenly acquired knowledge and learned to know the laws governing its own growth and development. The plant develops in innocent unconsciousness. If it knew its own laws it would have to acquire an entirely new relationship to itself. The plant which has acquired knowledge would have before it as an ideal what the poet experiences when he sings about it, what the botanist thinks when he investigates its laws. The same is true of the mystic with respect to his laws and the forces working within him. As one who knows, he must create beyond himself a divine element. This was the attitude of the initiates toward what the people had created beyond nature. This was their attitude toward the popular world of gods and myths. They wished to perceive the laws of this world of gods and myths. Where the people had a divinity, a myth, there they sought a higher truth. Let us consider an example: The Athenians were compelled by the Cretan King Minos to deliver to him seven boys and seven girls every eight years. These were thrown as food to the Minotaur, a fearful monster. When for the third time the sad consignment was to leave for Crete, the king's son, Theseus, traveled with them. When he arrived in Crete, King Minos' own daughter, Ariadne, took his part. The Minotaur lived in a labyrinth, a maze from which, once one had wandered into it, he could not find his way out again. Theseus wished to free his homeland from the disgraceful tribute. He had to enter the labyrinth, into which the monster's prey was usually thrown. He wished to slay the Minotaur. He undertook this task; he overcame the fearful foe and again reached freedom with the aid of a ball Of thread which Ariadne had given him. The mystic had to recognize how the creative spirit of man comes to form such a tale. As the botanist contemplates the growth of a plant to discover its laws, so the mystic wished to contemplate the creating spirit. He sought truth, wisdom, where the people had set up a myth. Sallustius discloses the attitude of a mystic-sage toward such a myth: “The universe itself can be called a myth, since bodies and material objects are apparent in it, while souls and minds are concealed. Furthermore, to wish to teach all men the truth about the gods causes the foolish to despise, because they cannot learn, and the good to be slothful, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the former from despising philosophy and compels the latter to study it.” 54Sallust the Platonist, De Diis et mundo, Concerning Gods and the Universe, Par. III. Translated by A. D. Nock, Cambridge University Press, 1926.
The mystic was conscious that by seeking the truth contained in a myth, he was adding something to what was present in the consciousness of the people. It was clear to him that he was placing himself above this consciousness of the people just as a botanist places himself above the growing plant. He said something quite different from what was present in the mythological consciousness, but he looked upon what he said as a deeper truth which was symbolically expressed in the myth. Man confronts the material world as if it were a monstrous enemy. To it he sacrifices the fruits of his personality. It devours them. It does so until the conqueror (Theseus) awakens in man. His cognition spins for him the thread by which he finds his way when he enters the maze of the material world to slay his foe. The mystery of human cognition itself is expressed in this conquering of the material world. The mystic knows this mystery. It indicates a force in the human personality. Ordinary consciousness is unaware of this force. But the latter works within it nevertheless. It engenders the myth which has the same structure as the mystical truth. This truth is symbolized in the myth. What then are myths? They are a creation of the spirit, of the unconsciously creative soul. The soul is governed by entirely definite laws. It must work in a definite direction in order to create beyond itself. On the mythological level it does this in pictures, but these pictures are built up according to the laws of the soul. We could also say that when the soul progresses beyond the plane of mythological consciousness to the deeper truths, these bear the same stamp as the myths did before, because one and the same force is active in their creation. The Neoplatonic philosopher, Plotinus (204–269 A. D.), referring to the Egyptian priest-sages, speaks thus about this relationship between the way of thinking common to pictorial myths and higher cognition:
“The wise of Egypt — whether in precise knowledge or by a prompting of nature — indicated the truth where, in their effort toward philosophical statement, they left aside the writing, forms that take in the details of words and sentences — those characters that represent sounds and convey the propositions of reasoning — and drew pictures instead, engraving in the temple-inscriptions a separate image for every separate item: thus they exhibited the thought-content in which the Supreme goes forth. For each manifestation of knowledge and wisdom is a distinct image, an object in itself, an immediate unity, not an aggregate of discursive argument and detailed discussion. Later from this wisdom in unity there appears, in another form of existence, an image, already less compact, which announces the original in an outward stage and seeks the causes by which things are such that the wonder arises how a created world can be so excellent.” 55Plotinus, 5th Ennead, The Divine Mind, 8th Tractate, On Intellectual Beauty, 6. Plotinus (204–269 A.D.) was born of Roman parents in Egypt. Studied under Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria, attempted to go to the East to study philosophy there, but finally reached Rome where he established himself as a teacher of philosophy. He attracted a circle of distinguished pupils, including the Emperor Gallienus and his wife. Not long before his death, Plotinus collected his writings and arranged them in a series of 6 Enneads, later edited by his famous pupil, Porphyry. The Enneads “are the most authoritative exposition of Neoplatonism.”
Whoever wishes to become acquainted with the relationship between mysticism and mythological tales, must see how mythology is dealt with by the world conception of those whose wisdom accords with the method of thinking of the Mysteries. Such accord exists to the fullest extent in Plato. His interpretation of myths and his use of them in his exposition, may be taken as a standard. In the Phaedrus, a dialogue about the soul, the myth of Boreas is introduced. This divine being, which was seen in the rushing wind, once glimpsed the beautiful Orithea, daughter of the Greek King Erechtheus, as she was picking flowers with her playmates. He was seized with a passion for her, abducted her and took her to his cave. In this dialogue Plato causes Socrates to reject a purely rational explanation of this myth. According to such an explanation an external, natural fact is supposed to be related symbolically in the tale. A gale is supposed to have seized the king's daughter and flung her down from the cliff. “Such explanations,” says Socrates, “are very subtle and may be very entertaining ... But when one has once begun to give a rational explanation to one of these mythological figures, one must go on and look at all the others with the same scepticism and reduce them one after another to the rules of probability ... This sort of explanation would be the business of a life. If anyone disbelieves in these mythological figures, and, with a rustic kind of wisdom, undertakes to explain each in accordance with probability, he will need a great deal of leisure. But I have no leisure for such inquiries ... So I dismiss these matters and, accepting the customary belief about them as I was saying just now, I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster of a more complicated structure and more savage than Typhon, or a gentler and simpler creature, whose nature partakes of divinity.” 56Plato, Phaedrus, 229 D, E, 230 A. From this we see that a rationalistic, intellectual interpretation of myths was unacceptable to Plato. This must be considered together with the manner in which he himself makes use of myths to express his meaning through them. Where he speaks of the life of the soul, where he leaves the paths of the transitory and seeks out the eternal in the soul, where, therefore, the ideas supported by material perception and intellectual thought are no longer present, there Plato makes use of the myth. The Phaedrus speaks of the eternal in the soul. Here the soul is represented as a team of two many-winged horses with a charioteer. One of the horses is patient and wise, the other stubborn and wild. When the team encounters an obstruction in its path, the stubborn horse makes use of this to hinder the intentions of the good one and thwart the charioteer. When the team arrives at the point where it should follow the gods over the heavens, the bad horse brings it into a state of confusion. Whether the bad horse is overcome by the good and the team is able to enter the supersensible realm beyond the obstruction, depends on the power of the bad horse. So it happens that the soul is never able to raise itself unhindered to the realm of the divine. Some souls raise themselves to this vision of eternity in a greater degree than others. The soul which has seen the beyond remains safe until the next traverse; the soul which — because of the wild horse — has seen nothing, must make the attempt on a new traverse. By these traverses are meant the various incarnations of the soul. One traverse denotes the life of the soul in one personality. The wild horse represents the lower nature, the wise horse the higher nature, and the charioteer the soul longing for its apotheosis. Plato makes use of the myth to show the path of the eternal soul through various stages. Similarly, in other writings of Plato, myth or symbolical narrative is used to show the inner being of man, the part not perceptible to the senses.
Here Plato is in full accord with the manner of expression by myth and parable used by others. In ancient Indian literature we find a parable attributed to Buddha. A man much attached to life, who on no account wishes to die, who seeks for sensual pleasure, is pursued by four serpents. He hears a voice which commands him to feed and bathe the four serpents from time to time. The man runs away for fear of the evil serpents. Again he hears a voice. This draws his attention to five murderers who are coming after him. Again the man runs away. A voice draws his attention to a sixth murderer who wishes to strike off his head with a drawn sword. Again the man flees. He comes to a deserted village. He hears a voice which tells him that thieves will shortly plunder the village. As he continues to flee he comes to a great expanse of water. He does not feel safe on this shore; he makes a basket for himself out of straw, sticks and leaves; in this he reaches the further shore. Now he is safe; he is a Brahmin. The sense of this parable is that man must pass through the most varied conditions to attain to the divine. In the four serpents may be seen the four elements, fire, water, earth and air. In the five murderers may be seen the five senses. The deserted village is the soul which has fled from the impressions of the senses, but is not yet safe when alone with itself. If the soul inwardly takes hold of its lower nature only, it must perish. Man must fashion a boat for himself which will carry him over the waters of the transitory from one shore, material nature, to the other, the eternal and divine.
Let us consider the Egyptian mystery of Osiris in this light. Gradually Osiris had become one of the most important Egyptian divinities. His representation supplanted other representations of gods in certain parts of the country. A significant series of myths formed itself around the figures of Osiris and his consort Isis. Osiris was the son of the sun god; Typhon-Set was his brother and Isis his sister. Osiris married his sister. With her he reigned over Egypt. The evil brother, Typhon, plotted the destruction of Osiris. He caused a casket to be made of the exact size of Osiris. At a banquet the casket was offered as a gift to anyone who exactly fitted into it. No one succeeded in this but Osiris. He laid himself in it. Then Typhon and his accomplices hurled themselves upon Osiris, closed the casket and threw it into the river. When Isis received the dreadful news she was desperate and wandered everywhere searching for the corpse of her husband. When she had found him, Typhon again gained power over him. He tore him into fourteen pieces, which were scattered far apart in different districts. Various tombs of Osiris were shown in Egypt. Here and there in many places pieces of the god were said to have been laid to rest. Osiris himself ascended from the nether world and conquered Typhon; a ray from Osiris then fell upon Isis, who bore him the son Harpokrates or Horus.
Now let us compare this myth with the way the world was understood by the Greek philosopher Empedocles (490–430 B. C.). He assumes that the single archetypal being was torn into the four elements, fire, water, earth and air — into the multiplicity of existence. He sets in opposition to each other two powers which affect growth and decay within the world of existence: love and strife. Empedocles says of the elements:
“There are these alone; but, running through one another, They become men and the tribes of beasts. At one time all are brought together into one order by Love; At another, each is carried in different directions by the repulsion of Strife.” 57Empedocles, Fragment 26.
Then from Empedocles' standpoint what are the things of the world? They are the elements, variously mixed. They could come into existence only through the tearing apart of the archetypal One into the four entities. This archetypal One is diffused into the elements of the world. All the things that meet us partake of the diffused divinity, but this divinity is hidden within them. It first had to die, so that the things could come into existence. And what are these things? They are mixtures of portions of the god, influenced in their structure by love and hate. Empedocles says this distinctly:
“This is manifest in the mass of mortal limbs. At one time all the limbs that are the body's portion Are brought together by Love in blooming life's high season; At another, severed by cruel Strife, They wander each alone by the breakers of life's sea. It is the same with plants, with fish that live in waters, With beasts living on hills, with seabirds sailing on wings.” 58Empedocles, Fragment 20.
Empedocles must take the view that the sage rediscovers the divine archetypal unity which is spellbound in the world, interwoven with love and hate. But if man is to find the divine he himself must become divine, for Empedocles takes his stand on the basis that only equals can recognize each other. His conviction of the laws of cognition is expressed in Goethe's saying, “If the eye were not of the nature of the sun how could we see the light? If God's own power did not live within us how could we strive for the divine?”
In the myth of Osiris the mystic is able to find these thoughts about the world and man, which transcend the experience of the senses. The divine creative force is diffused in the world. It appears as the four elements. The god (Osiris) has been slain. Man, with his cognition, which is of a divine nature, is to wake him again; he is to find him again as Horus (Son of God, Logos, Wisdom) in the antithesis of Strife (Typhon) and Love (Isis). Empedocles expresses his basic conviction in Greek form with ideas reminiscent of the myths. Aphrodite is Love; Neikos, Strife. They bind and release the elements.
Such an exposition of the content of a myth must not be confused with a merely symbolical or allegorical interpretation. This is not intended here. The pictures comprising the content of a myth are not invented symbols for abstract truths, but real soul experiences of the initiate. He experiences the pictures with spiritual organs of perception as a normal man experiences the representations of material things with his eyes and ears. Just as the representation is of little value by itself if it is not activated by perception of the external object, so the mythological picture is of little value without its activation through real occurrences in the spiritual world. It is only with respect to the material world that man at first stands outside the activating things; on the other hand, he can experience the mythological pictures only when he stands within the corresponding spiritual events. To be able to stand within the latter, in the opinion of the ancient mystics, he must have passed through initiation. There the spiritual events which he sees are illustrated as it were, by the mythological pictures. Whoever is unable to take mythology as such an illustration of true spiritual events, has not yet advanced to a comprehension of mythology. For the spiritual events themselves are supersensible, and pictures whose content is reminiscent of the material world are not in themselves spiritual, but are merely an illustration of the spiritual. Whoever lives only in pictures, lives in a dream; he lives in spiritual perception only when he has reached the point of experiencing the spiritual in the picture, just as in the material world one experiences the rose through the representation of the rose. This is also the reason why the pictures presented by myths cannot have only a single meaning. Because of their illustrative character the same myths can express various spiritual facts. It is, therefore, no contradiction when interpreters of myths apply them now to one spiritual fact and again to a different one.
From this point of view a thread can be found running through the manifold Greek myths. Let us consider the legend of Hercules. The twelve labors imposed on Hercules are seen in a higher light when one reflects that before the last and most difficult one he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. At the command of King Eurystheus of Mycenae he was to fetch Cerberus, the hound of hell, from the nether world, and take him back there again. To be able to undertake a journey into the nether world, Hercules had to be an initiate. The Mysteries led man through the death of the transitory and thus into the nether world; through initiation they wished to save the eternal element in him from destruction. As a mystic he could overcome death. Hercules overcame the dangers of the nether world as a mystic. This justifies the interpretation of his other deeds as stages of the inner development of the soul. He overcame the Nemean lion and brought him to Mycenae. This means that he became master of the purely physical force in man; he tamed it. Next he slew the nine-headed Hydra. He overcame it with firebrands, dipping his arrows in its gall so that they would never miss their mark. This means that he overcame lower knowledge, the knowledge of the senses, through the fire of the spirit, and out of what he had gained from this lower knowledge he drew the strength to see the lower world in the light belonging to the spiritual eye. Hercules caught the doe of Artemis. The latter is the goddess of the chase. Hercules hunted down what the free nature of the human soul can offer. The other labors can be interpreted in a similar way. We cannot follow them in every detail here; our intention is only to show how the general sense of the myth itself points to inner development
A similar interpretation is possible for the voyage of the Argonauts. Phrixus and his sister Helle, children of a Boeotian king, suffered greatly at the hands of their stepmother. The gods sent a ram with a golden fleece to them, which carried them away through the air. As they crossed the straits between Europe and Asia, Helle was drowned. Hence the straits are called the Hellespont. Phrixus reached the king of Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. He sacrificed the ram to the gods and presented the fleece to the King Aetes. The latter had it hung in a grove and guarded by a frightful dragon. The Greek hero, Jason, together with the other heroes, Hercules, Theseus and Orpheus, undertook to fetch the fleece from Colchis. Jason was charged with difficult tasks before he could reach the treasure of Aetes. But Medea, the daughter of the king, who was versed in magic, helped him. He tamed two fire-breathing bulls; he ploughed a field and sowed dragons' teeth, so that armed men grew out of the earth. On the advice of Medea he threw a stone among the men, whereupon they murdered one another. By means of a magic potion from Medea, Jason put the dragon to sleep; then he was able to obtain the fleece. With this he embarked upon the return journey to Greece. Medea accompanied him as his wife. The king pursued the fugitives. To delay him, Medea slew her little brother Absyrtus, scattering his limbs upon the sea. Aetes was delayed in gathering them up. Hence the couple were able to reach Jason's home with the fleece. Here every single fact demands a deeper explanation. The fleece is something belonging to man, something of infinite value to him; in ancient times it was separated from him and its recapture involves the overcoming of terrible powers. So it is with the eternal in the human soul. It belongs to man. But he finds himself separated from it. His lower nature separates him from it. Only when he overcomes this lower nature, puts the latter to sleep, can he regain it. This is possible when his own consciousness (Medea) comes to his aid with its magic force. Medea becomes for Jason what Diotima, as the teacher of love, was for Socrates. Human wisdom possesses the magic force to reach the divine after overcoming the transitory. Out of the lower nature can come only a lower human element, the armed men, which is overcome by the force of the spiritual element, the advice of Medea. Even when man has found his eternal element, the Recce, he is not yet safe. He must sacrifice a part of his consciousness (Absyrtus). This is demanded by the material world, which we can conceive of only as manifold (torn to pieces). We could penetrate still more deeply into the description of the spiritual events lying behind these pictures, but here we intend only to indicate the principle of myth formation.
Of particular interest in relation to such an interpretation is the saga of Prometheus. Prometheus and Epimetheus were the sons of the Titan, Japetos. The Titans were the children of the oldest generation of the gods, of Uranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). Kronos, the youngest of the Titans, dethroned his father and seized the rulership of the world. For this, together with the remaining Titans, he was overpowered by his son Zeus. And Zeus became supreme among the gods. In the battle with the Titans, Prometheus stood at the side of Zeus. On his advice Zeus banished the Titans into the nether world. But the Titans' attitude of mind continued to live in Prometheus. He was only half a friend to Zeus. When Zeus wished to destroy men for their presumption, Prometheus took their part, teaching them the art of numbers and writing, as well as other things leading to culture, especially the use of fire. Because of this Zeus was angry with Prometheus. Hephaestus, the son of Zeus, was commissioned to fashion the image of a woman of great beauty, which the gods adorned with all kinds of gifts. This woman was known as Pandora, the all-gifted. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, brought her to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. She brought him a casket as a gift from the gods. Epimetheus accepted the gift, despite the fact that Prometheus had advised him on no account to accept a gift from the gods. When the casket was opened, out flew all kinds of human plagues. Hope alone remained inside, and that only because Pandora quickly closed the lid. Therefore Hope has remained as the doubtful gift of the gods. — At the command of Zeus, Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus because of his relationship with men. An eagle constantly fed upon his liver, which continually renewed itself. Prometheus had to pass his days in tortured solitude until one of the gods voluntarily sacrificed himself, that is, dedicated himself to death. The tortured one bore his suffering steadfastly. He had learned that Zeus would be dethroned by the son of a mortal woman if he did not marry her. Zeus was anxious to know this secret; he sent the messenger of the gods, Hermes, to Prometheus to discover something about it. Prometheus denied him any information. The legend of Hercules is linked with that of Prometheus. During his travels Hercules also came to the Caucasus. He killed the eagle which was consuming the liver of Prometheus. The centaur, Chiron, who could not die, although suffering from an incurable wound, sacrificed himself for Prometheus. Then the latter was reconciled with the gods.
The Titans are the force of will streaming from the original cosmic spirit (Uranos) in the form of nature (Kronos). Here we must not think of merely abstract forces of will, but of real beings of will. Prometheus belongs among the latter. This characterizes his being. But he is not entirely a Titan. In a certain sense he sides with Zeus, the spirit who assumed the rulership of the world after the unbridled nature-force (Kronos) had been tamed. Prometheus, therefore, represents those worlds which have given man that forward-striving, which is a force half of nature, half of spirit — the will. On the one side the will is directed toward good, on the other side toward evil. Its destiny is formed according to whether it inclines toward the spiritual or the transitory. This destiny is the destiny of man himself. Man is chained to the transitory. The eagle gnaws at him. He must endure it. He can only attain the heights when he seeks his destiny in solitude. He has a secret. Its content is that the divine (Zeus) must marry a mortal, human consciousness itself, which is bound to the physical body, in order to bring forth a son, human wisdom (the Logos), who will redeem the god. Through this, consciousness becomes immortal. Man may not betray this secret until a mystic (Hercules) approaches him and removes the power which continually threatens him with death. A being, half animal, half human — a centaur — must sacrifice himself to redeem man. The centaur is man himself, the half animal, half spiritual man. He must die so that the purely spiritual man may be redeemed. What Prometheus, the human will, despises, is taken by Epimetheus, the intellect, shrewdness. But the gifts offered to Epimetheus are only troubles and plagues. For the intellect clings to nothingness, to the transitory. And only one thing remains — the hope that out of the transitory, one day the eternal may be born.
The thread running through the legends of the Argonauts, Hercules and Prometheus, also holds good for the poem of the Odyssey by Homer. The use of this method of interpretation in studying the latter work, may appear forced. But upon a closer examination of everything that has to be considered, even the most hardened doubter must lose his misgivings about such an interpretation. Above all, it must surprise us to find it related of Odysseus also that he descended to the nether world. Whatever we may think of the author of the Odyssey in other respects, it is impossible to credit him with causing a mortal being to descend to the nether world without bringing him into relationship with all that the journey to the nether world signified in the Greek world conception. It signified the overcoming of the transitory and the awakening of the eternal in the soul. That Odysseus achieved this must, therefore, be admitted. With this his experiences, like those of Hercules, gain a deeper meaning. They become a description of something which does not belong to the material world, a description of the soul's path of development. In addition, the Odyssey is not related as one would expect of a sequence of external facts. The hero makes voyages on magic ships. Actual geographical distances are treated in a most arbitrary way. Material reality is simply irrelevant. This becomes comprehensible if the actual events are related only in order to illustrate spiritual development. Furthermore, the author himself states in his introduction to the work, that it deals with the search for the soul: “Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had reached the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own soul and the return of his comrades.” 59Homer, Odyssey, Book I, 1–5.
Here we have a man seeking for the soul, the divine element, and his wanderings in search of this divine element are related. He comes to the land of the Cyclops. These are ungainly giants with one eye in their foreheads. Polyphemus, the most terrible of them, devours several of his companions. Odysseus saves himself by blinding the Cyclops. Here we are dealing with the first stage of life's pilgrimage. Physical power, the lower nature, must be overcome. Whoever does not deprive it of its strength, whoever does not blind it, will be devoured by it. — Odysseus then reaches the island of the witch Circe. She transforms some of his companions into grunting swine. She also is conquered by him. Circe represents the lower spiritual force which clings to the transitory. Through abuse of this force she can thrust humanity only deeper into its animal nature. Odysseus must overcome her. Then he can descend into the nether world. He becomes a mystic. Now he is exposed to the dangers which beset a mystic on his ascent from the lower to the higher stages of initiation. He reaches the Sirens who lure passing travelers to their death with sounds of enchanting sweetness. These are the images produced by the lower fantasy, the first things to be followed by anyone who has freed himself from the material world. He has come as far as free creative activity, but not as far as the initiated spirit. He chases after illusory images and must free himself from their power. Odysseus must traverse the awesome passage between Scylla and Charybdis. In his early stages the mystic wavers between spirit and sensuality. He is still unable to grasp the full content of the spirit, but sensuality has already lost its earlier value. All Odysseus' companions perish in a shipwreck; he alone saves himself and finds the nymph Calypso, who receives him in friendship and cares for him for seven years. At last, at the command of Zeus, she releases him to return to his home. The mystic has reached a stage at which all who are striving with him, fail, except Odysseus, who alone is worthy. In peace this worthy one enjoys gradual initiation for a period defined by the mystically symbolical number seven. Before Odysseus reaches his home, however, he comes to the island of the Phaeacians. Here he is hospitably received. The king's daughter is interested in him and King Alcinous himself entertains him and does him honor. Once again Odysseus encounters the world and its pleasures, and the spirit which cling to the world (Nausicaä) awakens in him. However, he finds the way home to the divine. At first nothing good awaits him at home. His wife, Penelope, is surrounded by numerous suitors. To each she promises marriage when she has finished a certain piece of weaving. She avoids keeping her promise by unraveling at night what she has woven during the day. The suitors must be overcome by Odysseus so that he may be reunited with his wife in peace. The goddess Athene transforms him into a beggar so that he will not be recognized at once upon entering his house. Then he overcomes the suitors. Odysseus seeks his own deeper consciousness, the divine forces of the soul. He wishes to be united with them. Before the mystic finds them he must overcome everything which lays claim to this consciousness in the form of a suitor. This crowd of suitors comes from the world of lower reality, of transitory nature. The logic applicable to this world is a weaving which continually unravels itself after it has been spun. Wisdom (the goddess Athene) is the sure guide to the deepest forces of the soul. She transforms man into a beggar, i.e. she divests him of all that is derived from the transitory.
The Eleusinian Festivals, celebrated in Greece in honor of Demeter and Dionysus, appear steeped in Mystery wisdom. A sacred road led from Athens to Eleusis. It was marked with secret signs which could bring the soul into a mood of deep reverence. In Eleusis were secret temple buildings which were served by priestly families. Dignity and the wisdom with which this dignity was connected, were inherited in these priest families from generation to generation. (Information concerning these places of worship may be found in the book, Ergänzungen zu den letzten Untersuchungen auf der Acropolis in Athen by Karl Bötticher, Philologus, Suppl. Vol. 3 Section 3.) The wisdom making it possible for services to be enacted there, was the Greek Mystery wisdom. The festivals, celebrated twice yearly, displayed the great cosmic drama of the destiny of the divine in the world and the destiny of the human soul. The Minor Mysteries were celebrated in February, the Major Mysteries in September. Initiations were connected with the festivals. The symbolical presentation of the drama of man and the cosmos formed the concluding act of the initiations undertaken there. The Eleusinian temples were erected in honor of the goddess Demeter. She is a daughter of Kronos. She bore a daughter, Persephone, to Zeus, before his marriage to Hera. Once while Persephone was playing, she was kidnaped by Pluto, the god of the nether world. Demeter, lamenting, hastened to search for her all over the earth. In Eleusis the daughters of Keleus, a local ruler, found Demeter sitting on a rock. Taking the form of an old woman she entered the service of Keleus' family as nurse to the son of the ruler's wife. She wished to endow this son with immortality. Therefore she hid him every night in the fire. When the mother once observed this, she wept and lamented. Henceforth the bestowal of immortality was impossible. Demeter left the house. Keleus built a temple. Demeter's sorrow for Persephone was limitless. She caused famine to spread over the earth. To avoid disaster the gods were obliged to placate her. Pluto was persuaded by Zeus to allow Persephone to return to the upper world. Before this, however, the god of the nether world gave her a pomegranate to eat. Because of this she was compelled to return to the nether world again and again at regular intervals. From then on she spent one third of the year in the nether world and two thirds in the upper world. Demeter was reconciled; she returned to Olympus. But in Eleusis, the place of her anguish, she founded the service of the festivals to commemorate her fate for ever.
The meaning of the Demeter-Persephone myth is not difficult to recognize. It is the soul which alternates between the lower and the upper world. The eternity of the soul and its eternal transformation through birth and death, is represented pictorially. The soul is descended from Demeter, the immortal. But it is carried off by the transitory and becomes destined to share in the fate of the transitory. It has eaten the fruit in the nether world; the human soul is satiated with the transitory and therefore cannot dwell continually in the divine heights. It must always return to the realm of the transitory. Demeter represents that being from which human consciousness has sprung; but this consciousness must be thought of as having been able to come into existence through the spiritual forces of the earth. Thus Demeter is the archetypal being of the earth, and her gift to the earth in the form of the forces in the seeds and the produce of the fields, only indicates a still deeper aspect of her being. This being wishes to endow humanity with immortality. Demeter hides her nursling in the fire at night. But man cannot endure the pure power of fire (the spirit). Demeter must desist. She can only found the temple service through which man may participate in the divine insofar as he is able to do so.
The Eleusinian Festivals were an eloquent acknowledgment of belief in the eternity of the human soul. This acknowledgment found pictorial expression in the myth about Persephone. Dionysus was celebrated in Eleusis, together with Demeter and Persephone. As in Demeter was worshiped the divine creatrix of the eternal in man, so in Dionysus was worshiped the divine element, ever changing in the whole world. The god who had been diffused into the world and had been torn to pieces in order to be re-born spiritually, had to be celebrated together with Demeter. (A splendid presentation of the spirit of the Eleusinian Mysteries is to be found in the book, Sanctuaires d'Orient by Édouard Schuré. Paris, 1898.)