The Sacred Pilgrim in Greek Thought

By I. M. Oderberg

If we consider man as composed of body, soul and spirit, then the sacred pilgrim in Greek thought is the human essence engaged in the long and arduous task of finding itself. It is a pilgrim because, exiled from its original state of unawakened spirituality, it is embarked upon a journey that through the travail of many experiences will bring it back to its ancient seat, but then aware of its innate purity and quality.

Ancient historic Greece had two religions, one a public expression which eventually became associated with the Olympian deities; the other, a private one connected with the Mystery schools such as those of Eleusis near Athens, and Samothrace, an island off the mainland. The writings of Plato and those coming after him are more or less generally known, but not of those who preceded the time of Socrates. The Orphic and Pythagorean communities, for example, had their inner system of training, using a symbolism we now recognize as having been universally applied by all peoples. This body of esoteric teachings concerned cosmic life and the beings through which it manifests. It was attached to a method of character-training designed to draw out the diverse latent aspects of the human being. Leading men of the country paid tribute to the ennobling effect upon them of their participation in the Mysteries.

In the early stages, the rites and ceremonies of the course, with their attendant interpretation, presented in dramatic form a wisdom-teaching about the nature and destiny of man that had been inherited from the remote past. In the later grades, after more direct instruction, the climax brought a confrontation between the candidate and his innermost being, a self higher than the daily persona or mask, truly a divinity.

Many of the Greek philosophers and scientists were graduates of the Mystery schools, but modern academic institutions group their writings with those of noninitiated thinkers, as though all the texts were merely developments on the way to modern thought. These texts are treated by what they appear to say, taking the outer wording for the inner meaning. But those ancient scholars who were trained at Eleusis and related centers were bound by strong vows never to divulge the essence of the discipline and instruction they had received. So when they wrote, at crucial points in their treatises, they resorted to myth or metaphor, allegory or analogy — and then only when permitted, as it would seem that Plato was. It is missing the inner meaning to disregard symbolism or the veiled hint.

The old Greek tradition refers to the foundation of the Eleusinia in pre-Homeric times, revolving around the central figure of Dionysos, the spiritual savior sometimes called the "midnight sun" to signify the polar opposite of the material day. The main theme of the Dionysian Mysteries was the cosmic unity in which all beings participate, i.e., the oneness of all lives in the universal Life. The Dionysia were already ancient in the time ascribed to Orpheus, the thirteenth century B.C. according to Diodorus the historian, although others assign his period to the eighth century B.C. or bring it much nearer to that of Pythagoras in the sixth, while not a few of our scholars doubt his existence altogether. There is evidence there was a succession of charismatic teachers who used the name Orpheus; they were links in the "Golden Chain of Hermes" the Psychopomp — Hermes the Initiator into the wisdom of the gods. Diodorus and other Greeks implied there had been a transmission of an ancient teaching about the cosmos and man receding in origin far back into the past, long before the first Orpheus. Some of the Orphic hymns are referred to in the classics as having been written in a very archaic language, so old that Proclus the Neoplatonist called it the "language of the gods."

Inevitably, as the centuries passed, the Dionysia declined into crystallized observances and rituals. The sacred symbols became encrusted with dogmas and formulas, so that they were taken for granted, their purport no longer arousing the hearts and minds of men to the higher life. For example, the once sacramental drink of milk and honey standing for the mixture of spiritual essence and its material expression, was changed into the intoxicating wine that brought on the drunken orgies of the Maenads, 'priestesses' of a debased version of Dionysos. Thus reforms were introduced by the Orpheus of the eighth century B.C. and his successor Musaeus, and these included a remarkably subtle and comprehensive cosmogony as well as an account of the origin and nature of man.

This deep philosophy about the birth and growth of the universe, and about the structure, motivation and function of human beings, was enshrined in two cycles of ideas. We shall here consider the myth of the savior-god Zagreus, born of Zeus the All-Father (not to be confused with the Olympian aspect of Zeus). Zagreus was also the child of Semele, Earth, an aspect of Demeter or Nature. He incarnated a ray or quality of his father who delighted in him. But he was destroyed by the Titans — symbols of the blind or unintelligent forces of nature. Zeus, returning from a mission, seeing the Titans feasting upon Zagreus, destroyed them by lightning and thunderbolt, and their ashes were mixed with the still beating heart of Zagreus that had been rescued by Apollo, the day sun. Man was fashioned out of the mixture of the ashes of the Titans and the heart of Zagreus,

This myth imbodies the concept that man is a duality, with the essence of the divine at his very center surrounded by the unruly titanic aspects of himself. The latter must be first disciplined toward the divine element and then transmuted into a like quality of control, purity and compassion. The Orphic system of initiations enshrined this concept in the form of the progressive unfoldment of nonmaterial, nonpersonal or nonegotistic characteristics. It stressed that the soul is a "wanderer from its former divine state." After centuries of submergence, Orphism experienced a late revival in Roman times, and tombs of the later period have yielded many hymns imbodying the teaching. One such verse states:

I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone)
— Jane E. Harrison: Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Meridian Books, paperback, New York, 1957; p. 660.

for the Orphic believed that the divine and immortal soul came down from the heavenly fires and was imprisoned in the darkness of the earthly body. Werner Jaeger uses a beautiful phrase for this aspect of the Orphic theogony, that the soul enters the newborn child "on the wings of the wind."

The philosopher Empedocles (fifth century B.C.) was another who expressed in more or less veiled language the concept of man's dual nature: divine at heart, immersed in material existence on earth. Variously called an Orphic and a Pythagorean, he summarized it in a verse that also told of the flowing of the One source of all life into its many manifestations as creatures, and in turn the absorption into the One of the many at the end of an "aion" or age. These succeed each other cyclically — i.e., there are periodical recurrences of expression alternation with impression.

Twofold the birth, twofold the death of things:
For, now, the meeting of the May brings
To birth and death; and now, whatever grew
From our their sundering, flies apart and dies.
And this long interchange shall never end.
— William E. Leonard: The Fragments of Empedocles, Chicago, 1908; p. 22, fragment 17.

This seems to be an allusion to the physical birth, and the birth of the soul in the body at a later stage of growth, The two deaths as applied to the human state would mean the physical death of a person and the later death when the soul parts from the lesser elements of itself. He makes the following significant statement:

There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient decree of the gods, eternal, scaled fast with broad oaths, that when one of the divine spirits whose portion is long life sinfully stains his own limbs with bloodshed, and following Hate has sworn a false oath — these must wander for thrice ten thousand seasons far from the company of the blessed, being born throughout the period into all kinds of mortal shapes, which exchange one hard way of life for another.
For the mighty Air chases them into the Sea, and the Sea spews them forth on to the dry land, and the Earth (drives them) towards the rays of the blazing Sun; and the Sun hurls them into the eddies of the Aether. One (Element) receives them from the other, and all loathe them. Of this number am I too now, a fugitive from heaven and a wanderer . . .
For by now I have been born as boy, girl, plant, bird, and dumb seafish. I wept and wailed when I saw the unfamiliar land (at birth). How great the honour, how deep the happiness from which (I am exiled)! 'We have come into this roofed cavern.' — Kathleen Freeman: Ancilla to the PRE-SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS (translation of Diels' Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Greek text with German commentary and translation), Harvard University Press, 1966; p. 65, fragments 115-120.

The "roofed cavern" is the physical body, as in other texts and myths it is termed the tomb of the Divine Prisoner — the compassionate high self within us that tarries in close relationship with us until our lesser self has purified its substance to be like the finest quality of our composite nature.

Empedocles adds that those who keep themselves pure throughout shall become seers, all kinds of benefactors of men, princely-teachers, and from the human state they will "blossom forth as gods highest in honour. Sharing the hearth of the other immortals, sharing the same table, freed from the lot of human griefs, indestructible." (Freeman, ibid., fragment 146.) They will have resumed their lost divinity.

His reference to Hate in the quotation must be interpreted in the light of his concept that the universe we perceive in its manifested form is the result of the interplay of two forces, love and hate, or attraction and repulsion, acting upon the four elements: earth, air, fire and water — not the elements we know, but what we might call their essences or inner quality. Therefore, to say that men are motivated by hate, in his context suggests they are drawn to materiality and repelled by the divine aspect of life. This relates to the very ancient concept that when manifestation of a material universe, world or lesser being begins, there are for the life-spark at the center of each one new experiences to be gained through the bodies it emanates. These vehicles of perception of and impact upon the immediate environment are composed of several grades of coarser substance until the lowest point possible for the entity concerned is reached. Then the reverse process commences, gathering momentum as those responsive to the spiritual pole of their magnetic essence activate that part of their nature. At last they return to their point of egress into this phase of life, and reenter that from which they came, but at the completion of the cycle they are fully aware of their humanhood, or divinity.

It will also be seen from Empedocles' quotation cited above, and from others of his surviving fragments, that he had an understanding of evolution as a course of growth. But the difference between his view of it and the current one is that he saw the entity within the many bodies of its expression through the ages as being the evolving factor, rather than the forms per se producing new forms from or out of themselves merely by the accretion of faculties born of emergency situations.

We could consider the contributions of other pre-Socratic philosophers, but the same thread runs through most of them. As already suggested, when Orpheus found the Dionysia debased, he initiated their regeneration, restoring the lost purity and catalytic force, albeit in a new garb. However, with the fullness of time and the vagaries of men, his system, too, became encrusted with dogmas and the procedures became mere ritual. So Pythagoras came upon the scene and restated the old truths in his new way; other individuals — Orphics and Pythagoreans who had the inborn insight to tune in to the sacred stream flowing through the original outpouring, despite the admixtures imposed by the 'unsighted' — acted either as 'loners' or started an effort that lasted a generation or two. For example, Pherecydes of Syros (7th-6th centuries B.C.) wrote a book that was preserved in antiquity but has been lost to us, a large part of it having been found only in recent times. It was called Heptamychos, the Seven-Chambered (Cosmos). According to Kathleen Freeman, it deals with the divine origin of the universe and was written as an allegory. It is worth noticing the thesis that the universe is a sevenfold manifestation, for this is in line with all the ancient mystical teachings ascribing seven aspects, principles or levels of consciousness to the cosmos.

After Pythagoras' school went its way of decline, Plato removed those portions of teaching that were adulterations of the original or primal truths; he retained the latter as expressed by both Orpheus and the Pythagoreans and clothed them in his own incomparably beautiful texts. He but restated in his Dialogues the basic, spiritual concepts that had flowed as a stream through long ages.

Who, then, is the Sacred Pilgrim? Is he human man journeying through the "cycle of necessity" in a succession of births and rebirths until all his latent human-divine qualities are made manifest? Or is this truly Sanctified One the compassionate entity that enlightened each one of us in the far back night of time when we were not yet self-conscious, were still unaware of others, or of space or time? Is the Sacred Pilgrim really ourself on the road to expressing its divinity, and that Other that remains with us even during the ages after our first awakening?

At this point in our reflections, we return to the story of Orpheus, for he later became a type-figure within his own Mysteries. In the myth belonging to that system of teaching, there were seven symbolic stages in the life of Orpheus that represented for his followers and dedicated pupils their way of life. These graded 'steps' to making that life a sacrifice to the divinity, giving it the quality of sacredness, follow:

1. Orpheus' divine birth; 2. his sacred quest on the voyage of the Argonauts to find the 'Golden Fleece'; 3. his mystic marriage with Eurydice and his mission as a divine teacher; 4. his first agony at the first death of Eurydice; 5. his descent into Hades; 6. his second and final agony at the second death of Eurydice, culmination in 7. his Passion, — F.S. Darrow, adapted from "Studies in Orphism, I," The Theosophical Path, vol. II, April 1912; p. 256; see also "The Two Faces of Orpheus," Sunrise, vol. vxii, July 1968; p. 293,

for this last was symbolized by his being torn in pieces by the enraged Maenads whom he had resisted.

There is no doubt that this cycle of 'moments' applies to our own daily lives. We, too, have had a divine birth long ago; our Argonautic voyage is in quest of the "golden fleece" of our spiritual enlightenment; the "loss" of our personality-ego (Eurydice) when we meet our higher self face to face, then try to retrieve it in its earthly or material life; its seeming death when it is transmuted into our higher elements, purified; all these can be experienced by ourselves though expressed in different terms in our day. As for the Passion: that is something beyond words to express; it may be that we give portions of ourselves to all with whom we empathize; to all we love we give of ourselves. It may also mean that there will be those who feel so fully involved with their material nature that they will turn and try to rend those who are not like themselves. But there need not be a literal interpretation. The dialogue with the inner meaning of the myth must take place in the heart of each individual, and with each there will be a different response.

In this context, the Sacred Pilgrim is voluntarily exiled from his home as long as he is entombed in material life together with his "child" who does not yet recognize his true nature. The child must traverse the roads and byways of life marked for him by the wheel of rebirth that he keeps turning by his never-ending generation of causal acts and the reaping of their effects. This "cycle of necessity" will continue until he is able to rise from the "roofed-in cave" — enmeshment in the matter-side of his nature. In the meantime, the divine element in us waits, and waits . . .

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)


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