7 - The Witches and the Mysteries

I had always believed that witches belonged to an independent Stone Age cult whose rites were a mixture of superstition and reality and had no connection with any other system. But during my short stay in New Orleans, though I did not succeed in getting into Voodoo, I noticed some suspicious resemblances which made me think that Voodoo was not solely African in origin but had been compounded in America out of European witchcraft and African mythology; and when I visited the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii I realised the great resemblance to the cult. Apparently these people were using the witches' processes.

I know, of course, that ancient and modern writers have agreed that the Greek mysteries of Dionysus, Zeus, Orpheus, Zagreus and Eleusis were similar; therefore since each mystery had different rites and myths but was the same, this must mean that they had some inner secret.

In his learned work The Villa of the Mysteries, Professor Vittorio Macchioro has this to say on the subject: 'The mystery is a special form of religion which existed amongst all ancient peoples, and among primitive peoples still preserves very considerable importance. Its essence is the mystic palingenesis, that is to say, a regeneration brought about by suggestion. In its most perfect stage this palingenesis is a veritable substitution of personality: the man is invested with the personality of a god, a hero or an ancestor, repeating and reproducing the gestures and actions attributed to him by tradition.'

Only those deities who, owing to their own mythical history, bore within themselves the elements of new birth, Demeter, Dionysus, Isis, Atys and Adonis, could confer palingenesis, the identification of the self with the divinity, owing to the special conception which the Greeks had of the relations between life and death. The postulant passed through the divine myth, revived the life of god and passed, together with the god of sorrow, into joy, from life unto death. Professor Macchioro gives this account:

'All the mysteries operated after the same manner. They consisted in a sacred drama and a series of ritual acts, which reproduced the gestures and actions attributed to the Divinity. This is the principle of the Eucharist, the eating of bread and drinking of wine to identify oneself with His acts. It was not an objective but a subjective drama, its essence being the repetition of that which according to tradition had been wrought by God.

It was led up to by preliminary instruction, heightened in effect by visions and ecstatic suggestions conducting the initiated, himself an actor in them, to communion with God. The dramas became a veritable event in the life of the man, like the sacrament, transforming him completely and assuring him happiness after death. At first the mystery was a purely magical ceremony, but with time it acquired a spiritual and moral content. The mystery religions had an enormous influence on the Greek conscience, enabling it to comprehend the value of the Christian message.

'Orphism was the most important of these deriving its name from its alleged founder. It was a particular form of that orgiastic and ecstatic religion which originated in the worship of Dionysus and consisted in living over again his myth. Zagreus, the son of Zeus and Kore (Persephone), is slain at Hera's instigation by the Titans who tear him to pieces and devour him except for his heart which Athene saves and of which is born, as the son of Zeus and Semele, the second Dionysus. Palingenesis here consisted in dying and being reborn again in Zagreus.

Mankind had birth from the ashes of the Titans smitten by the thunderbolt of Zeus in punishment for their crime. This is why all men bear the burden of the Titans' crime; but as the Titans devoured Zagreus, man has within him also the nature of Dionysus. Theologians said that it was the Titanic nature innate in the body from which man must free himself to reunite with the Dionysiac nature through the agency of the mysteries. Thus the Orphic Mystery took a lofty moral and spiritual significance and exercised great influence on lofty souls such as Heraclitus, Pindar and Plato, and when Christianity spread it was Orphism that gave the fundamentals to the Pauline theology.

'Orphism soon came in contact with the rural cult at Eleusis whose celebrated mysteries were without ecstatic and orgiastic elements. Contact with Orphism transformed the cult adding the element of redemption; from the fusion were born the Eleusinian Mysteries as known throughout antiquity. These consisted of two parts, the Orphic centring round Zagreus and celebrated at Agrai, a suburb of Athens, and termed "the Lesser Mysteries", and the Eleusinian centring round Demeter and Kore, celebrated at Eleusis itself and termed "the Greater Mystery". The former were the necessary preparation for the latter; they conferred the palingenesis in Zagreus, the new life which rendered the initiated worthy to have access to the higher teaching of the great mysteries.

'Protected by the state, glorified by artists and poets, they were the centre of Greek life and flourished uninterruptedly from the eighth century B.C. to the year A.D. 396 when Eleusis was destroyed by mobs of monks. The secrets, protected by law, were respected; we know as little of the Lesser Mysteries as we do of the Greater, that supreme vision which crowned the series of ceremonies on the last day. Scholarship made repeated efforts to discover what took place until the Villa of the Mysteries was discovered. This lies in the Street of Tombs, Pompeii, outside the Stabian Gate, and is divided into two separate parts by a corridor.

The northeast-part is like an ordinary Pompeian house; the northwest part is arranged peculiarly. The central portion is formed by a large hail decorated with frescoes and is reached from the corridor by passing through two small rooms, entering the hall through a small side door; the way out from the hall is by a large door opening on to a terrace. This large hall was originally a Triclinium (dining room), and the two little rooms were originally Cubiculi (bedrooms); they have all suffered alterations to adapt them for a purpose other than that for which they were intended.

The paintings contain the answer, for they extend all round the walls of the hall regardless of angles and apertures. They contain twenty-nine figures, almost life-size, dressed in the style and costume of the Greeks and resembling the Attic paintings of the second half of the fifth century B.C.

'It is evident that we have a single act divided into several episodes depicting the story of one draped female figure who reappears in all the episodes. The story is a series of liturgical ceremonies by means of which the woman is initiated into the Orphic Mystery and attains communion with Zagreus.

'1. The liturgy begins with a maiden who, aided by an attendant and two young boys, one holding a mirror before her, and superintended by a priestess, is performing her bridal toilet. She is draped in the sindon, a ritual veil which was placed on the neophytes in the mysteries; she is the mystic bride, the catechumen, preparing to celebrate under the symbol of matrimony her communion with Dionysus. It is she who is the protagonist of the entire liturgy.

'2. Draped in the sindon the maiden reverently approaches a nude youth evidenced to be a priest by the high Dionysiac boots he is wearing. This embades, under the tender guidance of a priestess, is reading a charge or ritual from a roll in order that the neophyte may be made cognisant of the rules, or maybe of the significance of the initiation.

'3. Thus instructed and enabled now to share in the rite, the maiden, still draped in the sindon and now wearing a crown of myrtle, moves to the right bearing on a ritual dish food in slices to take part in a lustral repast. Before a sacrificial table is seated a priestess assisted by two attendants; with her left hand she uncovers a dish brought by one attendant and in her right hand she holds a branch of myrtle on which the other attendant, who has thrust into her girdle a ritual roll, is pouring a libation by means of an oenochoe. This is the lustral agape which must be celebrated before the communion, as was the custom in primitive Christianity.

'4. After the celebration of the agape the neophyte is worthy of a new birth, represented allegorically. A Satyr and Satyra are seated; a fawn is stretching out its muzzle towards the Satyra who is offering it her breast; on the left Old Silenus gazes on the scene playing ecstatically on a lyre. In the myth the child Dionysus was transformed into a kid to hide him from the wrath of Hera.

This kid which is being suckled symbolises the infancy of Dionysus, and Silenus is present because he is to be the pedagogue of the god; the scene represents symbolically the new birth of the neophyte. She is seen again in Zagreus under the form of a kid, which is why there is found on the golden tablets buried with the initiated at Sybaris the soul of the dead appearing before Persephone and saying: "I am born again."

'5. The neophyte is born again in Zagreus; she has begun to live the life of the god, but terrible tests await her. Silenus seated on a double plinth shows her a hemispherical silver case on which a youth gazes in ecstasy while his companion holds on high behind him a Dionysiac mask. Silenus turns to the neophyte, identified by the sindon, and utters that to her which visibly fills her with terror.

She shrinks back as though to flee and makes the gesture of one who would banish from her eyes a terrible vision. The hemispherical case at which the youth gazes ecstatically is a magical mirror; he is fascinated and falls victim to a hallucinatory monoideism and, as happens in crystallomancy, sees in the mirror a series of visions which have their centre and starting point in the mask and life of Dionysus.

He sees unrolling itself in the mirror the life of the god, sees how he was rent to pieces and devoured by the Titans, and, in short, sees the future destiny of the neophyte, who, if she would be born again as a new creature, must die together with Zagreus. It is this dread Dionysiac death which he announces to the maiden.

It is a divination which is being wrought and it is Silenus, first the pedagogue and then the mystagogue of Dionysus, by whom it is wrought. Besides including the annunciation of the future death of the neophyte, this scene includes further repetition of the most important gesture attributed by myth to the god: Dionysus when a child beheld in a magic mirror, fashioned for him by Hephaistos, his future destiny.

Another tradition is that the Titans slew Zagreus by showing him in a mirror his own misshapen face, so distracting his attention that they killed him. Now as the sacramental drama consisted in the repetition of the actions of the god to obtain by this imitation communion with him, this explains why the neophyte, or the youth on her behalf, gazes on the mirror as Dionysus did so as to become as Dionysus and die with him.

'6. The neophyte after receiving the annunciation would now become the mystical bride of Dionysus, and to signify symbolically this wedlock she is about to uncover a huge phallus which she has brought in a sacred basket. She places this on the ground and seems humbly to crave the assent of a winged semi-nude figure, shod with the Dionysiac boot, a ritual roll in her girdle and a rod in her hand. It is Talate, the daughter of Dionysus, the personification and executrix of the initiation.

'7. Talate stays her gesture with her hand and lifts the rod whilst the maiden kneels bewildered and terrified with her face well-nigh hidden in the lap of a compassionate priestess, to endure the ritual flagellation which replaces and symbolises death. Physically she does not die, but she passes symbolically through death and dies mystically as the stigmatists die crucified in Christ.

'8. Dead with Zagreus, she is now born again with him; that is to say, she has become a bacchante and is no more a woman but a divine human being. We see her now nude and frenziedly dancing, aided by a priestess who holds the thyrsus, the symbol of the new Dionysiac life. The spirit of Dionysus has descended upon her. Man has become God, and Dionysus is present unseen at the miracle. We behold him in the space between the fifth and sixth scenes, half reclining in the lap of Kore, one foot unshod according to the rite, contemplating with divine indifference all that man may suffer for him. Thus the mystery is wrought.

'The Orphic Basilica, the great hall, was the hall of initiation or stibade and was entered through the small doorway after preparatory sacrifices had been performed in the little rooms adjoining, as proved by fragments of sacrifices found there. After entering the stibadium and receiving initiation the neophytes went out through the large door on to the terrace, where one may suppose a banquet took place in festive celebration of the event. This arrangement corresponds to the Orphic Baccheion discovered at Athens.

To form this private Basilica its makers took advantage of the Triclinium and the two adjacent cubicula, rearranging and adorning them with paintings suited to their new purpose, and it was not without good reason that this Basilica was placed in a suburban villa. The Orphic Mysteries were as we know prohibited by the Senatus Consultum (De Bacchanalibus) after they had given rise to scandals; but the most curious point is that according to Livy these scandals happened precisely in Campania and the initiations were by women and took place by day. Our liturgy shows us the initiation of a woman and the enormous window proves that the initiations were made in the daytime. This Orphic Basilica, in days of old the secret meeting place of the initiated, enables us today to penetrate the secrets of the Greek Mysteries.'

More recent investigations have shown that this villa belonged to some of the Imperial family and the high priestess in the frescoes has been identified as a portrait of the owner, though her name has not yet been ascertained. I showed a picture of these frescoes to an English witch, who looked at it very attentively before saying: 'So they knew the secret in those days.'

All these ancient mysteries had this much in common. They were often the means by which one passed from one class to another; they made a woman marriageable, for instance. Many, however, were connected with a future life, but this was kept secret.

I think all priests in ancient times were regenerated, made holy by some such means, and at times laymen also; whether this made them minor priests or not I do not know. In Athens we know that practically all the Greek population were initiated, including the slaves, and that the State paid the fees of the poor; but no foreigner was ever initiated and the secrets were protected by law, as this was thought to be necessary for the good of the State. We also know that they kept the gods' names a secret.

Christian writers were accustomed to speak of these mysteries as orgies, and Chesterton, speaking of the Bacchae of Euripides, says: 'Nowadays, imagine the Premier going off with the Archbishop of Canterbury to dance with unknown fair ones on Hampstead Heath.' But they did this because the gods wished them to and not for pleasure only, though doubtless they did enjoy it. Nowadays people might be shocked if they thought they enjoyed it, or even if they obtained fresh air and exercise that way, as the Jews were highly shocked at Christ's breaking the Sabbath.

There is a story that Pere Lachaise let off King Louis XIV with the slightest penances for cold-blooded massacres and suchlike, which he thought quite natural things to do; but he was most highly shocked and gave a very heavy penance because after some battle Louis ate a mince pie on a Friday, not knowing there was some tiny bit of meat in it.

So when old writers who were initiated say 'all the mysteries were the same', surely they must mean the inner essences were the same. A heathen examining the various Christian sects, Catholic, Roman and Orthodox, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of England Churches, would say they are at heart all the same. They all worship the Triune God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Though some may pay more honour to the Virgin and the Saints than others, and the people who thus worship are on the whole good and worthy people and obviously would not so worship if the religion were evil, so when we find that the greatest and best men of the ancient world belonged to the initiates, we may be sure the mysteries were not just orgies. Indeed we know, as shown above, a little of what they were. Lewis Spence in his Occult Encyclopaedia says:

'Pictures, mosaics and sculptures show the initiates as naked, one carrying corn, another fire, some sacred baskets with serpents, women, or goddesses, initiating men ... these were secret cults into which only certain people were admitted after preliminary preparation ... After this mystic communication or exhortation (the Charge), the revelation of certain holy things, then communion with the deity; but the mysteries seem to centre round the semi-dramatic representation of a mystery play of the life of the god.'

I think it is at least plausible to believe that all this was not play-acting, but that there was a serious reason behind it. That they believed that, while the gods wished them well, they were not all-powerful, that they needed man's help; that by performing certain rites men gave them power; also that the gods wished men to be happy and that acts which gave men pleasure also gave the gods joy and power, which they could apply to their own uses as well as to the benefit of man. (1)

The wild dances showed that the gods wished men (including Chesterton's Premier and Archbishop) to be happy, and not to be puritanical. This ecstatic dancing also produced power and visions of the future, some of which at least came true. For this reason these rites were valuable to the State, and were protected by law, so that no foreigner might ever know them. Evidently priests and priestesses who could foretell the future, however dimly, who could calm down the most dangerous politicians and cause them to work for the State instead of striving to disrupt it, were of the greatest value. On the other hand, if the existence of this power were known, the secret might he discovered and used by enemies, both to cause political disruption, a sense of pacifism or surrender to the enemy. (2)


[1] See Note 3 (page 188).
[2] See Note 4 (page 189).


Again I repeat that I do not say that they could in fact do all this; but I do say that witches believe that they themselves can, and I think that people in Athens in high places held similar beliefs. Because people all over the world are apt to do certain things and believe certain things in certain circumstances, and while these beliefs can occur independently, where they are very alike I am inclined to suspect a connection. I expect many people will attack this view and I only hope that they will. Discussion and criticism is the only way to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

The first and strongest argument against my views will be, I think, the belief 'that to gain power and to stop the people thinking of their miseries, the priests and kings encouraged the greatest excesses'. In Africa at present the action of missionaries and the Government in putting down big tribal dances is said to have caused the present political unrest and campaign of murder. And it is certain that the mysteries made the population happy and quiet.

That at them there were orgies at times is common knowledge; no one attempts to deny the facts; but whether they were much more than beanfeasts is a moot point. Something, usually wine, was drunk, but I believe that by law it was two parts wine and three parts water and you cannot raise much debauchery on that. They danced wildly, and it is just possible that some sort of sacred marriage was performed, but it consisted mostly in long religious services and in long and tiring processions.

These are no secrets to be protected by law, or to prevent foreigners or criminals from seeing or knowing. Nowadays it would be different. The press would concentrate on the spicy bits; the country would ring with it, all sorts of women's unions, county councils and Sabbath-day protection societies would combine, and the whole machinery of the law would be put in motion to prevent it. But in those days no one would have thought anything of it! Anyone could have an orgy in his own home.

Anyone was free to open a night-club in his house, to have as many pretty slaves as he pleased to entertain his guests; there were absolutely no inhibitions, the result being that everyone, after sowing a few wild oats, settled down to a quiet married life, having many places handy where he could let off steam if he wanted to. I think it was not because of repressions that all the people joined and it was not to get away from your wife because, if I'm not mistaken, you took your wife and your daughters and your grandmother and your mother-in-law, and they all kept the secret; and this went on for about a thousand years. When the mysteries came to Rome it is true that the local criminals infiltrated into them and there was trouble; these being removed the cult went on happily.

Unfortunately the Romans were gross feeders and heavy drinkers, and commonly drank undiluted wine contrary to the usual Mediterranean tradition. But by and large, the mysteries seem to have had a good effect, though not the same as they had in Greece. Probably the reason was that owing to early excesses and the coming of Christianity, the true secrets were communicated to only a very few.

At least that is what I think, and I would like comments on this. But in their true state I think the mysteries were really good. Porphyry, Iamblicus, Synesius, all refer to them and their objects and revelations. 'Of what the disease of the spirit consists, from what cause it is dulled, how it can be clarified, may be learned from their philosophy. For by the lustrations of the mysteries the soul becomes liberated and passes into a divine condition of being, hence disciplines willingly endured become of far greater utility for purification,' says Plato.

He continues: 'On entering the interior part of the Temple, unmoved and guarded by the sacred rites, they genuinely receive into their bosoms divine illumination, and divested of their garments they participate of the divine nature.' The same method takes place in the speculation of Thales: see Proclus on the theology of Plato, vol. i, and Ede anima ae daemona, Stoboeus, Dr. War-barton's trans.: 'The mind is affected and agitated in death, just as it is in initiation into the mysteries, and word answers to word, as well as thing to thing; for to die, to be initiated, is the same; with hymns, dances and sublime and sacred knowledge, crowned and triumphant they walk the regions of the blessed.'

But it was also said: 'The rites are not equally good for all; there are many more Thyrsus-bearers than Bacchic souls. Many have the fire indeed, without the power to discover it': that is, 'All are not true initiates.' 'Who can question the extraordinary power of woman over man? Whether questioned or reasoned about, it always remains the irresistible factor of life. This power is a divine gift and therefore induces more than merely sex attraction. With any woman, young, beautiful and vivacious, her influence for good or evil is overwhelming. When moved by high principle and purpose, womankind can elevate and ennoble man.' - A Suggestive Inquiry, etc., by A.J. Attwood.

Not only in the sacrifices to the generative gods, but in the worship of every god the religious ceremonies of the Greeks and of all the ancient peoples were happy and involved feasting, dancing in the gods' honour and rejoicing generally, with the exception of the later Jews and possibly of the Egyptians: many of the Egyptian festivals were happy but some were not, because they had many and diverse gods. It is highly probable that the early Jewish rites were festive also, though reformers constantly strove to abolish all mention of this, and there is no doubt that the Bible has been tampered with to this end.