The Mysteries

(Chapter 171) The great festival of the Osiris cult was the annual acting-out of his passion, which occupied 18 days (or, rather nights) in the autumn, when the new seed was being planted for next spring's harvest of barley and wheat, when the inundation was past. Images of the dead Osiris, decorated with stalks of grain, were buried in the fields, and their sprouting was emblematic of life-giving Osiris, who was a corn-god, as explained by Frazer in The Golden Bough. Isis and Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, Aphrodite and Adonis are other pairs of gods associated with the annual vegetative cycle, which was also extended to the cycle of human life by analogy. The title sketch above shows Hathor, the Egyptian Demeter, with somewhat more pronounced bovoid features than Demeter's. Isis, in fact, looked perfectly normal, except that she sometimes had cow's horns. Hathor, Demeter, Ceres, and Isis are all similar corn goddesses who liked cows. Isis later acquired the best characteristics of many female gods, and became the basis of a very popular cult in Roman times, where she appeared only in dreams. The lake was used in the part of the presentation in which Isis goes about Egypt, by boat of course, to collect Osiris. During the festival, the dead returned and walked the streets by night, so lamps were left burning everywhere, and simple food was left out. Fertility processions, similar to Greek Dionysian ones, featured a part of Osiris that no one knows where it was buried. Halloween is a survival of the Mysteries of Osiris. The word mystery comes from the initiation rite that required a pledge not to divulge what was said and done. This created great curiosity among the uninitiated, and sold many more tickets. Herodotus respected his mysteries, but later classical writers revealed all, including the name of Osiris.

Herodotus believes that diffusion greatly predominates over independent invention, so he makes a case that the festival of Thesmophoria at Athens, involving Demeter and Persephone as well as barley, were taken to the Peloponnese before the Dorian invasion by the daughters of Danaus. Of course, the sources of none of these mysteries can be known, but Frazer has claimed they represent a very basic religious tendency with worldwide manifestations. The Aztecs made corn grow by sacrificing babies to the sprouts, boys to the young stalks, men to the mature stalks, and old men to the ripe corn. A Norwegian king's body was cut up and buried at several places to help the crops. Egyptians sacrificed red-headed people for this reason as well. Read Frazer for the details.



The features of this chapter are the fixed phrase for "let secrets be kept" and the free use of participles. Participles are used where one would expect finite verbs in English, to describe what the daughters of Danaus did (bringing and teaching), both of which have objects. These are both aorist participles, since they describe actions that were completed in the past, and were neither customary, nor did they extend to the present. In translation, they must become finite verbs. Note the difference in the accent on peri when it precedes or follows its case. One scholar has objected to Herodotus's "all" Peloponnesians when the Arcadians remained.

On this lake presentations of his sufferings are made by night; the Egyptians call them mysteries. About these things I have seen there is much to be told, but let secrets be kept. And about the rites of Demeter, which the Greeks call Thesmophoria, about these also I [say] let secrets be kept, except for those it is permitted to tell. The daughters of Danaus were [those] who brought these rites out of Egypt, and instructed the Pelasgian women. After the expulsion of all the Peloponnesians by the Dorians, the rite was utterly destroyed. Only the Arcadians, who remained and were not driven out, preserved it.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 27 July 1999