The Mystery

When the last of the men congratulating us had returned to his seat I moved back to the end of the couch and looked about me. The Egyptian contortionist had finished her act and was gathering up her props, but instead of another entertainer a tall, stately figure moved into the centre of the room. The chief priest of Bacchus, his long white beard making the vine-leaves in his hair look venerable instead of raffish, held up both hands, as if about to invoke a blessing.

"Let all those who are not initiated into the sacred mysteries now depart," he intoned.

At once nearly all the slaves withdrew leaving only a few, who were Greeks50, in the room.

"Now let the wise and the good draw near, that they may learn the mysteries of the god51."

He shut his eyes and at once a flautist52, sitting over by the wall, began to play, softly and slowly at first but with increasing speed and volume. The priest swayed in time to the music, first gracefully but then, as the music quickened his movements grew more wild and abandoned. The flautist rose from his place and came to stand beside him, dancing from foot to foot and nodding his head so violently that, despite the band around his head, the mouthpieces were almost torn from his mouth53.

On the couches beside me some of the men were also nodding their heads or beating the air with their hands in time to the music. Further away my eye was caught by a man who was jerking his head up and down so violently that I feared he would break his neck54. Suddenly he leaped to his feet and rushed out into the centre of the room where he danced frenziedly, stamping and posturing. As he turned to face us I could see that his eyes were rolled so high up in his head that only the whites were visible.

All around me men were shouting "Io! Io! Io-io-io!" or "Euoi! Euoi55 !" and clapping their hands in time to the music. The flautist redoubled his efforts, his cheeks red and bulging, and soon he was surrounded by twenty or thirty men, all leaping and cavorting in a truly divine frenzy.

"Have another drink," my father said in my ear. "The god never possesses a sober man."

I raised my cup to my lips and swallowed mechanically, my attention riveted on the scene in the room. Several of the dancers were wearing fancy costumes and one of these, a man dressed as a courtesan, abruptly stopped dancing and went rigid, his head stiff and thrown back. His mouth slowly opened and then he let out a screech that nearly made me drop the cup.

"Aaaaiiiieeeee! Kai orchemon chalymos de de de de nourophanostika o bouloterokostikos!"

In another moment half a dozen men were raving, strange words tumbling out of their mouths in an unending stream. More men came hurrying out to join them and nearly all of them were jumping up and down and raving. I turned slowly, almost unwillingly, to look at my father. To my surprise he was staring intently at me.

"Wha - wha are they do-do-do-doing?"

"The god has come down." My father made a secret sign with his right hand. "Bacchus himself is here. If you feel his presence, let yourself go. Here, have another drink."

He pushed my elbow, raising my cup to my mouth again, but I didn't need it. I felt a great pressure building up inside me, as if someone was squeezing my chest with an enormous hand. My loins felt on fire, burning and throbbing.


The scream startled me. My head whipped round to see who had been possessed by the god before I realised that I was the one who was screaming. A hand seemed to seize me and hurl me off the couch and onto the floor to join the other men in their wild dancing.

"Moschiomoteramon! Maecharxe ele outeronomonon! Zoonoleteros!"

The words babbled out of my mouth uncontrollably as the music caught me up and whirled me into the heavens. The priest floated past me, his grey beard and huge eyebrows making him look like one of the Immortals. He caught my eye and laughed at me, his mouth opening wider and wider until it seemed that he would swallow me up and I felt myself falling, falling. I thrust out my hands to grasp his teeth and keep myself from disappearing into his mouth and then a soft blackness surrounded me and the music died away to absolute silence.

"Wh - wh - where am I?"

I forced my eyes open just as a beautiful, fair-haired girl reached out her hand and brushed my forehead.

"You are here, lord."

I groaned and shut my eyes, as the familiar room swung in great circles around me.

"Your god take you last night," Cartimandua said, her eyes wide with wonder.

"How did I get back here?" I asked.

"Your father and a slave are carry you back." She ran her hand over my hair and it felt as if every hair was standing on end and hurting right down to the roots. I jerked my head away and groaned as a sharp pain stabbed through my skull. "Do you want to get up, lord?"

"Get up?" I croaked. "I want to die, you stupid girl."

"But what about the games, lord? The games of Marcus Sertorius?"

It took an hour to get out of bed, splash cold water over my head, reject the thought of breakfast with loathing, and dress. Cartimandua fluttered around the whole time, getting in the way as much as helping. Petosirus looked in once, smiled broadly and went away again. When at last I made it out into the hall my father was standing there.

"How do you feel, son?"


"I can imagine." He sounded sympathetic. "Still, you made me very happy. You were speaking the language of the gods for at least ten minutes before you collapsed. Not many are visited by the god the first time they attend the mysteries: in fact, you were the only initiate to be so privileged."

"Privilege?" I groaned.

My father laughed shortly. "People always feel like that after drinking too much. That last cupful was unmixed56 , you know."

50 Most Greeks were initiated into one or another of the Bacchic mysteries and were proud of it. Return

51 This was the usual invitation to the mysteries. Suetonius, in his The Twelve Caesars records, "During Nero's tour of Greece he came to Athens, where the Eleusinian Mysteries were being held, but dared not participate when a herald ordered all impious and criminal persons present to withdraw before the ceremonies began." (p. 232) Celsus, in his On the True Doctrine contrasts Christ's invitation to the weary and oppressed with the invitation given by the mysteries: "I think anyone may see that the summons to join the other mysteries is rather different, however. It runs: Come forward, whoever has a pure heart and wise tongue, or else, whoever is free of sin and whose soul is pure - you who are righteous and good - come forward. In the mystery religions such talk is typical, as is the promise that membership brings about a sort of purification from sins. But the call to membership in the cult of Christ is this: Whoever is a sinner, whoever is unwise, whoever is childish - yea, whoever is a wretch - his is the kingdom of God. And so they invite into membership those who, by their own account, are sinners; the dishonest, thieves, burglars, poisoners, blasphemers of all descriptions, grave robbers. I mean - what other cult actually invites robbers to become members?" Rather plaintively, he then asks, "Why was their Christ not sent to those who had not sinned? Is it any disgrace not to have sinned?" (p. 74) Return

52 In On the True Doctrine Celsus states concerning Christians: "I have heard that before their ceremonies, where they expand on their misunderstanding of the ancient traditions, they excite their hearers to the point of frenzy with flute music like that heard among the priests of Cybele." (p. 70) I must admit that in our modern world a flute seems a most unlikely instrument with which to whip up the passions of a crowd! Return

53 Flutes were a double instrument like two 'penny whistles', one played with each hand. Pliny, in his Natural History XVI.lxvi, says, "At that time it was firmly believed that only a tongue cut from the same reed as the pipe in each case would do, and that one taken from just above the root was suitable for a left-hand pipe and one from just below the top for a right-hand pipe." In some instruments the left-hand flute acted as a drone but with others a skilled performer could play duets with himself. The mouthpieces were attached to a strap of leather which was tied around the performer's head to prevent them becoming dislodged.

With only five finger holes per instrument the range must have been rather limited, but this would not have been too strange - the Greek kithera or harp had only four strings. Pausanias, in his Guide to Greece IX.v says, "Amphion was famous for music; he knew Lydian music which he learnt from the Lydians through his kinship with Tantalos and invented the use of three extra strings on stringed instruments in addition to the four there were already." The last of these strings was called the netes string and one of the gates of Thebes was named after it. Return

54 Improbable as it may seem, these drunken carousings were believed to be inspired by the god. Herodotus, in his History IV.lxxix tells the story of Scylas, king of the Scythians who "wanted to be initiated in the Bacchic mysteries. . . . Now the Scythians are wont to reproach the Greeks with their Bacchanal rage and to say that it is not reasonable to imagine there is a god who impels men to madness. No sooner, therefore, was Scylas initiated in the Bacchic mysteries than one of the Borysthenites went and carried the news to the Scythians. 'You Scyths laugh at us,' he said, 'because we rave when the god seizes us. But now our god has seized upon your king, who raves like us and is maddened by the influence.'" The Scyths wouldn't believe it until they sent spies into the town to observe. "Presently Scylas passed by with the band of revellers, raving like the rest." The appalled Scyths promptly arranged for their king's assassination.

Barbarians were not the only ones to doubt what was so fervently believed by most civilised people. In The Golden Ass Apuleius describes the antics of a group of eunuchs who made a disreputable living pretending to be priests of the Syrian Great Goddess. "After passing through several hamlets we reached a large country house where, raising a yell at the gate, they rushed frantically in and danced again. They would throw their heads forward so that their long hair fell down over their faces, then rotate them so rapidly that it wheeled around in a circle. Every now and then they would bite themselves savagely and as a climax cut their arms with the sharp knives that they carried. One of them let himself go more ecstatically than the rest. Heaving deep sighs from the very bottom of his lungs, as if filled with the spirit of the goddess, he pretended to go stark mad. (A strange notion, this, that divine immanency, instead of doing men good, enfeebles or disorders their senses.) . . . He began by making a bogus confession of guilt, crying out in prophetic tones that he had in some way offended against the holy laws of his religion. Then he called on his own hands to inflict the necessary punishment and, snatching up one of the whips that these half-men always carry, the sort with several long lashes of woollen yarn strung with sheep's knuckle- bones, gave himself a terrific flogging. The ground was slippery with the blood that oozed from the knife-cuts and the wounds made by the flying bones, but he bore the pain with amazing fortitude." (p. 202)

Often the raving, mentioned by Herodotus, involved an unintelligible, babbling speech directly analogous to the so-called 'gift of tongues' professed by some Christians. It is curious that these people seem to have inherited the pagan idea that "divine immanency" results in erratic and disorderly behaviour. Return

55 The Romans raised the cry of "Io!" but the Greeks shouted "Euoi!" Pausanias in his Guide to Greece IV.xxxi says, "Five miles away on your left as you leave the springs the Messenians have a city below Ithome. Not only Ithome shuts it in, but also Mount Eua towards the Pamisos: they say this mountain got its name from the Bacchic cry of 'Euoi!' that Dionysos and his women first uttered in this place." Return

56 Both Greeks and Romans usually drank their wine diluted with water, sometimes as much as nine or ten parts water to one of wine. Suetonius, in his The Twelve Caesars tells us that "Even as a young officer, Tiberius was such a hard drinker that his name, Tiberius Claudius Nero, was displaced by the nickname, 'Biberius Caldius Mero', which means: 'Drinker of hot wine with no water added.'" (p. 135) In his Natural History XIV.v, Pliny tells us that "Homer has recorded the mixing of Maronean wine with water in the proportion of twenty parts of water to one of wine. This class of wine in the same district still retains its strength and its insuperable vigour, inasmuch as one of the most recent authors, Mucianus, who was three times consul, ascertained when actually visiting that region that it is the custom to mix with one pint of this wine eight pints of water."

Mixing the wine with water did not, however, keep the ancients from getting very merry: an interesting study in the New Scientist magazine reported on a group of gypsies getting pleasantly tipsy on a small amount of beer, not enough to have any chemical effect on them. ("I'm Relaxed, You're Drunk", by Gail Vines, New Scientist, December 10, 1994, p. 35)

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary "mixes" is mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History XIV.ix. "At the present time the most popular of all is the wine of Clazomenae, now that they have begun to flavour it more sparingly with sea-water." There is no accounting for tastes! Return