Ancient Greek Mysticism
The Greeks gave us the very word for mysticism. The Greek word MUO means, “to shut the eyes or mouth.” MUO is closely related to the verb MUEO, “to initiate into the mysteries.” The closed eyes and mouth in this context do not signify blindness or muteness, but secrecy and silence, and the order not to reveal the secrets of the initiation and revelation that one had received. These Greek root-words have given us “mystic” and “mysticism,” “mystery” and “mysterious,” as well as “mute.” Every time we talk about mysticism we speak a bit of Greek.
But what exactly is Mysticism? The word is often downgraded to mean superstition, priestcraft, occultism or magic, or other things regarded as irrational, all of which are somewhat related to mysticism and the mystical life. But the basic meaning of “mysticism” has to do with the relationship of human beings to a divinity or deity, or, for non-theists, “ultimate reality.” Mysticism is about direct contact between human beings and this divine reality. This contact, when mystics try to speak about it, is said to be ineffable and indescribable—yet for thousands of years, those mystics have given us many exact and definite testimonies of their experiences.
Mysticism is “introverted.” It is an “inner” experience, taking place within the consciousness of an individual human being. The characteristic expression of this individual “inwardness” is Plotinus’ famous phrase, “the flight of the Alone to the Alone.” Yet there is also an “extroverted” mysticism, which is found in ritual and communal contexts, in liturgy, initiation into a group, and sometimes in visions seen by many people at once. And though mysticism is thought to be “irrational,” there is also a form of it, which I would call “rationalist mysticism,” which builds systems of ideas and symbols onto the base of an intuitive, mystical revelation.
Both kinds of mysticism occur in the ancient Greek world, though the “extroverted” kind is more easily traceable. And in most cases, the “introverted” and the “extroverted” were both present in a mystical practice, rite, or event. The practice of ritual or liturgy would, it was hoped, lead to an individual experience of insight or a meeting with an otherworldly and divine being.
The roots of Greek mysticism are very old, as old as the earliest Greek expansion through the Eastern Mediterranean in the 7th century BCE. A major scholarly chronicler of this encounter was E.R.Dodds, who in the early 1950s wrote a book, which is now, a classic, called THE GREEKS AND THE IRRATIONAL. This book counters the then-common myth (which is still promoted by some scholars and philosophers) that Greek culture was one of pure rationalism and non-mythological, proto-scientific thought. Certainly those things were important in Greek culture, but they are not the whole story. In his book, Dodds shows how non-rational elements were integrated into the spiritual and philosophical life of ancient Greece.
The most revolutionary contribution to Greek cultural studies in this book is Dodds’ assertion that there is a shamanic influence in Greek mysticism and mystical practices. Even though Dodds’ book was written before Mircea Eliade’s definitive study on shamanism, anthropologists had already described shamanism,especially as it occurred in central Asia and Eastern Europe. It was this form of shamanism, which the Greek colonists met with when they colonized the northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea, as well as in Anatolia in what is now Turkey. As Dodds and other authors describe it, the model of shamanism becomes the basic foundation for much of what becomes Greek mysticism.
Shamanism, as Mircea Eliade describes it, is an “archaic technique of ecstasy.” The shaman, who is usually a specialist in this task, is able to enter into “another world,” a non-physical world which is nevertheless considered to be “real.” The shaman may enter into the other world using mind-altering drugs, or by non-drug practices such as drumming, dancing, and ritual performances. Shamans are often initiated into their calling by a symbolic death, often through dismemberment. The shaman is then “resurrected” and put back together, so that he or she may become a spiritual benefactor for the people he/she serves. Shamans enter into the other world either to explore for themselves or on behalf of people. Often they go into the inner world—or “underworld,” in order to retrieve the souls of those who are in danger of death. Shamans are thought to have magical powers of clairvoyance, healing, communication with animals or with dead peoples’ souls, and blessing and cursing, among many other abilities. And their words, or songs and poetry, are thought to have magical powers as well.
A basic assumption of shamanism is that the soul is independent of the body, and can “travel” outside the body: it is detachable. The shaman’s soul goes on a visionary journey, while the body is suspended in a trance. The soul enters what modern shamanic scholar and practitioner Michael Harner calls the “shamanic state of consciousness,” in which a mythical reality, rather than our material reality, can be experienced. A milder, less trance-like form of this practice is sometimes called “active imagination,” the directed use of the imagination in mental visualization, rather than in undirected daydreams and fantasies.
The ancient Greek encounter with shamanism and its transformation into Greek mysticism is described by W.K.C. Guthrie in his ORPHEUS AND GREEK RELIGION, where he shows how shamanic motifs of the detachable soul, soul-travel, ecstasy, dismemberment, and resurrection were taken over by the cult of Dionysus, and then modified and refined by the mysterious religious movement known as “Orphism,” named after its mythical founder, the poet Orpheus. The myth of Orpheus has a shamanic quality to it: Orpheus charms wild beasts with his songs, he voyages to the Underworld in search of his lost wife, he fails to bring her back (in some variants of the myth, he succeeds), and is later dismembered either by Furies or by angry female followers (depending on the variant of the myth). The religion, centered around this shamanic poet figure of Orpheus, though it is not well-documented by contemporary evidence, was highly influential in the development of later Greek mysticism in myth, theory, and practice.
Orphism was an initiatory religion, rather like the folk religions of ancient Greece such as the famous Eleusinian Mysteries. Orphic worshippers revered gods and goddesses such as Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone, divinities of agriculture and natural cycles. Most of the Orphic teachings are revealed only by much later writers, who despite writing many centuries after Orphism flourished, seem to have preserved its basic doctrines fairly well. For Orphics, the human soul is immortal. It is part of a divine unity, or is divine in itself. But it is imprisoned in a mortal, material body. The goal of the Orphic devotee is to escape from the unspiritual body through initiation, accepting the saving knowledge and practices, and performing, or witnessing, the sacred ritual. Through these actions one could escape from the sorrowful toils of the material world, and in doing so achieve union with the Divine. Orphism, unlike the collective, civic religion of mainstream Greek paganism, was an individualistic religion, in which salvation came through individual intuition and enlightenment, not through an impersonal “contract” between gods and men.
The Orphics believed in reincarnation—the soul was imprisoned in a body from one incarnation to the next, in a great turning wheel of lives. The goal of the Orphic was to end the cycle of births by earning one’s way out. This concept of reincarnation and merit is tantalizingly close to that of Hinduism and Buddhism—though scholars have never been able to prove definitely that there was any influence between the Eastern religions and the Greek. Reincarnation is popularly thought to be an “Eastern” belief but in reality it has been a feature of Western esoteric thought from the earliest moments of Western culture.
The Orphic mystical movement, in its concern for the wandering soul and the inner world, echoing shamanic myths in its teachings, could be considered a Greek transformation of the more primal shamanism of Central Asia. And this is the background for the first great Greek mystical philosophers: Pythagoras, Heracleitos, Parmenides, and Empedocles. These thinkers are among the group categorized under the name of “Presocratic philosophers.”
One of the earliest, the greatest, and the most influential of these was Pythagoras, who lived from about 570 BCE to 500 BCE. He was originally from the Eastern Mediterranean island of Samos, near what is now the Turkish coast, and he was educated in the sophisticated Greek colonial civilization that had already been there for more than a hundred years. These Eastern Greek colonies also absorbed many cultural influences from the Middle East, whether from Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Persia, and it is because of this influence on Pythagoras’ philosophy that legends about him say that he studied in Egypt or Babylon. It is unlikely that he actually did so, but the Eastern connection is there in Pythagoras’ teaching, gained in an indirect way. In his adult life, he lived in the Greek colonies of Sicily and South Italy.
Pythagoras is famous as a mathematician and geometer, the inventor (or at least the one who introduced it to the West) of the “Pythagorean theorem” about right-angle triangles. He is also renowned for his mathematical theory of musical notes. He was the first Western philosopher to teach that mathematics, or number, is the key to the universe—which is still the foundation of science as we know it. And yet Pythagoras was also a religious figure and a mystic; the “philosopher” in his era was not a specialist, and could write and practice both material science and mystical religion.
The mystical aspects of Pythagoras’ teachings, which inspired the monastic communities he founded, are closely related to Orphic doctrines and practices. Orphism was prevalent among the thinkers of the Greek Italian colonies where Pythagoras lived and taught. Pythagorean mysticism sounds a lot like Orphism: immortality of the soul which is separate from the body, reincarnation (Pythagoras, like many modern mystics, is said to have known who his previous lives were), vegetarianism (because human souls may be reincarnated into animals), asceticism, meditation, and ritual practices designed to facilitate the experience of revelation and union with the Divine. Disciples were initiated into Pythagoras’ sect, and Philosophy was seen as the saving Knowledge, which set the soul on its upward path away from the material world and the imprisoning cycle of incarnations. Interestingly, both men and women were accepted as Pythagorean initiates, in a society where women were usually strictly excluded from intellectual and philosophical life.
Pythagoras himself achieved the status of a semi-divine founder, whether he wished himself to be or not. He inherited from shamanic traditions (and their Orphic transformations) the role of the “theios aner” or “holy man” whose journeys into the Inner world, and his magical incantations, put him in touch with the Divine and gave him magical powers to benefit the world.
Philosophers, then and now, want to know about Being. They want a “Theory of Everything” which can explain whether there is any unity behind the visible diversity of the world. Is there an Ultimate Substance from which everything proceeds? Nowadays, most of this speculation is taken up by physical science, but in the Presocratic era, a philosopher was also a scientist, and vice versa, so philosophers always had something to say about Being and the origin of the material world.
Before Pythagoras, Eastern Greek philosophers such as Thales of Miletus had speculated that the Ultimate Substance was water; Anaximenes, another Ionian philosopher, suggested Air. For Heracleitos, who lived in Ephesus on the Ionian coast from about 540–475 BCE, under Persian rule, the ultimate substance was Fire. Heracleitos is famous for his theory of “all things in flux,” a vision of the world in which all things are temporary and there is ultimately no absolute but Change. All things are made out of primal Fire, and all things will eventually return to that primal Fire. In a way, Heracleitos’ ideas are closest to the modern view of Quantum Mechanics, in which the “material world” is really composed of whirling clouds of particles, which only appear to be solid from our perspective. Heracleitos also remarked on the pervasiveness of pairs of opposites in our world: night and day, light and darkness, birth and death, good and evil—all of them subject to constant change. And yet there was also an ultimate Wisdom which controlled all these things, an impersonal cosmic intelligence, or “justice,” (in the sense of cosmic order rather than legal or moral justice), which he called the Logos. This concept of cosmic Logos—the word means literally “word” but also “law,” “reason,” or “order”—would have a vast influence in the philosophy of the next two thousand years.
It is intriguing that Heracleitos dealt with the ideas of primal Fire, dualistic pairs of opposites, and cosmic order during a time when his homeland was under Persian rule. There are echoes of Zoroastrian philosophy in all these ideas, though not exact mirroring. Zoroastrian philosophy, as evident in the prophet Zarathushtra’s own hymns, the Gathas, as well as later Zoroastrian thought, honor Fire as the primal symbol of God, and associate Fire with a spirit of divine Justice and Order called, in ancient Persian, “Asha.” Zarathushtra also meditates on the dualistic opposites found both in the world (Gathas, Yasna 44.4) and in the moral sphere (Yasna 30.3–4). Zoroastrianism is one of the “oriental” influences, which can be seen, if sometimes only in faint traces, in all of the philosophers of Greek mysticism.
But is Heracleitos really mystical? The idea of an impersonal Logos as the ultimate source of knowledge points to something more than just empirical studies of the world. A fragment of Heracleitos’ own writing sounds quite mystical, at least to our modern sensibilities: “There is one logos, one reason for everything, throughout the one cosmos, which is the same for all…” (Heracleitos, fragment 20). Heracleitos’ teachings became very important for later mysticism, especially that of the Stoics, a much later philosophical school, who built many of their ideas on the concept of the universal Logos and the primal Fire.
The Presocratic philosophers, in their non-mythological approach to knowing about the material world, are celebrated as “proto-scientists” or early rationalists. And it is true that much of their speculation about the origins and working of the material world forms a kind of pre-technological “science.” But at the same time, this proto-scientific thought inspired much mystical thought and experience as well. For many of these philosophers, the material world was “alive,” endowed with not only Logos-wisdom but also a kind of inner life and sentience of its own. The mystical transformation of material speculation, or mysticism inspired by science, is a philosophical process, which was as active in the fifth century BCE as it is today, 2500 years later. The philosophical “Theory of Everything” of one era becomes the esoteric philosophy of another. In our era, as modern science explains more and more about the material world and its origins, the ancient philosophical theories survive nevertheless. They become what I described at the beginning of this essay as “rationalist mysticism,” a kind of mysticism which builds logically on “data” which are the result not of scientific experiments but of deduction, intuition, or revelation.
Another Presocratic philosopher whose work approaches mysticism is Parmenides (c.515 BCE–450 BCE), who flourished in southern Italy. Parmenides, up until recently, has been thought of as mainly a logician who proved, with his logic, that all Being is essentially one absolute, immovable, undifferentiated Unity—a conclusion that our own “ordinary” perception of reality contradicts. Recently the iconoclastic British scholar Peter Kingsley, in his book IN THE DARK PLACES OF WISDOM, has attempted to prove, using evidence from Parmenides’ own writing and also from inscriptions about Parmenides’ background as a member of a “school” of sacred healing, that Parmenides’ vision of Unity comes not just from the intellectual exertions of logic, but from actual experience gained in—surprisingly—what amounts to a “shamanic state of consciousness.” If this is true, then Parmenides belongs in the realm of Pythagorean “holy men” as well as in the ranks of early practitioners of rationalizing logic.
The last of the great Presocratic philosophers was also one of the strangest: Empedocles of Acragas (his home in western Sicily), who lived from about 490 BCE–430 BCE. Empedocles was known even in his own lifetime as a “holy man” and wonderworker who was able to control the forces of nature and even avert a plague. He was also famous as a natural scientist, investigating geology and meteorology, and he was responsible, like a true philosopher, for theories and writings both on scientific and social subjects.
Empedocles is the originator of the theory of the Four Elements—Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. This concept continues to be a mainstay of Western Esoteric thought, long after it ceased to be “scientific” theory—though interestingly it does approximate current classifications of the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. For Empedocles, a cosmic attractive force he called “love” united the elements, and an opposite repellent force called “strife” forced them apart. In his theory, “like attracts like;” similar elements or combinations of elements came together with the force of “love,” and vice versa. Again, this “like attracts like” concept would become a mainstay of esoteric and magical theory, while superseded by more accurate scientific theories as a descriptor of the material world.
Empedocles, like his predecessor Pythagoras, is firmly in the tradition of Orphism and its philosophical heir, Pythagoreanism. Empedocles, like the Pythagoreans, preached of reincarnation and the entry into the Underworld. In his poetry, and probably in his own preaching, Empedocles advertised the possibility of becoming immortal and divine, even claiming that he himself had gone beyond the material world to become a god. This is the background of the well-known myth that Empedocles met his end by leaping into the fiery crater of Mount Etna. Whether he actually did so or not, this action was seen as a symbol of entering into the Underworld to be transformed and resurrected as a god, and thus became a part of the legend of this Greek holy man.
According to E.R. Dodds, and more recently Peter Kingsley in his book ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, MYSTERY, AND MAGIC, Empedocles is a classic example of what the ancient Greeks called the “iatromantis,” or “healer-prophet.” Dodds goes so far as to call these figures “Greek shamans,” and cites their similarities to shamans that were already evident in the figure of Orpheus. But these “iatromantis” philosophers were natural scientists as well as poets, and they were also magicians. This is not the popular idea of “magic” as superstition and trickery, but a philosophical magic, which aspired to achieve real goals by symbolic action. This magic was connected with the search for immortality and a perception of unitary, divine reality, whether this was done through ritual, initiations, or techniques of inner journeying. This magic is not “primitive” or “regressive” as many scholars of Greek thought and mysticism continue to describe it—it is actually a feature of the “extrovertive” form of mysticism, which uses symbols and rituals to do its work, and is oriented toward making changes in the outer world. Indeed, magic of this sort works in its own form of rationalist system.
From these religious and philosophical ancestors comes Plato, perhaps the most famous of all Greek philosophers and certainly the most influential for the development of Western mysticism. Plato (c. 428–348 BCE) taught the foundational Theory of Forms—which was part of his own “Theory of Everything.” In the Platonic Theory of Forms, (also called “ideas,”) the ultimate Reality is situated in a supersensible, “intelligible world,” above our material world; it is a place of ideal and perfect forms, as it were archetypal blueprints, of everything here below. This world can be accessed by the human mind, either through philosophical work or through mystical intuition. According to Plato, all of us are endowed with the knowledge of this inner world of forms—but it takes work and dedication to know it. In fact, when we do learn about the Forms, Plato says we are really “remembering” them as a heritage of our ultimate unity with this divine world, which we have forgotten once we took birth in the material world. We have lost the memory of the World of Ideas by being exiled into the world of matter, through many incarnations. But our souls are immortal, ultimately made of the same stuff as Plato’s Ideas, and so gaining knowledge, at least this Platonic knowledge, is actually a recollection of the soul’s original knowing.
These ideas of reincarnation, initiatory philosophical knowledge, and an inner, supersensible world sound familiar. In fact, Plato visited South Italy and Sicily several times, and there he studied and learned from Pythagorean schools the ancient sacred doctrine that the Pythagoreans had inherited from the Orphics. And even the old shamanic paradigm of the mystical life and the “holy man” or “healer-prophet” can be seen in Plato, but abstracted and made philosophical rather than religious or magical. In Plato’s more mystical dialogues such as the SYMPOSIUM, PHAEDO, or the REPUBLIC, the old visionary journey to the Underworld becomes a vision of the World of Forms. This is explicitly described in the famous passage of the ascent from the cave of illusions depicted in the REPUBLIC (beginning of Book 7). In the SYMPOSIUM the metaphor is that of an ascent to the World of Forms, motivated by erotic and aesthetic love. But in these philosophical parables one can still see the shamanic idea of the detachable soul rising above the corrupt body, escaping from the prison of the material and radically separate from it, going through the purifications of many incarnate lives, until by right living and the practice of philosophy the soul can end its imprisonment and rejoin the ecstatic divine world that is its true home.
Once again concerning Plato there arises the question of whether there is a Zoroastrian influence in his thought. The PHAEDO especially contains myths, which seem to imitate the “eschatology” of Zoroastrian myth, such as the survival of an immortal soul, which is then judged after death and “purified” by fire. The Platonic “world of Ideas” has often been compared to the Zoroastrian “menok” world of “mental” or spiritual realities, intimated in Zarathushtra’s Gathas and elaborated by later Zoroastrian thinkers. The myth of a visionary ascent survives in Zoroastrian legends of both Zarathushtra’s inspiration and other holy men who were able to cross by soul-travel into the “intelligible world” and return with knowledge to be shared with other souls here below.
But there are just as many differences as similarities in Platonic and Greek thought. Zoroastrianism, throughout its history (except for those Zoroastrians who came under Buddhist and Hindu influence) has never taught reincarnation. There is for a Zoroastrian no sorrowful wheel of incarnations to escape from—there is only one life, in which moral choices for good or evil must be constantly made. For Zoroastrians there is no sharp division between the soul and the body, as there was for the Orphics and their followers; the physical and the mental worlds are constantly interacting and influencing each other. In Zoroastrianism, the human soul is not a fragment or an emanation of the Divine which seeks reintegration; rather each individual soul is accompanied by a divine spirit, known as a “fravashi,” created by God, which embodies the highest potential of the individual living soul. It is this fravashi which, according to some Zoroastrian theories, unites with the human soul after death.
The philosophical way, for Plato and the Presocratics, was an aristocratic way of knowledge. All of these philosophers maintain that only the few, the initiates, and the privileged can travel this way. Certainly it is true socially, since for most people the simple demands of making a living and caring for a family make it impossible to spend time on the pursuit of esoteric philosophical enlightenment. The Pythagorean way of life is indeed a monastic way, lived long before Christian monastics worked out a similar solution to the problem of how to live the life of spiritual striving in a chaotic and corrupt world. Plato’s mysticism is also more toward the “introverted” type, which is less dependent on rituals and less connected with mystery-cults or magic, and thus more acceptable to intellectuals who disdain magic as popular superstition. This division between an aristocratic “pure” tradition of “introverted” philosophical mysticism, and a more popularizing “extroverted” mysticism of cult, magic, and easily accessible and workable esoteric formulae, became a standard feature of the Western esoteric tradition; it is even visible today. And yet throughout the history of mysticism, there have been those who practiced both kinds—especially the “theurgists” of later antiquity, whose practice reached from the heights of Platonic abstraction to the smoky underworld of ceremonial magic. The division has never been unbridgeable.
One generation after Plato, the western world changed irrevocably. Once Alexander of Macedon (known in the west as Alexander the Great) with his invading Greek armies conquered the Eastern Mediterranean lands, and the Persian Empire all the way to the borders of India, the world expanded. In the era of multinational empire that followed, which is called the “Hellenistic era,” (from 330BCE to about 100 CE or the rise of the Roman Empire) the Western world became far less isolated, and a general mixing of Eastern and Western civilizations occurred. The “Oriental” influences which had up until now been part of only the Eastern Greek world now flooded into the whole Mediterranean, facilitated by the common language of Greek and lines of trade and communication which spread throughout the new empire (or successions of more local Hellenistic empires).
The intellectual world of the Hellenistic era reflects the unprecedented mixing of cultures that went on throughout the Mediterranean. This went on especially in the new city of Alexandria, the capital of the Hellenistic world, where Greek, Egyptian, Iranian, Mesopotamian, Jewish, and dozens of other traditions met and were melded together to form various new philosophies and esoteric practices. This mixture of traditions, which is known to scholars as “syncretism,” will forever after be a feature in esoteric and mystical philosophy.
In Hellenistic mysticism, which for the most part used Greek language and Greek literary forms, the classical mystical stance inherited from Plato was enriched with a new, cosmic, universal emphasis. This reflects the transition from a religious world with a local horizon and local gods to a cosmopolitan world where everyone’s gods (or One God) were on view and people could compare them. The individualism of Greek mysticism remained, but its backdrop was now a world of impersonal empires rather than local city-states.
Yet in the new forms of Hellenistic mystical philosophy, one can still discern the ancient ideas which are the heritage of Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato. This is sometimes the result of actual migrations of philosophers and their schools; many Pythagoreans, rejected in Sicily for political reasons, found a new home in Alexandria, where they carried on their esoteric traditions in a new atmosphere. More often, though, the development of Hellenistic philosophy came through literary study and learned revivals. It did not, as many modern esoteric schools would like to believe, come from an unbroken chain of “secret initiates” whose traditions have been handed on since the time of Atlantis (itself perhaps an invention of Plato in his treatise TIMAEUS). Under the ideological leadership of those who followed Plato, the Hellenistic complex of ideas became what is known to us as “Neo-Platonism” (though the term was unknown to the philosophers themselves, who simply called themselves “Platonists”).
Neo-Platonism and its related philosophies show many of the same ideas as their predecessors, transformed in their new multicultural home. Most of the Hellenistic mystical philosophies think of the Universe, or Cosmos, as one living being, whose parts are in an organic relationship with each other and which possesses a cosmic sentience, sometimes called the “World-Soul.” We have met with this idea as early as Pythagoras. For the Hellenists, all things in this sentient Cosmos are connected by what is called “sumpatheia,” (from which our word “sympathy” comes). This literally means “feeling-with” but it actually means “correspondence” or “active similarity;” it is the mechanism by which “like attracts like.” Centuries ago, Empedocles had taught much the same thing.
Another major feature of Hellenistic philosophy is what might be called “emanationism.” The seed for this derives from the old philosophical quest to figure out how one single divine Unity could create our world of visible multiplicity. Already in Plato’s thought there is the divine world of Forms and then the material world created from those Forms. As Platonism develops in its Hellenistic home, the layers of reality multiply. Neo-platonists, possibly influenced by monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Zoroastrianism, propose a single, ineffable, indescribable God who then emanates an Intelligible World, from which then, in yet another stage, flows the multiplicity of the visible world. This threefold system blooms into systems of seven emanations, and then more; full-blown emanationist systems can contain myriad layers of worlds, reaching from the totally abstract Divine at the top to hellish underworlds below. The Hellenistic innerworld is a very complex place.
This “multiverse” is not always ruled by a benevolent, provident God or by the impersonal but morally upright rule of Logos or Law. The Hellenistic era sees the rise of deterministic philosophies, which teach that all is ordained by Fate and Destiny. Ancient Greek philosophy and religion had its ideas of Fate, often personified as a goddess; Hellenistic Fate extends to the whole cosmos. The word for Destiny or Fate in Greek is “heimarmene,” from the the Greek “meiromai” which means, “to receive one’s portion.” But here, the “portion” is not allotted by a god, but by an impersonal, irrevocable mechanism driven by the movements of planets and stars. It is in the Hellenistic world that astrology, derived from Greek interpretations of very old Mesopotamian star-lore, becomes a major factor in intellectual life. The seven ancient planets (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) are the agents of Destiny, often depicted as hostile. It is a reflection, perhaps, of life lived no longer in a village or a small-scale city-state but in a great empire where the government is inaccessible and the ruler may well have proclaimed himself a divine being. “Heimarmene” or Destiny becomes the ultimate arbiter of peoples’ lives—and bears the weight and oppression of the overbearing multiverse.
How can we escape our grim, astrologically determined Destiny? This was a burning question for the thoughtful Hellenistic intellectual. How can we flee from our figurative dungeon in the lower reaches of a many-storied cosmic skyscraper? There is an audible echo here of the ever-ancient shamanic “soul journey” away from the material through the inner worlds to the place of knowledge and salvation. For some philosophers, that escape would come, as it did for the Pythagoreans centuries earlier, through the initiatory possession of the sacred secret Knowledge which would set one free. For those who were more magically inclined, the chains of Heimarmene could be broken by the proper rituals, done at the proper time and place. And many people who were not philosophers put their trust in prayers for the soul after death, inscribed on gold foil and placed lovingly on the bodies of their dead. As modern archaeologists have discovered, these popular prayers for the dead contain some of the same ideas about transcendence, freedom, and divinization that the Orphics and Empedocles had preached almost a millennium earlier.
The story of ancient Greek mysticism, then, is one of continuity through different cultures. There is something about the archaic shamanic paradigm of soul-journey, secret knowledge, and inner worlds, which will not go away. It cannot be suppressed, only transformed. Under the sway of rationalistic philosophies, or of monotheistic orthodoxy such as was later imposed by Christianity and Islam, it does not die; it simply goes underground. The mysticism of symbols, magic, visionary techniques, innerworld journeys, and esoteric “science” is cast into the ideological shadows and denigrated as “primitive,” “retrogressive,” “occultist” or “superstitious,” but it continues to exist with its own special power, which attracts souls from one civilization to another, from age to age, a calling which continues to sound even to this very day.