Iasion, the Pre-Homeric pagan Jesus

 

The Mysteries

The mysteries were the elite religious system of the Greek (and later Roman worlds). They took the form of temple initiations, several days of sacred ceremonies celebrated once a year. Only the best of persons were admitted and harsh test and trials had to be passed before initiation was granted.

From the earliest of times the mysteries were held in great esteem:

Homeric Hymns, 2.480

Hesiod, Works and Days, 755

The great Plato, himself an initiate, has this to say:

Plato, Phaedo, 69c

 

This veneration for the mysteries lasted even to later centuries in Rome:

Cicero, On the Laws, 2.14.36

The mysteries (and the characters celebrated therein) were not just stories but were very much an active part of the ancient world, in fact "Bacchus" (a key figure in the mysteries of Eleusis) was considered responsible for the defeat of Xerxes' fleet at Salamis (whose army had prevented the mysteries being celebrated that year):

Herodotus, History Book VIII, 65

The Great Mother

The ceremonies and symbolism of the mysteries were based around the myths of the Great Mother and her daughter, Mistress of the underworld.

The Great Mother has many names, the common one being Demeter (the Mater), but also Cybele, Rhea and Ceres (our cereal) in different times and places. The Great Mother is associated with grain and also fertility and is sometimes also known as the Grain Mother.

The girl, Kore, is called Persephone (or Proserpine) and is associated with fertility and the underworld - the central myth of the mysteries being the Great Mother's search for her daughter after she is carried away to the underworld by Pluto or Hades.

 

The Presence of the Gods

The secrets of the inner rituals have remained unbroken to this day, yet some general ideas may be obtained from a scattering of early references. Broadly it is known there were things seen, things said, and things done. More specifically, the initiate had a life-changing spiritual experience apparently involving a direct meeting with the gods.

This may simply have been done with the aid of drugs and smoke and mirror tricks (after careful psychological preparation), or may perhaps have been a genuine Out Of Body Experience. One interesting speculation says that a fire-walking ceremony was shown to the initiates.

One rare, possibly personal, account of initiation into the mysteries (in this case the Egyptian mysteries of Isis) is in the Golden Ass (from the 2nd century A.D.):

Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Ch 18

One other account is from Photius (Patriarch of Constantinople writing in the 8th century from 2nd century sources):

(Damascius, cited in the Library of Photius, in Hislop, from Doleshal)

Hippolytus the church father, writing circa 200 A.D. describes the mysteries in more symbolic terms:

Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, Book 5, Ch 3

 

Of course, it is difficult to be sure about such accounts, being either from the enemies of the pagans, or individuals who have broken their vows. Furthermore, by the end of the Roman Republic the mysteries were breaking down, and most of what we know is from this period - nonetheless it is possible to form a broad picture.

 

The Heroes Initiated

The mysteries were taken seriously even by the heroes. From Diodorus comes the most detail about the Samothracian mysteries, and his discussion notes that the heroes themselves were initiates:

 Diodorus Siculus, Book 5, Ch 49, 6

Hercules specifically sought initiation to assist him with one of his Labours:

Diodorus Siculus, Book 4, Ch 25, 1.

In fact at the start of the great voyage of Jason and the Argonauts (with the heroes Orpheus and Hercules and Castor and Pollux also present) they stop at Samothrace first:

Apollonius of Rhodes, The Voyage of Argo, I, 915

In another version this turns out crucial to our heroes, as we read in Diodorus:

Diodorus Siculus, Book 4, Ch 43, 1.

 

Iasion

Now we step back to the very beginnings of Greek history, the time of Hesiod and Homer, the 7th century B.C., to introduce a minor character of Greek myth - Iasion.

Iasion was the lover or partner of Ceres (Demeter), as we read in Homer:

Homer, The Odyssey, Book V, 116

Hesiod tells us a little more about the family:

Hesiod, Theogony, 970

A secret for initiates only

It looks like the end of Iasion, but a few centuries later we read in a letter from Theocritus to his girl-friend (in 3rd century B.C. Greece):

Theocritus, The Idylls, Lovesong 6

 

Thus it appears Iasion has gone on a journey that only initiates know about - but where? And wasn't Iasion killed?

No he wasn't, for by the 1st century B.C. Ovid is writing in Rome:

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 9.682

Iasion leader-in-chief of the mysteries

In fact by this time (the end of the Roman Republic) it is public knowledge that Iasion is in fact considered the very founder of the mysteries (the Samothracian, earliest form):

 Diodorus Siculus Book 5, Ch 47, 3

Elsewhere Diodorus makes it clear that the identity of Iasion, as leader-in-chief of the mysteries had been a secret for initiates only:

Diodorus Siculus, Book 3, Ch 55, 9

It is clear that it is Iasion who is meant here, Diodorus as much as says so:

 Diodorus Siculus, Book 5, Ch 49, 2-3

Furthermore Iasion is known by other names. Consider what Strabo has to say about the leader-in-chief of the mysteries (writing shortly after Diodorus):

Strabo, Book 10, Ch 3, 10

Now it is Iasion who is the leader-in-chief of the mysteries, and the lover of Demeter - here he is described as the genius of Demeter. This word is from the Greek daimona and means an inspiring or tutelary spirit, or originally the male creative principle.

Thus we are being told that the name Iacchus is equivalent both with Dionysus, and with Iasion. Note that Iacchus is often consider equivalent to Bacchus - all these names refer to a similar role, not necessarily exactly the same character, but similar characters whose stories carry similar themes.

Dionysus is a character from the later Orphic mysteries (which developed from the Samothracian) who shares many of the features of Iasion. In one form of the story Dionysus, the innocent child, is waylaid and killed by the Titans, who dismember and eat his body (boiled, then roasted!). Zeus, enraged, strikes the Titans with his thunderbolts and from their ashes springs mankind.

Note there is some overlap of roles between Iasion and Dardanus, his brother. Elsewhere in Strabo Dardanus is held responsible for bringing the mysteries to the Trojans (as well as founding the whole Trojan nation):

Strabo, Geography, 7 f49

Iasion's Story

So we have seen how Iasion was seen as the leader-in-chief of the mysteries (although not necessarily by everyone), let us hear the Iasion story straight from Grimal:

Pierre Grimal, Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Penguin 1991

Now Samothrace was considered Electra's island from the earliest times. It is from her name that our word electricity is derived, and in fact she seems to have been associated with the idea of electric charge even in early times (some images showing her with suggestively streaming, radiant hair). Electra was a mortal daughter of Atlas, and she is also particularly known for her chastity and purity.

The Samothracian mysteries were the fountainhead of the ancient mysteries, Orpheus himself - who was responsible for the Orphic mysteries (and the Eleusinian in some versions) - received initiation at Samothrace. The origins of the Pelasgians of Samothrace is not known for sure, but they were considered non-Greeks. The key figures at Samothrace were the mysterious nature gods known as the Cabiri (or Kabeiroi). Authors differ (then and now) as to the identity and even the names of the Cabiri. Suffice for now to say that the central theme of the mysteries of Samothrace seems to involve the safe delivery from a perilous sea voyage (which was why the Argonauts sought the blessing of initiation there). As to where the trail leads back before Greek pre-history, well, to Egypt of course. We cannot follow that thread just now, but consider what Herodotus has to say:

Herodotus, Histories, 2.51.1

What happens in the end?

Iasion does not remain dead, but retires to Olympus. His family spreads the sacred rites of the mysteries (and found the people who become Troy):

 Diodorus Siculus, Book 5, Ch 49, 2

Note Phrygia is where the rites of the Mother of the Gods are placed at the end of the story, and also note that the name of Plutus (the child of Iasion and Demeter) means 'wealth' which is what this god brings to all.

As Iasion was the original founder of the mysteries, so too his story is an early form of the myth. As the mysteries developed in different times and places, different names were used, and slightly differing themes were emphasised. The core characters of the myth were the Mother, the daughter, and the partner and/or the child. For the mother and daughter the key symbols are grain and sometimes pomegranite. For the partner the associated symbols are wine (and vines) and also the Holy Child.

 

Rome

Rome was the heir to the Greeks and they shared common myths and gods and heroes (often with different names), they also saw themselves as the descendents of the Trojans. The story of Aeneas in Virgil's great poem tells how he escaped from the ruins of Troy to later give rise to the Roman nation. In fact Iasion rates a very special mention in the Aeneid:

Vergil, Aeneid 3.246

Here Iasion is called Iasius (more about that shortly) and he and Dardanus are creditted with being the sires of Troy but actually from Italy (the passage above is from a vision in which the hero is steered towards Rome after the sack of Troy).

Thus one of the greatest of Roman poets portrays Iasion as his ancestor (though not supported on this specific point). Generally he is seen as the founder of the mysteries rather than of the race. Still it is clear that Iasion was a well known and respected forebear in the late Republic - remember of course that he was seen then as a real (yet semi-divine) personage, not as a story.

 

The Great Mother arrives

The importance of the Greater Mother cult in Rome can be seen in an event from 2 centuries B.C. When Hannibal was rampaging up and down Italy, wiping out consuls and legions by the dozen, panic seized the people and they turned to the Sibylline books for advice. Livy tells us:

Livy, The War with Hannibal, Book 29, 10

So a sacred black (probably meteoric) stone representing the Great Mother to the Roman mind, was brought to Rome from the central temple in Phrygia (amidst much drama, even miracles!) and sure enough Hannibal was eventually defeated.

 

Iasius, Iasion etc.

We saw above that Iasion is sometimes called Iasius, in fact there are several variants of the name including Aetion and Eetion - we know all these names refer to the same person because of the context. Consider a fragment of the Catalogue of Women:

Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, The Catalogues of Women Eoiae (fragments)
Fragment #102 (Uncertain Position), Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1359 fr. 2 (early 3rd cent. A.D.),
(ll. 5-16):

It is clear that we are hearing about Iasion (from the context), showing Eetion = Iasius = Iasion. These names are all equivalent like Richard is equivalent to Dick and Rick, or William to Bill, Will, and Willy.

The name Iasion or Iasius (whilst perhaps not directly equivalent) is suggestively similar to  Iesous.

This Greek name Iesous, in English, is Jesus.

 

The Sacrificed Son-of-God

The Sacrificed Son-of-God was a common figure in these times and places, his story being found under several different names: Dionysus, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis - and Iasius of course, for this is the Type of his story. The essential characteristics of the story are a Son-of-God, born of a virgin, tragically killed, but rising again, with his 'death' bringing fruitfulness to mankind.

Each different variant has some different local characteristics, consider one variant: that of Attis, the consort of the Phrygian Cybele. Attis was the Good Shepherd, in some versions the son of a Virgin Nana. The festival of his death and resurrection took place from March 22nd to 25th when a pine tree was felled and an effigy of Attis hung it - i.e. Attis is slain and hung on a tree (c.f. Acts V 30), after three days he rises again to much celebration, the initiates having their sins washed in blood and being thus "born again" [Weigall, Paganism in our Christianity]

The common or central symbols to this sacrificed son of god story included:

Wedding, Great Mother, Wine, Grain, Holy Child, Descent into Hell.

 

The Fathers Comments

The Church Fathers knew about the connections between Jesus and these other pagan figures. St Jerome noted that the supposed birth place of Jesus was actually an earlier shrine to Tammuz/Adonis! The Vatican Hill was apparently the very centre of the ancient Attis cult [Hepding, Attis].

Clement of Alexandria, the 2nd century Church Father refers both to Eetion and Iasion :

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Ch II

The 2nd reference to Iasion is usually translated as "Jason" in English - showing how the context determines the transliteration used, often confusing the issue as to who is meant. It is not clear that Clement recognised that Eetion and Iasion were the same figures, nor is it clear that he saw the connection with Jesus.

 

Foundation Stone

At the beginning of the Roman Empire (the time leading up the formation of Christianity).

  1. Rome ruled the world with a highly organised, and hierarchical administration which depended on a large, educated and generally literate middle-class.
  2. The Romans looked back to the ancient Greeks and the mythic Trojans for their cultural roots, particularly in religious matters.
  3. Romans were a profoundly superstitious lot, and saw the gods as real beings who sometimes acted directly in the affairs of men.

Most would have heard of Iasion and would know the basic outlines of the story:

Now, who does this sound like?

 

Enter Paul

At this stage Paul enters preaching the word of Jesus, the Son of God, who brings divine revelation to mankind - bringing revelation to Paul himself in a life-changing experience. Paul's audience (at least the non-Jews) responded to Paul's Jesus because it was the well-known pagan story of the sacrificed son-of-god. This story was one of the main religious (i.e. teaching) allegories of the period. The Romans were particularly ready to accept a system which offered personal salvation through initiation (open to all!) into the mysteries of the great Iasion/Iasius (Paul use the name Iesous, suggestively similar) because they already knew this Iasius/Jesus as the initiator of Orpheus, Hercules and Castor and Pollux as well as many in the Roman elite. In fact Rome was the centre of a Jesus/Iasius cult and they believed his family to responsible for the founding of Troy, Rome and the mysteries.

Paul's inspired spiritual teachings, based on one of the most powerful allegorical myths of the day, offering initiation to all into the mysteries of the very founder of the ancient Greek mysteries, was a very powerful offering indeed.

 

by Kapyong

 


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