Introduction | A Priestley Polemicist | A Faithful Disbelief  | Mad Shelley | Escaping the Infernal Abode | Kubla Khan

Escaping the Infernal Abode

Michael Angelo
This ceiling fresco in Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo in 1512 shows the hand of God giving life man just as the mystery cults purport to illuminate man through the transmission of secret knowledge.
The Greek Eleusinian mysteries were ancient rituals of initiation performed at Eleusis in Greece. Based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, these rituals represented an ancient body of knowledge that separated the sacred “elites” from the profane “masses.” In 1791, the Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor wrote Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries. The rites focus on the Persephone’s descent into the underworld ruled by Pluto, and her mother Demeter’s search for her that ends in their eventual reunion. Accounts of what the rites symbolize vary, but Taylor argues that through classical commentary on Platonic writings, he is able to show that the mysteries represent an allegory of the soul. He says the ancients believed the “impure soul” is “invested with a terrene [earthly] body, and merged in a material nature,” that “such a soul in the present life might be said to die,” and that “on the dissolution of the present body, while in a state of impurity, it would experience a death still more durable and profound.” Philosophy purifies the soul and allows it to experience an existence that is divine. Another account of these mysteries, one suggested by Erasmus Darwin, poet and natural scientist, is the symbolic death that “initiates,” or those who after the ritual will be cleansed and henceforth be a member of the elite ruling class, undergo, in which they are resurrected with the knowledge that matter cannot be destroyed but only change form. This knowledge suggests the immortality of all organic life. Coleridge’s poem, "Kubla Khan," as well as many of Blake’s early prophetic works, are influenced by such ideas. The important aspect of these mystery cults is the idea that the knowledge they possess is occult, or hidden from the masses. The religion of the masses is merely the mythologized veil that covers the true meaning of the stories and superstitions. Elites rule the masses by possessing a different and more powerful body of knowledge.

Brent Robida

Selected Bibliography

Levy, Leonard W. Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy. New York: Schocken, 1981.

Priestman, Martin. Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999

Taylor, Thomas. A Dissertation on the Eluesinian and Bacchic Mysteries. London: Amsterdam, 1791. Eighteenth
     Century Collections Online.