THE OLYMPIC GAMES: Their true meaning in ancient Greece

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Lecture by Claude de Warren, February 2024

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Let us set aside the images and the ideas of the Olympic Games we have about them today, and transport ourselves to ancient Greece in the second millennium BC. This era is much earlier than the construction of the Parthenon in the 5th century BC and long before a stadium was built at Olympia – a site that had served as a ‘spiritual sanctuary’ for ages.

The Olympic Games, along with the three other great Games celebrated in Corinth, Nemea, and Delphi, were not originally intended to celebrate athletes, but rather to honour spiritual seekers at key stages in their progress.

Sporting events were subsequently integrated into what were originally a series of initiation ceremonies. Renowned historians like Moses Finley and H.W. Pleket have noted regarding the Olympic Games: “Thus, games are incorporated into the Olympic programme because of the sanctuary’s reputation and not vice versa: religious rituals precede the sporting games and remain prominent in the games’ schedule”. It is also safe to say that the same principle applied to the other major games as well. In fact, this observation is supported by the finding that, in most of these sites, there was a gap of up to 300 years between the initiation ceremonies and the construction of the stadiums.

As the profound significance of myths and the potential for connecting with the spiritual realms began to fade – which was already the case at the time of the three great Tragic writers Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides in the 5th century BC, over 300 years after Homer – secular sporting events were introduced. These contests most probably did not involve the spiritual seekers themselves but rather athletes who had come to take part in the celebrations.

In fact, the 6th and 5th century BC mark a turning point during which the celebrations in the sanctuaries lost their true raison d’être – the celebration of initiations – and were gradually replaced by secular festivals, essentially sporting.

Hence, the significance of the great games of ancient Greece cannot be understood without considering what took place in the initiation schools. Indeed, it is the myths behind the four great games that explain the relationship between the games and these Mystery Schools.

For, on the one hand, there existed an external religion, while on the other, spiritual centres of initiation, like those in ancient Egypt, were present. There, the spiritual path as encoded in Greek mythology, was revealed, and the profound meaning of myths, practices and rituals were taught. Initiations, giving access to certain powers were also transmitted, akin to Tantrism in India.

The initiate is referred to as “one who knows the mysteries of the gods”.

There were two main initiation centres in Greece. The first, located on the island of Samothrace, was specifically for seekers who wanted to embark on the spiritual path. The second, situated at Eleusis, was reserved for more advanced seekers.

Very little is known about these Mystery Schools and the initiations conducted there, as prospective initiates were strictly forbidden to talk about them. Moreover, divulging any information would result in painful death. The ancient Greeks were very strict in upholding this rule rigorously.

Aeschylus, a playwright from the 5th century BC, narrowly escaped death when accused of revealing things reserved only for initiates in one of his plays. To save his life he had to swear that he was not an initiate.

On the other hand, the deeper meaning of the myths rapidly faded under the influence of the cycles that govern evolution, particularly those of 2,160 and 26,000 years linked to the cycles of the mind.

 

SAMOTHRACE

 

The island of Samothrace lies in the north of the Aegean Sea, around 300km from Athens when measured in a straight line.

Reaching Samothrace by sea was not easy with the ships of the time, as the winds were favourable only during certain months of the year, typically from April to October. Additionally, the threat of unpredictable storms also posed further difficulty. Travelling overland through Thrace was not without its dangers either, no doubt because of the highway robbers.

So, it took a certain amount of courage – an essential quality required of all aspirants to the spiritual path – to undertake the journey from Attica and the Peloponnese. This likely explains the reason why this Mystery school was established on an island so far from Athens and with such challenging access.

The name Samothrace – Samos (Σ+Μ) + Thrace (ΘΡ+Κ) – indicates an opening (Κ) towards a just evolution (Ρ) of the inner being (Θ) through a balanced opening between reason and intuition (Μ) of the intelligence (Σ).

The earliest traces of spiritual activity date back to the 7th century BC. Rituals were addressed to the “Great Gods” (Theoi Megaloi in Greek). The identity and nature of these “Great Gods” remain enigmatic, as it was forbidden to pronounce their names in the secular world, no doubt to accustom postulants to secrecy.

It was only after Herodotus (5th century BC) that they were wrongly equated with the Cabires, deities prayed to in Lemnos and Thebes.

Access to the sanctuary was forbidden to the uninitiated. All applicants were admitted, regardless of origin, sex, age, or social rank – at least from the time when written records are available, i.e. the 5th century BC.

There were two categories of Mysteries: The Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries. There is every reason to believe that only the Lesser Mysteries – those corresponding to the beginning of the spiritual path – were celebrated in Samothrace.

Initiatory ceremonies took place over an extended period, involving preparations, initiation rituals during which initiates were supposed to acquire sacred knowledge, and festivities.

The only serious symbolic indication that has come down to us is that “initiation into the Mysteries of Samothrace provided protection against storms at sea“. In ancient Greece, progress along the spiritual path was generally described through journeys by sea. The best-known being those of Jason and Ulysses. It was therefore necessary to warn future disciples of the dangers along the way and to give them the means to protect themselves.

Apollonius of Rhodes tells us that Jason and his crew were taught on Electra – the island of Atlantis – “to learn, through astonishing initiations, the secret rites that would enable them to sail safely on the frightening sea“. He makes it clear that he is not allowed to say any more. But this was most likely an explanation of Jason’s symbolic trials at the start of the journey.

The Masters of Wisdom of Samothrace had to judge the preparation of the disciples beforehand, because the dangers, including mortal ones, are real on the path. This is why the Masters had drawn up a list of prerequisites – skills and qualities – represented by Jason’s companions, the Argonauts.

The ‘protections’ provided to candidates for initiation were to be special exercises, mantras, prayers, and everything else that can be found on the subject in spiritual literature – such as The Mother (Mirra Alfassa), Questions and Answers – as well as warnings about the pitfalls on the path.

Candidates for initiation were also informed that, depending on their sincerity, they would receive protection from the “invisible,” particularly in relation to their physical bodies.

 

ELEUSIS

 

Eleusis, renowned as the most famous centre of initiation in ancient Greece, is located not far from Athens. At times power struggles between Eleusis and Athens prevailed over the governance of the site.

With roots stretching back to Mycenaean era (1500-1100 BC), Eleusis was already a religious centre. Some scholars say that the cult of the goddess Demeter was probably established there towards the end of this period. It is certain that the Eleusinian Mysteries were dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone as early as the Archaic period, in the 8th century BC.

The Homeric hymn to Demeter, originating from the end of the 7th century BC, is our main source for understanding the nature of the initiations that took place within Eleusis. This founding myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries concerns the purpose of the path.

The hymn begins by recounting the abduction of Demeter’s daughter Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, and the disclosure of his name to Demeter by the sun god Helios.

Grief-stricken over the abduction of her daughter, Demeter wandered the world, until she arrived at the home of the royal couple in Eleusis who entrusted their youngest child Demophon, to her care. But each night, without the knowledge of his parents, the goddess, anointed Demophon with ambrosia and placed him in a blazing fire, intending to make him immortal. However, one night, Demeter was caught in the act by Demophon’s mother, who was filled with fear and promptly sent her away.

Despite her disappointment and fury, Demeter declared that she would “establish her Mysteries” in Eleusis. In anger, she also inflicted a terrible and devastating year upon mortals by rendering the earth barren. Also, despite Zeus sending several gods in vain to persuade her to return to Olympus, Demeter remained steadfast, insisting that she would only return once she had found her daughter.

Eventually, a compromise was struck, and Hades relented, agreeing to reunite Persephone with her mother. However, Hades made her secretly eat a pomegranate seed, which forced an agreement: Persephone would be bound to spend a portion of each year with Hades. Thus, they settled upon a division of time, with Persephone allotted one-third of the year in the underworld and the remaining two-thirds with her mother. 

Hades is the god of the subterranean realms, of the bodily unconscious where the union of Spirit and Matter must take place. Demeter is the goddess of domesticated nature, the one who watches over yoga as the path to union, because her name indicates that she is the mother of the union (Δ + meter) obtained by mastering outer nature. The name of her daughter Persephone means “she who destroys death”, or “the death of death”. In the seeker, she represents the force that helps make the link between the conscious and the bodily unconscious.

So, the time had come for the seeker (and for humanity) to tackle death, to work towards immortality, which does not mean the immortality of the body as we know it today, but the end of the Spirit/Matter division and the transformation of matter to make it divine.

This is why a spiritual force wants to purify and illuminate the different parts of the being very quickly (Demeter plunging Demophon into the fire), but the seeker is not ready for such a rapid transformation and is afraid. A progression must be established through successive initiations.

To bring about this transformation, it is not enough for the unconscious to unite with a conscious part that does the work – for Hades to marry Persephone – there must also be a force that links the conscious and the bodily unconscious because, from a certain point onwards, man is called upon to participate in his own evolution. This could be done thanks to the pomegranate seed, symbol of the essence of love.

This myth therefore concerns an initiation intended for the most advanced seekers, the so-called “adventurers of consciousness” who tackle the yoga of the body after having achieved the liberation of the Spirit and no doubt the two transformations that Sri Aurobindo calls psychic transformation and spiritual transformation.

The Eleusis centre was responsible for conducting both preliminary and advanced initiations, structured in stages known as the Little Mysteries and the Great Mysteries. Initially, it appears that only the Great Mysteries were observed at Eleusis, while the Lesser Mysteries were held either in Samothrace or, later, near Athens.

The initiation process consisted of various degrees, with the first degree being ‘myesis’ (μύησις) and the highest degree being ‘epopteia’ (εποπτεία), granted to those who achieved profound contemplation.

Although there are some indications regarding the rituals performed during the eight-day celebrations, there is a dearth of information regarding the teachings, which were believed to span months, if not years, and the actual initiation procedures. The criteria for selecting candidates for initiation also remain unknown.

Decline: By the fifth century BC, the Eleusinian Mysteries became pan-Hellenic and more accessible to a wider population. Around 300 BC, the state took control of the Mysteries; the only condition for membership being not to be a ‘barbarian’ (those unable to speak Greek were considered Barbarians). Men, women and even slaves were granted admission.

We can therefore imagine that by the fifth century BC, or rather by the time of the three great tragic writers Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the historian Herodotus, the Mystery Schools were no longer able to offer initiations worthy of the name.

Numerous other Mystery celebrations emerged in Ancient Greece over time, such as the Great Dionysia in the fifth century BC, which likely focused on trance-like experiences leading to states of ecstasy, as well as the Mysteries of Artemis in Ephesus in the first century BC, and those of Cybele and Hecate.

The initiations offered at Samothrace and Eleusis correspond to four major stages on the spiritual path. It seems highly likely that close links existed between the Masters of the initiation schools and those in charge of the sites where the seekers of Truth were ce