Plato and the Language of Mysteries

Orphic/Pythagorean and Eleusinian Motifs and Register in Ten Dialogues

In: Mnemosyne
Bianca M. DinkelaarUniversity of Oxford, Faculty of Classics, Balliol College

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Despite Plato’s repeated criticism of both µῦθοι and mystery cults, Orphism/Pythagoreanism and the Eleusinian Mysteries feature frequently in his dialogues. This paper uncovers the reason why, and the context in which, Plato employs motifs and language associated with these cults. Prevailing explanations in scholarship are shown to apply in some instances but not others, and to be largely insufficient in providing an underlying reason for Plato’s use of mystery cults in general. Through a detailed examination of various mystery motifs in the dialogues, this paper argues that Plato has simply borrowed from religion what he could not achieve with philosophy alone: emotional appeal.


Despite Plato’s repeated criticism of both µῦθοι and mystery cults, Orphism/Pythagoreanism and the Eleusinian Mysteries feature frequently in his dialogues. This paper uncovers the reason why, and the context in which, Plato employs motifs and language associated with these cults. Prevailing explanations in scholarship are shown to apply in some instances but not others, and to be largely insufficient in providing an underlying reason for Plato’s use of mystery cults in general. Through a detailed examination of various mystery motifs in the dialogues, this paper argues that Plato has simply borrowed from religion what he could not achieve with philosophy alone: emotional appeal.

1 Introduction

At various points in his dialogues Plato criticizes or mocks the Eleusinians, Orphics and Pythagoreans (notably R. 363c-d, 364-366, 378a, 560e; Tht. 155e-156c).1 Yet he repeatedly refers to their doctrines and often employs language associated with these mystery cults. To what purpose? According to Plato, µῦθοι are ‘on the whole false, but contain some truth’ (R. 377a) and believing them is ‘worth the risk’ (καλὸς γὰρ ὁ κίνδυνος, Phd. 114d).2 Their main function is generally agreed to be to illuminate the theories he expounds in his dialogues and to promote the practice of philosophy in an accessible way.3 But can we infer a more specific function for Plato’s religious µῦθοι, in particular those derived from Orphism/Pythagoreanism and the Eleusinian Mysteries? The most popular explanations are: that Plato sought to give more authority to his texts by associating them with these well respected cults;4 that he intended to make his writings more accessible and appealing to his readers by aligning them with familiar doctrines;5 and that he made use of mystery language to cover topics (such as the afterlife) which were beyond the scope of dialectical or scientific inquiry.6

To test the plausibility of these commonly accepted theories, this paper examines in detail Plato’s references to the mystery cults, and use of linguistic motifs associated with them. I first give a brief overview of the most important characteristics of the mystery cults, the differences between them, and the language associated with them. I then discuss Plato’s use of Orphism/Pythagoreanism through close analysis of passages in eight dialogues: Cratylus, Gorgias, Laws, Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic and Timaeus. Finally, I consider references to the Eleusinian Mysteries in Gorgias, Sophist, Phaedrus, Republic and Symposium. My examination aims to address the inconsistency between the way Plato appears both to endorse and to disapprove of mystery cults, and ultimately to show how Plato makes use of an established set of doctrines and linguistic registers to promote his own philosophical positions.

2 Orphism, Pythagoreanism and the Eleusinian Mysteries

Mystery cults arose early in Greek religious culture, with the Eleusinian Mysteries being thought to predate Homer, and Orphism/Pythagoreanism first appearing in the 6th century BC.7 Mystery religion seems to have arisen as a counter-movement to Greek state religion, focusing on the individual rather than the community and promising future everlasting blessedness rather than immediate temporary benefits.8

The Eleusinian Mysteries centred around the sanctuary of Eleusis, where each year a large procession of mystai arrived to be initiated. The rites themselves were kept secret, and most ancient accounts on the topic are by later Christian authors, whose writings are biased and unreliable. This has led to uncertainty about the content and order of the rites performed in the Eleusinian Mysteries. One older but influential theory, as presented by Riedweg, proposed that the mystai first had to undergo purification rituals, after which the Lesser Mysteries, also called muesis (‘initiation’), took place at Agrai. These were held in honour of Kore and consisted of instruction, through the experience of physical rituals, of the initiates. Subsequently, the Greater Mysteries in honour of Demeter, called epopteia (‘beholding’), took place in the Telesterion at Eleusis.9 A different theory, most recently argued for by Bremmer and Edmonds, states that the terms muesis and epopteia do not refer to the Lesser and Greater Mysteries, but rather to two different parts within the Greater Mysteries.10 Clinton has moreover suggested that at the Greater Mysteries the same event, epopteia, was experienced by all initiates, but that the mystai were blindfolded, while the epoptai (those who participated as mystai the year before) were allowed to see.11 In this scenario, however, muesis is not the first-time experience of the epopteia, but rather a preliminary purification rite required before the Greater (and potentially also the Lesser) Mysteries. Although the main point of relevance here is the central idea of progression through various stages of initiation, regardless of what these stages are, I will nevertheless settle, for the sake of clarity, on the following order: (potentially) muesis—Lesser Mysteries (performed only once)—muesis (before procession to Eleusis)—first initiation into Greater Mysteries—epopteia (one year later).12

The Lesser Mysteries were held at a different time of the year from the Greater Mysteries, and it is the latter that are often referred to simply as ‘the Mysteries’. The Greater Mysteries, an eight-day festival, started with purification rituals (muesis), perhaps consisting of a bath in the sea and the sacrifice of a piglet or ewe, a subsequent procession from Athens to Eleusis, and the celebrations at Eleusis itself.13 Throughout the various rituals the mystai were guided by a mystagogos.14 The procession and the Mysteries themselves were a festive occasion, open to everyone and celebrated happily alongside the city’s own religious events. The more private part of the festival, the initiation and epopteia, took place for a select group of initiates in and around the Telesterion. It is supposed that this secret rite was a visual experience, likely involving bright light, the presentation of sacred objects, or perhaps a dramatic performance.15 Edmonds stresses the importance of recognizing the Eleusinian Mysteries as an “imagistic religion”, as opposed to doctrinal religion, where “particular intense experiences impress themselves on the worshippers’ memories”. The ‘mystery’ of Eleusis was thus not the bestowing of some secret knowledge or set of ideas, but a unique experience, an encounter with the divine itself.16

While the Eleusinian Mysteries were widely known and participated in by large groups of ordinary Athenians, Orphism/Pythagoreanism was more obscure and elitist, partly because it was a literary cult, for which teaching and initiations involved writings that would have been accessible only to the educated. Most of the evidence available on Orphism deals with the afterlife: the Orphics/Pythagoreans believed that the divine soul, which is immortal, separates from the mortal body which serves as a kind of prison.17 On death, the soul travels to the underworld, and eventually returns to a new human body in a cycle of reincarnation.18 In the underworld the soul encounters two springs, the spring of Memory and the spring of Forgetfulness, ‘guardians’ whom they are required to give certain passwords, and a two-forked road which leads the uninitiated to lie in the mud and carry water in a sieve while the initiated were led to a banquet in the sacred meadows or Isles of the Blessed.19 The Orphics/Pythagoreans are also thought to have held a doctrine of original sin: a myth tells how the Titans killed the infant Dionysus, here the son of Persephone and Zeus, tore his body to pieces and ate his flesh. Zeus, having saved Dionysus’ heart, resurrected him and punished the Titans by hurling a lightning bolt at them. From the smoke of the burning Titans the human race is said to have sprung, and is forever being imprisoned in bodies as punishment for this ‘original sin’. Through this story the cult associated itself with Persephone, to whom humans owe recompense for the murder of her child, and Dionysus, as a symbol of rebirth.20

Although both cults revolve around ideas of ritual purification, gaining inside status, and securing individual divine favour, Orphism/Pythagoreanism is heavily focused on texts and can be considered a doctrinal religion, whereas the Eleusinian Mysteries focus on visual experience and are therefore closer to imagistic religion. In addition, the main aim of Orphism/Pythagoreanism seems to have been eschatological, the securing of a happy afterlife, whereas the Eleusinians, though likely assuming that their acquired personal connection with Demeter would ensure post-mortem blessings, mainly celebrated fertility and agriculture. Orphism/Pythagoreanism, furthermore, was mostly male-centered, exclusive to men who honoured Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Dionysus; Persephone is mentioned only occasionally.21 The Eleusinian Mysteries, on the other hand, admitted women as well as men, involved female priestesses, and honoured Demeter and Kore (and only rarely Dionysus).22

3 Orphism/Pythagoreanism in Plato

Around 387/386 BC Plato made his first trip to Sicily,23 where he encountered Orphism/Pythagoreanism. Given the significance of this encounter, it is important that the texts relevant to us, namely Gorgias, Meno, Cratylus, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Republic (the exact order is uncertain), were probably written after the visit. The Timaeus and Laws were written near the end of Plato’s life.24 Most of the ideas that Plato had in common with Orphism/Pythagoreanism only surface in his works after this first journey to Sicily. Plato frequently attributes certain doctrines specifically to the Orphics/Pythagoreans, and, even without naming them, certain wording or imagery, specifically in his writing concerning the afterlife, resembles that of the Orphic/Pythagorean texts to such a degree that it cannot be a coincidence: Plato purposefully adopted Orphic/Pythagorean motifs.25 He engages with three particular Orphic/Pythagorean motifs: the body as prison; reincarnation; and post-mortem reward and punishment.

As mentioned, the Orphics/Pythagoreans saw the body as a kind of prison for the soul, from which it would be released at death. Plato attributes this doctrine directly to the Orphics at Cratylus 400c and indirectly to the Orphics/Pythagoreans at Phaedo 62b, as well as mentioning it in Phaedo 67c-d, 81e, 82e-83a, 92a, Phaedrus 250b-c and Timaeus 74a.26 In Phaedo Plato calls the doctrine ‘weighty and not easy to understand’ (µέγας τέ τίς µοι φαίνεται καὶ οὐ ῥᾴδιος διιδεῖν, 62b), which some scholars have interpreted as meaning that Plato disagreed with it.27 However, the phrase can also indicate simply that Plato did not want to elaborate too much on this topic because it was complicated and would distract from the matter at hand. This interpretation is reinforced by the use of the body/prison idea in several other places in Plato’s texts, as well as by Plato’s repeated use of cognates of λύω (‘release’) to describe the separation of the soul from the body upon death (e.g. ἀπολύων, Phd. 65a; διάλυσις, Grg. 524b).28 In Phaedo 67c-d, Socrates explains why the philosopher need not fear death:

κάθαρσις δὲ εἶναι ἆρα οὐ τοῦτο συµβαίνει, ὅπερ πάλαι ἐν τῷ λόγῳ λέγεται, τὸ χωρίζειν ὅτι µάλιστα ἀπὸ τοῦ σώµατος τὴν ψυχὴν καὶ ἐθίσαι αὐτὴν καθ᾽ αὑτὴν πανταχόθεν ἐκ τοῦ σώµατος συναγείρεσθαί τε καὶ ἁθροίζεσθαι, καὶ οἰκεῖν κατὰ τὸ δυνατὸν καὶ ἐν τῷ νῦν παρόντι καὶ ἐν τῷ ἔπειτα µόνην καθ᾽ αὑτήν, ἐκλυοµένην ὥσπερ ἐκ δεσµῶν ἐκ τοῦ σώµατος;

πάνυ µὲν οὖν, ἔφη.

οὐκοῦν τοῦτό γε θάνατος ὀνοµάζεται, λύσις καὶ χωρισµὸς ψυχῆς ἀπὸ σώµατος;

“And is purification not this, which we mentioned earlier, to separate the soul as much as possible from the body and to make it accustomed to gathering and collecting itself from everywhere in the body, and to live, as far as it can, both now and hereafter, released from the body as from fetters?”

“Very much so.”

“Then is this not what we call death, a release and separation of the soul from the body?”29

The aim of Plato’s argument here is to convince the reader that the soul is better off without the body. But why does he invoke Orphic/Pythagorean imagery here? As mentioned, some suppose that he wished to lend authority to his theory, but if he wanted to connect this passage to the Orphic/Pythagorean cult, surely he would have made this connection more explicit, for example by naming it. Even if the link was clear to his contemporaries, which was not necessarily the case, the authority would lie in the name, or at least an allusion to the name. Besides, the fact that Plato at other points criticizes the Orphics/Pythagoreans makes it unlikely that he thought they held any authority.30 Nor does it seem plausible that he used the body/prison metaphor to make his theories more accessible and appealing by aligning them with familiar doctrines. The references to Orphism/Pythagoreanism are brief and few, and would have had little influence on the appeal of the dialogue as a whole. Besides, the cult and its doctrines were not very, if at all, familiar to Plato’s Athenian readers. The other explanation proposed, that Plato used the mysteries to discuss a topic that could not be sufficiently covered by dialectical or scientific enquiry, also does not seem to apply to the Phaedo passage. Socrates spends a significant part of the dialogue explaining the immortality of the soul and its relation to the body in rational terms. It remains, then, to examine the passage further.

It is evident that the comparison of the body to fetters principally emphasizes its limiting nature. Plato does not call the body a prison because it is a banishment of the soul for some original sin, as was proposed in Orphism/Pythagoreanism, but because it is imagined as an unpleasant enclosure that restrains the soul and keeps it from reunification with the divine (i.e. the Forms).31 The metaphor conjures up a dramatic image in the mind of the reader which aims to evoke certain emotions: dread at the mention of the δεσµοί, and hope at the prospect of λύσις. If Plato had merely said: ‘after death the good soul will continue existing separately from the bad body’, the reader would have understood the concept but would not have been encouraged to feel any real disdain for the body or desire for separation from it, because the argument would not appeal to their imagination. The same tactic is used at Phaedo 82e-83a:

γιγνώσκουσι γάρ, ἦ δ᾽ ὅς, οἱ φιλοµαθεῖς ὅτι παραλαβοῦσα αὐτῶν τὴν ψυχὴν ἡ φιλοσοφία ἀτεχνῶς διαδεδεµένην ἐν τῷ σώµατι καὶ προσκεκολληµένην, ἀναγκαζοµένην δὲ ὥσπερ διὰ εἱργµοῦ διὰ τούτου σκοπεῖσθαι τὰ ὄντα ἀλλὰ µὴ αὐτὴν δι᾽ αὑτῆς, καὶ ἐν πάσῃ ἀµαθίᾳ κυλινδουµένην, καὶ τοῦ εἱργµοῦ τὴν δεινότητα κατιδοῦσα ὅτι δι᾽ ἐπιθυµίας ἐστίν, ὡς ἂν µάλιστα αὐτὸς ὁ δεδεµένος συλλήπτωρ εἴη τοῦ δεδέσθαι.

“For the lovers of knowledge”, he said, “know that when philosophy first receives their soul it is absolutely imprisoned in the body and glued to it, forced to behold the realities not alone by itself, but through the body as if through a cage, and wallowing in complete ignorance. And (philosophy) sees that the most terrible thing about the cage is that it is there because of desires, so that most of all the prisoner himself is the accomplice of his imprisonment.”

Again Plato seems to have used the Orphic/Pythagorean doctrine to emphasize the negative influence of corporeal existence on the soul’s progress. On a linguistic level this is a simple technique: Plato associates the body with various ‘red-flag words’, thereby lending to it negative connotations. It is not just individual words, however, but the entire myth that Plato builds around the concepts of body and soul, to engage the reader’s imagination so that one pictures the unfortunate fate of the trapped soul behind the bars of its prison cell. The emotional response to this picture will encourage readers to view the body as negative regardless of whether they agree with, for example, Plato’s theory of the immortality of the soul. A similar explanation for Plato’s use of religious or ‘ethical’ myth was first proposed in 1949 by Ludwig Edelstein, who claimed that “the ethical myth is rooted in man’s irrational nature, and it cannot be banished from philosophy because both these parts of the human soul must be equally tended by the philosopher”.32 Plato recognizes that, although the philosopher must strive to follow reason, the passions that are inherent in human nature cannot be ignored and must therefore be guided properly, through the medium they best respond to: myth.33 As shown from the passages discussed above, Edelstein’s theory can also be applied to the Orphic/Pythagorean motifs. A final example of the body/prison doctrine appears at Phaedrus 250b-c:

κάλλος δὲ τότ᾽ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαµπρόν, ὅτε … ἀπαθεῖς κακῶν ὅσα ἡµᾶς ἐν ὑστέρῳ χρόνῳ ὑπέµενεν … καθαροὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀσήµαντοι τούτου ὃ νῦν δὴ σῶµα περιφέροντες ὀνοµάζοµεν, ὀστρέου τρόπον δεδεσµευµένοι.

At that time Beauty was shining bright, when … we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in later times …, being pure and not entombed in that which we now carry around and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster (in a shell).

Here not only the metaphor of a prison, but also of a tomb, is used to express the ill effects of the body. The gloomy view of Orphism/Pythagoreanism on embodied life adds an almost eerie quality to Plato’s theory of dualism, and seems designed to evoke antipathy towards the body. We may infer that the effect of the Orphic/Pythagorean myth on the reader’s irrational passions, which I will henceforth refer to as ‘emotional appeal’, has led Plato to adopt the motif time and again in his philosophical discourse.

Related to the body/prison doctrine is the Orphic/Pythagorean belief in reincarnation, which Plato refers to in Meno 81b, Phaedo 81d-82b, Phaedrus 248c-249b, Republic 618-620, Timaeus 42b-c and Laws 870d-e.34 In Phaedo Plato has Socrates discuss what happens to the souls which, after death, are ‘weighed down’ to earth by the heavy corporeal element that has stuck to them. Tyrants and robbers return to life as wolves, hawks and kites (82a), while those who have practiced justice, but without philosophy, become bees, wasps, ants or even humans again (82b). Why does Plato bring this somewhat fantastical story of reincarnation into his rational discussion of the immortality of the soul? We find the answer at 82c-d, where Plato explains that only the true philosopher can escape the cycle of reincarnation, through refraining from bodily desires. The evident reason, then, for Plato’s allusion to the Orphic/Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, is to suggest that readers steer clear of bodily desires and practise philosophy by presenting them with the long-lasting consequences of doing otherwise. In the Timaeus we similarly read:

ὁ µὲν εὖ τὸν προσήκοντα χρόνον βιούς … βίον εὐδαίµονα καὶ συνήθη ἕξοι, σφαλεὶς δὲ τούτων εἰς γυναικὸς φύσιν ἐν τῇ δευτέρᾳ γενέσει µεταβαλοῖ· µὴ παυόµενός τε ἐν τούτοις ἔτι κακίας, τρόπον ὃν κακύνοιτο, κατὰ τὴν ὁµοιότητα τῆς τοῦ τρόπου γενέσεως εἴς τινα τοιαύτην ἀεὶ µεταβαλοῖ θήρειον φύσιν.35

He who has lived his appointed time well … will have a blessed and congenial (after)life, but whoever fails will be changed into a woman’s form at second birth: and if in this shape he still does not refrain from evil, he will each time be changed into some bestial form after the similitude of his own nature, according to the manner in which he is corrupted.

This passage clearly functions as a warning against straying from a true philosophical path. The doctrine of reincarnation suits Plato because it indicates that bad behaviour has consequences not only in the afterlife, but also in the lives that will ensue thereafter. It is safe to assume that Plato did not actually think that one might return to life as a bee, and indeed he may not even have believed in reincarnation at all; but he recognized the intended effect of the Orphic/Pythagorean doctrine on the initiates, and its philosophical potential: the thought of enduring an endless cycle of miserable lives could evoke feelings that might persuade listeners of the benefits of living a philosophical life better than any rational account.

The Orphics/Pythagoreans also held that in the afterlife the initiated would enjoy various blessings, while the uninitiated would lie in the mud and carry water in a sieve. This doctrine is mentioned by Plato at Gorgias 493a-c, Phaedo 69c, 111d, 113a-b and Republic 363c-d.36 In the Republic we read:

Μουσαῖος δὲ τούτων νεανικώτερα τἀγαθὰ καὶ ὁ ὑὸς αὐτοῦ παρὰ θεῶν διδόασιν τοῖς δικαίοις· εἰς Ἅιδου γὰρ ἀγαγόντες τῷ λόγῳ καὶ κατακλίναντες καὶ συµπόσιον τῶν ὁσίων κατασκευάσαντες ἐστεφανωµένους ποιοῦσιν τὸν ἅπαντα χρόνον ἤδη διάγειν µεθύοντας … τοὺς δὲ ἀνοσίους αὖ καὶ ἀδίκους εἰς πηλόν τινα κατορύττουσιν ἐν Ἅιδου καὶ κοσκίνῳ ὕδωρ ἀναγκάζουσι φέρειν.37

Musaeus and his son attribute to the just more enjoyable blessings from the gods: in their story they lead them into Hades, make them recline and prepare a symposium of the pious, and crowning them they make them spend the whole time drinking … but the impious and unjust they bury in some sort of mud in Hades and make them carry water in a sieve.

If the prospect of reincarnation into a kite does not suffice in steering the listener away from the corporeal, Plato emphasizes the more immediate ramifications of the unphilosophical life and the benefits of a philosophical one.38 He does not merely point out that the just will be rewarded and the unjust punished, but discusses these rewards and punishments in detail, again invoking the reader’s imagination. The passage has a humorous overtone: νεανικώτερα implies a certain level of frivolity, and the ‘blessings’ which the gods bestow are endless drinking and partying. It is clear that Plato is lightly mocking the doctrine and its followers here, but that does not necessarily negate its effect on the reader. The passage follows Plato’s discussion on the definition of justice, and illustrates his argument that justice is beneficial. The argument is thus afforced by a religious motif that bids to appeal to the emotions: the dramatic scene of unfortunate souls lying in the mud would have been as abhorrent to the living as the banquet with the gods would have been alluring.39 While most of the Republic consists of dialectical and rational discourse, these religious myths and images stand to be imprinted on readers’ memory: just as in Orphism/Pythagoreanism there was no possibility of a blessed afterlife except through initiation, for Plato’s readers there was no possibility of a blessed afterlife except through philosophy.40 The motif of punishment in the mud is used in a similarly illustrative, but more serious manner in Phaedo, where Socrates explains why only non-philosophers ought to fear death:

οἱ τὰς τελετὰς ἡµῖν οὗτοι καταστήσαντες … πάλαι αἰνίττεσθαι ὅτι ὃς ἂν ἀµύητος καὶ ἀτέλεστος εἰς Ἅιδου ἀφίκηται ἐν βορβόρῳ κείσεται.41

They who established the mysteries … foreshadowed long ago, that whoever goes into Hades uninitiated and unsanctified will lie in the mud.

By confronting the readers not just once but repeatedly with such gloomy images, Plato “moulds” (as Edelstein phrases it) a deeply rooted fear in their souls, in the same way that the descriptions of banquets and other afterlife blessings “mould” feelings of hope.42

Finally, in the Gorgias Plato attributes a particular meaning to the motif of carrying water in a sieve:

καὶ τοῦτο ἄρα τις µυθολογῶν κοµψὸς ἀνήρ, ἴσως Σικελός τις ἢ Ἰταλικός … ἐνδείκνυται ὡς τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου … οἱ ἀµύητοι καὶ φοροῖεν εἰς τὸν τετρηµένον πίθον ὕδωρ ἑτέρῳ τοιούτῳ τετρηµένῳ κοσκίνῳ. τὸ δὲ κόσκινον ἄρα λέγει … τὴν ψυχὴν εἶναι· τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν κοσκίνῳ ἀπῄκασεν τὴν τῶν ἀνοήτων ὡς τετρηµένην, ἅτε οὐ δυναµένην στέγειν δι᾽ ἀπιστίαν τε καὶ λήθην.43

Some clever man, some Sicilian or Italian,44 … showed that of those in Hades … the uninitiated carry water into a leaky jar with some other leaky sieve. And by the sieve … he means the soul: and the soul of the thoughtless he likened to a sieve as being leaky, since it cannot hold anything because of its unbelief and forgetfulness.

Using the sieve as a metaphor for the soul, a motif not associated with Orphism/Pythagoreanism elsewhere, fits with the doctrine of memory and forgetfulness (cf. the two springs in the Underworld): blessedness can only be achieved if the immortal soul retains its knowledge and identity. This reference is an early sign of Plato’s thoughts about anamnesis and memory of the forms, and recalls the Myth of Er, where the souls have to drink from the water of Lethe before returning to life. Plato himself later gives his reason for telling this story, namely to ‘persuade (the listener) to change, and instead of an insatiate and undisciplined life to choose one that is orderly, and sufficient and contented with what it has’ (Grg. 493c). He achieves this, however, not by graphically describing the punishment that awaits the uninitiated in the Orphic/Pythagorean afterlife, as he did in the other passages related to the underworld, but by using this punishment as a metaphor to demonstrate the bad influence of the body on the soul, as he did in the passages discussed earlier concerning the body/prison motif. In this way Plato is killing two birds with one stone: he is showing the threat that the body forms for the soul as well as reminding the listener of the fate that awaits the non-philosopher after death. It may also be suggested that Plato used this particular metaphor to associate the corporeal, to negative effect, with the realm of Hades. Linforth notes that Plato brings death into the conversation already at 492e, where Callicles says: οἱ λίθοι γὰρ ἂν οὕτω γε καὶ οἱ νεκροὶ εὐδαιµονέστατοι εἶεν (‘in this way stones would make the happiest corpses’, and Socrates quotes Euripides in reply: τίς δ᾽ οἶδεν, εἰ τὸ ζῆν µέν ἐστι κατθανεῖν, τὸ κατθανεῖν δὲ ζῆν (‘who knows whether life be death, and death be life?’); Subsequently, in 493a, he adds to this: ἤδη γάρ του ἔγωγε καὶ ἤκουσα τῶν σοφῶν ὡς νῦν ἡµεῖς τέθναµεν καὶ τὸ µὲν σῶµά ἐστιν ἡµῖν σῆµα (‘for I once heard wise men say that we are now dead and the body is our tomb’). Linforth then argues that Plato deliberately obscures the distinction between life and death to prepare the listener for the idea that the story of the sieve applies not only to the dead, but also to those who we call alive but are in fact dead.45 This seems to me rather farfetched, but I do agree with Linforth in that the religious motif “reinforces by its unforgettable images the conviction of a truth which is established independently by rational argument”: Plato makes an appeal to the emotions by connecting life closely with death.46

After considering these examples it appears that Plato mostly refers to Orphic/Pythagorean doctrines in eschatological contexts, such as the fate of the soul upon death and the restraining influence of the mortal body on the immortal soul. Regarding Plato’s reason for using the doctrines, we may tentatively conclude that he illustrates his theories with (often graphic) Orphic/Pythagorean passages in order to add a dramatic effect to his argument which might evoke strong emotions in his listeners, who are thereby (unknowingly) more easily persuaded. This, in fact, demonstrates the very difference between philosophy and religion: while the former is rational and stimulates people’s intellect, the latter is imaginative and stimulates people’s emotions. Plato, remarkably, was aware of this and eagerly uses the language of the mysteries to support his own cause.

4 The Eleusinian Mysteries in Plato

Since the Eleusinian Mysteries were widely known to the Athenians, it is no surprise that we find references to them in Plato’s writings, notably in the Gorgias, Sophist, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Republic. However, Plato was not simply picking up on some common usage of mystery motifs in everyday speech, since, as we will see, his references to the mysteries often contribute to his argument and Plato engages with their content as well as with their imagery.47 I will test Edelstein’s theory of emotional appeal, which I have shown to apply to the Orphic/Pythagorean references, on Eleusinian motifs and language in Plato’s texts, by examining examples of three of the most well-known motifs of the Eleusinian Mysteries: the progression of the initiate through different stages of initiation; the visual experience of the epopteia; and the guidance of a mystagogos.48

At Gorgias 497c, when Callicles complains about Socrates’ persistent questioning, the latter tells him: ‘Lucky you, Callicles, that you have been initiated into the Greater Mysteries before the Lesser!’ (εὐδαίµων εἶ, ὦ Καλλίκλεις, ὅτι τὰ µεγάλα µεµύησαι πρὶν τὰ σµικρά). Evidently it was required that one first went through the preparatory stages of initiation before reaching the final stage. These stages are replicated closely in the Symposium.49 Prior to initiation, the candidate is ignorant and filled with impurities, of which he must be purified. This process is depicted by Plato in the scene prior to Socrates’ speech. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, the purification consists of a physical ritual, muesis, but Plato replaces this with a katharsis through elenchos:50 in 199b-201c Socrates interrogates Agathon to show the flaws in his argument and ‘purify’ him of his false beliefs, in the same way that, as Socrates points out, the priestess Diotima previously enlightened himself (201d-e). This idea of elenchos as purification is elaborated on by Plato in the Sophist (230b-e), where the Athenian Stranger says: τὸν ἔλεγχον λεκτέον ὡς ἄρα µεγίστη καὶ κυριωτάτη τῶν καθάρσεών ἐστι. The aim of the muesis, in the Mysteries, is to remove any blemishes that might prevent the initiate from coming into contact with the hiera, the divine, and herein we may find Plato’s reason for using this religious metaphor: assimilating the elenchos to a purification emphasizes the importance to the philosopher of removing false beliefs and desires in preparing himself for true knowledge of the forms. No one likes to admit they are wrong, but when this concession is portrayed as a dignified ritual one conceives a kind of respect for it, and looks at it as a positive, and necessary, step in the right direction rather than a shameful experience. Both Plato and his readers know that elenchos is not truly a purification ritual: no water is poured, no sacrifices made. And nowhere does Socrates give any rational arguments for why elenchos is necessary, why Diotima could not just give him the correct answers upfront. But through the Eleusinian metaphor it is suggested that the irrational, passionate part of the soul is affected, and the rational part will follow. The depiction also adds to Plato’s portrayal of the forms as holy and divine: in order to be allowed, or indeed able, to behold them, one must be pure. Subsequently we have Diotima’s narrative about Eros, the inner layer of the dialogue. The Symposium starts at the outer layer of Apollodorus’ conversation, then moves inwards to Agathon’s symposium, then to yet another layer in Socrates’ speech, to finally reach Diotima’s narrative, much like the mystes reaches the epopteia after moving through the different stages of initiation. Diotima’s speech itself is full of mystery terminology and mirrors the structure of the Eleusinian Mysteries, starting with muesis (her elenchos of Socrates) and then processing through to the epopteia, of which Diotima says:51

ταῦτα µὲν οὖν τὰ ἐρωτικὰ ἴσως, ὦ Σώκρατες, κἂν σὺ µυηθείης: τὰ δὲ τέλεα καὶ ἐποπτικά, ὧν ἕνεκα καὶ ταῦτα ἔστιν, ἐάν τις ὀρθῶς µετίῃ, οὐκ οἶδ᾽ εἰ οἷός τ᾽ ἂν εἴης.52

Into these mysteries of love, Socrates, even you may be initiated: but I don’t know if you could be (initiated) into those rites and epoptika, for which these, if pursued correctly, are a preparation.

Interesting here is the word τὰ τέλεα, cognate with τέλειος, ‘perfect’, highlights the belief that through initiation the mystai became complete. By using this word in addition to ἐποπτικά Plato suggests that true knowledge of the forms makes one perfect and complete.53 The erotika that Diotima refers to are the physical, human loves which she has previously discussed and which function as instructive experiences for the philosopher, whereas the epoptika/epopteia refers to the spiritual love of the forms which she will relate thereafter.54 µυηθείης need not be taken to refer, as Edmonds has claimed, specifically to the ritual of muesis, but can also denote the general act of being initiated.55 Following this interpretation we may either, along with Riedweg, compare the initiation into the erotika with the Lesser Mysteries, or alternatively with the first initiation into the Greater Mysteries. In this way the stages in Diotima’s speech (purification, instruction and revelation) correspond with the stages in the Eleusinian Mysteries (muesis, Lesser and first-time Greater Mysteries, epopteia). The Ladder of Love itself, where the philosopher moves through the different types of love towards the highest love of the Beautiful, also reminds us of these stages, and of the physical ascent up to the Telesterion at Eleusis. Its function in the text is that of the first-time initiation into the Greater Mysteries: one may catch a first glimpse of what the epopteia pertains to, but is not yet allowed to really see and understand it. The reader is, as it were, still blindfolded. In this way the Eleusinian metaphor helps Plato emphasize that in order to know the forms the philosopher must first change, be educated and prepare himself through living a philosophical life.56

Phaedrus is similarly structured in terms of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The dialogue takes place on the banks of the river Ilissos near Agrai (Phdr. 229), which is the site of the Lesser Mysteries. Socrates relates Agrai to a myth concerning the ravishment of a nymph by Boreas: the Lesser Mysteries are believed to be celebrated in honour of Kore, who was kidnapped by Hades and whose reunion with Demeter was celebrated at Eleusis. It is evident, then, that Plato wants his listeners to connect the dialogue with the Eleusinian Mysteries.57 Phaedrus’ subsequent suggestion to walk in the ‘pure’ (καθαρά) river (entering the river is suggested as part of the purification rituals at the Lesser Mysteries), hints that Socrates and Phaedrus are about to participate in the mysteries themselves. Central to these mysteries is the palinode, Socrates’ speech in praise of love, at the start of which Socrates says:

ἐµοὶ µὲν οὖν, ὦ φίλε, καθήρασθαι ἀνάγκη.58

Now I, my friend, must purify myself.

In this way Plato presents the speech as a kind of purification ritual, a muesis, in order to regain his vision and be able to behold the forms, just like the Eleusinian mystes had to be purified in preparation for the epopteia. Socrates unveils his head prior to the palinode (243b), just as the Eleusinian initiates are thought to have removed their veil after the purification, as a symbol of renewed vision.59 In the palinode Plato subsequently relates the story of the soul as consisting of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer (246a f.), which ascend through the sky towards the forms in a religious procession of gods and spirits (246e-247e), reminding strongly of the procession from Athens to Eleusis which culminated in the epopteia.60 At 250b-c we read:

κάλλος δὲ τότ᾽ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαµπρόν, ὅτε σὺν εὐδαίµονι χορῷ µακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν, ἑπόµενοι µετὰ µὲν Διὸς ἡµεῖς, ἄλλοι δὲ µετ᾽ ἄλλου θεῶν, εἶδόν τε καὶ ἐτελοῦντο τῶν τελετῶν ἣν θέµις λέγειν µακαριωτάτην.

At that time Beauty was shining bring, when with a blessed chorus, ourselves following Zeus and others following other gods, they saw a blissful and divine sight, and were initiated into what are rightfully called the most blessed of mysteries.

The passage, indeed the whole palinode, is perfused with mystery language, adding weight to Plato’s statement that knowledge of the forms is the µακαριωτάτην of mysteries, implying that it is superior even to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In addition, the plethora of religious terms in this particular passage is similar to, and has the same effect on the reader as the Orphic/Pythagorean references to the rewards in the afterlife: it evokes hope and a desire to pursue the path necessary to obtain such blessings. In the remainder of the palinode Plato tells how the human souls were separated from the gods, much like Eleusinian Demeter was separated from them when she searched for her daughter Kore on earth (h.Cer. 300, 325, 345).61 Subsequently, as in Symposium, the spiritual love of the forms can only be regained by beginning on the level of physical love, just as the spiritual Greater Mysteries can only be reached by first passing through the more practical Lesser Mysteries and muesis.62 By shaping his argument about the progress required of the philosopher in terms of the religious progress in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and perfusing it with mystery terminology, Plato attributes to his philosophy an air of the divine, seeking to appeal to people’s spiritual or irrational as well as their rational minds. In this way both Symposium and Phaedrus show how Plato uses the structure and rituals associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries to persuade his listeners of the importance of developing oneself by going through the various stages of philosophy.

The most well-known motif of the Eleusinian Mysteries is that of the epopteia and visual experience. Due to this focus on the visual aspect of the mysteries, the language associated with Eleusis encompasses many terms related to sight, as well as to light (the ritual in the Telesterion is said to have incorporated bright lights). Plato’s use of such terminology is found in the aforementioned passage of Phaedrus about the vision of the forms:

κάλλος δὲ τότ᾽ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαµπρόν, ὅτε σὺν εὐδαίµονι χορῷ µακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν … εἶδόν τε καὶ ἐτελοῦντο τῶν τελετῶν … ὁλόκληρα δὲ καὶ ἁπλᾶ καὶ ἀτρεµῆ καὶ εὐδαίµονα φάσµατα µυούµενοί τε καὶ ἐποπτεύοντες ἐν αὐγῇ καθαρᾷ.63

At that time Beauty was shining bright, when with a blessed chorus they saw a blissful and divine sight … and were initiated into the mysteries … initiated into and beholding in the pure sunlight the perfect, simple, calm and happy apparitions.

Plato could not be more obvious in his allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries here, as we find the motifs of sight, bright light, initiation, blessedness and purification all in one passage.64 Diotima’s speech in the Symposium too is full of such language of vision:65

ὃς γὰρ ἂν µέχρι ἐνταῦθα πρὸς τὰ ἐρωτικὰ παιδαγωγηθῇ, θεώµενος ἐφεξῆς τε καὶ ὀρθῶς τὰ καλά, πρὸς τέλος ἤδη ἰὼν τῶν ἐρωτικῶν ἐξαίφνης κατόψεταί τι θαυµαστὸν τὴν φύσιν καλόν.66

When someone has thus far been educated in the mysteries of love, having correctly beheld one beautiful thing after another, approaching the culmination of his dealings with love, he suddenly sees some wondrous, beautiful form.

This series of visuals leading up to a sudden and overwhelming revelation has traditionally been connected with the Eleusinian Mysteries and demonstrates the imagistic nature of the cult. By presenting the theory of forms as precisely such an intense religious experience, which could never be adequately described in rational terms alone, Plato aims to evoke the appropriate feelings of awe and reverence in his listeners that will lead them to desire knowledge of the forms.67

A final example may be taken from Plato’s Myth of the Cave in the Republic, which is thought by some to refer to a cave at the sanctuary of Eleusis which was associated with the underworld deities, where perhaps the initiates were led before ascending to the bright light of the Telesterion.68 The following passage describes the experience of one of the prisoners after leaving the cave:

καὶ πρῶτον µὲν τὰς σκιὰς ἂν ῥᾷστα καθορῷ … ἐκ δὲ τούτων τὰ ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ καὶ αὐτὸν τὸν οὐρανὸν νύκτωρ ἂν ῥᾷον θεάσαιτο, προσβλέπων τὸ τῶν ἄστρων τε καὶ σελήνης φῶς … τελευταῖον δὴ οἶµαι τὸν ἥλιον, … αὐτὸν καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ἐν τῇ αὑτοῦ χώρᾳ δύναιτ᾽ ἂν κατιδεῖν καὶ θεάσασθαι οἷός ἐστιν.69

And first he would most easily see the shadows … and from these he would behold the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night looking at the light of the stars and the moon … and finally I suppose he would be able to look at the sun itself, by itself and in its own place, and see what it is like.

In all these examples Plato describes the experience of gaining knowledge of the forms as the visual ritual of beholding wondrous sights and bright light, which took place in the Telesterion at Eleusis.70 Since the forms in themselves were not necessarily visual, but rather abstract concepts, we may wonder why Plato repeatedly chose to use this particular religious metaphor. The most obvious reason is the strong emotional impact of images, conjured by the sensuous language of the Eleusinians. Since people by nature associate the good with light and beauty, and the bad with darkness and unattractiveness, it makes sense for Plato to want his readers to associate philosophy and the forms with the former, and the unphilosophical and ignorant with the latter, ensuring that they feel more affinity for the philosophical ‘good’ and are therefore more likely to follow his advice. This contrast is most clearly depicted in the Myth of the Cave, where the prisoners spend their life in darkness, ignorant of reality, until after ascending into the light they can behold the true forms: philosophical knowledge, here, is a bright and beautiful enlightenment, whereas a lack thereof is a dark and gloomy prison.71 Moreover, by making his entire description of the philosophical process a journey from darkness into the light, perfused with religious terms of vision, Plato actually presents the myth as a religious experience itself, alike to that of Eleusis:72 the listener is guided by the text through different stages of emotions (fear, wonder, disbelief) toward a feeling of enlightenment and excitement triggered by the description of the forms as religious visions. In this way Plato tries to demonstrate the intimate, overwhelming nature of acquiring knowledge of the forms: one does not merely understand the forms in an intellectual way, but experiences some sort of direct acquaintance with them, an almost physical contact that affects the senses, as the divine vision in the epopteia affected the senses of the Eleusinian initiates.

The final Eleusinian motif that I will discuss is that of the mystagogos. The procession from Athens to Eleusis for the Greater Mysteries was led by a kind of religious leader or guide: this mystagogos, who had himself seen the revelations in the Telesterion many times, guided the initiates through the preparatory rituals. Plato refers to this custom, for example, at two points in Diotima’s speech:

πρῶτον µέν, ἐὰν ὀρθῶς ἡγῆται ὁ ἡγούµενος, ἑνὸς αὐτὸν σώµατος ἐρᾶν καὶ ἐνταῦθα γεννᾶν λόγους καλούς.73

First, if one is led correctly by his leader, he will love one body and engender beautiful words therein.

τοῦτο γὰρ δή ἐστι τὸ ὀρθῶς ἐπὶ τὰ ἐρωτικὰ ἰέναι ἢ ὑπ᾽ ἄλλου ἄγεσθαι.74

For this is the correct way to approach, or be led by another, to matters of love.

In fact, Diotima herself, who as we have seen makes elaborate use of Eleusinian mystery language in her speech, is presented as a mystagogos by Socrates:

διὰ ταῦτά τοι, ὦ Διοτίµα, ὅπερ νυνδὴ εἶπον, παρὰ σὲ ἥκω, γνοὺς ὅτι διδασκάλων δέοµαι.75

For this reason, Diotima, as I just mentioned, I have come to you, knowing that I needed a teacher.

In her role as mystagogos, Diotima purifies Socrates of his false beliefs through an elenchos and leads him towards knowledge of the forms through an account of the different steps on the Ladder of Love, just as the Eleusinian guide led the initiates to the epopteia through the various rituals.76 Plato’s choice of a female mystagogos may be either to associate her with the female-centered cult at Eleusis, or to signal the unconventional nature of her message. Diotima’s name emphasizes her role as mystagogos: Μαντινικῆς Διοτίµας seems to suggest ‘Zeus-honored mantic’ and has strong religious connotations.77 By extension, Socrates also serves as a mystagogos, namely to the attendees of Agathon’s symposium, and Plato serves as a mystagogos to us, his readers.78 As we see in the case of Diotima, the attribution of religious characteristics to a speaker gives them a numinous quality designed to evoke reverence in the listener. This means that Diotima does not need to present any actual arguments for her claims: her doctrine will be accepted on the basis of her inspired wisdom. Putting his words in the mouth of such a character and assuming for himself too the status of mystagogos transfers some of this ‘mystic authority’ to Plato. Another example of the mystagogos motif can be found in the Republic, where one of the prisoners is forcibly dragged out of the cave into the light (515e) and subsequently returns to attempt the same with his fellow prisoners:

καὶ τὸν ἐπιχειροῦντα λύειν τε καὶ ἀνάγειν, εἴ πως ἐν ταῖς χερσὶ δύναιντο λαβεῖν καὶ ἀποκτείνειν, ἀποκτεινύναι ἄν;79

And if they could somehow lay hands on and kill this man who was trying to release them and lead them up, would they not do so?

The concepts of ‘release’ and ‘ascent’ are presented inside the murky cave to show the benefits of following the mystagogos. This passage, forming both a reference to Socrates’ tragic fate and a warning about the difficulties of trying to enlighten the ignorant, perhaps explains why Plato repeatedly chooses to present his theory of forms as a religious myth or initiation instead of a dialectical account: so as not to evoke any suspicion or aversion for his theories, but rather the reverence, hope, wonder and awe that were felt by the initiates at Eleusis. In this way, as Edelstein phrases it, “the inner core of man’s existence receives the commands of the intellect in terms that are adequate to its irrational nature”.80

5 Conclusion

Having discussed the relevant examples of Plato’s use of the Orphic/Pythagorean motifs of the body as prison, reincarnation, and afterlife rewards and punishment, as well as examples of his use of the Eleusinian motifs of stages of rituals, visual experience, and the mystagogos, we may draw several conclusions. It appears that Plato used the Orphic/Pythagorean motifs mainly in eschatological contexts such as discussions about the immortality of the soul and its fate upon death, whereas the Eleusinian motifs mainly appear in relation to the theory of Forms. This may be explained by the nature of the cults: Orphism/Pythagoreanism has a strong focus on the afterlife journey, while the Eleusinian Mysteries are more concerned with the process toward ‘beholding the divine’.

I have argued that the explanations commonly provided for Plato’s adoption of religious motifs are subject to doubt. Due to the relative paucity and obscurity of the Orphic/Pythagorean references, his criticism on the cult elsewhere in the texts, and the presence of a dialectical approach to the same topics, it seems implausible that Plato uses Orphic/Pythagorean mystery language to give authority to his texts, to make his theories more appealing and comprehensible to the public by aligning them with familiar doctrines, or to cover areas which were beyond the scope of dialectical or scientific inquiry. In the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries, however, due to the renown of the cult, the relative frequency of the references and their prominence in some of the dialogues, the latter two of these explanations can be applied to some instances of Eleusinian metaphor and language, but not all.

As has become evident, we may infer, along with Edelstein, a much simpler reason for Plato’s use of the mystery cults, one that can be applied to all examples adduced of both mystery cults in every relevant dialogue: emotional appeal. The religious references often consist of graphic descriptions or sensuous language, which conjure up evocative images in the mind of the listener or reader, who is thereby the more gravely affected.

Plato’s understanding of the effect of religious motifs on man’s passions shows his insight into the human psyche, indicating his proficiency not only as a philosopher but also as a psychologist: “it is the saving grace of Plato’s intellectualism that it can do justice to the emotions without infringing upon the prerogatives of reason”.81 The philosopher’s tactic of borrowing religious motifs is fittingly described by Despland with a musical metaphor: Plato has taken a familiar song and rewritten it in a different key, so that “the tune is recognizable, but its character, its tone, its impact are entirely changed”.82 He attempts to affect his audience in a manner similar to that of the mystery cults, by appealing to their emotions, and for that means appeals to their doctrines and language, even while the content of his message is different: philosophy rather than religion, and knowledge rather than divinity.83


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  • Thayer, H.S. (1988). The Myth of Er. HPhQ 5, pp. 369-384.

  • Thesleff, H. (2015). Second Sailing. Alternative Perspectives on Plato. Helsinki.

  • de Vries, G.J. (1953). Plato’s beeld van de mens. Tijdschrift voor Philosophie 15, pp. 426-439.

  • Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons. Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford.

  • Whitehouse, H., and Martin, L.H., eds. (2004). Theorizing Religions Past. Archaeology, History, and Cognition. Walnut Creek.


Despland 1985, 98-99.


Thayer 1988, 376.


Annas 1982, 121-122; Bernstein 1993, 56; Partenie 2018 provides a useful overview of Platonic myth in general and summarizes recent views in scholarship on its function.


Edmonds 2004, 28; Rodriguez 2016, 119.


Dorter 1976, 299, 303; Keping 2009, 291.


Casadesús 2016, 4-5; Edelstein 1949, 467-468; Guthrie 1993, 239-240; Keping 2009, 285; Morgan 1990, 169; Sattler 2013, 152.


Graf and Johnston 2013, 69-70; Guthrie 1993, 46. Due to the fact that Orphism and Pythagoreanism were so similar that it is often unclear which of the two Plato is referring to, and since they are often confused or grouped together, I will henceforth treat them under a single header. I by no means aim to imply that they formed a single religious current, but rather that these cults and their doctrines were sufficiently similar that Plato himself felt no great distinction and refers to them in the same contexts and manner. For a brief discussion of Orphism’s relation to Pythagoreanism see Parker 1995, 501-502; for a more elaborate discussion see Burkert 1982, 1-22.


Evans 1993, ix; Evans 2006, 6.


Riedweg 1987; µύησις may be compared to the Latin word initia (‘beginnings’) or its derivative initiatio (‘initiation’), denoting introduction into secret things: the verb µυέω signifies the action. The verb µύω, from which the noun µύησις derives, means ‘to close (one’s eyes)’, implying the element of secrecy and the metaphorical (or literal) blindness of the initiate. See Kerenyi 1967, 46; Dowden 1980, 414. Ἐποπτεία (from ἐφοράω, to look upon) refers to the ‘beholding’, supposedly of sacred objects and/or rites, in the Telesterion, and appears to have been used exclusively in reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries. See Farrell 1999, 126-127.


Bremmer 2014, 9-10; Edmonds 2017, 197-199. While I will henceforth follow this distinction of the terms muesis/epopteia from the terms Lesser/Greater Mysteries, I do not agree with Edmonds’ and Bowden’s dismissal of Gorgias 497c and maintain with Riedweg and Clinton that the Lesser Mysteries too are an educative stage of initiation that one must participate in before being initiated into the Greater Mysteries.


Clinton 2003, 50-52, 66-67; also Bowden 2010, 44.


This order, which summarizes my observations from other scholars, I have found most convincingly argued for by Dowden 1980, who blames the confusion in scholarship mainly on the misuse of certain terms, misinterpretation of Plato’s Symposium, and lack of knowledge about the Lesser Mysteries (which had by then fallen out of use) among the Christian authors. However, though Dowden argues that at the Greater Mysteries only the epoptai were allowed inside the Telesterion, I think that Clinton’s theory, that both mystai and epoptai experienced the same event in the Telesterion but that the former were blindfolded, is equally plausible.


Bowden 2010, 30-35; Bremmer 2014, 4-7; Clinton 1988, 69-70; Clinton 2003, 52.


Bremmer 2014, 3; Evans 1993, 193; Farrell 1999, 33.


Kerenyi 1967, 45, 48; Lebeck 1972, 272; Boyancé 1962, 464-474, though not ruling out other possibilities, argues specifically for the unveiling of statues of the gods, while Clinton 1993, 118-119; 2003, 66-67 and Sourvinou-Inwood 2003, 29-34 argue for an interactive drama based on the myth of the rape of Kore. For more aspects of the festival and the sanctuary at Eleusis see Bowden’s full account, 2010, 26-48.


Edmonds 2017, 202; Bowden 2010, 44-48; For more detail on imagistic religion see also Whitehouse 2000, Whitehouse and Martin 2004, and Martin and Panayotis 2009.


Guthrie 1955, 311; Parker 1995, 487.


Burkert 1987, 87 asserts that before Plato, the Orphics/Pythagoreans were the only Greeks known to have believed in transmigration. That is not to say that the concept of transmigration was invented by the Orphics/Pythagoreans, in fact its origin is disputed: while ancient authors, such as Herodotus (2.123), seemed to think that the concept came from Egypt, modern scholars, most recently Ducceur and Muckensturm-Poulle 2016, have drawn parallels with Indian and Oriental conceptions. On the concept and its origins in relation to Orphism and Pythagoreanism in specific see e.g. Bernabé 2007 and 2011, 97-114, Mendoza 2008, and Bernabé and Mendoza 2013. On the concept and its origins in relation to Plato’s Myth of Er see e.g. Biesterfeld 1969 and Calabi 2007.


Dieterich 1893, 73; Edmonds 2004, 50-51; Guthrie 1993, 160.


Alderink 1981, 73-74; Bremmer 2014, 62-63, 76; Graf and Johnston 2013, 66-93, 98-100; Parker 1995, 495.


There may however be a difference here between Orphism and Pythagoreanism: while the latter was an all-male community, for the former a female following may be inferred from the presence of Orphic Gold Tablets in female graves. See Bremmer 2014, 69; Edmonds 2011, 41-48.


Evans 1993, 137; Evans 2006, 2; Boyancé 1962, 481-482 argues that a third goddess is worshiped under the name of Themis/Ananke, or ‘Necessity’. Note also that Kore, goddess of agriculture and fertility, should not be confused with Persephone, queen of the underworld: while Orphism/Pythagoreanism seems to have worshipped Persephone only in her function as queen of the underworld, it is uncertain whether in the Eleusinian Mysteries she is known merely as the maiden Kore or whether she has some additional eschatological function. See e.g. Bowden 2010, 47-48.


Commonly accepted as the approximate date for his journey, e.g. Brandwood 1990, 15; Thesleff 2015, 9.


Brandwood 2006, 109-110.


Bernabé’s 2011 monograph on the influence of Orphism on Plato, an influence that is now generally agreed to have occurred, outlines the various doctrines and themes of Orphic origin that appear in Plato. Since the main objective of this paper is to discuss the function of these motifs within Plato’s writing rather than to deliberate on the extent to which they are of Orphic/Pythagorean origin, I refer to Bernabé for a detailed discussion of the arguments.


Bernabé 2011, 115-144; Ferwerda 1985, 274. Unsurprisingly the majority of references to Orphism/Pythagoreanism can be found in Phaedo: this dialogue is particularly suited for adopting the often eschatological motifs of the cult because it revolves around the topic of death. In addition, Phaedo is connected with Pythagoreanism through the location where Socrates’ story is retold, namely Phlius, one of the centers of mainland Pythagoreanism, and through Socrates’ main interlocutors, Simmias and Cebes, who were pupils of the Pythagorean Philolaus at Thebes. See Cornford 1991, 245; and Morgan 1990, 57. For a detailed comparison between the Phaedo’s final eschatological myth and the Orphic Gold Tablets see Edmonds 2004.


Bluck 1958, 163.


Gordon 2012, 189-190.


All translations are my own.


Bernabé 2011, 42-47 argues that while Plato greatly valued certain Orphic doctrines and ideas, he was no fan of Orpheus himself and his priests. For this reason he often avoids naming them and rather attributes their doctrines to ‘ancient sources’.


Bernabé 2011, 145-154; Bluck 1958, 164; Graf and Johnston 2013, 66-93; de Vries 1953, 430.


Edelstein 1949, 474.


Edelstein 1949, 464, 474-477. He writes at 477: “supposing that the main points of my discussion are correct, it would still be necessary to work out the details of my thesis”. Farrell 1999 has since made an attempt to provide such an analysis, but focuses specifically on Eleusinian motifs and does not explain Plato’s use of mystery motifs in general; I have used her work extensively in the second half of this paper.


For the argument for, and more detail on, Plato’s transposition of the Orphic/Pythagorean theme of reincarnation see Bernabé 2011, 97-114.


Ti. 42b-c.


For the argument for, and more detail on, Plato’s transposition of the Orphic/Pythagorean theme of afterlife punishment and reward see Bernabé 2011, 155-188.


R. 363c-d.


Plato here, as often, compares the philosopher to someone initiated into the mysteries, see Morgan 1990, 64. Broadly speaking philosophers, the initiated, and the just were all on the same side of the spectrum and were used interchangeably by Plato.


Rodriguez 2016, 118. An interesting detail that Morgan 1990, 77 points out is the relation of mud to impurity. The oppositions between pure and impure, just and unjust are emphasized repeatedly in passages related to this motif of mud in the underworld.


Macchioro 2004, 104.


Phd. 69c.


Edelstein 1949, 474.


Grg. 493a-c.


‘Sicilian’ might refer to the Orphic Empedocles and Italian might refer to one of the Pythagoreans. See Graf 2011, 58.


Linforth 1944, 309-310.


Linforth 1944, 295.


Farrell 1999, 68.


These are three of the five important Eleusinian themes in Plato as discussed by Farrell 1999. There is little doubt in scholarship of the presence of these themes in the Eleusinian mysteries: they are confirmed even by the pre-Platonic sources, as discussed by Sattler 2013. Most references to the themes can be found in the ‘Myth of the Soul’ in Phaedrus and Socrates’ speech in the Symposium, but I will also make brief mention of the ‘Myth of the Cave’ in the Republic, and a single passage in the Gorgias.


As mentioned I will follow the stages outlined by Dowden 1980 (potential muesis—Lesser Mysteries—muesis—first initiation into Greater Mysteries—epopteia), taking into account Edmonds 2017 and Clinton 2003 in not identifying the term muesis with the Lesser Mysteries but rather with a preliminary ritual required before the Greater, and potentially also the Lesser, Mysteries. Important is that all theories share the concept of a progression through different levels of initiation. On the replication of these stages in the Symposium see Casadesús 2016, 14-17; Farrell 1999, 105-115; Riedweg 1987, 21.


Farrell 1999, 73, 75, 82, 86, 105, 116, 134, 137; Riedweg 1987, 18-21.


Evans 1993, 143, 153; Farrell 1999, 103.


Smp. 209e-210a.


Farrell 1999, 95.


Kerenyi 1967, 45.


Clinton 2003, 52-53. For Edmonds’ interpretation see 2017, 199.


Farrell 1999, 66, 68-69.


Farrell 1999, 87; Kołakowska 2010, 44; Kerenyi 1967, 45; Rinella 2000, 66.


Phdr. 243a.


Evans 1993, 186; Farrell 1999, 81-82, 87; Mylonas 1961, 205-208, 236, 241-242.


Lebeck 1972, 271.


Evans 1993, 201.


Kerenyi 1967, 46, 98-99; Rinella 2000, 67, 69, 76.


Phdr. 250b-c.


Burkert 1985, 324; Evans 1993, 197-198; Farrell 1999, 93; Lebeck 1972, 272.


Evans 2006, 18; Farrell 1999, 126-127; Kranz 1926, 446; Riedweg 1987, 22-26.


Smp. 210e.


Edmonds 2017, 202-203.


Clinton 1992, 16-19; Cornford 1945, 227; Farrell 1999, 96-97.


R. 516a-b.


Evans 1993, 193, 197; Farrell 1999, 67, 92; Boyancé 1962 points out how this use of the Eleusinian ‘illumination’ motif, and of the Eleusinian mysteries in general, as a metaphor for obtaining intellectual knowledge later became more commonplace, applied amongst others by Aristotle and Philo of Alexandria.


Whether or not Plato intended this story as a reference to the previously discussed Orphic/Pythagorean doctrine of the body as a prison, it conveys the same meaning: the body and its desires restrain our soul and prevent it from gaining true knowledge (of the forms): we must escape the corporeal and follow the immortal, divine aspect of our soul.


Farrell 1999, 65, 69-70, 99, 128, 136. The same technique is used, as we have seen, in the Symposium and, to an extent, in the Phaedrus.


Smp. 210a.


Smp. 211c.


Smp. 207c.


Casadesús 2016, 14, 16; Evans 1993, 98-99, 101, 137; Evans 2006, 18-19; Farrell 1999, 88, 120; Kranz 1926, 445-446.


Evans 2006, 8; Robinson 1998, 137.


Evans 1993, 154-155; Evans 2006, 19.


Pl. R. 517a.


Edelstein 1949, 477.


Edelstein 1949, 476.


Despland 1985, 204.


I am grateful to Mnemosyne’s anonymous referees and Rhiannon Ash for their helpful comments; to Armand D’Angour, without whose unceasing encouragement and stylistic criticism this paper (and I) would have been hopeless; and to Lisa Hau for first guiding me along the Platonic and Orphic path.

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