Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 4: Evidence of a Marital “Sealing” Rite in the Greek Mysteries?

By December 8, 2016

As an addendum to my secret tradition posts, I recently came across something interesting related to Plato and the Greek mysteries.  In my post on Plato, I noted the Anne Mary Farrell’s dissertation arguing that Plato often made allusion to the Eleusinian mysteries and that the that Diotima’s ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium may have been related to ritual stair case in the Eleusinian telestron (or the temple where they performed the rite). The Symposium also contained Aristophanes’ myth of spilt male and female pairs that can be “welded” back together so that they’ll be “one and not two in Hades” (ie the afterlife). So I wondered if since Diotima referred to a ritual, Aristophanes might have as well.

Joseph Campbell’s description of the Orphic Sacramental Bowl suggests that Aristophanes was referring to a rite. Unearthed in 1837, the object was later melted down by the Russians during World War I, but not before casts were made in England in 1867.[1]

To explain why I found this Campbell’s description of the bowl significant, I first need to describe what Plato says about souls falling from and returning to the Gods in his Phaedrus. At 246 d, Socrates launches into his description of the chorus of the Gods by declaring, “Let us turn to what causes the shedding of wings, what makes them fall away from the soul,” based on his belief that we had preexisted with the Gods and our wings had allowed us to be up in the heavens with them.  Socrates then describes the chorus of the Gods, how the Gods travel around the cosmos to behold “the place beyond heaven” or true reality, a process that Farrell says had the most over references to the Eleusinian mysteries.  Premortal humans follow the Gods to behold this reality, but if “by some accident [the premortal soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrong doing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to the earth,” ie becomes a mortal (246d-248d).

Those who live philosophically can eventually regrow their wings and return to the gods, but Socrates also describes a way to do so through love. Seeing a beautiful person (boy) reminds mortals of the beauty in heaven, and they begin to regrow their wings.  If the person loves the other in a controlled or philosophical (non sexual) way, then when they die “their lives are bright and happy as they travel [in the afterlife] together, and thanks to their love they will regrow wings together when the time comes” (256 e).

Some odd stuff no doubt (much of which I will address in another post) but for my purposes here, I want to stress the notion of regrowing wings by loving another person in a self-controlled (non lusty) way.screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-11-11-05-am

I’ve not found much scholarship on the bowl so here I simply refer to some of Campbell’s interpretation. Campbell describes the bowl as a depiction of a mystery rite that takes place during the night.  Nocturnal rites were common for the mysteries but since Campbell says that figures 5 and 6 are Demeter and Persephone respectively, it suggests Eleusis since those goddesses were the central figures in that rite.  The numerous references to holding ears of grain (another central aspect of Eleusis) suggest that connection as well.

The initiate then goes through several stages including no. 7 when he has the robe on his left shoulder.  Particularly interesting is what Campbell says about figure 11:

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-11-20-23-am11. The Mystes, fully initiate. He bears a bowl, as though endowed with a new capacity. His hair is is long, and his right hand, on his belly suggests a woman who had conceived. Yet the chest is clearly male. Thus an androgyne theme is suggested….  Above the crown of the head, symbolic center of realization, is a pair of spiritual wings. The initiate is now fit to return to the world of normal day” (21).

So the fully initiated mystes become androgynous and regrows his/her wings suggesting that Socrates’s story of lovers regrowing wings in the Phaedrus and Aristophanes’s myth of the androgyne in the Symposium may have been based on a mystery (probably Eleusis) rite.

What this might have to do with Christianity is murky (I’ll post more speculation in a later post) but a few statements are interesting. Paul’s “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor 11:11), is interesting since in the Orphic Sacramental Bowl, the androgynous mystes then goes before Apollo at figure 16 (the God/Lord). Also Paul uses mystery language earlier in the letter (1 Cor 2:6-7).

Also interesting is the end Christ’s parable of the wedding feast: the man who shows up at the end without the wedding garment as in cast into outer darkness, “for many are called but few are chosen.” (Matt 22). Such a statement sounds similar to a Greek saying about the mysteries of Dionysus: “There are indeed … many who carry the thyrus but Bacchansts are few.”[2] With references to a wedding and a garment (like the robe in figure 7) … perhaps an allusion to this stuff.

Again, I’ll post more on these connections, but my next post will be on a more overt connection between the gospels and Plato’s unwritten doctrine.

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Makes of God: Creative Mythology (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), 9-11. These passage are used in BYU Idaho’s World Foundations 1 class.

[2] Quoted by Socrates in the Phaedrus 69d.  The phrase suggests that many go through the motions of the rite “carry the thyrus” but those who are truly transformed by the rite are few.  Socrates adds, “These latter are, in my opinion, no other than those who have practiced philosophy in the right way.”

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. thanks, fascinating!

    Comment by cadams — December 8, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

  2. It’s interesting comparing gnostic talk of this, somewhat similar Jewish mystic conceptions, and of course Genesis where Adam is originally one and is divided into Adam and Eve. Especially among the gnostics this move among the divinities of splitting/unifying is significant.

    The question for Mormon apologists who can’t miss the similar imagery in the Gospel of Philip. There’s a marriage in a mirrored room off the holy of holies yet the context is clearly platonic and the source gnostic.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 11:15 am

  3. I think I’ll talk about the Gospel of Philip later, which I think is interesting in the context of these Platonic themes.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

  4. I assume you have looked at illustrations in the Bollingen Series XXX volume 2 – The Mysteries. The Pietroasa Bowl is reproduced there and also the fascinating alabaster “serpent bowl” ….

    Comment by Richard Gate — January 3, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

  5. I haven’t. Want to give a summary?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 3, 2017 @ 8:11 pm


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