Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
The Religious Associations and Communities of the First Century
It is not, however, to be thought that the private cults and the doings of the religious associations were all of this nature or confined to this class; far from it. There were religious brotherhoods, communities and clubs— thiasi, erani, and orgeônes—of all sorts and conditions. There were also mutual benefit societies, burial clubs, and dining companies, the prototypes of our present-day Masonic bodies, Oddfellows, and the rest. These religious associations were not only private in the sense that they were not maintained by the State, but also for the most part they were private in the sense that what they did was kept secret, and this is perhaps the main reason why we have so defective a record of them.
Among them are to be numbered not only the lower forms of mystery-cultus of various kinds, but also the greater ones, such as the Phrygian, Bacchic, Isiac, and Mithriac Mysteries, which were spread everywhere throughout the Empire. The famous Eleusinia were, however, still under the ægis of the State, but though so famous were, as a state-cultus, far more perfunctory.
It is, moreover, not to be thought that the great types of mystery-cultus above mentioned were uniform even among themselves. There were not only various degrees and grades within them, but also in all probability many forms of each line of tradition, good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, we know that it was considered de rigueur for every respectable citizen of Athens to be initiated into the Eleusinia, and therefore the tests could not have been very stringent; whereas in the most recent work on the subject, De Apuleio Isiacorum Mysteriorum Teste (Leyden; 1900), Dr K H E. De Jong shows that in one form of the Isiac Mysteries the candidate was invited to initiation by means of dream; that is to say, he had to be psychically impressionable before his acceptance.
Here, then, we have a vast intermediate ground for religious exercise between the most popular and undisciplined forms of private cults and the highest forms, which could only be approached through the discipline and training of the philosophic life. The higher side of these mystery-institutions aroused the enthusiasm of all that was best in antiquity, and unstinted praise was given to one or another form of them by the greatest thinkers and writers of Greece and Rome; so that we cannot but think that here the instructed found that satisfaction for their religious needs which was necessary not only for those who could not rise into the keen air of pure reason, but also for those who had climbed so high upon the heights of reason that they could catch a glimpse of the other side. The official cults were notoriously unable to give them this satisfaction, and were only tolerated by the instructed as an aid for the people and a means of preserving the traditional life of the city or state.
By common consent the most virtuous livers of Greece were the members of the Pythagorean schools, both men and women. After the death of their founder the Pythagoreans seem to have gradually blended with the Orphic communities and the “Orphic life” was the recognised term for a life of purity and self-denial. We also know that the Orphics, and therefore the Pythagoreans, were actively engaged in the reformation, or even the entire reforming, of the Baccho-Eleusinian rites; they seem to have brought back the pure side of the Bacchic cult with their reinstitution or reimportation of the Bacchic mysteries, and it is very evident that such stern livers and deep thinkers could not have been contented with a low form of cult. Their influence also spread far and wide in general Bacchic circles, so that we find Euripides putting the following words into the mouth of the chorus of Bacchic initiates: “Clad in white robes I speed me from the genesis of mortal men, and never more approach the vase of death, for I have done with eating food that ever housed a soul.” [From a fragment of The Cretans. See Lobeck’s Aglaophamus p 622.] Such words could well be put into the mouth of a Brâhman or Buddhist ascetic, eager to escape the bonds of Samsâra; and such men cannot therefore justly be classed together indiscriminately with ribald revelers -- the general mind-picture of a Bacchic company.
But, some one may say, Euripides and the Pythagoreans and Orphics are no evidence for the first century; whatever good there may have been in such schools and communities, it had ceased long before. On the contrary, the evidence is all against this objection. Philo, writing about 25 A.D., tells us that in his day numerous groups of men, who in all respects led this life of religion, who abandoned their property, retired from the world and devoted themselves entirely to the search for wisdom and the cultivation of virtue, were scattered far and wide throughout the world. In his treatise, On the Contemplative Life, he writes: “This natural class of men is to be found in many parts of the inhabited world, both the Grecian and non-Grecian world, sharing in the perfect good. In Egypt there are crowds of them in every province, or nome as they call it, and especially round Alexandria.” This is a most important statement, for if there were so many devoted to the religious life at this time, it follows that the age was not one of unmixed depravity.
It is not, however, to be thought that these communities were all of an exactly similar nature, or of one and the same origin, least of all that they were all Therapeut or Essene. We have only to remember the various lines of descent of the doctrines held by innumerable schools classed together as Gnostic, as sketched in my recent work, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, and to turn to the beautiful treatises of the Hermetic schools, to persuade us that in the first century the striving after the religious and philosophic life was wide-spread and various.
We are not, however, among those who believe that the origin of the Therapeut communities of Philo and of the Essenes of Philo and Josephus is to be traced to Orphic and Pythagorean influence. The question of precise origin is as yet beyond the power of historical research, and we are not of those who would exaggerate one element of the mass into a universal source. But when we remember the existence of all these so widely scattered communities in the first century, when we study the imperfect but important record of the very numerous schools and brotherhoods of a like nature which came into intimate contact with Christianity in its origins, we cannot but feel that there was the leaven of a strong religious life working in many parts of the Empire.
Our great difficulty is that these communities, brotherhoods, and associations kept themselves apart, and with rare exceptions left no records of their intimate practices and beliefs, or if they left any it has been destroyed or lost. For the most part then we have to rely upon general indications of a very superficial character. But this imperfect record is no justification for us to deny or ignore their existence and the intensity of their endeavours; and a history which purports to paint a picture of the times is utterly insufficient so long as it omits this most vital subject from its canvas.
Among such surroundings as these Apollonius moved; but how little does his biographer seem to have been aware of the fact! Philostratus has a rhetorician’s appreciation of a philosophical court life, but no feeling for the life of religion. It is only indirectly that the Life of Apollonius, as it is now depicted, can throw any light on these most interesting communities, but even an occasional side-light is precious where all is in such obscurity. Were it but possible to enter into the living memory of Apollonius, and see with his eyes the things he saw when he lived nineteen hundred years ago, what an enormously interesting page of the world’s history could be recovered! He not only traversed all the countries where the new faith was taking root, but he lived for years in most of them, and was intimately acquainted with numbers of mystic communities in Egypt, Arabia, and Syria. Surely he must have visited some of the earliest Christian communities as well, must even have conversed with some of the “disciples of the Lord”! And yet no word is breathed of this, not one single scrap of information on these points do we glean from what is recorded of him. Surely he must have met with Paul, if not elsewhere, then at Rome, in 66, when he had to leave because of the edict of banishment against the philosophers, the very year according to some when Paul was beheaded!