Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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From Gaia and Dionysus to Jesus and Mary Magdalene

"How would you like to be interviewed for a book that questions the historical existence of Jesus?" asked Minas, a journalist, editor, and old-time friend of mine. "I'd love it if you would like to point out the similarities between Jesus and Dionysus." It was an offer I couldn't resist. The interview turned out to me more than 5000 words long, opening a host of fascinating topics. It is included in the book Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction, whose English translation recently came out. It is written by Minas Papageorgiou and also includes interviews by well-known scholars, such as Maria Dzielska, Payam Nabarz, and Joseph Atwill.

I'm delighted to share a part of my interview with you, with permission from the book's author.

In your book The Sacred Feminine and Mary Magdalene you describe the power of the female presence in Christianity and other traditions. What has been the relationship of Jesus with the Sacred Feminine? And what parallels can we draw with the cult of Dionysus?

Dionysus provides a link to a very distant past, lost in the mist of prehistory. Panagis Lekatsas describes Dionysus as the most matriarchal god of the ancient Greek pantheon. Modern scholars no longer use the term “matriarchy,” but instead they talk about “egalitarian” societies, without inequality and oppression.

These were gradually transformed into agricultural societies with a class-divided, patriarchal structure. But the systematic cultivation of the earth is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of humanity. A few thousand years ago, people lived in relatively small groups as hunters and gatherers.

Those primitive societies saw Bacchus/Dionysus as a spirit of nature. He is associated with forests, caves, and the moon, and even with hunting and animals (bulls, goats, snakes, etc.). The ritual dismembering and eating of the victim’s flesh echoes the ancient practice of eating raw food, which later became a kind of sacrament: people become one with their god by symbolically eating his flesh, in other words, the meat of the dismembered animal. One of the major Christian “mysteries” is exactly this—the sacrament of the communion with the “flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.”

The bacchic cult was eminently “chthonic,” a term deriving from the Greek word chthon (χθών), which means earth. The Earth, as the Mother who nourishes people with her fruit, has been worshiped since time immemorial. We find her figure in carvings dating to the Paleolithic Era. Although the symbolism of these prehistoric figures is still to be decided, I think that the interpretation emphasizing their divinity seems the most probable. What else would people choose to depict – and honor – than the one thing that was key to their survival?

The Earth Mother also had a powerful presence in the ancient Greek and Graeco-Roman world. She was venerated as Gaia, Rhea, Cybele, Demeter, Artemis of Ephesus, or even Isis. Despite their differences and the variety of myths created about them, it is not hard to see their common fertility background. Besides, the Orphic Hymn to Nature highlights in the most revealing way the diversity and power of the “shape shifting” Goddess.

Moreover, close to mother goddesses we often encounter an entity that dies and is reborn, symbolizing the perpetual rebirth of nature. This deity often becomes the object of a mystery cult; for example, Persephone, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus. After all, Dionysus’ mother was Semele, who mated with Zeus, the god of the skies. Her name is believed to stem from the root *dgem, which means “earth” and is found in various forms in Slavic languages. It was the union of earth and sky through life-giving rain that produced crops.

In Christianity, the role of the primordial Mother was given to the Virgin Mary, who assimilated many pre-Christian elements; her son “inherited” the traits of the dying and resurrected god. Like Dionysus who was worshiped particularly by women (the Maenads), Jesus was often surrounded by female students. Their role, as well as the status of women in society, was generally downgraded in the official texts of Christianity; however, a careful look at the New Testament and the so-called “Gnostic” texts can be revealing.

It is no coincidence that the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared was a woman, Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel of Phillip, one of the Nag Hammadi scrolls found in Egypt, we read the following:

And the companion of [the saviour was Mar]y Ma[gda]lene. [Christ loved] M[ary] more than [all] the disci[ples, and used to] kiss her [softly] on her [hand]. The rest of [the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval]. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

The Gospel of Phillip and other similar texts influenced by Gnosticism provide information that may sound shocking today: Jesus used to call Mary “Apostle of the Apostles,” “the woman who knew everything,” “the Blessed One,” etc. He even called her his “companion” and stated that she will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, surpassing all other disciples!

Moreover, in 2012 an exciting find came to light: a papyrus written in the Coptic (Egyptian) language. This text goes a step further featuring Magdalene as the wife of Jesus. Some scholars place it in the 6th-9th c. CE, while others insist that it is a forgery.

I would like to close this interview with the words of the famous modern Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos in his poem Dionysus Encradled: “my sweet child, my Dionysus and my Christ.” Poets can say at times what is left unsaid by scientists. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology. once said: “Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another.”

 

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To read the whole interview, see Jesus Mythicism.

 

NOTE: The above text is slightly different from the one published in the Kindle version of Jesus Mythicism. I have edited the translation and have updated the information on the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" papyrus.


The top picture is The Penitent Magdalene, a painting by
Francesco Hayez created in 1825.

 

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

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