In this article, Brian C. Muraresku outlines his theory of the world’s oldest surviving religion.
“The man of a traditional culture sees himself as real only to the extent that he ceases to be himself. Plato could be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of ‘primitive mentality’ – the thinker who succeeded in giving philosophic currency and validity to the modes of life and behavior of archaic humanity.”1
The Real Hippies
What’s become of religion these days? Seriously. More than a billion people across the planet are religiously unaffiliated. That includes one in every five Americans and Europeans, and – believe it or not – almost half of the British public. Impressive as those numbers are today, just imagine the future of the Western world. Fueling the growth of this segment, after all, is a younger generation that is either uninterested in or entirely fed up with the organized religions of their parents and grandparents. Despite being four months older than the statistically oldest Millennial (born in the distant past of 1980), I can still report the cohort’s emerging preference: 32% of Americans aged 18 to 34 choose not to identify with a particular faith. This is far more than any previous generation, including those groovy Boomers, whose comparative figure in the 1970s was an underwhelming 13%. The below graph gives due credit to the real hippies.
At the end of his brilliant career, mythologist Joseph Campbell concluded that what we’re all seeking is not the meaning of life, but an “experience of being alive”. Across the 200,000-year history of our species, the triggering of “powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting” states of mind has been the essential function of bona fide religion.2 Recently, our fields, stages and screens – the altars of the 21st century – have assumed that sacred responsibility, making organized religion obsolete in a world where the full range of human emotion is available at the tap of a thumb. A half century ago, this is really all John Lennon was trying to say. When people are willing to wait in line for days (yes, days!) to get the latest iPhone or audition for American Idol, what the hell isn’t “more popular than Jesus”? But fear not. There is nothing particularly new or disturbing about that 72% of my “spiritual but not religious” generation intent on reclaiming ownership of its heart and mind. Before the rise of Churchianity, in the long-forgotten cradle of Western Civilization, our ancestors were also drawn to a spiritually independent lifestyle – free from any doctrine or dogma. What united them, however, was not just an “experience of being alive”, but something they thought was the single most important event a human being could ever experience. Its participants, without fail, left permanently transformed. Before religion goes the way of the fax machine, we owe this phenomenon some serious consideration – for the sake of our ancestors, and ourselves.
The Place Where Science Was Born
At the tender age of 14, I began eight years of intensive training in Latin and Greek. Accounting as they do for 60% of the English language, I was told the mandatory Jesuit curriculum would bump my SAT scores. An appeal was also made to the Founding Fathers, who were themselves fairly obsessed with the Classics. James Madison’s opinion that Athens and Rome had “done more honor to our species (humanity) than all the rest” was by no means unique in the late 18th century. The principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, looked to classical literature as “the ultimate source of both delight and instruction”3 – admiration that hearkens back 700 years to the Renaissance, when the key feature of the new humanism that came to shape our Western world “was an educational and cultural program based on the study of classical Greek and Latin authors”.4 It is no coincidence the National Mall near my home in Washington DC is flanked on either end by rather explicit tributes to the Athenian Parthenon (Lincoln Memorial) and the Roman Pantheon (Capitol Building).5
Back in the day, I was particularly attracted to Greek, at once so alien and familiar. The process of learning an exotic alphabet was a little weird, especially for a language credited with seeding not only English, but so many of the institutions and disciplines we take for granted today: democracy, law, medicine, architecture and economics; not to mention philosophy, history, ethics or the very concept of a university. Our love of entertainment, sports and music goes directly back to the theaters and stadia of Ancient Greece. And it was from scratch, let’s not forget, that a handful of enterprising minds created the sciences we hold so dear: from cosmology and physics, to biology and mathematics. No one articulates this more lyrically than Carl Sagan: “And so it was here [in the Greek isles of the eastern Mediterranean between 600 and 400 BC] that the great idea arose – that there might be principles, forces, laws of nature through which the world might be understood without attributing the fall of every sparrow to the direct intervention of Zeus. This is the place where science was born!”
A rare edition of Plutarch’s Lives from Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, complete with a scrap of paper showing his handwritten notes.
Photo by: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos
From the very beginning, therefore, I understood Greek as a kind of initiation into ancient systems of thought that had somehow influenced everything, then inexplicably went missing. But in a country that was so unambiguously created as the extension of classical insights and achievements, why did almost nobody learn this stuff anymore? Why had this branch of knowledge become the eccentric province of a privileged few? These questions hounded me into college, where I was given a generous scholarship to exhaust my curiosity as a full-time Classics geek.
Ancient Greek Gurus and the “Secret Doctrine”
Having already invested my high school years in two dead languages, the exploration of yet another seemed in order. My budding interest in religion was kind of leading in the same direction as other disaffected youth before me – a path if not pioneered then certainly popularized by the Beatles and my hero, George Harrison, specifically.6 His celebrity peaking just as the first wave of Eastern wisdom hit Western shores, George’s enormous impact on global spirituality is nowhere better depicted than Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary: Living in the Material World. My own linguistic and spiritual longings therefore coincided in an obvious next step – Sanskrit – which would open the door to millennia of Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Freshmen mornings found me chanting the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. My introduction to Theravada meditation came over lunch. Afternoons were reserved for my old pals, Homer and Plato. Most evenings carried me into the wee hours, deciphering hundreds of lines of ancient text. It pretty much stayed this way for four years – impossible almost anywhere else but the rather liberal Brown University. For my senior thesis, I translated a poem from an ascetic order called Jainism, which likely predates both Hinduism and Buddhism. The only appropriate way to bid farewell to these mystical, sitar-heavy years – before selling out to a Wall Street law firm – was to hike through India with my best buddy, who has since fled Delhi to run a yoga retreat in Goa. The point being, at a time when I really should have been attending more naked parties, something was urging me head first into a distant and dusty past.
Gary Tillery’s “Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison“, Quest Books (2011).
I will never forget the moment in sophomore year when the line between East and West began to blur, sparking a whole new appreciation for those often-overlooked ancestors who birthed our civilization into being. Up to that point, my afternoon seminar on Homer’s Odyssey seemed out of place for a day otherwise dedicated to obscure breathing exercises and reading about karma, reincarnation and the chakras. One fateful day, I had happened upon a passage from the 5th-century AD philosopher, Proclus, where he makes reference to a “secret doctrine” (αππορητον θεωρίαν) hidden away in the Iliad and Odyssey.7 I was mesmerized! What a crazy idea to associate with the foundation of all Western literature. Why, rather than speaking plainly, would our very first attempt at the written word transmit a covert agenda? And what on earth could that agenda possibly be? Bizarre as it sounds, Proclus was not alone in thinking a surface reading of Homer’s epics would completely miss the point. His tradition, Neoplatonism, arose in the 3rd century AD as an effort to preserve the purest teachings of the godfathers of Western thought, Pythagoras and Plato.8 One of the early stars of this school was Porphyry, who wrote a long and complicated commentary on just a few lines of Book 13 of the Odyssey that, at first glance, are very pretty but easily forgettable.
Classicists label this passage the “Cave of the Nymphs”. The wily hero, Odysseus, after a 10-year journey through a million obstacles in the wake of the Trojan War, is finally homebound to his native Ithaca. Just before his ship touches down on Greek soil, Homer pauses to describe the extraordinary harbor that will, at long last, welcome back its native son. It houses a sacred olive tree and a miraculous cavern populated by nymphs. The hero’s patron goddess, Athena, selects this cave as a hiding place for the gold and bronze valuables Odysseus has just inherited from the friendly Phaeacians, a mysterious but hospitable sea-faring people.9 In a blatant omission that has perplexed scholars for centuries, however, Homer never fully resolves the ultimate fate of this meticulously buried treasure. Mentioned just once more in passing, it seems like a rather superfluous detail, as does the cave itself.
Following this strange episode, Athena magically transforms Odysseus into a withered, old vagabond. It makes the ambush and graphic execution of his wife’s suitors a little easier. Under the leaves of the holy tree in that curious harbor, Odysseus assumes a new identity and spends basically half the book in disguise. Reflecting on this scene almost a thousand years after its creation, Porphyry says something that should forever change how we think about the origin and purpose of Western Civilization. The translation from Robert Lamberton’s Homer the Theologian is worth reproducing:
“Homer says that all outward possessions must be deposited in this cave and that one must be stripped naked and take on the persona of a beggar and, having withered the body away and cast aside all that is superficial and turned away from the senses, take counsel with Athena, sitting with her beneath the roots of the olive, how he might cut away all the destructive passions of his soul.”10
What the hell? That sounded almost monastic, and much closer to the Eastern religious tradition than anything I had heard about the Ancient Greeks. In fact, the essence of the Buddha’s so-called Four Noble Truths were right there, staring me in the face. To summarize: (1) nothing lasts forever in this disjointed life; (2) by clinging to the ups and downs of such an existence – the good as well as the bad – we suffer and are continuously reborn; (3) this cycle of reincarnation can only be stopped by stripping away the unhealthy attention we place on all things impermanent; and (4) it is through right conduct and self-examination – in disciplines like meditation – that we can train the mind to see beyond the illusions of the phenomenal world and our physical body, thereby achieving liberation.
This head of Odysseus was discovered in 1957 on the west coast of Italy between Rome and Naples, on the grounds of the former villa of the Roman Emperor Tiberius at Sperlonga. The original sculpture likely dates to the 1st century BC.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In the absence of any competing explanation for why Homer would waste his time introducing a Phaeacian treasure that in no way affects the plot, Porphyry’s metaphor of abandoning life’s pleasures and comforts in exchange for true peace and happiness seems fair – just as Odysseus must shed his riches, and play the beggar, prior to his homecoming. But what the Neoplatonists are suggesting is something altogether more radical. This is a philosophy in which the senses are interpreted as obscuring, rather than revealing, the truth. Porphyry’s warning to “turn away from the senses” (τἀς αἰσθήσεις ἀποστραφέντα) is pretty clear in the Greek. In fact, it could even be translated “dissuade the senses”. The apparent authority of our sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell – while great for keeping us focused on “all that is superficial” so we don’t walk into each other – should nonetheless be challenged once in a while. Wonderful as they are, the senses don’t deserve 100% control over how we perceive the world. Likewise, the “passions” or “emotions” (πάθη) that accompany everyday life are described as “destructive” or, perhaps better, “plotting against” us (ἐπίβουλα). Intent on distracting us from what is essential, Porphyry gives the okay to “cut down” or “trim” (επικοψη)that annoying mental chatter.
For these quasi-Buddhists who could spot Homer’s “secret doctrine”, the Odyssey is an 8th century BC invitation to a worldview in which things are not always what they seem – where the reality of everything around us must be questioned.11 Like the hero, Odysseus, we are called to reassess the mere surface of things – both the outer, sensory world and our innermost being. Underneath the illusion (what the Hindu or Buddhist literature would term “maya”), the real world – our true home – waits to be discovered.
For explicit instructions on how to “dissuade” those overbearing senses and “trim” the unruly passions, we need look no further than Porphyry’s guru, Plotinus. Born in Egypt in 205 AD, this virtually unknown genius is where all Neoplatonism begins. Over the last 17 years of his life, Plotinus wrote a massive, six-part treatise in Greek entitled the Enneads (available here for free). In a passage that acknowledges the entire Odyssey as a parable of spiritual liberation, Plotinus is quick to distinguish our journey home as an inner, rather than outer, adventure: “We must not look, but must, as it were, close our eyes and exchange our faculty of vision for another. We must awaken this faculty which everyone possesses, but few people ever use.”12 This seems like a recipe for Western meditation, in very plain and unmistakable language. And much like the Hindus or Buddhists who believe such exercises can penetrate the illusions that surround us, both inside and out, Plotinus taught his students to “awaken” (ἀνεγεῖραι)this underused “other sight” (ὄψιν ἄλλην) in order to reach “that other world”, where “everything is color and beauty” not on the surface but “right from its very depths”.13 This might resemble the world more likely encountered in dreams, where everything is experienced – keep in mind – without the aid of those alert, problem-solving senses. But Plotinus’ realm is different. His gives shape and meaning to the universe as we know it – the magical source, in fact, of reality across all times and dimensions.
In a final surprise twist, Plotinus cautions that access to this elusive kingdom cannot be “acquired by calculations” or “constructed out of theorems”.14 Logic, reason or conscious reflection will have zero impact on our ability to explore it, which can only occur through what Classicist Pierre Hadot referred to as “privileged experience”15 – “eyes closed” (μύσαντα ὄψιν)in contemplation. The covert agenda attributed to Homer had now made itself known. What Proclus had only hinted at became crystal clear with Plotinus, as the barrier between East and West crumbled away. It occurred to me, of course, that these guys were getting carried away with their Homer – inventing a “secret doctrine” where none existed in the nostalgia for a bygone era. Was it really possible for “the place where science was born”, as Carl Sagan pointed out, to have also birthed a completely contradictory worldview? Where matter is just a byproduct of something much more fundamental. Where the senses – and everything we think we know about the world – are not to be trusted. And where each of us possesses a latent ability, which “few people ever use”, to explore the ultimate nature of reality. Imagine the implications if, for the entire history of Western Civilization, we’ve had it all upside down.
Ten Thousand Eyes
As it turns out, the Neoplatonists weren’t just making this stuff up. The idea of a non-physical world that creates and sustains the one we inhabit – accessible only by some kind of extrasensory power, some non-ordinary state of consciousness – was introduced to Western philosophy over 600 years before Plotinus’ Enneads by the godfather himself: Plato. My chance run-in with Neoplatonism had me totally reevaluating how it all began. Sure enough, scattered across a number of Plato’s 4th century BC masterpieces, the “secret doctrine” shines apparent for all to see.
“That other world” mentioned by Plotinus is trademark Plato, familiar to many as the Theory of Forms. In perhaps his most famous passage from the Republic, the so-called Allegory of the Cave, Plato establishes our physical world as the mere shadow of a more genuine reality lying just beyond our conventional awareness. This retro, three-minute Claymation video is an excellent refresher. Later in his Timaeus, Plato again refers to the sensory universe as a “copy” (εἰκόνος) or “model” (παραδείγματος) of something much more permanent and absolute.16 This perspective is not necessarily the most intuitive. It flies in the face of our everyday experience, where things seem real enough just the way they are. Plato calls “uninitiated” (ἀμυήτων) however, those who would object to his theory of everything. In the Theaetetus, he scorns those poor folks “who believe that nothing is real save what they can grasp with hands and do not admit … anything invisible can count as real”. Funnily enough, there is a term to describe this “uninitiated” philosophy, which seems to have conquered much of the Western world today: naïve realism. It is important to remember that this worldview is a choice and not a fact. It puts a lot of faith in the images formed by the brain – a gullibility that keeps magicians in business. But this kind of blind acceptance is certainly not how our civilization hit the ground running.
Anticipating his Neoplatonic disciples by hundreds of years, Plato likewise doubts the reliability of our senses. The entire body, as a matter of fact, is suspect. A memorable line from the Phaedrus compares our condition in this world to “an oyster imprisoned in its shell”.17 It is only by avoiding the “follies of the body” that we can “gain direct knowledge of all that is pure and uncontaminated,” declares the Phaedo.18 Not surprisingly, Plato insists that the same untapped ability identified by Plotinus is our sole means of achieving spiritual release from this confused, temporary moment we call life. Just like Plotinus’ “other sight” (ὄψιν ἄλλην), Plato testifies in the Republic that “there is in every soul an organ or instrument of knowledge” which is “blinded by ordinary pursuits”. Though relatively few of us seem to take advantage of this amazing faculty, once activated, it can perceive more than “ten thousand [ordinary] eyes”. Translated by some as the “eye of the soul”,19 Plato with no hesitation declares that it is our “exclusive means of beholding the ultimate truth” (μόνῳ γὰρ αὐτῷ ἀλήθεια ὁρᾶται)20 – an obvious allusion to the so-called “third eye” or ajna chakra of Hindu mysticism, considered the visionary portal to domains unseen.
“Oversoul” (1997) by visionary artist, Alex Grey
To dispel any doubt that Plato was the George Harrison of the 4th century BC, deftly packaging Eastern spirituality for a Western audience, note the concept of karma embedded in the Phaedrus. Plato makes “some ancient guilt” or “wrath” (παλαιῶν ἐκ μηνιμάτων) responsible for families passing misfortune from one generation to another. Not exactly what you’d expect from the people who gave us logic and rationality! Finally, no guru would be complete without a shameless advertisement for reincarnation. Plato’s other well-known episode from the Republic, the Myth of Er, features a fallen solider who comes back from the dead to share his incredibly vivid account of the afterlife. The resurrected Er speaks about the process of reincarnation at length, for which there are no less than three ludicrous words in Greek: metempsychosis, metensomatosis and palingenesis. As Plato concludes in the Timaeus, the only escape from this wheel of death and rebirth is to conquer the same “destructive passions” that Porphyry warned against – the ups and downs, the “pleasure and pain” (ἡδονῇ καὶ λύπῃ), inherent in all “desire” (ἔρωτα).21
Ancient Cultural Internet
If Plato had written in Sanskrit instead of Greek, first off – the “secret doctrine” would be indistinguishable from esoteric Hindu or Buddhist scripture. And second, you would never guess this was the father of all Western thought talking. We live in a make-believe world, imprisoned by the body, and the only way out is a hidden power we all have but never learn about? The ultimate reality – the stuff that really counts – is invisible? Karma, reincarnation and the chakras are all credible? By the time I finished college, that old line between East and West made absolutely no sense whatsoever. What made even less sense was the fact that mainstream, Western academia never addressed what I thought was a mind-blowing realization. I was never taught to read Homer in the manner of Proclus, Porphyry or Plotinus. And while the Allegory of the Cave and the Myth of Er certainly came up in my Plato seminars, the focus was always honing our grammar and vocabulary skills, and never the totally neglected but amusing fact that Western Civilization was evidently founded by a bunch of hippies.
It was in the years following, while I was supposed to be practicing law, that I realized Plato wasn’t just making this stuff up either. By the 4th century BC, in fact, he was simply the latest in a long line of mystical philosophers alluded to in a 2nd-century AD fragment by Numenius, who informs us that the “initiations [emphasis mine] and doctrines and cults … established by the Brahmins, the Jews, the Magi, and the Egyptians” were indeed “harmonious with Plato”.22 Given all the above similarities, the case for an Indian influence on Ancient Greek thought seems beyond dispute.23 For our connection to North Africa and the Near East, groundbreaking scholarship by just a few Classicists has amassed the evidence for what a recent article in The Guardian dubbed an “ancient cultural internet” connecting “a series of networked cultures in multi-voiced conversation”. A quick glance at the titles alone offers a great snapshot of this exciting line of research: Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization; M.L. West’s The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth; Walter Burkert’s Bablyon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture and The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age; and most recently, Tim Whitmarsh’s The Romance Between Greece and the East. Rather than a “Greek Miracle” where Western Civilization springs fully-formed out of nowhere, Burkert sets the prevailing view: “we can agree that it was there [Asia Minor, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine and Egypt] that the first high cultures developed and spread their achievements to neighboring regions.”24 While it might seem obvious for younger nations to have learned from those who came before, like any good offspring, this is actually a long-overdue concession in the study of Classics. Either way, a much more accurate picture of our classical past is finally emerging from all these “tangled roots”. And it’s a picture that sets the stage (with all due respect to Dan Brown) for solving the greatest riddle of our civilization: where the hell do we come from?
“Phryne in Eleusis” (1889) by Polish painter, Henryk Siemiradzki
Source: Wikimedia Commons
A Psychedelic Sacrament
We can rest assured that the our Ancient Greek ancestors – the very same ones who laid the foundations for almost every critical aspect of our society today – were not entirely off the mark when it came to tackling life’s biggest questions. They were a diligent and practical people in all respects, whether physical or metaphysical. They faithfully preserved an enormous wealth of ancient wisdom it was their unique position, in the Mediterranean of the first millennium BC, to inherit and then pass along to Western Civilization. The “secret doctrine” traced from the Neoplatonists to Plato himself, back further through Pythagoras and a number of other pre-Socratic philosophers to Homer in the 8th century BC, brings us face to face with those “high cultures” in the Fertile Crescent and India whose pivotal role in our story is only now gaining appreciation. This was a world with far less distinction between East and West, or religion and science, than exists today. Way before any of our modern religions – including Hinduism and Buddhism, or Judaism, Christianity and Islam – a common initiation rite culminating in an ecstatic visionary experience linked many of the Bronze Age cultures that flourished after 3,000 BC: from Ancient Egypt to Sumeria, from Crete to the Indus Valley Civilization. Over the succeeding two thousand years, these were the civilizations that eventually gave rise to the “ancient cultural internet” from which Homer and Plato were able to download, in the words of Graham Hancock, “a ‘science of the soul’ developed through thousands of years of inquiry and experimentation and applied with high precision to the fundamental questions of life and death.”25
In the end, this explains Plato’s preferred definition for his trade: “true philosophers make dying their profession.”26 What could be more fundamental? It was not from piles of books or heated debates that Plato came to his conclusion about the need to awaken the “eye of the soul” in order to see clearly through this, our carnival world of smoke and mirrors.27 It was from an experience! As a matter of fact, it was a highly ritualized and carefully programmed experience which brought the initiate to death’s door and back, complete with unshakeable knowledge of exactly what happens when we die and renewed appetite for making the most of our precious, fleeting moment under the sun. They saw something! And whatever it was, it changed them forever and made naïve realism a complete joke. 28 They were reborn into a new vision of who we are and what life is all about. This should come as no surprise. The Greek word for “doctrine” in the “secret doctrine” (αππορητον θεωρίαν) has nothing to do with an actual, written teaching. Derived from a Greek root meaning to “see” or “behold” (θεωρίαν) Lamberton clarifies: “rather than a fixed and unchanging ‘doctrine’, [the secret doctrine] seems to refer to a mystical and privileged ‘contemplation’ or mode of seeing”.
To awaken Plotinus’ “other sight” or Plato’s “eye of the soul” – our “exclusive means of beholding the ultimate truth” – many intriguing signs point to our hippy ancestors engaging the unrivaled technology of the natural kingdom. We will of course never know for sure, but the psychoactive properties of the many plants and fungi at the Greeks’ disposal is unlikely to have escaped the investigation of these early scientists.29 While Hadot’s “privileged experience” can be cultivated in any number of ways, including meditation, the most reliably fast-acting across the ages has been through psychedelics (a beautiful Greek word meaning “that which makes visible the contents of the psyche”), the significance of which will have to be explored in future discussion.30
Prior to the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Fall, the enigmatic Lenaia festival took place in January. Rosemarie Taylor-Perry theorizes that the purpose of this ceremony was to add herbs and psychotropic plants to fermenting wine which would later be imbibed during various rituals in the Greek religious calendar. Likely additives are thought to have included: “absinthe, belladonna berries, cannabis, datura flowers, mandrake root, [or] poppy sap or straw”. The above shows an artist’s rendering of a vase currently housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris, where women are clearly depicted adding some kind of herb, plant and/or fungus to the pithoi (storage containers) of sacred wine. source: “Lenäenvasen” by August Frickenhaus, Zum Winckelmannsfeste der Archäeologischen Gesellschaft Zu Berlin (1912), p. 12, available here
But by the time they made their way to our Greek ancestors from lands south and east, the sacred rites consisted of seven months of detailed instruction, followed by nine days of elaborate procession and fasting. A recreational activity this was not. Only then were Plato and the rest of Athens’ greatest minds like Sophocles and Aristotle “initiated into that which is rightly named the holiest of mysteries” and allowed “the blessed sight and vision” as a grand finale to all their effort (as attested in the Phaedrus).31 For nearly two millennia, these so-called Eleusinian Mysteries were the most popular initiation rites in Ancient Greece. They welcomed not just the elite but any Greek-speaking pilgrim, male or female, to participate in its secret rites. The great initiation hall at Eleusis, 11 miles northwest of Athens, was officially administered by the state for a time, testifying to the centrality of this experience in the society we have come to idolize and imitate in so many other ways. This was not a fringe movement by any means.
An Unknown Upper Paleolithic Ancestor
But how far back does this confrontation with death reach? With the authenticity of my feminism in deservedly serious jeopardy, I am relieved to finally highlight the scholarship of the first woman to appear here, Mary Settegast. It is frankly embarrassing how men, both ancient and modern, have cornered the market on these topics. It seems only appropriate that as we examine our pre-literate roots (before writing came on the scene in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3200 BC), Settegast should lead the way with her phenomenal Plato Prehistorian: 10,000 to 5,000 BC Myth, Religion, Archaeology. In a remote and nearly forgotten episode of our archaic past, just as the Paleolithic was giving way to the Neolithic, something extraordinary has been tucked away, awaiting inspection. An “Upper Paleolithic culture, probably Anatolian, of which hardly anything is known”32 seems to have been in possession of the “secret doctrine”. Exclusively by word of mouth, they managed against all odds to convey the sacred rites by which it was communicated past the boundary of the last Ice Age – 11,500 years ago – where they suddenly show up at the Catalhoyuk site in modern-day Turkey in 7,500 BC.
Map taken from Karageorghis, V. 2000. Ancient Art from Cyprus. The Cesnola Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, p xiv.
For the obvious reason that there are no records of this event, where linguists must concede their specialty to archaeologists, the unbelievable antiquity of the spiritual roots of Western Civilization has never been properly considered part of the Classics curriculum (nor part of our history in general). This is prehistory, after all. As a result, few aside from Settegast have ever explored the possibility that the initiations of Ancient Greece trace back in an unbroken, continuous line to the hunters and gatherers of the Paleolithic eastern Mediterranean. The evidence is certainly there, however, for “a thriving center of cult life, one whose shrines were enriched by decorations and statuary which recall the later mystery religions of Iran and Egypt, as well as the Aegean and Anatolia”. Indeed, the findings at Catalhoyuk are seen by Settegast to “suggest that the freeing of the soul in life, the rebirth of the living individual onto a higher plane of being, was the goal toward which the Catal[hoyuk] rites were aimed”.33 We seem to have a match!
Rather than scrapping together a miserable existence, our uncivilized forebears in Asia Minor may have been busy perfecting a ritual that would somehow survive 7,000 years, to be assimilated by a huge swathe of the Ancient Greek world. Only slightly east of the place where democracy and the sciences first came to light, Catalhoyuk – the land of Homer and the Trojan War – couldn’t be better situated. But if a smoking gun is going to emerge anywhere to prove the merits of this theory, my bet is the on-going dig at another site due east named Gobekli Tepe (90% of which remains unexcavated). First opened in 1995, the presence of a ritual complex in the 10th millennium BC has already been confirmed – making this, per the Smithsonian, “the world’s first temple”. Topographic scans have indicated that additional structures waiting to be unearthed could date even further back to 13,000 BC! Was Gobekli Tepe the brainchild of the same unknown “Upper Paleolithic culture” behind Catalhoyuk? Are these the true spiritual ancestors of Western Civilization?
If a Stone Age people really did manage to transmit those secret rites in the absence of written language for thousands of years, then the visionary experience that was their core can properly be termed the longest-surviving religion the world has ever known. Ironically, no one’s ever heard of it. It does not have a name, and perhaps it never did. But if any religion is going to recapture the hearts and minds of a spiritually thirsty generation, this is the one! When the mysteries finally showed up in Ancient Greece – across the most improbable expanse of time – Plato and his disciples were keen to seek admission and initiation. Amazed and transformed by their glimpse of immortality, the creators of Western thought ensured that the tireless efforts of our Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors did not go to waste. Under penalty of death for exposing the big secret, they nonetheless committed their visions to a language which almost nobody understands today. It was worth the risk for our species to retain memory of the single most unique event a human being could ever experience. This was a serious and cherished experience that worked for their world, and no doubt works for ours – the spitting image as we are of so many Ancient Greek institutions and disciplines. Our society can no longer afford its unexplained ignorance of the “secret doctrine”, something so integral to our founders’ worldview. To dismiss this religion is to deny our birthright, and to totally misinterpret the whole point of Western Civilization. Unlike any other in the history of our planet, this religion has stood the test of time. It is our collective responsibility to acknowledge its influence in our past, to reincorporate it into the 21st century and – in continuing imitation of our ancestors – to carry it forward to those new worlds being birthed in this solar system and beyond.
5 William C. Allen’s History of the United States Capitol, p. 19:"The dome and portico were both reminiscent of the great Roman temple known as the Pantheon built in the second century A.D. by the emperor Hadrian. Thornton’s adaptation of the Pantheon for his United States Capitol linked the new republic to the classical world and to its ideas of civic virtue and self-government." See also “Lincoln Memorial Design and Symbolism” on the National Park Service website: "The individual responsible for this design was architect Henry Bacon who modeled the memorial after the Greek temple known as the Parthenon. Bacon felt that a memorial to a man who defended democracy, should be based on a structure found in the birthplace of democracy."
6 Their 1967 meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, marks a turning point in Eastern philosophies becoming more widely available to a Western audience.
10 Lamberton at p. 130.
11 I would not be the first to notice the similarities between Buddhism and some Ancient Greek thought. See The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies and Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism.
13 Hadot at p. 38. See also Plotinus, Ennead V, 8, 10, 30.
14 Hadot at p. 40. See also Plotinus, Ennead V, 8, 4, 36 and V, 8, 5, 5.
15 Hadot at p. 32.
16 Plato, Timaeus 29b.
17 Plato, Phaedrus 250c.
18 Plato, Phaedo 67a.
19 Plato, Phaedo 66e.
20 Plato, Republic 527e.
21 Plato, Timaeus 42a.
23 See note 11 above.
24 Burkert, Bablyon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture, at p. 4.
26 Plato, Phaedo 68.
27 Algis Uzdavinys, The Golden Chain: Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy, at p. xi: “The task of the ancient philosophers was in fact to contemplate the cosmic order and its beauty; to live in harmony with it and to transcend the limitations imposed by sense experience and discursive reasoning … and it was through this noetic vision (noesis) that the ancient philosophers tried to awaken the divine light within, and to touch the divine Intellect in the cosmos. For them, to reach apotheosis was the ultimate human end.”
28 Lamberton at p. 173.
30 See R. Gordon Wasson, Stella Kramrisch, Carl Ruck and Jonathan Ott’s Perspephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion; see also Carl Ruck’s Sacred Mushrooms: Secrets of Eleusis; see also Paul Devereux’s The Long Trip: a Prehistory of Psychedelia.
31 Phaedrus 250b. In addition, Plato’s Symposium 209e uses the word “epoptes”, confirming Plato’s knowledge of and admission into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
32 Settegast, at p.169, quoting Mellaart.
33 Settegast, at p. 171.
Brian C. Muraresku graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University in 2002, with a concentration in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. He obtained a law degree from Georgetown University and was admitted to the New York Bar in 2005. Muraresku has been practicing international law for 10 years, while maintaining an obsession with the mysterious spiritual foundations of Western Civilization. He lives in Washington D.C. with his lovely wife, Pilar, and enjoys dancing to Bob Marley with their energetic 14-month old, Julieta. He can be contacted at email@example.com.