Monday, January 23, 2017


María José Martín-Velasco, María José García Blanco (ed.), Greek Philosophy and Mystery Cults. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016. Pp. xii, 244. ISBN 9781443888301. £47.99.

Reviewed by Emilio Suárez de la Torre, Pompeu Fabra University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are shown at the end of the review.]

The nature of Greek culture makes it possible to publish a book with a title announcing what would be a contradictio in terminis when dealing with other cultures. But it is a crucial theme in the history of Greek philosophy and this is why we must celebrate the publication of a volume like this one in which some of the most relevant questions suggested by the title are dealt with, offering interesting analyses and proposals. It is a collection of the lectures presented at a meeting of the Iberian Society of Greek Philosophy held at the University of Santiago de Compostela in May 2012.

Four chapters are substantially given over to Plato and Aristotle. Casadesús provides a description of the presence of mystery vocabulary in philosophical works, mostly in Plato. After recalling the religious perspective adopted by some pre-Socratic thinkers to enhance their knowledge as if it were of divine origin (Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Heraclitus), he focuses on Plato, highlighting the presence of the language of myster cults in Phaedrus (by accepting that "the doctrinal principles of the Mystery Cults were philosophically valid", p. 6), Gorgias, Meno, Republic, Phaedrus again (Orphic doctrines, with an interesting analysis of the motives of the Plain of Oblivion and the Plain of Truth), and Symposium, with the study of the initiation vocabulary in the process described by Diotima, which is also compared with the Myth of the Cave. The last part focuses on the language of initiation in the Stoics.

The second chapter, by Bernabé, accurately confirms that, as in so many other aspects, Aristotle did not share Plato's view on the mysteries, ruling out any didactical use of them for philosophical aims, and that he was even convinced of giving a scientific explanation for the βακχεία and the μανία. Bernabé points out that the author of the Derveni Papyrus believed that it could be possible to learn something from the mystery rites. Thus, Aristotle's opinion is also completely contrary to this position, although it does not mean that he knew the Derveni Papyrus.

De Castro's contribution,1 in the form of a personal commentary on passages of the Gorgias (without any bibliographical references), seeks to highlight the contrast between Socrates' arguments with those of the sophistic conception on the role of rhetoric, starting from the well-known Socratic principle that it is better to be a victim of injustice that to cause it. Along this line of argument, the eschatological myth of the dialogue, describing the trial in the underworld, would describe a "crisis of conscience" (p. 49) reaching a moment when there is no possibility of undoing our previous behaviour. Thus, rhetoric must be always used oriented to the just, and not to persuade to the contrary.

Gómez Iglesias, in the longest chapter of the book,2 defends the substantial role of Eros in the Platonic theory of the final and definitive apprehension (or rather, sudden vision) of Good and Beauty, considered as supreme knowledge. She analyses the use of mystery terminology by Plato, with particular emphasis on the Phaedrus and the Symposium (Diotima's initiation of Socrates) and concludes by affirming that "without Eros there is no philosophy" (p. 99). Blanco's aim is to concretize the elements of Plato's thinking that can be considered properly 'Orphic'. These would be: the new way of conceiving the soul as of divine origin, as an immortal entity imprisoned in the body; the possibility of reincarnation (shared with Pythagoreanism), and some of the elements present in Plato's eschatological myths, mostly the idea of purification of the soul.3

The next three chapters concentrate on Neoplatonism. Bordoy's contribution focuses not only on the presence of Orphic influence in Proclus' commentary on the Timaeus, but also on the relationship between philosophy and religion in Proclus' thought. Bordoy's proposal is that for Proclus Orphism is not really a religious authority, but a metaphysical and a theological one. The main arguments to uphold this view are based on Plato's consideration of Orphism, in the substantial nature of the Timaeus and its theological implications, in the particular mixture of Pythagoreanism and Orphism in the same dialogue, and in the characteristics of the Demiurge. He concludes by affirming that, according to Proclus, philosophy and religion, while different, "form a single unity" (p. 145). De Garay observes that Proclus—in whose life religious practice was highly relevant—is perhaps the most representative author of the Neoplatonic tendency to accept the "agreement between all religions and philosophies" (p. 150), and that, consequently, for him "religious progress demands philosophical reflection" (ibidem). Under these parameters the author analyses Proclus' opinions relative to the use of myth—including those of the Orphics—and its value in reaching the knowledge of superior entities and concepts, such as the One and its divisions or the Henads, as well as the notion of symbols as "signs of the gods" (p. 166). The case of Iamblichus is studied by Hermoso, who emphasizes the value of the symbol as an instrument to attain the truth and the contemplation of beauty in the Syrian philosopher. The role of philosophy is to create the conditions for the purification and liberation of the soul—a recovery of Platonic theories—and this is only possible by mediating the comprehension of symbols and ritual practices, oriented towards this ultimate aim.4

With Navarro's chapter we shift from Neoplatonism to Euripides' Bacchae. This tragedy is interpreted here as an illustration of Dionysus' revenge and cruel justice. In this light, several aspects of the work are commented on, enhancing the fact that what is at stake here is the contrast between wisdom and piety created by the nature of the Dionysiac cult or, rather, by the way Euripides presents it.5

The last chapter,6 by Santamaría, is a convincing defense—at least for this reviewer—of the (implicit) presence of the Orphic figure of the Protogonos in some Platonic dialogues: "Aristophanes' myth in the Symposium, the paraphrase of a verse from an Orphic hymn to Zeus in the Laws, and the activities of the Demiurge in the Timaeus" (p. 205). After a review of the presence of the Protogonos7 in Orphic texts, as well as in different Classical and Hellenistic sources, the author exposes the arguments that confirm his proposal to identify the influence of this Orphic deity in the arguments of the aforementioned dialogues, with particular attention to the Aristophanic discourse in the Symposium.8

In my opinion, we are equally entitled to celebrate the organization of a meeting with this content as the publication of its results. The issue of the relationship—and not only at the level of vocabulary9—between philosophy and mystery cults or, more generally speaking, religion and philosophy, has become a substantial issue that deserves attention from an interdisciplinary methodology, and this book is a worthy contribution in this sense. As is customary in collective works, the quality of each chapter and the importance of their proposals are of unequal value, but the final balance is positive,10 and we must congratulate both editors, Martín Velasco and García Blanco, on this initiative.

Table of Contents

María José Martín Velasco and María José García Blanco, Preface (vii)
Francesc Casadesús, The Transformation of the Initiation Language of Mystery Religions (1)
Alberto Bernabé, Aristotle and the Mysteries (27)
António de Castro Caeiro, Eschatological Myth in Plato's Gorgias (43)
María R. Gómez Iglesias, The Echoes of Eleusis: Love and Initiation in the Platonic Philosophy (61)
Fidel Blanco Rodríguez, The Influence of Orphism in Plato's Psychology and Eschatology (103)
Antoni Bordoy Fernández, Proclus and the Role of Orphism in the Exegesis of Plato's Timaeus (123)
Jesús de Garay, Mystery Religions and Philosophy in Proclus (149)
María Jesús Hermoso Félix, Philosophy and Theurgy in the Thought of Iamblichus: Symbol and Beauty (171)
Ángela Navarro González, The Dionysism in the Bacchae: Megála kai Phanerá (187)
Marco Antonio Santamaría Álvarez, Did Plato Know the Orphic God Protogonos? (205)
Index Locorum (233)


1.   N.b., both in the Table of Contents and in the headings of the chapter, "escathology" (misspelled) is written instead of "eschatology".
2.   I find the argumentation slightly repetitive: it should perhaps have been abridged. On the other hand, and from a formal point of view, this chapter would have needed a more thorough revision. For example, the Greek terms are sometimes misspelled or unduly used. I will point out only a few examples: ἔρος (sic), a form used only in poetry — mostly Epic — , is thus written throughout this text. The τόπος ὑπερουράνιος appears as τόπος ύπερ ούρανός (p. 70) and τόπος ὑπερουρανός (p. 78); there is confusion between ἐξαίφνης and ἐφεξῆς, as if they were synonyms (cf. p. 90, where the latter is translated as a "sudden seeing"); on p. 92 the phrase ἐνθέοις μαντείαις does not mean "inspired soothsayers", but "inspired oracles". As for the English text, there are also some errata: "with inspired the preferred translation" instead of "as the p. t." (p. 73); "no different" instead of "not different" (p. 73); Bacchantes (p. 73, n. 20) for Bacchants or Bacchae (as on p. 87; and see "bacchante" on p. 74); on p. 77 we read "Σέβω and refers to", instead of "Σέβω refers to"; on p. 80 "the Mantinea", if I am not wrong, should be changed to "the Mantinean"; on p. 81 the sentence "it is precisely here ἐξαίφνης where every sense ἐποπτεία of Symposium resides" also requires more than one correction; on p. 95 "if a man to becomes" should be "if a man becomes".
3.   Maehler's name is misspelled both in the body of the text (p. 106, n. 28 Maheler) and in the bibliography (Maeheler). The Platonic dialogue Phaedrus is cited as Phaedro on p. 114.
4.   On p. 182 "the assertion Daniela Taormina" lacks the preposition "of" before the name. On p. 183 the French quotation has a typo ("peu" instead of "peut") and the phrase "une discursivité maîtrise" would seem to be an erroneous citation. In the Bibliography, p. 184, in the title of Charles-Saget's article, the sequence "the divine Iamblichus" must be deleted.
5.   The problem with this chapter is, on the one hand, that the link between the two basic concepts of the title (Greek philosophy and mystery cults) is not sufficiently explicit. On the other hand, and given the rich bibliography on Bacchae, more different or complementary points of view should have been taken into account. For instance, and to cite just a couple of examples, there is no mention of Ch. Segal's Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae, Princeton 1982 (more surprising if we consider that he is the co-author of the translation used, see infra), nor to R. Seaford's commented edition of 1996 (with a very interesting introduction), and we could also add some important books on the Dionysian cult. Moreover, I must mention again some formal negative aspects. The author has adopted the atypical transcription of Greek names of Gibbons' translation (by the way, not included in the bibliography: R. Gibbons, Ch. Segal, Euripides: Bakkhai. The Greek Tragedy in New Translations, Oxford 2001), including astonishing cases as Semelés (p. 189, n. 6), Kybélê (p. 190, but written Kybéle on p. 191), Koúretês, and Korybantës (p. 191). However, it is mixed with other such erroneous English forms as Tmolo (p. 189) or Polydoro (p. 197). On p. 188 the term "demo" is possibly a mistake for demos (I suppose it is an allusion to the "native Phlyus", cited on p.189, but I am merely guessing): anyway the sentence "...he lived during the demo of his childhood" is baffling. Finally, "Thebian" is a mistake for "Theban" (p. 196).
6.   In my opinion, it should have been placed in the first group, predominantly centred on Plato.
7.   Santamaría quite convincingly argues that in the much disputed Orphic text OF 8 αἰδοῖον means "venerable" (referring to the Protogonos). Thus βασιλέως αἰδοίου in OF 12 should be translated as "venerable king".
8.   To verify my agreement with the analysis of the Aristophanic discourse in the Symposium, I refer to my article "En torno al Banquete de Platón", Humanitas 54 (2002) 63-100.
9.   The importance of C. Riedweg's work Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon und Klemens von Alexandrien, Berlin, De Gruyter, 1987, must be stressed.
10.   One last suggestion: I believe that it would have been more 'economical' — to prevent unnecessary repetitions — to include each chapter's bibliography in a single one at the end of the book.

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