(Re-)Covering Mystery: Restoring Ancient Avenues of Discovery and Concealment

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 65)


Book V of Plutarch’s Moralia contains an essay entitled, “The Disappearance of Oracles.” It describes a lively clubhouse chat concerning the decline in the number of Greek and Roman oracles in the first century A.D. “The oracles have now failed completely, even as if they were streams of flowing water, and a great drought of prophecy has overspread the land,” notes one participant while getting a rubdown. “We should deliberate the reason why they have become so weak.”1


Pomegranate Seed Loeb Classical Library Sacred Object Getty Museum Homeric Hymn 
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  1. 1.
    Plutarch, “The Disappearance of Oracles,” Plutarch Moralia, 4 vols., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), Vol. IV, pp. 411, 412.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 45.Google Scholar
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    Ugo Bianchi, The Greek Mysteries, Iconography of Religions, Section XVII: Greece and Rome, ed. P. van Baaren et al (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), p. 4.Google Scholar
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    See Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), s.v.,“mysterion,” “mystikos,” “myeo”; Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), s.v., “Mystery Religions.”Google Scholar
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    Burkert, op. cit., pp. 8, 11.Google Scholar
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    n Marvin W. Meyer, editor, The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 17–30.Google Scholar
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    Our review of the practices involved will rely heavily upon the thorough account, some of it necessarily constructed upon fragmental evidence, supplied by George E. Mylonas in Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).Google Scholar
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    Burkert, op. cit., p. 252.Google Scholar
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    Mylonas, op. cit., p. 252.Google Scholar
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    Gabriel Marcel, “On the Ontological Mystery,” The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. Manya Harari (New York: Citadel Press, 1967), pp. 9–46.Google Scholar
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    Neil Gillman, Gabriel Marcel on Religious Knowledge (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), p. 127.Google Scholar
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    Cited in Gillman, p. 127.Google Scholar
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    Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson, E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 55.Google Scholar
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    Martin Heidegger, “What Calls for Thinking?” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977 edition), p. 350.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Burkett, op. cit., p. 79.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 114.Google Scholar
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    Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” in Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 195-ff.Google Scholar
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    Paraphrased in B. J. Hiley and David F. Peat, “General Introduction: David Bohm’s ideas from the Plasma to the Implicate Order,” in Quantum Implications: Essays in Honor of David Bohm (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 22.Google Scholar
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    Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretal Adorno, Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 120, 121. It should be noted that Adorno backs away from the term “mystery,” fearing that its identification with the experience of the transcendent takes away from the elements of playfulness, hiddenness and what Adorno calls “fracturedness”: The enigma is their fracturedness. If transcendence were present in them, they would be mysteries, not enigmas; they are enigmas because, through their fracturedness, they deny what they would actually like to be¡­. Retrospectively, all artworks are similar to those pitiful allegories in graveyards, the broken-off stelae. Whatever perfection they may lay claim to, artworks are lopped off, that what they mean is not their essence is evident in the fact that their meaning appears as if it were blocked (p. 126). We are proposing a broadened meaning for the term “mystery” which, by not being limited to “mystical” or transcendent phenomena, would embrace Adorno-like fracturedness.Google Scholar
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    Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Poetry,Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 35. We are grateful to Elizabeth King for helping us to see how the presence of mystery brings a certain “collapsing of time” to many works of contemporary art.Google Scholar
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    Robert Irwin, public lecture (Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, November 16, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Bill Viola, public talk with Peter Sellars (Los Angeles Public Library, December 3, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Excerpt from “Bill Viola” (exhibition notes, New York: Whitney Museum, 1997).Google Scholar
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    We wish to acknowledge the helpful comments and criticisms of Charles Fisher, William Vaughan, William Alston, Elizabeth King, and members of the Ohio Philosophical Association who heard portions of an earlier draft of this lecture during their annual meeting in April, 1997.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chowan CollegeMurfreesboroUSA

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