Rob Hardy: Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

June 16, 2010 3:45:00 PM

Rob Hardy -


You weren't supposed to understand the secrets of the ancient Greek and Roman mystery cults in the times that they flourished, unless you were yourself an initiate. Now a couple of thousand years after, the secrets remain undisclosed and tantalizing. Not all the cults were small, with some of them, for instance, being important parts of annual civic celebrations. Much of what the initiates went through might have simply been an ineffable religious frenzy that no outsider is going to understand, but there must have been rites, music, and dramas that we ought at least to be able to view historically as spectators. But no; there were plenty of people who said they were giving us descriptions of what was going on in those caves or temples, but they were not initiates themselves. The members of the cults were so scrupulously secret that we have only indirect evidence to go by. So that evidence has been gathered and sifted, sometimes by those who had a grudge against the cults and so deliberately described disreputable rites. Now in Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton University Press), classics scholar Hugh Bowden looks at what we can know about the cults, especially those at Eleusis, the Bacchic cults, and the Mithraic one. This is a fine-looking book, beautifully produced, with many more pictures and plates than accompany the usual academic treatise, and Bowden's lucid descriptions of what we can know about the cults, or reasonably speculate about them, represent a welcome interpretation of a murky subject. 


"The gods," Bowden writes, "were invisible and generally inaudible to mortals, and this posed a considerable problem in maintaining good relations with them." It was hard to understand what the gods were like, but easier to understand what they wanted, as oracles and divines were ready to tell it. These were characteristics of ancient religions in general; the main religions were overtly practiced, with ceremonies and sacrifices in the open, during the day. The cults explored here, however, secreted themselves away for their practices which were often held at night. The ceremonies for the main religions certainly did not concentrate on disorientation and fear, but such feelings were relied upon during the cult rites, with their loud music and other noise, bright lights, and blindfolds. Bowden refers to the anthropologic distinction between the doctrinal and imagistic religions, a distinction which holds in many societies. Doctrinal religion was mainstream and involved a hierarchical community with routine rituals with low levels of arousal. Imagistic religion originates in smaller cultures without much of a hierarchy, and its rituals are infrequent but highly dramatic. Participants might achieve a state of ecstatic disorientation and high emotion, a single transformative religious experience contrasted with routine or regular meeting ceremonies. They had the capacity during these rites to experience the divine directly.  


Bowden explains that this ecstatic experience within the cult rite was the secret; it is mysterious, but it is more interesting really than, say, what secret words or objects might have been used during the rituals. Christian critics of the mysteries, eager to show their folly, might claim that an ear of corn or a phallus was the sacred object and the secret of the cult, but such objects were often used when no secrecy was involved, and only the context of the rest of the ceremony would explain their secret nature. It is probably also untrue that there was any specific knowledge that was passed on in the rites other than the ecstatic experience itself. It is also unlikely that hallucinogens were at the heart of the rite; any hallucinogenic effect has not been reproduced by even modern labs, and the ergot fungus that has been hypothesized as bringing on a hallucinogenic ecstasy is more likely to produce pain, convulsions, and death. Bowden explains that previous scholarship has concentrated on the eschatological function of the cults, but he downplays this: "Compared to the certainty and intensity of the immediate experience of initiation or Bacchic ecstasy, the hope of a better experience in the uncertain world beyond death must have weighed little." Scholars have also claimed that the eschatological emphasis makes the cults similar to ancient Christianity, but the Judaic foundation and practices of Christianity differentiate it from any mystery cult.  


So, darn it, what was happening in those meetings? The best stab can be made about the Eleusinian Mysteries which had their main celebrations in a sanctuary near Athens. The annual initiations there were secret, but everyone knew about them. They involved a festival of eight days, with large and public processions before them and after in which citizens of Athens would take part. The processions included sacred objects, small enough to be carried in procession by the priestesses. Probably the objects represented an ear of wheat or barley, since the Eleusinian rites were founded on the grain goddess Demeter, with the story of her grief after her daughter Persephone was stolen away by Hades. The story is an explanation of the cyclical nature of agriculture. The initiates, perhaps thousands of them, were required to go to the sea beforehand and sacrifice a piglet for purification. They eventually walked the fourteen miles from Athens to Eleusis. The day after, they fasted and that night went through the secret rites. The rites themselves remain obscure. There was probably a dramatic performance recreating the Persephone story, blindfolds, sounding of gongs, and so on. It is, quite appropriately, very mysterious, and it might have been that to the participants, too. "The people who experience the ritual are not given an explanation of what they have been through but have the experience burned into their memories, and they will think over what it might mean in the period following the ritual."  


Bowden goes on to compare and contrast the mystery cults at Samothrace, where not only did the ceremony include "someone reciting incomprehensible words," but not even the initiates learned the names of the gods being prayed to because, "These are the cults of the nameless gods." There was a cult best known from Cyzicus devoted to the Mother of the Gods, the Magna Mater, who was also mother to herself, and who is identified with Gaia or Demeter or others. The rites included wild dancing and snake handling. In Rome, the cult was served by priests who have long thought to have been eunuchs, but Bowden doubts that castration was prevalent. Dionysus is the god most associated with ecstatic cult worship. Women performing his rites would invert social norms - they would leave the cities, live on the mountain, wear animal skins, and eat raw meat. Much of our impression of wild sexual fantasies, drunkenness, and ritual murder comes from an account of the Bacchanalia by Livy from the end of the first century, an account which is suspect in its luridness. The worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis was imported to Greece and Rome, with a famous description of initiation of the hero in Apuleius's Latin novel Metamorphoses. Toward the end of the book, Bowden considers the Mithraic cults. It used to be said that the devotion to Mithras would be what the West would be practicing now if Christianity had not made its inroad, though this view has faded. Mithraism had the great flaw of being restricted to men, but it had social advantages for the men initiated into it. It was based on astrology, and its rites reflected cosmic movements. It offered some understanding of where humans and gods stood in the universe. 


Christianity itself may have been a mystery cult in the beginning, or at least was influenced by such cults; this is a common scholastic view, but Bowden suggests that there was little contact between mystery cults and Christianity. There are ritual analogues in both, such

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is