Shrouded in secrecy, ancient mystery cults fascinate and capture the imagination. A pendant to the official cults of the Greeks and Romans, mystery cults served more personal, individualistic attitudes toward death and the afterlife. Most were based on sacred stories (hieroi logoi) that often involved the ritual reenactment of a death-rebirth myth of a particular divinity. In addition to the promise of a better afterlife, mystery cults fostered social bonds among the participants, called mystai. Initiation fees and other contributions were also expected.
Mystery cults continue to vex scholars because the surviving evidence is problematic, comprising a few written sources, mostly late in date, and often with questionable aims and biases. Modern reconstructions that view the mysteries as a cohesive religious phenomenon run the risk of oversimplification. Early twentieth-century scholarship, for instance, interpreted the ancient mysteries as a forerunner to Christian soteriological beliefs, thus challenging the latter’s originality. The often interchangeable terminology found in the ancient texts, which encompasses variant ritual structures such as initiation and ecstasy (mysteria, mystes, telete, orgia), has encouraged the conception of unifying themes. Yet the wide variety and highly localized nature of these cults defy attempts at summary. One need only contrast the belief of the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus that the purpose of the mysteries is purification and direct contact with the gods (de Mysteriis 6.5–7) with the proclamation of the Christian apologist Clemens of Alexandria (Protrepticus 2.16): “Here we see what mysteries are, in one word, murders and burials.”
In classical antiquity, the earliest and most celebrated mysteries were the Eleusinian. At Eleusis, the worship of the agricultural deities Demeter and her daughter Persephone, also known as Kore, was based on the growth cycles of nature. Athenians believed they were the first to receive the gift of grain cultivation from Demeter (41.162.98). Extraordinarily, the goddess herself revealed to them the solemn rites in her honor, as we learn in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, which relates the foundation myth of the Eleusinian cult (14.130.9). Hades abducted Persephone while she was picking flowers with her companions in a meadow and carried her off to the Underworld (07.128.1). After wandering in vain looking for her daughter, Demeter arrived at Eleusis. There the wrath of the distressed mother caused a complete failure of the crops, prompting Zeus to order his brother Hades to return the girl. He cunningly tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds before leaving, thus condemning her to spend part of the year in the Underworld as his wife and the rest among the living with Demeter (24.97.110).
During the Great Eleusinia, the public aspect of which culminated in the grand procession from the center of Athens to Eleusis along the Sacred Way, the actions and experiences of the initiates mirrored those of the two goddesses in the sacred drama (drama mystikon). In the early sixth century B.C., the “Queen of the Underworld” persona of Kore was introduced and a nocturnal initiation rite called katabasis was added to the festival: a simulated descent to Hades and ritual search for Persephone. Before the entrance to the Telesterion, the central hall of the sanctuary where the secret rites were performed, priestly personnel holding torches met up with the initiates, who until then were wandering in the dark (28.57.23). At the Eleusinian mysteries, the tension between public and private, conspicuous and secret was inherent in the double nature of the cult. Unlike city-state (polis) religion, participation was restricted to individuals who chose to be initiated, to become mystai. At the same time, it was far more inclusive, being open not only to Athenian male citizens, but to non-Athenians, women, and slaves.
While at Eleusis and other sanctuary-based cults participation in the mysteries was a single transformative event, the initiates of the Bacchic mysteries met repeatedly. Bacchus was an epithet of the god Dionysos, possibly referring to the namesake branch carried by his initiates, who also wore headbands tied into a bow. In myth, Dionysos is followed by his thiasos, a retinue of satyrs and maenads who wear fawn skins, are crowned by wreaths of ivy or oak, and hold thyrsoi: giant fennel stalks covered with ivy and topped by pine cones, often wound with fillets (35.11.3). Bacchic thiasoi existed from at least the fifth century B.C. onward. They were small voluntary organizations of worshippers, sponsored in Roman times by wealthy patrons (26.60.70a,b; 03.14.4). Secret activities, called teletai or orgia, took place in the mountains, where the Bacchoi engaged in ecstatic dancing, singing, revelry, and even eating raw meat (homophagia). The wine-induced Bacchic frenzy was seen as a temporary madness that transported them from civilization to wilderness, both literally and metaphorically (07.286.85).
The followers of Dionysos derived many of their eschatological beliefs and ritual prescriptions from Orphic literature, a corpus of theogonic poems and hymns. The mythical Thracian poet Orpheus, the archetypical musician, theologian, and mystagogue, was credited with the introduction of the mysteries into the Greek world. According to myth, Orpheus’ reclusion that followed his unsuccessful attempt to bring back his wife Eurydice from the Underworld or, alternatively, his invention of homosexuality brought about the tragic, violent death he suffered at the hands of Thracian women (24.97.30).
References by Herodotus and Euripides attest to the existence of certain Bacchic-Orphic beliefs and practices: itinerant religion specialists and purveyors of secret knowledge, called Orpheotelestai, performed the teletai, private rites for the remission of sins. For the Orphics, Dionysos was a savior god with redeeming qualities. He was the son of Zeus and Persephone and successor to his throne (X.313.1). When the Titans attacked and dismembered the baby Dionysos, Zeus in retaliation blazed the perpetrators with his thunderbolt. From the Titans’ ashes the human race was born, burdened by the horrific inheritance of an “original sin.” Similarly to the Pythagoreans, the Orphics did not consume meat and were not to be buried in woolen garments. Archaeological finds from southern Italy, northern Greece, the Pontic area, and Crete provide important evidence for the Bacchic-Orphic mysteries: to ensure personal salvation and eternal bliss in the afterlife, objects such as the famed Derveni papyrus, inscribed bone plaques and gold leaves (lamellae), or gilded mouth-pieces were buried with the initiates (74.51.3004).
Most mysteries started as family or clan cults and were later taken over by the city-state, the polis, as in the case of the Theban Kabeiria. Kabeiros and his son Pais, collectively known as Kabeiroi, were patrons of herdsmen worshipped in Boeotia and Lemnos. In the absence of written sources, valuable information for their enigmatic cult comes primarily from excavations at their sanctuary in Thebes. The architectural remains of the Theban Kabeirion reveal a concern with controlling access and directing foot traffic. Most probably there were preliminary sacrifices, a procession, and, at least in Roman times, initiation in two stages (epopteia and myesis) performed inside the anaktoron, the main hall of the sanctuary.
Numerous votive figurines of bulls, often inscribed (20.210), have been retrieved from the site together with a very distinctive type of locally manufactured pottery, the so-called kabeirion ware. Beginning around 450 B.C., these are almost exclusively drinking cups, either black-glazed or decorated with black-figure vegetation motifs, and less often, Pygmy-like grotesque figures (1971.11.1). Understood in the context of the symposium, these vases were probably custom made according to the specifications of the cult participants.
Known among the Greeks as Kybele, or Great Mother of the Gods (Matar Kubileya, mother of mountains in Phrygia, or Kubaba in neo-Hittite), originated in Anatolia, where there was a long-standing tradition of worshipping mother figures. It was imagined that Kybele resided on inaccessible mountain tops where she ruled over wild animals. The goddess is represented wearing a long belted dress, a polos headdress, and a veil. She is seated on a throne flanked by two lions and holds a tympanon, a circular drum resembling a tambourine, and a libation bowl (22.139.24; 97.22.24). Ritual purity was a prerequisite of initiation into the ecstatic cult of the Mother. Her priests, the Korybantes, and followers worshipped her with wild, loud music produced by cymbals (13.225.5a,b) and frenzied dancing, which, like the revels in honor of Dionysos, carried the participants despite and beyond themselves. By the third century B.C., the Mother became important at Ilium and Pergamon and hence eventually Rome, where she was worshipped as Magna Mater.
Isis was another Eastern goddess whose cult spread all over the Mediterranean. Similar to Demeter, Isis was considered a law giver and protector of the crops, while ritual purification and secret rites were performed in her honor. In pharaonic Egypt, Isis was sister and wife of Osiris (god of the afterlife) and mother of Horus, whom she appears suckling (55.121.5). In the Greek world, the earliest temple dedicated to Isis was founded in Athens in the fourth century B.C. The cult spread rapidly during the third century B.C. and was linked closely to the political and military activities of the Ptolemies (89.2.652). By this time the consort of Isis was Sarapis or Serapis, a syncretic god created in Egypt, who represented the boundary between life and death and was identified with Hades and Asklepios (53.191.2; 1991.127). Harpokrates, their son, is often portrayed with his finger touching the lips in a gesture intended to ensure secrecy. Numerous miniature bronzes and terracotta statuettes of Harpokrates survive and they probably derive from a Hellenistic prototype made in Alexandria (18.145.20).
The cult of Isis arrived at Rome at the end of the second century B.C. and reached its height during the second century A.D. The two most informative texts are Plutarch’s essay On Isis and Osiris and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, especially book eleven. Both works combine features of other mysteries and contain rather generic descriptions of initiation rites. Inscriptions, on the other hand, provide some evidence for the organization of the cult, which seems to have been modeled on the Egyptian priesthood. Initially, only males served as priests for both Isis and Sarapis. In time, as the cult of Isis predominated, women were allowed to become priestesses. There were two notable departures from earlier mystery cults: the term mystes does not appear in Isiac inscriptions and continued service to the goddess and close relationships with the sanctuary were required.
Not simply an end in itself, initiation belonged to a series of steps leading to higher service. Initiates of Isis shaved off their hair, wore linen garments (cf. Plutarch, Moralia, 352b–e; Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 9.10), and carried the sistrum, the characteristic percussion instrument for the cult, also of Egyptian origin (97.22.2). Like the cymbals of Kybele, the rattling noise it produced was imbued with magical and protective qualities. Over time, the hierarchy grew more complex, yet no central authority seems to have existed and the various temples were quite independent. Isis remained a distinctively Egyptian goddess and her cult maintained a clear Egyptian identity, even after the conquests of Alexander and the Romans.
A similar sequence of levels of initiation, the so-called seven grades, was observed in Mithraism, a mystery cult that developed under the Roman empire. Mithras was of Persian origin and was considered a redemption god, somewhat similar to Isis and Dionysos. No myths about Mithras survive and there were no public festivals in his honor. What is known about his worship derives mostly from archaeology. Mithraism was particularly popular with the Roman legions, and mithraea, the shrines where the mysteries took place, are found everywhere in the empire, but especially at sites along the northern frontier. These were rectangular buildings designed to resemble caves: they lay partly underground with barrel-vaulted ceilings and no windows. Torches and lamps provided light for the performance of indoor rituals that involved rather small groups.
In all mithraea, a central cult image was displayed at the end opposite the entrance. It represented a ritual bull-killing, a tauroctony: the god Mithras, wearing a cloak and a “Phrygian” cap, kneels on the back of a bull pulling back its head and stabbing it in the neck with a sword. A scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles, while a dog and a snake are stretching up to drink the blood dripping from the wound. A raven flies above, and personifications of the sun to the right and the moon to the left complete the scene (1997.145.3). All elements of the tauroctony correspond to constellations of the night sky. The mithraeum is often viewed as an astrological representation of the universe with Mithras as the Sun god himself, with whom he was eventually assimilated: “Deus Sol Invictus Mithras” (the Unconquered Sun God Mithras) (21.88.175).
In 395 A.D., the sanctuary of Eleusis was destroyed by the Goths and was never rebuilt. The Emperor Theodosius with a series of decrees (391–399) forbade pagan worship and ordered the destruction of temples and altars. By the fifth century, the mysteries were extinct.
Karoglou, Kiki. “Mystery Cults in the Greek and Roman World.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/myst/hd_myst.htm (October 2013)
Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Cosmopoulos, Michael B., ed. Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. London: Routledge, 2003.
Graf, Fritz and Sarah I. Johnson. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. London: Routledge, 2007.
Schuddeboom, Feyo, Cornelis Zijderveld, and Nicolaas M. H. Burg. Greek Religious Terminology: Telete & Orgia: A Revised and Expanded English Edition of the Studies by Zijderveld and Van Der Burg. Leiden: Brill, 2009.