Mystery Religions

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016
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The outer observances of the Roman religion took the form of popular festivities open to all.
At the same time there were certain other rites of a grave and solemn nature known as the Mysteries, reserved only for those specially prepared to receive them.
In contrast to the public festivals, which were celebrated for the welfare of the state, the inner mysteries were meant for the individual and were conducted in secret.
There is much uncertainty about the exact details relating to most of the inner mysteries; the accounts we have of them are not consistent, and in some particulars confused.
Many elements have been forgotten since they were never put down in writing, but some idea of their character can be pieced together from scattered hints in extant texts.
No one has ever betrayed the mysteries.
Although skeptical and even cynical about many things, the Romans took them very seriously.

Mystery religions, sacred mysteries or simply mysteries, were religious schools of the Roman world for which participation was reserved to initiates (mystai).
The main characterization of this religion is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the ritual practice, which may not be revealed to outsiders.
The most famous mysteries of Greco-Roman antiquity were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were of considerable antiquity and predated the Greek Dark Ages.
The mystery schools flourished in Late Antiquity; the Emperor Julian, in the mid 4th century, is known to have been initiated into three distinct mystery schools - most notably the Mithraic Mysteries.
Due to the secret nature of the school, the details of these religious practices are derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies.
Because of this element of secrecy, we are ill-informed as to the beliefs and practices of the various mystery faiths. We know that they had a general likeness to one another.
The term "Mystery" derives from Latin mysterium, from Greek mysterion (usually as the plural mysteria μυστήρια), in this context meaning "secret rite or doctrine".
An individual who followed such a "Mystery" was a mystes, "one who has been initiated", from myein "to close, shut", a reference to secrecy (closure of "the eyes and mouth"), or that only initiates were allowed to observe and participate in rituals.
The Mysteries were thus schools in which all religious functions were closed to the uninitiated, and for which the inner workings of the school were kept secret from the general public.
Mystery religions form one of three types of Roman religion, the others being the imperial cult or ethnic religion particular to the state, and the philosophic religions such as Neoplatonism.
This is also reflected in the tripartite division of "theology" by Varro, in civil theology (concerning the state religion and its stabilizing effect on society), natural theology (philosophical speculation about the nature of the divine) and mythical theology (concerning myth and ritual).
Mysteries thus supplement rather than compete with civil religion.
An individual could easily observe the rites of the state religion, be an initiate in one or several mysteries, and at the same time adhere to a certain philosophical school.
In contrast to the public rituals of civil religion, participation in which was expected of every member of society, initiation to a mystery was optional within Roman polytheism.
Many of the aspects of public religion are repeated within the mystery, sacrifices, ritual meals, ritual purifications, etc., just with the additional aspect that they take place in secrecy, confined to a closed set of initiates.
This is important in the context of the early persecution of Christians.
Christianity was seen as objectionable by the Roman establishment not on grounds of its tenets or practices, but because early Christians chose to consider their faith as precluding the participation in the imperial cult, which was seen as subversive by the Roman establishment.
The mystery schools offered a niche for the preservation of ancient religious ritual, and there is reason to assume that they were very conservative.
The Eleusian Mysteries persisted for more than a millennium, more likely close to two millennia, during which period the ritual of public religion changed significantly, from the religions of the Bronze to Early Iron Age to the Hero cult of Hellenistic civilization and again to the imperial cult of the Roman era, while the ritual performances of the mysteries for all we know remained unchanged. "They had, more often than not, come up from a barbarous underworld. They were singularly persistent. The mysteries at Eleusis near Athens lasted for a thousand years; and there is reason to believe that they changed little during that long period".
For this reason, what glimpses we do have of the older Greek mysteries have been taken as reflecting certain archaic aspects of common Indo-European religion.
The mystery schools of Roman antiquity include the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Orphic Mysteries.
Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshiped in Mysteries, for instance, Egyptian Isis, Persian Mithraic Mysteries (see above), Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, and Phrygian Cybele.


Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια - were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece.
Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were held to be the ones of greatest importance.
It is acknowledged that their basis was an old agrarian cult which probably goes back to the Mycenean period (c. 1600 – 1100 BC) and it is believed that the cult of Demeter was established in 1500 BC.
The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity.
The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the "descent" (loss), the "search" and the "ascent", with the main theme the "ascent" of Persephone and the reunion with her mother.
It was a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spread to Rome.
The name of the town, Eleusís seems to be Pre-Greek and it is probably a counterpart with Elysium and the goddess Eileithyia.

Phryne in Eleusus
Henryk Siemiradzki
The Mysteries were conducted with the greatest secrecy, the candidate taking a solemn oath (Gk. horkos\ Lat. sacramentum) that he would never reveal anything of what he saw or of what was imparted to him.
The word mystery is said to be derived from the Greek word meaning 'to shut' (myein), that is, to seal the lips in secret, and the initiate himself was called mystes, the one instructed in the secrets.
Death held the key to all the greater mysteries.
The candidate for the highest grades appears to have been given a form of god experience through the death experience, which was often very convincingly enacted.
He participated, as it were, in a rehearsal of his own death.
Hence initiation was known as telete, a word related to teleute, meaning 'death'.
The experience in some cases was apparently communicated with such realism that it is thought likely that the candidate, after his long vigils and fasts, may have been put into a hypnotic sleep or other xenophrenic state, and his subtle body was then helped to exteriorize in full 'astral consciousness'.
Xenophrenic - Xeno- from greek: xenos; xeno - different; foreign; alien; strangephrenic from New Latin, Greek: phrenicus - of or relating to the mind or mental activity
The most important part of the rite took place in a section of the shrine especially designed for the purpose.
The candidate was brought into an antechamber, his mouth was bound, he was blindfolded, his head further encased in a hood, and his hands tied behind his back.
This symbolized his state of dumbness, blindness, ignorance and general benightedness. He was then led into the main chamber and laid down on the ground as if dead, and his obsequies conducted.
After that he was made to stand up and was placed in the charge of a mystagogue representing the god Hermes, who is the 'conductor of souls' (psychopompos) responsible for guiding the dead through the underworld.
A mystagogue (μυσταγωγός "person who initiates into mysteries") is a person who initiates others into mystic beliefs, an educator or person who has knowledge of the Sacred Mysteries.Another word is Hierophant. In ancient mystery religions, a mystagogue would be responsible for leading an initiate into the secret teachings and rituals of the cultus. The initiate would often be blindfolded, and the mystagogue would literally "guide" him into the sacred space.
Psychopomps - Hermes
Psychopomps (ψυχοπομπός - psuchopompos, literally meaning the "guide of souls") are beings in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply provide safe passage. In Jungian psychology, the psychopomp is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms. It is symbolically personified in dreams as a wise man or woman, or sometimes as a helpful animal.
The ensuing journey entailed a descent (kathodos) into a subterranean chamber echoing to harsh and threatening voices, then turnings and gropings through perilous labyrinthine passages which, according to Plutarch, 'create amazement, trembling and terror'.
Origen, quoting an earlier account, speaks of a terrifying 'masque of phantoms', perhaps representing the denizens of the underworld.
Then, following an ascent (anodos) to an upper chamber, his hands were untied and the blindfold suddenly removed, and he found himself in a brilliantly lit and richly decorated hall, filled with his fellows.
All voices swelled in the great Eleusinian cry: 'Give rain ! Give life !' (Hue ! Cue !).
Plutarch describes his own experience:
'A wonderful light burst forth, friendly landscapes received us, and by song and dance the splendour of sacred things was revealed to us.'
The neophyte to whom these final revelations were made was now known as the witness (epoptes), and welcomed as one fully initiated into the mysteries.


The Mithraic Mysteries were a mystery religion practised in the Roman Empire from about the 1st to 4th centuries AD.
The name of the Persian god Mithra (proto-Indo-Iranian Mitra), adapted into Greek as Mithras, was linked to a new and distinctive imagery. 
The mysteries were popular in the Roman military.
Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, with ritual meals. Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those "united by the handshake".
They met in underground temples (called mithraea), which survive in large numbers.
The cult appears to have had its centre in Rome.
Numerous archaeological finds, including meeting places, monuments and artifacts, have contributed to modern knowledge about Mithraism throughout the Roman Empire.
The iconic scenes of Mithras show him being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun).
About 420 sites have yielded materials related to the cult.
Among the items found are about 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene (tauroctony), and about 400 other monuments.
It has been estimated that there would have been at least 680 mithraea in Rome alone.
No written narratives or theology from the religion survive, with limited information to be derived from the inscriptions, and only brief or passing references in Greek and Latin literature.
Interpretation of the physical evidence remains problematic and contested.
The Romans regarded the mysteries as having Persian or Zoroastrian sources. 
There are, however, notable dissimilarities between Persian Mithra-worship and the Roman Mithraic mysteries.
In this context, Mithraism has sometimes been viewed as a rival of early Christianity, with similarities such as liberator-saviour, hierarchy of adepts (archbishops, bishops, priests), communal meal and a hard struggle of Good and Evil (bull-killing/crucifixion).

In every Mithraeum the centerpiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull, called the tauroctony.
The image may be a relief, or free-standing, and side details may be present or omitted.
The center-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume, and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted bull, holding it by the nostrils with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right.
As he does so, he looks over his shoulder towards the figure of Sol.
A dog and a snake reach up towards the blood.
A scorpion seizes the bull's genitals.
A raven is flying around or is sitting on the bull.
Three ears of wheat are seen coming out from the bull's tail, sometimes from the wound.
The bull was often white.
The god is sitting on the bull in an unnatural way with his right leg constraining the bull's hoof and the left leg is bent and resting on the bull's back or flank.
The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras,
Cautes with his torch pointing up, and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.


Tacitus writes that after the assassination of Julius Caesar, a temple in honor of Isis had been decreed, but was suspended by Augustus as part of his program to restore traditional Roman religion.

Navigium Isidis
The emperor Caligula, however, was open to Eastern religions, and the Navigium Isidis, a procession in honor of Isis, was established in Rome during his reign.
It was reported that Caligula donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted.
Vespasian, along with Titus, practised incubation in the Roman Iseum.
Domitian built another Iseum along with a Serapeum.
In a relief on the Arch of Trajan in Rome, the emperor appears before Isis and Horus, presenting them with votive offerings of wine.
Hadrian decorated his villa at Tibur with Isiac scenes.
The religion of Isis thus spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Wall paintings and objects reveal her pervasive presence at Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
In Rome, temples were built (such as the Temple of Isis and Serapis), and obelisks erected in her honour.
In Greece, the cult of Isis was introduced to traditional centres of worship in Delos, Delphi, Eleusis and Athens, as well as in northern Greece.
Harbours of Isis were to be found on the Arabian Sea and the Black Sea.
Inscriptions show followers in Gaul, Spain, Pannonia, Germany, Arabia, Asia Minor, Portugal and many shrines even in Britain.

Temple of Isis - Pompeii 
The Greek antiquarian Plutarch wrote a treatise on Isis and Osiris, a major source for Imperial theology concerning Isis.
Plutarch describes Isis as "a goddess exceptionally wise and a lover of wisdom, to whom, as her name at least seems to indicate, knowledge and understanding are in the highest degree appropriate..."
The statue of Athena in Sais (Egypt) was identified with Isis, and according to Plutarch was inscribed "I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered."
At Sais, however, the patron goddess of the ancient cult was Neith, many of whose traits had begun to be attributed to Isis during the Greek occupation.
The Roman writer Apuleius recorded aspects of the cult of Isis in the 2nd century CE, including the Navigium Isidis and the mysteries of Isis in his 'novel' 'The Golden Ass'.
The protagonist Lucius prays to Isis as Regina Caeli, "Queen of Heaven":
According to Apuleius, these other names include manifestations of the goddess as Ceres, "the original nurturing parent"; Heavenly Venus (Venus Caelestis); the "sister of Phoebus", that is, Diana or Artemis as she is worshipped at Ephesus; or Proserpina (Greek Persephone) as the triple goddess of the underworld.
From the middle Imperial period, the title Caelestis, "Heavenly" or "Celestial", is attached to several goddesses embodying aspects of a single, supreme Heavenly Goddess.
The Dea Caelestis was identified with the constellation Virgo (the Virgin), who holds the divine balance of justice.
The cult of Isis was part of the syncretic tendencies of religion in the Roman world.

La Jeunesse de Bacchus - William Bouguereau
The Dionysian Mysteries were rituals enacted in both ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.

It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by society: women, slaves and foreigners. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly.
By its nature as a mystery religion reserved for the initiated, many aspects of the Dionysian cult remain unknown and were lost with the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism.


Sleeping Dionysus
The Dionysian Mysteries of mainland Greece and the Roman Empire are thought to have evolved from a more primitive initiatory cult of unknown origin (perhaps Thracian or Phrygian) which had spread throughout the Mediterranean region by the start of the Classical Greek period.
Its spread was associated with the dissemination of wine, a sacrament or entheogen, with which it appears always to have been closely associated (though mead may have been the original sacrament).
Beginning as a simple rite, it evolved quickly within Greco-Roman culture into a popular mystery religion, which absorbed a variety of similar cults (and their gods) in a typically Greek synthesis across its territories; one late form was the Orphic Mysteries.
However, all stages of this developmental spectrum appear to have continued in parallel throughout the eastern Mediterranean.


Antinous as Dionysus
The rites were based on a seasonal death-rebirth theme (common among agricultural cults) and spirit possession; the Osirian Mysteries paralleled the Dionysian, according to contemporary Greek and Egyptian observers.
Spirit possession involved liberation from civilization's rules and constraints.
It celebrated that which was outside civilized society and a return to primordial nature - which would later assume mystical overtones.
It also involved escape from the socialized personality and ego into an ecstatic, deified state or the primal herd (sometimes both).
In this sense Dionysus was the emotional-god within, - or the unconscious mind of modern psychology.
Such activity has been interpreted as fertilizing, invigorating, cathartic, liberating and transformative, so it is not surprising that many devotees of Dionysus were those on the margins of society: women, slaves, outlaws and "foreigners" (non-citizens).
All were equal in a cult that inverted their roles, similar to the Roman Saturnalia. 
lthough the Dionysian rites were associated with women, the cult officers' titles were of both genders - belying the claim that the cult was solely for women.
The trance induction central to the cult involved not only chemognosis, but an "invocation of spirit" with the bullroarer and communal dancing to drum and pipe.
The trances are described in familiar anthropological terms, with characteristic movements (found today in its contemporary counterparts.)
Euripides' 'The Bacchae' describes rites in the countryside, in the mountains, to which processions were made on feast days:
'Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood or 'staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait. In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting 'Euoi!' - the god's name - and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.'
This was but one form of Dionysianism - a cult which assumed different forms in different localities (often absorbing indigenous divinities and their rites, as did Dionysus himself).

Initiation Rituals

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2016
The basic rituals for men involved identifying with the god Dionysus in an enactment of his life, death and rebirth (including some form of ordeal).
This involved a ritualized descent into the underworld, or katabasis, often performed in caverns or catacombs (sometimes, more symbolically, in temples).
This process was an original part of the rites; one form of it may be seen in Aristophanes' play 'The Frogs' (405 BC).
'The Frogs' features the descent of Dionysus into Hades with the aid of a surreal chorus of amphibious guardians, and his half-brother Heracles (who also appears in the iconography of the Dionysian Mysteries).
In these narratives someone (or something) is sought after and brought back, with varying degrees of success, however, in classical Greek culture this probably involved more theater (with the initiate playing the role of the Heroes), than the spirit-possession of the original rites.
Following this, there was communion with the god through shared wine.
The initiate was then known as a "Bacchus" (the alternative name for Dionysus), shown the secret contents of the liknon, and presented with the thyrsos wand.
In contrast, the female initiate was prepared as Ariadne (bride of Dionysus), and united with him in the underworld.
In reference to this, the ritual symbol of Dionysus - hidden in the liknon until the culmination of the female rites - was first a goat's penis, and later a fig-wood phallus.
After this rite, she participated in a similar communion or wedding feast.
Flagellation also seems to have been a basic ordeal (at least for women, according to depictions of Dionysian initiations), and there may have been ritualized hangings.
The female rituals took place at the same time as the traditional Dionysian revelries.


Insight into the female initiation process may be gained through the murals of the Bacchic Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.

Wall Painting - Villa of the Mysteries
Here a series of murals painted on the walls of an initiation chamber have been almost perfectly preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius, although there is controversy about its interpretation.
The first mural shows a noble Roman woman (possibly the initiate's mother, who can cross no further) approaching a priestess or matron seated on a throne, by which stands a small boy reading a scroll – presumably the declaration of the initiation.
On the other side of the throne the young initiate is shown in a purple robe and myrtle crown, holding a sprig of laurel and a tray of cakes.
She appears to have been transformed into a serving girl, but may be bringing an offering to the god or goddess.
The second mural depicts another priestess (or senior initiate) and her assistants preparing the liknon basket; at her feet are mysterious mushroom-shaped objects.
At one side a sileni (a horse element) is playing a lyre. (Silenus was the tutor and companion of Dionysus.)
The third mural shows a satyr playing the panpipes and a nymph suckling a goat, in an Arcadian scene.
To their right, the initiate is in a panic.
This is the last time we see her for a few scenes; when she appears again, she has changed.
Some scholars think katabasis  (from Greek κατὰ "down" and βαίνω "go") has occurred (in this context the Greek term refers to a visit to the Underworld)

Wall Painting - Villa of the Mysteries
In the direction to which she stares in horror, another mural shows a young satyr being offered a bowl of wine by Silenus while behind him, another satyr holds up a frightening mask which the drinking satyr sees reflected in the bowl (this may parallel the mirror into which young Dionysus stares in the Orphic rites).
Next to them sits a goddess (Ariadne or Semele), with Dionysus/Bacchus lying across her lap.
The next mural shows the initiate returning.
She now carries a staff and wears a cap, items often presented after the successful completion of an initiation ordeal.
She kneels before the priestess, and appears to be whipped by a winged female figure.
Next to her is a dancing figure (a Maenad or Thyiad), and a gowned figure with a thyrsus (an initiation symbol of Dionysus) made of long stalks of wrapped fennel, with a pine cone on top.
In her penultimate appearance we see her being prepared with new clothes, while Eros holds up a mirror to her.
After this scene, there is another image of Eros.
Finally, the initiate is shown enthroned and in an elaborate costume.


In Rome, Dionysus merged with the local fertility god Liber (whose consort, Libera, inspired the Statue of Liberty).
The Roman Bacchic cult emphasized sexuality, inventing terrifying ordeals for its Mystery initiation.
It was this aspect which caused the cult to be banned by Roman authorities in 186 BC, for sexual abuse and other criminal activities (including, possibly, murder).
Whether these charges were true is unknown; there may have been individual cases of corruption but there is no evidence of widespread abuse, and it is generaly believed that these were trumped-up charges leveled against a cult, which was perceived as a danger to the state.
The Roman Senate sought to ban Dionysian rites throughout the Empire, restricting their gatherings to a handful of people under special license in Rome, however, this only succeeded in pushing the cult underground.
The cult gained further notoriety due to claims that the wife of Spartacus (leader of the Slave Revolt of 73BC) was an initiate of the Thracian Mysteries of Dionysus and considered her husband an incarnation of Dionysus Liber.
The Mysteries were revived in a tamer form under Julius Caesar around 50 BC, with his onetime ally Mark Antony becoming an enthusiastic devotee, and obtaining popular support.
They remained in existence (along with Bacchanalian street processions) until at least the time of Augustine (A.D. 354–430), and were an institution in most Romanised provinces.


© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
Ἄττις was the consort of Cybele in Phrygian and Greek mythology.
His priests were eunuchs, the Galli, as explained by origin myths pertaining to Attis and castration.
Attis was also a Phrygian god of vegetation, and in his self-mutilation, death, and resurrection he represents the fruits of the earth, which die in winter only to rise again in the spring.
An Attis cult began around 1250 BC in Dindymon.
He was originally a local semi-deity of Phrygia, associated with the great Phrygian trading city of Pessinos, which lay under the lee of Mount Agdistis.
The mountain was personified as a daemon, whom foreigners associated with the Great Mother Cybele.
In the late 4th century BC, a cult of Attis became a feature of the Greek world.
The story of his origins at Agdistis, recorded by the traveler Pausanias, have some distinctly non-Greek elements: Pausanias was told that the daemon Agdistis initially bore both male and female attributes. But the Olympian gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ and cast it away.
There grew up from it an almond-tree, and when its fruit was ripe, Nana, who was a daughter of the river-god Sangarius, picked an almond and laid it in her bosom.
The almond disappeared, and she became pregnant.
Nana abandoned the baby (Attis).
The infant was tended by a he-goat.
As Attis grew, his beauty was godlike, and Agdistis as Cybele then fell in love with him.
But the foster parents of Attis sent him to Pessinos, where he was to wed the king's daughter. 
According to some versions the King of Pessinos was Midas.
Just as the marriage-song was being sung, Agdistis/Cybele appeared in her transcendent power, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals.

Ritual Castration Clamps
Attis' father-in-law-to-be, the king who was giving his daughter in marriage, followed suit, prefiguring the self-castrating corybantes who devoted themselves to Cybele.
But Agdistis repented, and saw to it that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay.
At the temple of Cybele in Pessinus, the mother of the gods was still called Agdistis, the geographer Strabo recounted.
As neighboring Lydia came to control Phrygia, the cult of Attis was given a Lydian context too.
Attis is said to have introduced to Lydia the cult of the Mother Goddess Cybele, incurring the jealousy of Zeus, who sent a boar to destroy the Lydian crops.

Then certain Lydians, with Attis himself, were killed by the boar.
Pausanias adds, to corroborate this story, that the Gauls who inhabited Pessinos abstained from pork. 
This myth element may have been invented solely to explain the unusual dietary laws of the Lydian Gauls.
In Rome, the eunuch followers of Cybele were known as Galli.
The Emperor Julian gives an account of the spread of the orgiastic cult of Cybele in his 'Oratio'.
It spread from Anatolia to Greece and eventually to Rome in Republican times, and the cult of Attis, her reborn eunuch consort, accompanied her.
The first literary reference to Attis is the subject of one of the most famous poems by Catullus but it appears that Attis was not worshiped at Rome until the early Empire.

to be continued......

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