Bellum ingens in tenebris
Mystery religions, sacred mysteries or simply mysteries, were religious schools of the Greco-Roman world for which participation was reserved to initiates (mystai).1 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; Julian the Apostate in the mid 4th century is known to have been initiated into three distinct mystery schools — most notably the mithraists.
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.
The mysteries of Isis were religious initiation rites performed in the cult of the goddess Isis in the Greco-Roman world. They were modeled on other mystery rites, particularly the Eleusinian Mysteries in honor of the Greek goddess Demeter, and originated sometime between the third century BCE and the second century CE. Despite their mainly Hellenistic origins, the mysteries did allude to beliefs from ancient Egyptian religion, in which the worship of Isis arose. By undergoing the mystery rites, initiates signaled their dedication to Isis, although they were not required to worship her exclusively. The rites were seen as a symbolic death and rebirth, and they may have been thought to guarantee that the initiate’s soul, with the goddess’s help, would continue after death in a blissful afterlife.
Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, but she also listened to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers.2 Isis is often depicted as the mother of Horus, the falcon-headed deity associated with king and kingship (although in some traditions Horus’s mother was Hathor). Isis is also known as protector of the dead and goddess of children.
Isis worship typically took place within an Iseum. In Egypt, Isis would have received the same sort of rituals as other Egyptian Deities, including daily offerings. She was served by both priests and priestesses throughout the history of her cult. By the Greco-Roman era, the majority of her priests and priestesses had a reputation for wisdom and healing, and were said to have other special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather, which they did by braiding or not combing their hair. The latter was believed because the Egyptians considered knots to have magical powers.
In Greece, Cybele met with a mixed reception. She was partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, her Minoan equivalent Rhea, and the harvest-mother goddess Demeter. Some city-states, notably Athens, evoked her as a protector, but her most celebrated Greek rites and processions show her as an essentially foreign, exotic mystery-goddess who arrives in a lion-drawn chariot to the accompaniment of wild music, wine, and a disorderly, ecstatic following. Uniquely in Greek religion, she had a eunuch mendicant priesthood.1 Many of her Greek cults included rites to a divine Phrygian castrate shepherd-consort Attis, who was probably a Greek invention. In Greece, Cybele is associated with mountains, town and city walls, fertile nature, and wild animals, especially lions.
In Rome, Cybele was known as Magna Mater (“Great Mother”). The Roman state adopted and developed a particular form of her cult after the Sibylline oracle recommended her conscription as a key religious component in Rome’s second war against Carthage. Roman mythographers reinvented her as a Trojan goddess, and thus an ancestral goddess of the Roman people by way of the Trojan prince Aeneas. With Rome’s eventual hegemony over the Mediterranean world, Romanized forms of Cybele’s cults spread throughout the Roman Empire. The meaning and morality of her cults and priesthoods were topics of debate and dispute in Greek and Roman literature, and remain so in modern scholarship.
Rome officially adopted her cult during the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC), after dire prodigies, including a meteor shower, a failed harvest and famine, seemed to warn of Rome’s imminent defeat. The Roman Senate and its religious advisers consulted the Sibylline oracle and decided that Carthage might be defeated if Rome imported the Magna Mater (“Great Mother”) of Phrygian Pessinos.40 As this cult object belonged to a Roman ally, the Kingdom of Pergamum, the Roman Senate sent ambassadors to seek the king’s consent; en route, a consultation with the Greek oracle at Delphi confirmed that the goddess should be brought to Rome.41 The goddess arrived in Rome in the form of Pessinos’ black meteoric stone. Roman legend connects this voyage, or its end, to the matron Claudia Quinta, who was accused of inchastity but proved her innocence with a miraculous feat on behalf of the goddess. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, supposedly the “best man” in Rome, was chosen to meet the goddess at Ostia; and Rome’s most virtuous matrons (including Claudia Quinta) conducted her to the temple of Victoria, to await the completion of her temple on the Palatine Hill. Pessinos’ stone was later used as the face of the goddess’ statue.42 In due course, the famine ended and Hannibal was defeated.
Most modern scholarship agrees that Cybele’s consort (Attis) and her eunuch Phrygian priests (Galli) would have arrived with the goddess, along with at least some of the wild, ecstatic features of her Greek and Phrygian cults. The histories of her arrival deal with the piety, purity and status of the Romans involved, the success of their religious stratagem, and power of the goddess herself; she has no consort or priesthood, and seems fully Romanised from the first.43 Some modern scholars assume that Attis must have followed much later; or that the Galli, described in later sources as shockingly effeminate and flamboyantly “unRoman”, must have been an unexpected consequence of bringing the goddess in blind obedience to the Sibyl; a case of “biting off more than one can chew”.44 Others note that Rome was well versed in the adoption (or sometimes, the “calling forth”, or seizure) of foreign deities,45 and the diplomats who negotiated Cybele’s move to Rome would have been well-educated, and well-informed.46 Romans believed that Cybele, considered a Phrygian outsider even within her Greek cults, was the mother-goddess of ancient Troy (Ilium). Some of Rome’s leading patrician families claimed Trojan ancestry; so the “return” of the Mother of all Gods to her once-exiled people would have been particularly welcome, even if her spouse and priesthood were not; its accomplishment would have reflected well on the principals involved and, in turn, on their descendants.47 The upper classes who sponsored the Magna Mater’s festivals delegated their organisation to the plebeian aediles, and honoured her and each other with lavish, private festival banquets from which her Galli would have been conspicuously absent.48 The goddess herself was contained within her Palatine precinct, along with her priesthood, at the geographical heart of Rome’s most ancient religious traditions.49 She was promoted as patrician property; a Roman matron – albeit a strange one, “with a stone for a face” – who acted for the clear benefit of the Roman state.50
Taurobolium and Criobolium
Eroded inscription from Lugdunum (modern Lyon, in France) commemorating a taurobolium for the Mother of the Gods under the title Augusta94
Rome’s strictures against castration and citizen participation in Magna Mater’s cult limited both the number and kind of her initiates. From the 160’s AD, citizens who sought initiation to her mysteries could offer either of two forms of bloody animal sacrifice – and sometimes both – as lawful substitutes for self-castration. The Taurobolium sacrificed a bull, the most potent and costly victim in Roman religion; the Criobolium used a lesser victim, usually a ram.9596 A late, melodramatic and antagonistic account by the Christian apologist Prudentius has a priest stand in a pit beneath a slatted wooden floor; his assistants or junior priests dispatch a bull, using a sacred spear. The priest emerges from the pit, drenched with the bull’s blood, to the applause of the gathered spectators. This description of a Taurobolium as blood-bath is, if accurate, an exception to usual Roman sacrificial practice;97 it may have been no more than a bull sacrifice in which the blood was carefully collected and offered to the deity, along with its organs of generation, the testicles.98
The Taurobolium and Criobolium are not tied to any particular date or festival, but probably draw on the same theological principles as the life, death and rebirth cycle of the March “holy week”. The celebrant personally and symbolically took the place of Attis, and like him was cleansed, renewed or, in emerging from the pit or tomb, “reborn”.99 These regenerative effects were thought to fade over time, but they could be renewed by further sacrifice. Some dedications transfer the regenerative power of the sacrifice to non-participants, including emperors, the Imperial family and the Roman state; some mark a dies natalis (birthday or anniversary) for the participant or recipient. Dedicants and participants could be male or female.100
The sheer expense of the Taurobolium ensured that its initiates were from Rome’s highest class, and even the lesser offering of a Criobolium would have been beyond the means of the poor. Among the Roman masses, there is evidence of private devotion to Attis, but virtually none for initiations to Magna Mater’s cult.101 In the religious revivalism of the later Imperial era, Magna Mater’s notable initiates included the deeply religious, wealthy and erudite praetorian prefect Praetextatus; the quindecimvir Volusianus, who was twice consul; and possibly the Emperor Julian.102 Taurobolium dedications to Magna Mater tend to be more common in the Empire’s western provinces than elsewhere, attested by inscriptions in (among others) Rome and Ostia in Italy, Lugdunum in Gaul, and Carthage, in Africa.103
In ancient Roman religion, Ceres (/ˈsɪəriːz/;12 Latin: Cerēs [ˈkɛreːs]) was a goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. Ceres and Magna Mater
A year after the import of the ritus cereris, patrician senators imported cult to the Greek goddess Cybele and established her as Magna Mater (The Great Mother) within Rome’s sacred boundary, facing the Aventine Hill. Like Ceres, Cybele was a form of Graeco-Roman earth goddess. Unlike her, she had mythological ties to Troy, and thus to the Trojan prince Aeneas, mythological ancestor of Rome’s founding father and first patrician Romulus. The establishment of official Roman cult to Magna Mater coincided with the start of a new saeculum (cycle of years). It was followed by Hannibal’s defeat, the end of the Punic War and an exceptionally good harvest. Roman victory and recovery could therefore be credited to Magna Mater and patrician piety: so the patricians dined her and each other at her festival banquets. In similar fashion, the plebeian nobility underlined their claims to Ceres. Up to a point, the two cults reflected a social and political divide, but when certain prodigies were interpreted as evidence of Ceres’ displeasure, the senate appeased her with a new festival, the ieiunium Cereris (“fast of Ceres”).
The Eleusinian Mysteries (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. They are the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece”.1 Their basis was an old agrarian cult,2 and there is some evidence that they were derived from the religious practices of the Mycenean period. 34 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 main theme the “ascent” ( άνοδος : anodos) of Persephone and the reunion with her mother. It was a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spread to Rome.5 Similar religious rites appear in the agricultural societies of Near East, and in Minoan Crete.
The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret and consistently preserved from antiquity. For the initiated, the rebirth of Persephone symbolized the eternity of life which flows from generation to generation, and they believed that they would have a reward in the afterlife. 6 There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. Since the Mysteries involved visions and conjuring of an afterlife, some scholars believe that the power and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from psychedelic drugs. 7 The name of the town, Eleusís, seems to be Pre-Greek and it is probably a counterpart with Elysium and the goddess Eileithyia . 8
Bacchus/Dionysus (/daɪ.əˈnaɪsəs/; Greek: Διόνυσος, Dionysos) is the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, fertility,23 theatre and religious ecstasy in ancient Greek religion and myth. Wine played an important role in Greek culture, and the cult of Dionysus was the main religious focus for its unrestrained consumption.4 He may have been worshipped as early as c. 1500–1100 BC by Mycenean Greeks;56 traces of Dionysian-type cult have also been found in ancient Minoan Crete.7 His origins are uncertain, and his cults took many forms; some are described by ancient sources as Thracian, others as Greek.8910 In some cults, he arrives from the east, as an Asiatic foreigner; in others, from Ethiopia in the South. He is a god of epiphany, “the god that comes”, and his “foreignness” as an arriving outsider-god may be inherent and essential to his cults. He is a major, popular figure of Greek mythology and religion, becoming increasingly important over time, and included in some lists of the twelve Olympians, as the last of their number, and the only god born from a mortal mother.11 His festivals were the driving force behind the development of Greek theatre.12
He is also known as Bacchus (/ˈbækəs/ or /ˈbɑːkəs/; Greek: Βάκχος, Bakkhos), the name adopted by the Romans15 and the frenzy he induces is bakkheia. His thyrsus, sometimes wound with ivy and dripping with honey, is both a beneficent wand and a weapon used to destroy those who oppose his cult and the freedoms he represents. As Eleutherios (“the liberator”), his wine, music and ecstatic dance free his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subvert the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Those who partake of his mysteries are possessed and empowered by the god himself.16
The cult of Dionysus is also a “cult of the souls”; his maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead.17 He is sometimes categorised as a dying-and-rising god.12
The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of 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 Greek 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; modern knowledge is derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies.
In Livy’s account, the new Bacchic mysteries were originally restricted to women and held only three times a year; but were corrupted by the Etruscan-Greek version, and thereafter drunken men and women of all ages and social classes cavorted in a sexual free-for-all five times a month. Livy relates their various outrages against Rome’s civil and religious laws and morality; a secretive, subversive and potentially revolutionary counter-culture. The cult was suppressed by the State with great ferocity; of the 7,000 arrested, most were executed. Modern scholarship treats much of Livy’s account with skepticism; more certainly, a Senatorial edict, the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus was distributed throughout Roman and allied Italy. It banned the former Bacchic cult organisations. Each meeting must seek prior senatorial approval through a praetor. No more than three women and two men were allowed at any one meeting, Those who defied the edict risked the death penalty.
Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a mystery religion centred around the god Mithras that was practised in the Roman Empire from about the 1st to the 4th century. The religion was inspired by Persian worship of the god Mithra (proto-Indo-Iranian Mitra), though the Greek Mithras was linked to a new and distinctive imagery, and the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice is debated.1 The mysteries were popular in the Roman military.2
Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those “united by the handshake”.3 They met in underground temples, called mithraea, which survive in large numbers. The cult appears to have had its centre in Rome.
he basic version of the cult myth is attested by literary sources, but, primarily, by depictions in the cult images in the temples. The latter are difficult to interpret.
It is certain that Mithras is born from a rock.2 He is depicted in his temples hunting down and slaying a bull in the tauroctony (see section below). He then meets with the sun, who kneels to him. The two then shake hands, and dine on bull parts. Little is known about the beliefs associated with this.3 The ancient histories of the cult by Euboulos and Pallas have perished.4 The name of the god was certainly given as Mithras (with an ‘s’) in Latin monuments, although Mithra may have been used in Greek.5
Some monuments show additional episodes of the myth. In the paintings at Dura Europos (CIMRM 42), the story begins with Jupiter fighting against the giants. This is followed by a mysterious depiction of a bearded figure reclining against a rock, with the leaves of a tree above. This figure is sometimes thought to be Oceanus. Then the normal myth is depicted. The same episodes appear as a prologue also in CIMRM 1430, a relief from Virunum, and CIMRM 1359 from Germany.
In the painted Mithraeum at Hawarte in Syria, further scenes appear. Mithras is depicted with a chained demon at his feet, while in another scene he is depicted attacking a city manned by the demons. These scenes appear to follow the normal myth.