Mystery Religions

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MYSTERY RELIGIONS . Like many other terms that represent concepts in the history of religions, mysteries, or mystery religions, serves as an umbrella term covering a wide variety of referents. Since the word had its own origin and history, its use needs to be analyzed carefully, especially in the context of comparative studies.

Definition of Terms

The Greek word mustēria refers initially only to the "mysteries" of Eleusis and signifies a secret celebration or secret worship that is accessible only to initiates (mustai ), who have had themselves initiated (muein or telein ) into it. Other terms used for the celebration are teletē and orgia ; Latin writers either use the Greek word or translate it as initia. Originally, then, mysteries denotes a specific religious manifestation that is essentially different in character from other, official cultic functions; the mysteries are not open to everyone but require a special initiation. But in Greek, mustēria is already applied to comparable rituals of initiation (see below) and thus acquires a general meaning. When taken over by philosophy (especially Neoplatonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism) and Christianity, the term increasingly loses its original concrete religious referent and acquires instead the sense of a revealed or mysterious divine wisdom ("mysteriosophy") that is only available to or attainable by adepts.

The term mysteries was familiar, of course, to classical philologists, who knew it from the ancient tradition, but it was not until the nineteenth century that it again became a technical term in the history of religions for secret cults or ceremonies of initiation (owing especially to James G. Frazer). In particular it was much used by the history of religions school, most often by Richard Reitzenstein and Wilhelm Bousset, in their attempt to render comprehensible the multiplicity that marked the history of religions in the Hellenistic period and late antiquity, as well as to demonstrate the connections between that world and early Christianity. In the view of the history of religions school, the mysteries were an expression of popular piety that drew sustenance especially from the so-called Oriental mystery religions of the Roman imperial age; in the long run, it was claimed, even the early church could not escape the influence of those religions. Discussion of the beginnings of Christianity was carried on for a long time under the sign of the mysteries, which were regarded as one of Christianity's roots; this approach can still be found today.

There can be no objection to a general use of the term mysteries provided that its original meaning continues to resonate even as its application is extended. The problem here is the same as with gnosis or gnosticism. These technical terms have been given a broader meaning, but scholars have not on that account ceased to use them in a restricted regional sense: gnōsis as a Greek word meaning "esoteric knowledge" and referring to religious groups of late antiquity. My own inclination is not to detach these terms from the historical context in which they exercised historical influence but to continue to use them primarily in their restricted sense, without, however, forgetting that the history of religions needs such umbrella termsespecially in comparative studies. The danger otherwise is that the terminology will become blurred and cease to be of help in describing original religious phenomena and will serve only for a religious typology that lacks historical depth.

Thus, for example, Buddhism has been explained by Paul Lévy (1957) as a "mystery religion," simply because of certain ritual factors that play a part in the consecration of Buddhist monks and resemble to some extent ritual elements in the Greek and Oriental mysteries. This demonstration I regard as an unsuccessful venture into dangerous territory. Certainly, Buddhism (especially Tibetan Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna Buddhism) has its "mysteries" in the sense of esoteric rituals, just as do most of the other great religions (especially Hinduism). But such instances occur during later historical stages that presuppose a developed hierarchy and represent a kind of ritualization of esoteric teachings that can in turn be traced back in part to older foundations. It is possible in the same way to give the name mysteries to various disputed early Mesopotamian and early Egyptian rituals.

We really have no choice but to understand the term mysteries as a historical category that registers a specific historico-religious content and that relates in particular to the Greco-Roman age. The general, typological use of the word must be measured against that standard. Mysteries, then, are special initiation ceremonies that are esoteric in character and often connected with the yearly agricultural cycle. Usually they involve the destiny of the divine powers being venerated and the communication of religious wisdom that enables the initiates to conquer death. The mysteries are part of the general religious life, but they are to a special degree separated from the public cult that is accessible to all, and on this account they are also called "secret cults."

The "Phenomenology" of the Mysteries

Mysteries, then, refers primarily to the content as found in the history of Greco-Roman and Near Eastern religions. At the cultic-ritual level, which is the dominant level, the discipline of the arcanum (the obligation of strict secrecy) means that we know very little more about the mysteries than the ancient sourcesincluding ancient Roman literatureoccasionally pass on as supposedly reliable information. Our historical knowledge is limited because Christian writers (such as Clement of Alexandria and Firmicus Maternus) who reported on the mysteries allowed their own polemical or apologetic interpretations to color their accounts.

We are relatively well informed about the general structure of the ceremonies (Eleusis, Samothrace, Isis, Mithras). Processions and public functions (sacrifices, dances, music) framed the actual celebration, which was held in closed rooms (telestērion, spelunca, temple) and usually comprised two or three acts: the dramatic action (drōmenon ) with the "producing and showing" of certain symbols (deiknumena ) and the interpretation (exegesis), through a communication of the myth (legomena ) and its attendant formulas, of what had been experienced. The sacred action (drōmenon ) and the sacred narrative (legomenon, muthos, logos ) were closely connected. We are still rather ignorant regarding the central ceremony, that is, the initiation proper. Any interpretation of it can be hypothetical only, never certain. In my opinion, the heart of the celebration was the linking of the initiate with the destiny of the divinity or divinities, as expressed in performance and word, and the resultant bestowal of hope for some kind of survival after death. This interpretation is also suggested by burial gifts for the deceased (e.g., the "Orphic" gold plate from southern Italy). The ancient human problems of suffering, death, and guilt undoubtedly played an important part in the efficacy of the mysteries. The idea of rebirth can be documented only in later Hellenism. In any case, there is no evidence of a unitary theology of the mysteries that was common to all the mysteries; the origins and historical course of the several mysteries were too discrepant for that. Even the later philosophical explanation of the logos of the mysteries was not everywhere the same.

A word must be said here about the connection often made between the mysteries and the idea of "dying and rising divinities," who are linked to the vegetation cycle. James G. Frazer, who accepted the ideas of Wilhelm Mannhardt on nature myths and folk myths, was the leader and main influence in this area. In addition to an uninhibited use of terminology (e.g., resurrection is usually understood in the biblical and Christian sense), the chief defect of this theory is its utter neglect of source criticism. Strictly speaking, the "vegetation theory" is a theory at two removes that, as Carsten Colpe has shown, simply takes a theory at one remove, namely, the ancient interpretatio Graeca, and prolongs it in the spirit of nineteenth-century Romanticism. The nineteenth-century scholars did not further analyze the ancient use of symbols and metaphors in which the vegetative processes of withering and blooming (in the myth of Adonis) were already described (especially from the second century on) by such terms as dying, declining, disappearing, and being renewed, reappearing, rising. I say nothing of the fact that these same scholars made no distinction between primary, cult-related myth and secondary, literary mythology. A whole series of so-called vegetation divinities, such as Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, or Tammuz, were interpreted according to the same pattern, namely, as dying and rising gods; their cults, with their "mystery" character, supposedly served to communicate to the "initiates" the powers associated with the "fruitfulness" of nature.

As we know today, there is no evidence at all that any of these gods was thought of as "rising" in any proper sense of the term. In actual fact, there were great differences in mythology and ritual; only secondarily (often as early as late antiquity) were the divinities assimilated to one another (e.g., Osiris to Adonis and Attis). The often only fragmentary mythology centering on these divinities told of the disappearance or stay of the god in the lower world, where he lived on (as lord of the lower world or, in the case of Osiris, as judge of the dead) or from which in one or another manner he returned to the light of day (on earth, in the air, or in heaven) and resumed his role as a god (which he had never abandoned). The connection with rituals was also quite diverse; there was by no means always a question of mysteries in the sense of secret cults (see below). We must also allow for the possibility that some of the so-called Oriental mysteries acquired their mystery character only secondarily, under the influence of Greek and especially the Eleusinian mysteries (this was certainly the case with Osiris in relation to Adonis). The interpretation of the mysteries as being, without distinction, ancient vegetation cults should therefore no longer be used as a magic hermeneutical key.

In view of this critique, the historical and phenomenological problem of the origin of the mysteries remains unresolved. Repeated attempts have been made to move beyond the now-outdated nature-myth theory. Ethnologists in particular have repeatedly focused on the mysteries and interpreted them as survivals of ancient "rites of passage" (Arnold van Gennep); in our day this theory has been maintained especially by Mircea Eliade. There is much that is correct in it. The ethnological contributions that play a role in it come in part from the morphology of culture school (Frobenius), in part from the history of culture school of Vienna. The latter, represented by Wilhelm Schmidt and Wilhelm Koppers, sees the initiation of young men or boys and the whole organization of adult male society as one of the important roots of the mysteries. In cultural and historical terminology the mysteries reflect the agrarian, matriarchal stage, in which for the first time the male sector of society, as distinct from the female sector, developed secret societies and initiation ceremonies (as a protest against matriarchal tyranny, according to Koppers). That stage would be located chronologically in the Mesolithic period. The Greek mysteries are not directly linked to that stage and its events, but they are pre-Indo-Germanic and ultimately have their roots in it.

The history of culture theory as developed by Wilhelm Schmidt has been largely abandoned today. It has left behind only the ideaitself not newthat the origin of the mysteries is to be sought in some stage of primitive agricultural development. Even this, however, does not apply to Osiris, who from the beginning was associated with pastoral symbols, thus reflecting a nomadic culture, and had close ties with the Egyptian ideology of kingship; the later Corn Osiris has been assimilated to Adonis, and the Hellenistic mysteries of Osiris, which focus primarily on Isis, have in turn been influenced by the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone (Kore). The role played by female divinities need not be linked to a hypothetical matriarchy; these goddesses are phenomena belonging to an agrarian culture (Mother Earth). Among modern philologists Walter Burkert is the chief proponent of the view that the root of the mysteries is to be looked for in agrarian culture and specifically in secret society ceremonies (with their tests of courage and their sexual, orgiastic traits) and that they originated in the Neolithic age; the dawning Greek individualism of the seventh and sixth centuries bce took over these ancient cults and turned them into a deliberately adopted religion centered on the conquest of death.

Adolf E. Jensen has suggested a different ethnological approach. He sees behind the Greek mysteries (especially those of Eleusis) a conception of the world proper to the culture of early food growers; this conception centered on the death or possibly the sacrifice of a female prototypical being (or divinity) who was the source of the life-sustaining cultivated vegetation, and thus it thematized for the first time the mystery of death and life ("the slain god"). There has since been occasional criticism of the interpretation of the Melanesian starting point (the myth of Hainuwele; see Jonathan Z. Smith's "A Pearl of Great Price and a Cargo of Yams: A Study in Situational Incongruity" in History of Religions 16, 1976, pp. 119, and his Imagining Religion, Chicago, 1982, pp. 90101); nonetheless it is a legitimate question whether earlier food-cultivation stages are to be glimpsed behind the mysteries. The answer can be found only through cooperative study by ethnologists, prehistorians, philologists, and historians of religion. In any case an answer is not directly required for understanding our historical and philological material, which comes to us primarily from Greek sources. All our ancient informants confirm the view that the mysteries in general took their character primarily from the Greek mysteries and became widespread only as a result of hellenization.

The Historical Multiplicity of Mysteries

Within the confines of this article it is necessary to start with the ancient Greek mysteries and move on to related Oriental mysteries.

The Greek mysteries

The Greek mysteries were from the outset cults of clan or tribe. They can in many cases be traced back to the pre-Greek Mycenaean period and were probably ancient rituals of initiation into a clan or an "association." The most important were the mysteries of Eleusis, which in fact provided the pattern for the idea of mysteries. The independent town of Eleusis (there is evidence of a prehistoric settlement there in the third millennium bce) became an Athenian dependency in the seventh century bce and thereby acquired, especially from the sixth century on, a pan-Hellenic role that in the Roman imperial age attracted the attention of Rome. Augustus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Gallienus had themselves initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. An attempt under Claudius (r. 4154) to move the celebration to Rome failed. The destruction of the sanctuary came under Alaric's Christian Goths in 395 ce. The mythological background for the Eleusinian mysteries was provided by the story of the goddesses Demeter and Kore, preserved in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The pair were presented as mother and daughter. Their relationship developed in a gripping manner the theme of loss (death), grief, search, and (re)discovery (life). The interpretation of the story as purely a nature myth and specifically a vegetation myth is actually an old one and can appeal to ancient witnesses for support; nonetheless it is oversimplified precisely because it loses sight of the human and social content of the myth.

The public ceremonies of the annual Eleusinian ritual are well known to us and confirmed from archaeological findings. The director was the hierophant, who from time immemorial had been a member of the Eumolpides, a noble family that had held the kingship of old. The Kerukes family filled the other offices. All classes, including slaves, were admitted to the cult. According to degree of participation, a distinction was made between the mustēs ("initiate") and the epoptēs ("viewer"); only the latter was regarded as fully initiated. But this distinction was not original and came in when the Eleusinian mysteries were combined with the mysteries of Agrai on the Ilissos (near Athens) in the seventh century bce. The Lesser Mysteries at Agrai took place annually in February (the month Anthesterion) and were regarded as a preliminary stage leading to the Greater Mysteries held at Eleusis in September (1620 Boe-dromion). Sacrifices, libations, baths, ablutions, fasts, processions (especially bringing the "holy things," the cult symbols, to Eleusis), and torches all played an important role in both feasts. The center of all activity was the ceremony that was not open to the public. It was held in the "place of consecration" known as the telestērion, which is not to be confused with the temple of Demeter at the same location.

We know that at the ceremonies at Agrai the initiate knelt down with a ram's skin draped around him and held an unlit torch in his hand. The priestess shook a winnowing fan (liknon ) over him, and he handled a serpent (sacred to Demeter and Kore). Finally water was poured over him. In the Eleusinian ceremony, of which we know less, the initiation took place at night. It included the handling of an object, not identified with certainty, which was taken from a "coffer" (perhaps the instrumentmortar and pestleused in preparing the sacred potion; other interpretations see the coffer as an image of the womb). In addition, there was a "viewing" (epopteia ) of the (rescued?) Kore, probably in dramatic form (drōmenon ). The cry that the hierophant uttered at this point suggests as much: "The Lady bore a holy boy-child: Brimo bore Brimos" (Hippolytus, Refutations 5.8.40). The reference is probably to the birth of Ploutos, the personification of wealth, from Demeter; yet it is questionable whether this was intended as a symbol of the new birth of the initiate and not as a symbol of the limited power of the lower world or death. The latter meaning seems to be suggested by the concluding rite: the showing of an ear of grain by the priest (Hippolytus, ibid.). This must have signified that life is "Mother" Demeter's gift to human beings. A fragment of Pindar (Bowra 121) says of the initiates: "Happy they who see it and then descend beneath the earth. They know life's end but also a new beginning from the gods." To them alone is life given in the underworld; all others encounter evil (see Sophocles, frag. 837, Pearson).

In addition to the mysteries of Eleusis, there was a series of others about which there is unsatisfactory information. Almost all of them were very ancient. They include the mysteries at Phenas in Arcadia (also mysteries of Demeter); those at Andania in Messenia, in which Demeter and Hermes were venerated as great gods; those at Phyle, dedicated to "Earth, the great mother"; and those on Paros and Thasos, which were again mysteries of Demeter. More important were the mysteries of the great gods, or Kabeiroi, on the island of Samo-thrace, where there was an ancient place of worship until the fourth century cethat attracted many, especially in the second century bce. The gods in question were probably a pair of Phrygian divinities, father and son (kabeiros is a Semitic word). The ceremonies had a pronounced orgiastic and burlesque character and were probably connected with what had originally been associations of smiths (iron rings played a role). Later, however, the Kabeiroi were regarded as helpers in distress at sea. Practically nothing is known of these mysteries; there are hints of links with Demeter and Orpheus.

More important were the Dionysian mysteries, information on which has come down to us from as early as the fifth century bce (see Euripides, The Bacchae ). As is well known, Dionysos was an unusual god who represented a side of Greek life long regarded as un-Greeka view that has caused interpreters many difficulties. His thiasos ("company") was probably originally an association of women that spread throughout Greece, especially the islands, and carried on a real proselytizing activity by means of itinerant priestesses. There was no one central sanctuary, but there were centers in southern Italy (Cumae), Asia Minor, and Egypt. Ecstatic and orgiastic activity remained characteristic of this cult as late as the second century bce and only then assumed more strictly regulated, esoteric forms, as can be seen from the laws of the Iobacchant community at Athens, where the cult of Dionysos (Bacchus) had become a kind of club. The myth of Dionysos had for its focus the divine forces hidden in nature and human beings; these forces were thematized and applied chiefly by women. The ecstatic nocturnal celebrations showed traits of promiscuity (Maenads and satyrs) and took place in the open air. It is uncertain to what extent the paintings in the Villa Item at Pompeii and in the Casa Omerica reproduce the later ritual of the Dionysian mysteries. These paintings are more likely a mysteriosophic interpretation within the framework of a bridal mysticism in which the soul (the immortal element as part of the god Dionysos) presents the pattern of a cycle of purifications. The myth of Dionysos was at an early stage combined with the Orphic mysteries. The hope of another world that was promised and confirmed in the rites is well attested by burial gifts (gold plates) from Greece and southern Italy. Even after death, the initiate remained under the protection of the god.

The Orphic mysteries are a difficult phenomenon to deal with. Often they are not easily distinguished from the Dionysian mysteries. Also, it is not certain whether they were actually mysteries and, if they were, where we should look for their origin. Testimonies do not go back beyond the sixth century bce and vary widely. It is certain that at an early date Orpheus was turned into the founder of the Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Samo-thracian mysteries. Orphism therefore had no central sanctuary. It seems to have been more of a missionary religion that, unlike the official cults, devoted itself to the theme of the immortal soul (psuchē) and its deliverance from the present world. It had an ethical view of the relation between initiation and behavior. A way of life that was shaped by certain rules served to liberate the soul or the divine in human beings. The anthropogonic and cosmogonic myth that provided an explanation of the hybrid human condition also showed the way to redemption; cosmology and soteriology were thus already closely connected. As a result, Orphism broke away from the religion of the polis, not only because it possessed holy books that contained its teachings, but also because the idea of the immortality of the soul made the official cult superfluous. Greek philosophy, beginning with Socrates and Plato, gave a theoretical justification for all this.

The Oriental mysteries

Narrowly understood, the Oriental mysteries comprised only the mysteries of Isis and of Mithras. But since the ancient Alexandrian reporters applied the technical terms mustēria and teletai in their proper sense to any orgiastic cult or ritual, and especially to the numerous and often quite exotic Oriental cults of the imperial period, a whole series of these religions came to be classified as mysteries; this usage has prevailed down to our own time.

Mysteries of Cybele are attested on the Greek mainland and islands from the third century bce. Oddly, no mention is made of Attis. Pausanias, in the second century ce, is the first witness to the connection; the mythological relation is attested by Catullus in his "Poem 63" (first century bce). We know nothing about the structure and content of these mysteries; perhaps they were an imitation of the Eleusinian mysteries. In any case, the Roman cult of Cybele, who was worshiped on the Palatine from 204 bce on, was not a mystery religion. Beginning in the second century ce and down to the fifth century, the literature speaks of the mysteries of Mater Magna (Mētēr Megalē) but tells us no more about them. On the supposition that we are not dealing simply with a misleading terminology, these mysteries may have focused on the ritual castration of novices (Galli) and its deeper meaning. With regard to Attis, inscriptions in Asia Minor dating from the first century cespeak of the "initiates of Attis" (Attabokaoi). Some formulas, preserved by Clement of Alexandria and Firmicus Maternus, show that the reference is to a participation in the destiny of the divinity whereby the faithful are promised deliverance: "Be consoled, O initiates, for the god is delivered; therefore we too shall have deliverance from our troubles" (Firmicus Maternus, De erroribus profanarum religionum 22.13).

The initiation involved an anointing; there is also reference to a kind of sacred meal (eating from a tambourine, drinking from a cymbal). The meaning of an accompanying formula is uncertain in the version given by Clement of Alexandria (Protrepticus 15): "I have entered the aduton [bridal chamber?]." Firmicus Maternus has a simpler version: "I have become an initiate of Attis." At the end of the fourth century ce, the cult of Cybele and Attis also included baptism in bull's blood (taurobolium ). This ceremony had developed out of an older sacrifice of a bull, attested from the middle of the second century on. It was supposed to bring renewal to the initiates; only a single inscription interprets the renewal as a "new birth." The baptism was a onetime rite and perhaps was intended to compete with Christian baptism.

The Hellenistic cult of Isis in late antiquity undoubtedly involved secret initiatory celebrations. We learn something about them from Apuleius's famous novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass (second century ce). Greek influence is especially clear here: it was only through the identification of Isis with Demeter (attested in Herodotus, 2.59) and the hellenization of the cult of Isis that the latter came to include mysteries (first attested c. 220 bce on Delos). In this form it spread, despite occasional opposition, throughout the whole civilized world of the time, reaching Rome in the first century bce. It became one of the most widely disseminated Oriental religions of late antiquity, especially from the second century bce on. Isis became the great thousand-named, universal goddess (panthea ) who had conquered destiny and was invoked in numerous hymns and aretalogies that display a remarkable Greco-Egyptian atmosphere and tone.

This successful hellenization was probably due to the introduction of the cult of Sarapis under Ptolemy I, son of Lagus (305283 bce), when this novel Greco-Egyptian cult (Sarapis combines Osiris and Apis ) was celebrated with both an Eleusinian priest (Timothy, a Eumolpid) and an Egyptian priest (Manetho) participating. Isis, Thoth, and Anubis were naturally linked with Sarapis (Osiris). The well-known story of Isis, Osiris, and Horus (Harpocrates) acquired its complete form only in Greek and in this version was probably a product of Hellenism (Osiris being assimilated to Adonis). The ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris was originally connected with the monarchy and displayed the character of a mystery religion only to the extent that the dead pharaoh was looked upon as Osiris and brought to Abydos not simply to be buried but also to be greeted by the people as one restored to life in the form of a new statue in the temple. The hope of survival as or with or like Osiris was the predominant form that the hope of another world took in ancient Egypt, and it continued uninterrupted in the Greco-Roman period; it provided a point of attachment for the mysteries of Isis.

The cult of Isis had its official place in the Roman festal calendar (beginning in the second century ce) and comprised two principal feasts: the Iseia, which was celebrated from October 26 to November 3 and included the dromenon of the myth, with the "finding" (heuresis, inventio ) of Osiris as its climax; and the sea-journey feast (Navigium Isidis, Ploiaphesia) on March 5, the beginning of the season for seafaring, of which Isis had become the patron deity. According to Apuleius (Metamorphoses 11) the actual mysteries began with preliminary rites such as baptism (sprinkling), a ten-day fast, and being clothed in a linen robe. At sunset the initiates entered the aduton for further ceremonies to which only allusions are made: a journey through the lower world and the upper world (the twelve houses of the zodiac, which represented the power of destiny) and a vesting of the initiate as the sun god (instar solis ); the initiate was renatus ("reborn") and became sol ("the sun"), or in other words experienced a deification (theomorphōsis ). He thereby became a "servant" of Isis and "triumphed over his destiny [fortuna ]." In addition to a consecration to Isis, there was evidently also a consecration to Osiris, but we know even less about this ceremony.

The cult of Mithras (Mithra) in the Roman imperial age, like that of Isis, was not originally Oriental but was a creation of Hellenistic syncretism. It is true that the name of the god Mithras is Indo-Iranian in origin and originally meant "contract" (mithra, mitra ) and that some Iranian-Zoroastrian elements are recognizable in the iconographic and epigraphic sources; these facts, however, do not point to a Persian origin of the cult. No testimonies to the existence of Mithraea in Iran have as yet been discovered. On the other hand, the vast majority of these sanctuaries have been found in the Roman military provinces of central and eastern Europe, especially in Dalmatia and the Danube Valley. The Mithraeum at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates is the most eastern. It was built by Roman soldiers from Syria in 168 ce, rebuilt in 209 ce, and expanded in 240 ce. It was thus not the creation of a native community. The "Parthian" style is simply a matter of adaptation to local tradition and no proof of an Iranian origin of the mysteries. There is as yet no evidence of Mithraea in Babylonia (Mesopotamia); three Mithraea have been found in Asia Minor, one in Syria. The oldest Mithraea are from the middle of the second century ce; most are from the third and fourth centuries. Thus an Eastern origin for the Mithraic mysteries is most uncertain.

According to Plutarch (Life of Pompey 24) they were introduced into the West by Syrian pirates in the first century bce. This report may have a historical basis because the veneration of Mithras in Syria, Pontus, and Commagene is well attested, though no reference is made to any mysteries of Mithras. It is likely that soldiers from this area, where Greeks and Orientals came in contact, brought the cult of Mithras to the West in the first century ce. In the second century ce, however, the cult was transformed into mysteries in the proper sense and widely disseminated as a soldiers' religion, until finally Mithras was elevated to the position of Sol Invictus, the god of the empire, under Diocletian (r. 284305). As in the case of the cult of Isis, the Hellenistic worshipers of Mithras transformed the foreign god and his cult along lines inspired by the awakening individualism of the time with its rejection of the traditional official cult and its longing for liberation from death and fatea longing especially understandable in soldiers. In addition, the exotic elements (Egyptian, Persian) are to be attributed to the contemporary tendency to emphasize and cultivate such traits as being especially efficacious.

We are, once again, poorly informed about the myth and rites of the Mithraic mysteries. We have no account by an Apuleius as we do for the mysteries of Isis. Instead we have a large mass of archaeological documents that are not always easy to interpret. The so-called Mithraic Liturgy is a magical text concerned only marginally with the mysteries of Mithras. What Porphyry has to say about these mysteries in his Cave of the Nymph is philosophical exegesis in the Neoplatonic vein.

The Mithraic mysteries took place in small cavelike rooms that were usually decorated with the characteristic relief or cult statue of Mithras Tauroctonus ("bull-slayer" or "bull-sacrificer"). In form, this representation and its accompanying astrological symbols is Greco-Roman; its content has some relation to cosmology and soteriology, that is, the sacrifice of a bull is thought of as life-giving. Other iconographic evidence indicates that the god was a model for the faithful and wanted them to share his destiny: birth from a rock, combats like those of Herakles, ascent to the sun, dominion over time and the cosmos. Acceptance into the community of initiates (consecranei ) or brothers (fratres ) was achieved through consecratory rites in which baptisms or ablutions, purifications (with honey), meals (bread, water, wine, meat), crownings with garlands, costumes, tests of valor, and blessings played a part. There were seven degrees of initiation (Corax, Nymphus, Miles, Leo, Perses, Heliodromus, Pater), which were connected with the planetary deities and certain symbols or insignia. Surviving inscriptions attest the profound seriousness of the mysteries. Mithras is addressed: "You have rescued us, too, by shedding the blood that makes us immortal." Since these groups accepted only men (mostly soldiers), they can be considered true religious associations of males. Also worth noting is the close link between Mithras and Saturn (Kronos) as god of the universe and of time (Aion, Saeculum, Aevum); Saturn is the father of Mithras and the one who commissions him, while Mithras is in turn connected with the sun god (Sol, Apollo). (There is still a good deal of obscurity in this area.) Christian apologists (Justin, Tertullian, Jerome, Firmicus Maternus) regarded the mysteries of Mithras as a serious rival of early Christianity; several Christian churches were built over Mithraea.

Impact of the Mysteries

Because the Greek mysteries, especially the Eleusinian and the Dionysian, exerted a growing attraction and influence, Hellenistic literature accepted and developed in varying ways the ideas and representations proper to the mysteries. An effort has been made (Kerényi, 1927; Merkelbach, 1984) to extend our knowledge of the mysteries, and especially of the ritual concealed from us by the discipline of the secret (arcanum ), by examining the novels of late antiquity. Such fictional themes as loss, search, and recovery, (apparent) death and return to life, the passing of tests, transformations (metamorphoses), hints of "mysteries," and so on may very well have been reflections of the mysteries. Ambiguity, allegory, and symbolism served as codes that could be broken only by initiates (and in our day by scholars). Reinhold Merkelbach speaks in this context of an "Isis novel" (in Apuleius, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, the Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, and parts of the pseudo-Clementine literature as reworked by Christian gnostics); a "Mithras novel" (Syrian Iamblichus, Babylonica ); a Dionysos novel (Longus, Daphne and Chloe ); and, in the Aethiopiaca of Heliodorus, a "syncretistic Helios novel" that combines the mysteries of Isis, Mithras, and Dionysos.

The philosophical and religious literature of the Hellenistic age was also affected by the mysteries. The Corpus Hermeticum, for example, is filled with reminiscences of the terminology of the mysteries, and we are quite justified in assuming that the circles responsible for the corpus had "mysteries" that were given ritual expression. The same holds for some of the gnostic writings, which not only frequently discuss the concept of musterion/mysterium but also adopt in their rituals various aspects of the mysteries and especially the notion of a disciplina arcani (see below). Even Hellenistic Judaism, especially in the person of Philo Judaeus (first century ce), underwent the same influence. A work like Joseph and Aseneth is unintelligible without a knowledge of the mysteries. Even the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of the Hebrew Bible does not escape their influence, any more than the subsequent writings of the Christian community. The language of Christ's apostle Paul (especially in 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians ) and of his disciples (in Ephesians and Colossians ) betrays this environment, as does, no doubt, the First Letter of Peter.

The impact of the mysteries became more concrete beginning in the second century ce, as the Christian church found itself increasingly in competition with these forms of worship. The cultic area of the church's life, especially baptism and eucharist, underwent a profound transformation as the sacraments became "mysteries" to which not everyone had immediate access. Preparation (initiation) was now required in the form of fasts, instructions, purifications. The unbaptized and those on the way to baptism (catechumens) were not admitted to the sacred Christian cultic meal, which was regarded as the "remedy bringing immortality" and acquired its efficacy through the epiclesis (invocation) of the priest; in other words, the cultic meal was placed under a kind of discipline of secrecy. As the church became hierarchically organized (especially from the third century on) and as it became an established church under Constantine in the fourth century, it not only won greater publicity to the detriment of the old established religion but at the same time acquired an aspect of mystery whereby it sought to give a Christian direction to a new phenomenon, the religiosity of the masses. Mystery now became not only a cultic term but also, following a path blazed by ancient philosophy, made its way into Christian theology, where mysticism came to mean a kind of knowledge of God that is not available to everyone.


A typically Hellenic spiritualization of the language of the mysteries had been going on in Greek philosophy since Plato; in the ensuing period, as the mysteries spread, mysterium and sophia became more and more closely associated, and in late antiquity the distinction between religion and philosophy became ever more tenuous. The parallelism of the two was due to the fact that, according to Greek philosophy, knowledge of God was attainable only by a path resembling the one followed in the mysteries at the ritual and religious level: that is, there was need of preparations, instructions, and even a kind of authorization (katharsis ). For Plato, knowledge of God is identical with the vision of supreme and utterly pure being; the vision brings a participation in that being and even bestows immortality. For this reason, terms taken from the mysteries were often used in philosophy: epopteia, teletē, mustēria. Platonic and Stoic philosophers began to impose their own meaning on the available myths connected with the mysteries; they began to "mythologize" them, that is, to link muthos and logos. Preliminary steps in this direction, or at least parallel manifestations, were already to be found in Orphism, which posited a "hidden" (mystic) link between the cosmos and human beings and made use in addition of the doctrine of the soul (a divine element located in the body). This paraphilosophical explanation has been called "mysteriosophy" (Bianchi, 1979); we met it earlier in the traditions concerned with Eleusis, where it already bore a strong Orphic impress.

Insofar as the philosophy of the Hellenistic age and late antiquity was interested in the mysteries, it took the often bizarre mythical traditions associated with them and sought to extract their rational (logical) nucleus by interpreting them as pieces of natural philosophy or as nature myths (this was especially the case with the Stoics). Unfortunately, we possess only fragmentary examples of such interpretations of the mysteries. Thus Cybele (Magna Mater) was interpreted as Mother Earth (Lucretius, Varro) and as the origin of being, and Attis as the instrument of creation (i.e., of becoming) or as Logos and Savior (Emperor Julian). Isis, understood as mother of the gods and universal goddess (panthea ), was identified with Demeter (Plutarch). Mithras (the Sun) became principle ("Creator and Father") of the universe (Porphyry); his identification with Aion ("eternal time") probably also goes back to a philosophical interpretation.

The influence of this kind of philosophical interpretation on the later theology of the mysteries cannot simply be rejected out of hand. Traditions such as Hermetism, a Greco-Egyptian revelatory religion, show the path followed in this alignment of philosophy and religion, which the Neo-Phythagoreanism and late Platonism (Plotinus) led to philosophy being turned into religion, philosophical knowledge into the vision of God, and the life of the philosopher into a religious bios ("life"). At work in this process was the conviction that behind both religion (the mysteries) and philosophy was the "ineffable," the "mystery," or "being," as opposed to everything transient or to "becoming," and that this ultimate reality was to be approached not simply through thought (theōria ) but also through one's way of life (praxis ); only the two together could lead one to vision, enlightenment, and immortality (see especially Iamblichus, De mysteriis ).

This current of thought provided the matrix for gnosticism, a movement that not only continued to some extent the ritual practices of the mysteries, such as cultic meals, baptisms, purifications, anointings, and drōmena and was organized as a mystery-association (thiasos ) but also borrowed from the mysteries at the level of ideology (mythology). The so-called Naassene sermon "On Man" (Hippolytus, Refutatious 5.6, 410, 2) is an instructive example of this borrowing and, at the same time, one of the few sources that preserve authentic citations from the Eleusinian mysteries. Among other things, Attis is here interpreted as the gnostic Primal Man (Anthropos); his castration by Cybele becomes a deliverance from what is earthly. Osiris, Adonis, and Adam are likewise variants of the perfect human being or of the immortal soul. According to this gnostic sermon, the mysteries of Isis are the root of all nongnostic cults, and Persephone-Kore, in the form of Aphrodite, represents transient becoming. For this reason, all these mysteries are looked upon as the "lesser mysteries," while the mysteries of gnosticism become the "greater mysteries" or the "heavenly mysteries." This synoptic view of all mysteries in the service of a mysteriosophic and gnostic interpretation was a path by which the traditions embodied in the ancient mysteries made their way into late antiquity. Thus transformed and preserved, they became part of the heritage left by heathen and Christian antiquity and, to that extent, remained alive even after the cessation of the cultic practices that had once been their true reality.

See Also

Dionysos; Dying and Rising Gods; Eleusinian Mysteries; Isis; Mithra; Mithraism; Orpheus.


General Works

Bornkamm, Günther. "Mustērion." In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, vol. 4. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1967.

Campbell, Joseph, ed. Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, vol. 2, The Mysteries. Princeton, 1955.

Lévy, Paul. Buddhism: A "Mystery Religion"? London, 1957.

Metzger, Bruce. "Bibliography of Mystery Religions." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.17.3, pp. 12591423. Berlin and New York, 1984.

Greek Mysteries

Bianchi, Ugo. The Greek Mysteries. Leiden, 1976.

Burkert, Walter. Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche. Stuttgart, 1977. Translated as Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985).

Casadio, G. "Per un'indagine storico-religioso sui culti di Dio-niso in relazione alla fenomenologia dei misteri, I." Studi storico-religiosi 6 (1982): 210234 and 7 (1983): 123149.

Foucart, Paul-François. Les mystères d'Eleusis (1914). New York, 1975.

Guthrie, W. K. C. Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement. 2d ed., rev. London, 1952.

Hemberg, Bengt. Die Kabiren. Uppsala, 1950.

Kern, Otto. Die griechischen Mysterien der klassischen Zeit. Berlin, 1927. Amended in Die Antike 6 (1930): 302323.

Nilsson, Martin P. The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age (1957). New York, 1975.

Nilsson, Martin P. Geschichte der griechischen Religion (19411957). 2 vols. 3d rev. ed. Munich, 19671974.

Otto, Walter F. Dionysos: Myth and Cult. Bloomington, Ind., 1965.

Turchi, Nicola. Fontes historiae mysteriorum aevi hellenistici. Rome, 1923.

Oriental Mysteries

Bianchi, Ugo, ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.

Bianchi, Ugo, and Maarten J. Vermaseren, eds. La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'Impero Romano. Leiden, 1982.

Colpe, Carsten. "Zur mythologischen Struktur der Adonis-, Attis- und Osiris-Überlieferungen." In Lisan mithurti: Festschrift Wolfram Freiherr von Soden, edited by Wolfgang Röllig, pp. 2344. Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1969.

Cumont, Franz. The Mysteries of Mithra (1903). New York, 1956.

Cumont, Franz. The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (1911). New York, 1956.

Hepding, Hugo. Attis: Seine Mythen und sein Kult (1903). Berlin, 1967.

Hinnel, John R., ed. Mithraic Studies. 2 vols. Totowa, N. J., 1975.

Kerényi, Károly. Die griechisch-orientalische Romanliteratur in religionsgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung. Tübingen, 1927.

Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mithras. Konigstein, 1984.

Reitzenstein, Richard. Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen nach ihren Grundgedanken und Wirkungen. Berlin, 1927. Translated as The Hellenistic Mystery Religions (Pittsburgh, 1978).

Vermaseren, Maarten J. Die orientalischen Religionen im Rö-merreich. Leiden, 1981.

Christianity and Gnosticism

Angus, S. The Mystery-Religions and Christianity. 2d ed. London, 1928. Reprinted as The Mystery-Religions: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity (New York, 1975).

Frickel, J. Hellenistische Erlösung in christlicher Deutung. Leiden, 1984.

Loisy, Alfred. Les mystères païens et le mystère chrètiens. 2d ed. Paris, 1930.

Wagner, Günter. Das religionsgeschichtliche Problem von Römer 6,111. Zurich, 1962.

New Sources

General Works

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1987.

Gordon, Richard. "Mysteries." In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, pp. 10171018. Oxford, 1996.

Pettazzoni, Raffaele. I misteri. Saggio di una teoria storico-religiosa (1924). 2d edition with a foreword by Dario Sabbatucci and bibliographical updates by Giovanni Casadio. Cosenza, Italy, 1997.

Sfameni Gasparro, Giulia. Misteri e teologie. Per la storia dei culti mistici e misterici nel mondo antico. Cosenza, Italy, 2003.

Turcan, Robert. "Initiation." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. 18, pp. 87159. Stuttgart, 1996.

Zeller, Dieter. "Mysterien/Mysterienreligionen." In Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. 23. Berlin and New York, 1994.

Greek Mysteries

Cosmopoulos, Michael B., ed. Greek Mysteries. The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. London and New York, 2003.

Oriental Mysteries

Turcan, Robert. Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain. Paris, 1989. English translation The Cults of the Roman Empire. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Christianity and Gnosticism

Burkert, Walter. Antichità classica e cristianesimo antico. Problemi di una scienza comprensiva delle religioni. Cosenza, Italy, 1996.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Drudgery Divine. On the Comparison of Early Christianity and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago, 1990.

Kurt Rudolph (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography