What is a Mystery Religion?
Information is scarce concerning the ancient Mystery Religion cults in which many Greco-Romans found spiritual belonging and redemption from as far back as the 6th century BCE until the introduction of Christianity into the empire. At this period of time, cults had no evil or manipulative connotations, as they do today. These cults allowed early Greeks and Romans to worship their gods brought in from the regions of Greece, Rome, Persia, Africa and all other regions of Roman conquest. The strains of information on the Mystery Religions are fiercely debated and interpreted precisely because the cults were so mysterious, with initiates sworn to secrecy. What is left for historians and scholars of religion to study is only decaying temples and snippets left by philosophers and writers, here and there, on what they saw, heard, or were allowed to write concerning the cults of the Mystery Religions. Most sources on the subject are biased. Philosophers denounced superstition and Christians found demons in all aspects of the Mystery Religions, and the destruction of images and shrines (iconoclasm) compromised Mystery Religion evidence and information.[Endnote i] The Mystery Religions are also difficult to understand because the initiation ceremonies of the cults were so secretive, and very few initiates broke their vow to write about their experience.[ii] Though there is no evidence to suggest any bridges between the Mystery Religions and Christianity, and there is no way to know if anything was copied between the Mystery Religions and Christianity, there is no denying that there are striking similarities and correlations between Christianity and the Mystery Religions. Both were able to attract religious followers because of the promised chance of personal salvation and a comforting sense of belonging in a small community of like-minded comrades. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, many cult members joined the Christian Church, for the Mystery Religion members were the exact type of people who wanted a more personal relationship with their deity.
To understand the ancient Mystery Religions, one must understand the idea of early cults. All a cult requires is a location of worship, a ritual to be performed, and deity to be the patron of the gathering. The Mystery Religions acquired their ‘mystery’ name because of the secretive initiation that one was required to undertake if he or she wished to join the cult of a god of the Roman Empire. In Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, Antonía Tripolitis says the ritual of the initiation allowed the initiates to come face-to-face with the patron gods of the cult.[iii] Though the Mystery Religions were popular and had members in many regions, the cults themselves had very little organization beyond initiation and ranks of devotion. There was no “established clerical hierarchy or a professional clergy, nor a developed organizational structure.”[iv] Mystery Religions share common themes: ritual cleansing, or other preparations for initiation day, a personal relationship with the deity after initiation and the members of the cults believe themselves to be able to receive salvation through the cult, or at least a better afterlife.[v]
The Mysteries of Rome
The cults of the Roman Empire originated outside of Italy. In times of need, the Imperial capital, Rome, would invite the cults of foreign deities. In “The Eucharist and the Mystery Religions,” John McConnell writes, “The principle Mysteries were the Eleusinian (Demeter, Persephone, Dionysus), the Thracian (Dionysus-Zagreus), the Anatolian (Attis and Cybele), the Egyptian (Isis and Osiris-Serapis), and the Persian (Mithra).”[vi] The willingness of the Romans to welcome outside gods came from their loss of faith in their original gods. As the story goes, the Romans abandoned their native animism to devote themselves to the Greek-based Capitoline gods (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) around 509 BCE.[vii] This set a precedent that the Romans could overcome hardships by inviting foreign gods and adopting them as their own. According to Greg Woolf, author of Rome: An Empire’s Story, the college of priests usually consulted when inviting a foreign god into the Roman religious system was known as the Sibylline Books.[viii] In 431 BCE, the god, Apollo, was invited during a time of sickness, and in 493 BCE, during an age of war and famine, the gods, Demeter, Dionysus and Persephone were invited into Rome.[ix] The cult of Cybele, the Magna Mater (Great Mother), received its invitation to Rome in 204 BCE in the aftermath of the tumultuous invasion of Italy by the Carthaginian, Hannibal Barca.[x] In History of Rome, Livy describes the decision to seek out Cybele: “The Sibylline Books had been consulted because it had rained stones that year more often than usual, and in the Books a prophecy was found that if ever a foreign enemy should invade Italy, he could be defeated and driven out if Cybele, the Idaean Mother of the Gods, were brought from Pessinus to Rome.”[xi] The cult of Mithras found favor in Rome when Emperor Aurelian believed that the Undying Sun helped him defeat his enemy, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, in 273 CE.[xii] The Mystery Religions were all accepted into the Roman society during times of trouble and warfare, a similarity that would be shared by Christianity, as Christ’s religion was adopted by Constantine in a time of civil war and turmoil.
Mystery Religion Ritual and Initiation
The initiation into the ancient Mystery Religions is thought to be the most significant event in the cults of the Roman gods. One of the few primary accounts of a cult initiation, in this case the cult of Isis, was written by an author known only as Apuleius, in his Satire, The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses. Apuleius’ writing reflects the common belief of the Cult of Isis that their goddess was the universal deity when Isis explains “I come, Lucius, moved by your entreaties: I, mother of the universe, mistress of all the elements, first-born of the ages, highest of the gods, queen of the shades, first of those who dwell in heaven, representing in one shape all gods and goddesses.”[xiii]In anticipation of initiation, Lucius is given “certain instructions which are too sacred to divulge,” and he is sworn, with other cultists present, not to eat food for a total of ten days or ingest wine or meat.[xiv] During the initiation itself, while wearing special, symbolic garb, Lucius describes the initiation, saying:
Before being accepted into a church, the initiates of the Mystery Religions had to be purified and learn of the beliefs of the cult. The initiate would then be ‘reborn’ in front of the congregation.
Even though initiation was the most secretive of the aspects of the ancient Mystery Religions, a remarkable amount of information has been discovered about what may have occurred. Angus identifies five common steps of initiation. First is the process of purification, followed by teaching of the symbols and rituals, which would then be contemplated and studied by the initiate. The initiate would then be required to prove that he or she could explain or teach the symbols before they were accepted by the cult and the deity.[xvi]Angus revealed in The Mystery-Religions that “some sort of confession of sin was required of the neophyte…with the elements of a penitential system and absolution for uneasy devotees.”[xvii] There is also evidence that the cults of Isis and Mithras used baptism in their initiations and the sea played a role in the purification of initiates into the Eleusinian cult.[xviii] A baptism, yet a baptism by blood, is also found in the practice of Taurobolium present in the cult of Mithras and Cybele. In the Taurobolium, an initiate was laid in a dug out trough over which a bull was sacrificed, and he “moistened his tongue with the blood, which he drank as a sacramental act. Greeted by the spectators, he came forth from this bloody baptism believing that he was purified from his sin and ‘born again for eternity.'”[xix] It is also thought that many of the popular Mystery Religions devoted their baptisms to the elements of water, flame, and soul.[xx]
In general, a main difference between the initiation into the Christian church and the initiation into a Mystery Religion was the aim of the initiation. Christian converts preparing for baptism (catechumens) and the baptized of the Christian church, were set up to learn the scripture and liturgy of the church. The initiation process (education and baptism) into the early Christian church was a gateway to the further materials held by the church. The Mystery Religions, however, had very little written literature, and their liturgy was mainly focused around the initiation itself. In other words, a Mystery Religion used the initiation process as the primary way to convey the cult’s beliefs.
The Mystery Religion depended on an awe-inspiring ceremony and experience to convey the beliefs of the cult. They relied on loud and strange sounds, bold and vibrant colors, and possibly mind-altering substances to make the initiation a memorable experience that would be imprinted upon the minds of the initiates for the rest of their lives. Egyptian initiations were described as being, “performed at night and were accompanied by exotic sounds, in this case those of Egyptian sistrums, a kind of rhythmic rattle or noisemaker (Apul. Met. 11. 4). The Symbols of the cult were brilliantly colored and visually arresting…They witnessed, “in the middle of the night…the sun flashing with bright light’ as they ‘came face to face with the gods.”[xxi] The Eleusinian (near Athens, Greece) ritual played out similarly. Luther Martin explains through Plutarch’s Moralia(Morals) that the Eleusinian initiations contained contrasts of blinding light and extreme dark as well as the god appearing before the initiates, leaving them dumbfounded and in awe.[xxii] Fasting and drinking of a substance called kykeon, which may have been hallucinogenic or alcoholic, increased the Eleusinian atmospheric effect.[xxiii] The extravagant initiation is seen by some to be “Religious Priming,” which, according to Martin, is defined as the use of shocking, extravagant, terrifying, and grandiose ceremony to create an experience that will be permanently lodged in the mind and can be recalled, by the experiencer, for later use.[xxiv] Regarding these magnificent, awe- or terror-inspiring initiations, S. Angus writes, the “Mystery-Religion was (I) a religion of symbolism which, through myth and allegory, iconic representations, blazing lights and dense darkness, liturgies and sacramental acts, and suggestion quickened the intuitions of the heart, and provoked in the initiate a mystical experience conducting to palingenesia (regeneration), the object of every initiation.”[xxv] With very little written sacred writings to distribute to cult members, the religious communities of the Mystery Religions had to rely on spectacular initiation ceremonies that would live on forever in their minds.
Behavior of the Congregations
Asceticism, the sacrifice of earthly pleasures and luxuries in order to achieve spiritual excellence (still found with monks and nuns of today’s religions), was also found in the Mystery Religions. Before initiations, entrants to the Mystery Religions were required to fast and were often encouraged to refrain from wine and to practice abstinence.[xxvi]It is thought that the Greeks and Romans only began to practice asceticism as a religious practice after the eastern cults introduced it to them.[xxvii]
The Mystery Religions held fasts of food and pleasure, took pilgrimages, made confessions, donated money, and even inflicted self-mutilation for their cult.[xxviii] Similarly to early Christianity and many other religions, the Mystery Religion cults did not disregard the morals of people when the leadership pondered who to allow access into the mysteries of the cult. Tripolitis writes, “Nero never visited Eleusis because he knew that he would probably be denied invitation, and Apollonius of Tyana was refused participation because he was considered a magician.”[xxix]The initiation for the Mystery Religions was very important because initiations were both the introduction to the religion, as well as the main source of the cults’ religious beliefs.
The Roman Empire viewed many similarities in the communities of Christianity and the Mystery Religions. Romans saw them both as superstitious groups. Robert Wilken describes superstition in his work, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, as “the kind of practices and beliefs associated with the cults that had penetrated the Roman world from surrounding lands.”[xxx] Just like early Christianity, the Mystery Religion cults faced persecution unless they had senatorial or imperial support. The emperors, Augustus and Tiberius, were not very accepting of the Mystery Religions, especially the cult of Isis, but other Roman Emperors, such as Caligula and Aurelian, began an age of acceptance of the Mystery Religion cults.[xxxi] Similarly, early Christian communities were either ignored or persecuted until they found favor under Emperor Constantine.
The communities of the Mystery Religions also served as burial societies. A burial society at Lanuvium worshiped a deity and cultivated a sense of belonging through meetings where they ate, drank and socialized. At the same time, they made sure that their association provided support for members in need, and ensured that all the members would receive a proper burial upon death.[xxxii]Another society, the Iobacchi, met monthly where they feasted and paid dues, but the meetings were also religious, led by a designated priest charged to handle “the drink-offering for the return of Bacchus and pronounce the sermon…And the archbacchus shall offer the sacrifice to the god.”[xxxiii]
The ancient Mystery Religions, like modern Christianity, often followed savior-gods. S. Angus writes, “To initiation was ascribed a sacramental efficacy which atoned for a man’s past, gave him comfort in the present, a participation in the divine life, and assured to faith an hereafter of such dazzling splendor that the trials and conflicts of the earthly existence were dwarfed into insignificance.”[xxxiv] The Mystery Religions gave Greco-Romans a way to achieve redemption and rebirth. All of the major Mystery Cults provided options for those seeking redemption, or rebirth, from their past, as well as a sense of enlightenment, or even just tranquility in a chaotic life.[xxxv] Bruce Metzger explains in his journal article, “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” that many of the Mystery Religion rebirth myths correlate to the seasons. He concludes, “the rites of the Mysteries, which commemorate a dying and rising deity, represent the recurrence of the seasons and the vegetative cycle.”[xxxvi] The Mystery Religions are not alone in their ties to agriculture, some Jewish and Christian religious feast days, such as Passover (the feast of unleavened bread) and Pentecost, can also be traced to agricultural cycles for harvests. The Christians religion and the Mystery cults both are centered on a divine figure who died and was raised again, even if, unlike Christ, the Mystery Religion gods did not give themselves to death willingly.[xxxvii]
As stated before, though there is no definitive bridge between the Mystery Religions and the Christian Church, there are undeniable similarities. In contemplation of the similarities, Metzger writes:
Christianity and the Mystery Religions shared some of the same rituals, meals, styles of meeting, and even wardrobe and fashion worn during services.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- S. Angus. The Mystery-Religions, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1975).
- Antonía Tripolitis. Religions of the Helenistic-Roman Age. (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002).
- John F. McConnell. “The Eucharist and the Mystery Religions,” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 10,1 (1948)).
- Livy. History of Rome, Book 29, 10-14. In The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts edited by Marvin W. Meyer, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987).
- Apuleius. The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses, translated by E. J. Kenney. (Longdon: Penguin Books. 1998).
- Didache. In After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity edited by Bart D. Ehrman,(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition. In After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity edited by Bart D. Ehrman, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- John Chrysostom. Second Baptismal Instruction. In Christianity in Late Antiquity: A Reader, edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Andrew S. Jacobs, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Luther H. Martin. “Aspects of ‘Religious Experience’ Among the Hellenistic Mystery Religions.” (Religion & Theology 12 (2005)).
- Justin Martyr. First Apology, in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, edited by Bart D. Ehrman, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- Robert Louis Wilken. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. (London: Yale University Press. 1984).
- Bruce M. Metzger. “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity.” (Harvard Theological Review 48 (1955)).
- The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987).