Confessing Secrets And Purifying With Water In The Ancient Mystery Religions

In many ways, the ancient mystery religion cults of the Greco-Roman deities served as a transition point between the detached, impersonal form of worship found in state religions to the more intimate and introverted religions that would later come to dominate the Western World. These mystery religions, so named because of the oaths of secrecy their initiates were sworn to take, practiced several symbolic ceremonies that still survive in religions, today. In particular, some mystery religions offered their own forms of confessionals and baptisms.

Confessions were a common feature of ancient mystery religions, especially around the time of initiation ceremonies. The Greek-Roman scholar, Plutarch (c. 50-120), wrote of mystery religion initiates on the island of Samothrace (modern Samothraki) who were asked to confess their past misdeed that caused them the most guilt and shame. The poet, Juvenal (c. 1st and 2nd century Rome), also wrote that the priests of the goddess, Isis, would hear confessions and sometimes prescribe ways for the guilty party to return to the goddess’ good graces. Besides the cult of Isis and the Samothracian mystery religion, other forms of confession could be found in the Lydian, Phrygian and Syrian religious cults.

Baptisms, or at least the use of liquid to purify religious initiates, were present in several ancient mystery religions. The cult of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis was said to conduct ritual purifications by the sea. Apuleius (c. 125-170/180), a high-ranking priest in Roman North Africa, wrote the clearest description of what an initiation into the cult of Isis might have been like. In his account, the initiate into the mysteries of Isis was brought to a local bathhouse, where the priest of Isis purified the initiate with water while the rest of the religious community was present. It was only after this baptism that the initiate was able to undergo initiation. The cult of the god Mithras (later imperialized into Sol Invictus), also is believed to have had ritual baths for purification. Not all of the mystery religions used water for their baptisms—in particular, the cult of Cybele (the Magna Mater, or Great Mother) was an excessively bloody mystery religion. For instance, bulls were important in the worship of both Mithras and the Magna Mater. The cult of Mithras sacrificed bulls to honor the myth of Mithras slaying a bull. The mystery religion of Cybele, however, added more flair to its own bull sacrifices—worshippers of the Magna Mater were said to have lain in a pit beneath a sacrificed bull, where they were washed with the slain beast’s blood.

Written by C. Keith Hansely.

Picture Attribution: (Bronze plaque of Mithras slaying the bull, dated mid-2nd–early 3rd century CE, [Publlic Domain] via Creative Commons and the Metropolitan Museum).



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