Now that finals are over and I’ve graduated with my BA (yay!), I’ve been reading two sourcebooks on lived religion in the Greco-Roman world: Marvin Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, and George Luck’s Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. I’ve just finished Meyer’s collection and it is great. He has assembled 39 texts, ranging in time from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Clement of Alexandria. He organizes the sources into chapters by cult. Obviously, he includes sources on major mystery cults such as Demeter at Eleusis, the cult of Dionysus, the Anatolian Cybele, the Persian-turned-Roman Mithras, and the Greek-Egyptian syncretism of Isis and Osiris. But he also includes chapters on the Andanian mysteries of Messenia and the mysteries within Judaism and Christianity.
a secret religious group composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another. (4)
Studying mystery religions is a useful window into peoples’ religious needs in the Greco-Roman world, the world from which Christianity emerged. What did I learn about that world from this book?
- People joined new religious movements for a variety of reasons. Too often we assume people were seized with deep spiritual longings, because this is often how we conceptualize religious conversion. But Meyer makes it clear that people have many human reasons as well. Mystery religions offered a close-knit community for people who wanted social bonds. For socially marginalized people — foreigners, slaves, women — the mysteries were sometimes an egalitarian space, as Livy says about women in the Bacchic cults. For some, their elaborate rituals may have aesthetically pleasing, even theatrical.
- The rise of mystery cults did not mean that traditional polytheism had failed. Mystery religions were not replacements for the traditional civic cults of Greece and Rome. They supplemented those cults, likely because they satisfied human needs that the traditional cults did not. For example, many of them focused strongly on a good afterlife, which was not as much of a major focus in traditional Greek religion. But because of their secretive and voluntary nature, these cults could not unify a city or an empire. So the civic cults and the mystery cults worked in tandem. This is important to remember for scholars of early Christianity. It is too easy to assume that Christianity’s success was due to polytheism’s failure to satisfy peoples’ needs and questions. But this is simply not the case.
- Mystery cults borrowed from many other religions. The readings in Meyer’s book show Isis conflated with Demeter and Osiris with Dionysus; an ancient Mithraic liturgy in which participants chant the name YHWH; and Orphic Dionysiac hymns drawing on gods from all over the Eastern Mediterranean. Many ancient religions were syncretistic. After all, if one god is good, why not get multiple gods to help you? Mystery cults focused on one god (or sometimes, a pair of gods), but their devotees did not ignore the other gods. That’s just dangerous. Monotheism is dangerous.
- Mystery cults were at times persecuted and viewed with suspicion. Meyer includes here writings critical of the mysteries, such as Livy’s report of the Roman suppression of Bacchic worship and Josephus’ report of Tiberius’ persecution of the Isis-Osiris cult. Any group that was secretive could be seen as disrupting public order. It isn’t hard to imagine vicious rumors beginning about such cults. It isn’t hard to imagine early Christians getting the same suspicion.
- Mystery cults were very diverse! In the mysteries we see worship of feminine images of the divine (Demeter, Isis, Cybele) alongside the hyper-masculine cults of Mithras, which women were not allowed into. We see gods whose presence in Greece dates back to the archaic age (Demeter) alongside gods who are freshly imported from the east (Mithras, Isis, Cybele). We see cults focused in one particular place (Demeter at Eleusis) and cults that spread all over the Mediterranean (Dionysus, Mithras, Cybele). So most importantly, when we speak of mystery religions, we cannot generalize too much. It’s a construct that we scholars make, and as such it is limited.
I would highly recommend Meyer’s book. I like that he has a balance of different types of sources: magical spells and liturgies, historians, philosophers, fiction, satire, and of course, early Christian polemics against the mysteries. My next source, George’s Luck’s Arcana Mundi, is not as balanced in this regard as Meyer is. Anyway, my review of Luck is coming soon!