Mystery Religions

MYSTERY RELIGIONS. A term applied in the Greek, the Hellenistic, and the Roman world to the cult of certain deities that involved a private initiation ceremony and a reserved and secret ritual. They were probably vestiges of earlier religions, maintaining themselves as secret societies after the introduction of the Olympian and other Indo-European deities, and ending after what seems a common social pattern, by winning their way with the conquering people. The deities with whose worship the Greek “mysteries” were principally connected were Demeter, whose cult was organized into the ceremonials of Eleusis, and Dionysus, a predominantly female cult. The worship of Demeter and Dionysus appears to have been in origin a nature worship, with a ritual symbolizing death and resurrection in a seasonal sequence, and a spiritual reference of this natural pattern to the experience of the soul.

Little is known about the rites of worship and initiation, for the initiates seem to have been faithful in the keeping of their vows of secrecy; but it is fairly certain that the worship had to do with notions of sin, ritual uncleanness, purification, regeneration, and spiritual preparation for another life. It is probable that their influence was widespread, and, on the whole, salutary in tranquility of spirit and uprightness of conduct. Besides the worship of the goddess and the god already named in connection with metropolitan Greece, there were other ancient deities whose cults can be properly named “mystery religions,” for example, the worship of Orpheus, Adonis or Tammuz, Isis, and especially Mithras. S. Angus (The Mystery Religions and Christianity, London, 1925) is of the opinion that the triumph of Christianity over the powerful rivalry of the mystery cults, and especially Mithraism, was due principally to its possession of a historic Person as the center of its faith. Paul adapted some of the vocabulary of the mystery cults to a Christian purpose, and his use of the word “mystery” for a truth revealed but comprehended only by the “initiated,” is a clear reference to them.——EMB

In the last few centuries b.c. a plethora of cults, mostly from the Middle East, began to spread throughout the Greco-Roman world by means of migration, trade, and military service abroad. Their popularity continued well into the Christian era. Occasionally assimilated into the official religion of their new locations, they more often stood apart as minority “clubs” of individual initiates, representing personal rather than civic religion. The name “mystery religion” derives from the secret symbols and rites revealed to members only, but initiation is probably the more significant factor: it promised salvation now or bliss hereafter, and it certainly gave the security and identity of belonging to an “in-group.” Unlike Judaism and Christianity, adherents were not required to give up their traditional religion; initiation into several cults was even possible.

Adaptations of national religions of the Middle East, they only became mystery cults when transplanted. Most were originally fertility religions with a death-resurrection mythology representing the annual cycle of nature. Their underlying similarities encouraged a syncretistic tendency, particularly in the fourth- and fifth-century struggles against Christianity (e.g., the Mithraeum discovered in London in 1954 contains statues relating to Isis, Dionysus, and the Olympian gods); borrowing of the practices of another cult (e.g., taurobolium, see “Cybele” below) occurred even earlier.

The most important cults are treated individually here. Others include the Eleusinian mysteries (an important but local Athenian cult) and the Kabiri (Phrygian deities worshiped extensively by sailors from the fourth century b.c.). The worship of Mã (Cappadocia), Atargatis (“the Syrian goddess”), and Hadad (a Syrian Baal) came to Rome not as mystery-cults (Roman citizens were forbidden to take part), but as bizarre and frenzied public spectacles. For other parallels see Hermetic Books and Gnosticism.

(1) Dionysus. An ecstatic cult from Thrace (European Turkey), which flourished among women in classical Greece, had become a mystery-cult involving initiation of both sexes when it appeared in Rome early in the second century b.c. It was suppressed as corrupt, but reintroduced in mid-first century b.c. There were hierarchical grades of initiation and the promise of an afterlife.

(2) Cybele (“The Great Mother”). Introduced officially to Rome from Phrygia in 205 b.c. during a national emergency, the splendid but wild processions to Cybele were originally restricted to non-Romans yet were very popular as spectacles. Later the cult, merged with Mã, offered initiation to all. Priesthood involved castration. At Rome the taurobolium seems to have been associated first with Cybele, later with Mithra: candidates were sprinkled with bulls' blood for either national or personal salvation. Some texts refer to rebirth “for ever” or “for twenty years.”

(3) Isis. A major Egyptian goddess, whose cult became extraordinarily popular throughout the Roman Empire, often taking the form of a mystery religion. Initiation (e.g., see Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11) involved abstinence, and promised salvation from disease, fate, and fear of death.

(4) Mithra. Mithraism is puzzling, an apparently artificial though extraordinarily successful creation, and perhaps Christianity's most serious rival in antiquity. Mithra was an old Persian god of light, but the cult also draws on the Zoroastrian dualism of Good and Evil, between which Mithra mediates. The first evidence of mysteries or of the bull-slaying myth depicted prominently in the shrines comes from a group of pirates in first-century b.c. Cilicia. Shrines are common from the late first century a.d., particularly in military camps, even on Hadrian's Wall, but they are tiny, often underground. Men only were initiated, to seven grades of membership, in rites involving ordeal, the taurobolium, a communal meal, etc. The cult demanded high ethical standards.

a.d. Nock, Conversion (1933); J. Campbell (ed.), The Mysteries, Eranos Yearbooks (1955); G.E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Elusinian Mysteries (1961); J. Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire (1970). I: M.P. Nilsson, The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age (1957). II: E.O. James, The Cult of the Mother Goddess (1959); E. Neumann, The Great Mother (1963); R. Duthoy, The Taurobolium (1969). III: R.E. Witt, Isis in the Graeco-Roman World (1970). IV: R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961); M.J. Vermaseren, Mithras, the Secret God (ET 1963); A.L. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology (1968).

MYSTERY RELIGIONS. Secret cults which flourished in the Hel. world several centuries before and after the time of Christ.


The mysteries appealed to a deep and growing sense of need, in the Hel. period, for a personal religious experience and future salvation. Perpetuating ancient agrarian and fertility rites, most of the cults (sometimes called “oriental”) took shape in the eastern part of the Rom. empire. Myths were developed around locally recognized deities, which myths were reflected in their initiations and other celebrations. These latter were repugnant to the Rom. mind, and their full acceptance at Rome took centuries. The cults, esp. Mithraism, offered some challenge to early Christianity. Some of them employed rituals, myths, and terminology which have points of resemblance to Christianity. It has been maintained that the oriental religions had a significant influence on Christian doctrine and worship. The alleged relationship between these mysteries and Christianity will be discussed, following a survey of the cults themselves.


The Eleusinian mysteries.

These were well known and honored in classical times, and are mentioned in lit. from the time of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Native to Greece, their center was Eleusis, near Athens. Evidently growing out of an agrarian festival, the rites celebrated the annual production of crops. Demeter, goddess of the harvest (and naturally of fertility also) and her daughter, Persephone (Kore), were the main figures of the Eleusinian myth. Persephone was abducted by Pluto, god of death. Demeter’s mournful quest for her through the underworld and her subsequent withdrawal, followed by the reappearance of Persephone, are reflected in the rites, which connect the myth with the changing seasons. To understand this, or any, mystery cult, the importance of the seasons in daily life must be remembered (including the fact that summer was a time of withering, not growth).

The rites which supported this myth were complex and were performed in several stages. After the initiation (μύησις) and dedication (τελετή) there was a final revelation (ἐπόπτεια). This ritual involved not the inculcation of doctrine or the performance of sacred acts, but the witnessing of a drama, prob. the reënactment of the Demeter-Persephone myth. The use of the word “descent” in an ancient description suggests that the initiates went down into a dark area, symbolizing the underworld to which Persephone was taken. From there they ascended into bright light, where with great emotion and a sense of identification they were shown certain sacred objects, prob. symbolizing fertility. Participants in this drama received the blessedness of a better life after death.


Another ancient festival was that of Dionysus, the god of wine. Traditionally Tracian in origin, the religion of Dionysus was widespread. His name has even been found among ancient Cretan inscrs. The celebration of rites varied from place to place, but they were generally known to be emotionally excessive. (Our words, bacchic and bacchanalian, are derived from the other name of Dionysus, Bacchus.)

The ancient cult of Orphism employed a myth about Dionysus. In it, an ancient cosmogeny is described in which Dionysus, son of Zeus, was destroyed by the Titans who ate his flesh. A new Dionysus emerged from his heart, which had been preserved. From this myth the cult justified a belief in a kind of metempsychosis and ultimate release of the soul. In spite of the crude mythology and rites of Orphism, it did, unlike most other mystery cults, promulgate specific doctrines, urge a consistency of life (even if the practices seem strange to us), and preach retribution for evil.

Sabazios was a hybrid god, symbolized by a snake, who was identified with Dionysus. Various characteristics of other cults were absorbed into his own, which apparently even drew on Judaism. His worship was connected with that of Cybele.

The remaining cults, unlike the foregoing, are clearly eastern in origin.

The Magna Mater.

In the area of Anatolia (roughly equivalent to modern Turkey) the Phrygians worshiped Cybele, who came to be known as the Magna Mater, or Great Mother. The goddess of fecundity, she received the sacrifice of the virility of her lover, Attis. He recovered from this, coming, in a sense, back to life. Self-castration became a practice of those who would be his priests. Naturally this was highly objectionable to the Romans, to whose doors all the eastern religions (including Christianity) eventually came. Although she was accorded a place in Rom. worship in 205 b.c. (because of an oracle prescribing her acceptance as the only means of victory in the Hannibalic War) severe restrictions were placed on the cult. After the rise of Christianity the rite of the Taurobolium came to be practiced. A bull was slaughtered on a platform above an adherent. The blood dripped between the boards over the face of the person, even into his mouth. This was alleged to bring rebirth.

The Dea Syria.

The fertility goddess worshiped in Syria was Atargatis. She became known as the Dea Syria, the Syrian Goddess, but the merging of deities common in the ancient world meant that in spite of historical and geographical distinctions, Atargatis is but one form of the almost universal figure. The name of Astarte also is associated with Syrian worship. Adonis, who may be compared with the ancient Tammuz, bears much in common with Attis. Sexual excesses characterized this cult complex also. (See Atargatis.)

Isis and Osiris.

The Egyp. Isis stands in some contrast to the preceding goddesses. Her rites and processions were attractive, she was considered a model of wifely devotion, and great saving power was attributed to her. In the myth, Osiris, her husband, was killed and after the body had been recovered by Isis, dismembered by the evil god Set. Isis faithfully searched for the members of his body, which had been widely scattered, and brought him back to life. Identification with Osiris thus was seen as a way of surviving death. Isis was elevated as a representative deity, identified with many other goddesses, in the syncretistic spirit of the day. Adherents of other cults could thus appropriate her also. Osiris likewise was a symbol of syncretism. His very name became hyphenated with that of the bull god, Apis. Under the resultant hybrid name, Serapis, he was widely worshiped.


The cult of Mithra was observed across the Empire, esp. on the strategic frontiers where Rom. troops, its strongest adherents, were stationed. As noted above, it was competitive with early Christianity. The rites were performed in a shrine called a Mithraeum. Those discovered are small, indicating that the local groups were not large, though the movement was widespread.

As with the other cults, details of origin and doctrine are not completely clear. The cult of Mithra is certainly eastern in origin, and was given structure in Persia, but it predated Zoroastrianism and was not fully compatible with it. The myth featured Mithra’s slaying of the bull. The rite celebrating this included the representation of sexual power. Mithra was exalted also as the victorious sungod and it is clear from the iconography depicting his conquests that the beliefs of the cult included immortality and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This reflects the dualistic nature of the theology, but even more, it portrays the vigor and attractiveness of the cult. Initiates proceeded through a ritual which still is not fully known. They evidently progressed through seven stages in a hierarchical structure, following an ascension theme. This, with the accompanying discipline, had great appeal to the military personnel.

Meaning and relationship to Christianity.

The available data permit several general observations about the mystery religions. While they are diverse in myth and in ritual, they are similar in having an agrarian origin. This gives them a seasonal character, which is seen in the cyclical nature of the motif of dying and rising. This theme does not issue from the death and resurrection of a historical figure, one event at a particular time and place, but from the observed course of nature, celebrated in the experiences of a mythical deity. Closely connected with the agrarian or nature characteristic of the cults is the symbol of fertility in the female deity. Womb and soil are related. While some aspects of the initiations and other celebrations were no doubt beautiful, there is no question about the sexual meaning in much of the symbolism.

Except where there is evidence of conscious modification, the cults had little moral or ethical content. Where this was present, it marked perhaps something of an advance over the “classical” Gr. and Rom. religions, which were on the whole detached from the moral and personal needs of men. The mysteries spread to fill the void left by the other religious forms, a void which was felt increasingly in the Hel. period. They were both sexual and sensual in their appeal. Initiation was more a matter of seeing and participating than of believing and accomplishing. They also appealed to the anxiety and hope of man regarding life after death.

A comparison of these characteristics with those of Christianity has led to the hypothesis that the early Christians, Paul in particular, borrowed much from the mysteries. This theory was stated most forcibly during the decades when Religionsgeschichte, or history of comparative religion, was not only establishing patterns but also hypothesizing cause-and-effect relationships. The rite of lustration, ceremonial washing, was seen as a precursor to baptism, that of a sacral meal to the Lord’s Supper, and the dying and rising of a god to the Christian doctrine of resurrection.

Such assumptions, given plausible form by such scholars as Bousset, Reitzenstein, and Loisy among others, have been negated by competent scholars in more recent years. The word of A. D. Nock has been esp. penetrating. Such an article as that on the word “mysterion” (see bibliography below) is devastating, showing that even where similar vocabulary might suggest a relationship, such is not factually supported. Rahner, Bouyer, and Metzger are among more recent scholars who have addressed themselves to this issue. The present state of the evidence may be summarized as follows: The NT lacks (and possibly avoids) such key mystery terms as mystēs and katharsis. Those apparently similar terms which are found are different in meaning and usage (e.g. mystërion, teleiōsis).

The rites themselves were secret. This means they were not open to scrutiny. Further, the data is scanty enough to require caution before sweeping comparisons are made. There are obvious differences between the rites of communal eating and of lustrations. Even where an analogy may appear striking, the probability is that the practice, or at least the evidence for it, is post-Christian. The taurobolium, for example, with its alleged life-giving properties, followed the time of Christ by a hundred years or so.

The foundations of the mysteries were mythical and natural, not historical and revelatory. The “death” of the mythical gods was usually involuntary and meaningless, in contrast to the loving, voluntary sacrifice of Christ. “Dying and rising” was cyclical, not historical and unrepeatable. The “resurrection” of these gods was not in the sphere of history, and the stories are weird and complex. While there were promises of salvific benefits, the nature of the redemption promised was different from that of the NT.

It is alleged that some of the mystery cult ideas and practices did indeed penetrate later Christian religion. This is dealt with esp. by the Catholic theologian H. Rahner (see bibliography). The issues are somewhat different from those pertaining to the canonical Scriptures. The NT itself is free from any such formative influence.


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