There are many different religious groups in Greece and Rome, that doesn't correspond to the usual official religions of the various gods and goddesses. Their rites and sometimes their teachings are kept secret, and that are only understood by the cult initiated. For these reasons, these groups were known as the "mystery religions".
The main beliefs and themes of these mystery cults had to do with fertility, seasons and the afterlife or eschatology. Some of the philosophy of Greece and Rome had assimilated the teaching of the mysteries with their own knowledge, such as the Pythagoreans and Platonists (and Neoplatonists).
One thing about the mystery cults is that the initiations were often opened to women, and even to foreigners and slaves. Just about anyone can choose to follow a particular belief. In the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age, women may have played a more important role in the communities and in their religions, but their status have been reduced with the coming of the Hellenic people.
Women, young or old, often took advantage of participating or attending religious festivals or initiation to cults, particularly those of the Dionysiac or Eleusinian Mysteries, to get away from their domestic duties.
I have only chosen to discuss certain mystery religions as a background, being more interested with the myths, and not their rites and customs. You will find here, brief information about the rites and teaching of the cults, as well as the myths behind each cult.
Demeter and Persephone
The Eleusinian Mysteries centred on the belief in the agricultural fertility and the cycle of the seasons, which inclued the myth of two goddesses, Demeter and her daughter, Kore, or Persephone as she was often known as the goddess of the Underworld.
Much of the myth about Demeter and her daughter can be found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which gives an account of Kore's abduction by Hades, the ruler of the netherworld (Underworld), and the compromise between Demeter and Hades, to allow Kore to live alternately with her mother and husband. The meaning behind their compromise is that Kore's stay on the surface and the Underworld coincided with the seasons. Winter represented death and the time that Kore ruled as Persephone, goddess of the Underworld.
For those people interested in the myth of Demeter and the abduction of Persephone (Kore), then I would suggest that you read Demeter and Persephone.
The cult was based in Eleusis, a city in Attica, because of the myth of Demeter (according to the Homeric Hymn), though much of it ceremonies and processions were taken over by the historical Athens.
Demeter had been wandering around the world, searching for her daughter, when she had come to Eleusis, where the goddess became guest of the poor family. Demeter showing special favour to the family, she had tried to immortalise Celeus's baby son, by burning away his mortal body, but his mother interrupt the goddess. Because of their hospitality, she taught them the mystery rites before she left, and Demeter ordered them to build a temple in honour to her and her daughter Kore (Persephone).
The seasons and the agriculture are very important to the ancient civilisation and culture, and each culture has their own myth about the fertility and the season.
The myths surrounding Demeter and Kore explained several important issues. The most obvious is the seasonal changes and the life-death cycle. Persephone's abduction is like death to her mother, since Hades, Lord of the Dead, keeps her in his infernal domain.
There are several festivals that are held in honour of Demeter and Kore, particularly the Thesmophoria.
The Thesmophoria lasted as many as ten days, but in Athens it was held only for three days, on the 11th, 12th and 13th days of the month Pyanopsion (October). The festival involved mainly by married women and involved the reenactment of the abduction of Kore.
See Greek Festivals, Thesmophoria for a brief description of the festival.
There are other fertility mysteries surrounding the two goddesses, Demeter and her daughter Persephone, called the Andania Mysteries. This cult was based in Andania, in Messenia.
Dionysia or the Dionysiac Mysteries was established throughout the Greek world. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, was also the god of fertility, such as vegetation and the fruitfulness of vine.
The woman followers were known as the Maenads "frenzied women" or Bacchants (or Bacchae) "women of Bacchus". They were represented in arts, dressed in fawnskins and wore wreathes around their heads. They also carried the thyrsi, rods that may have ivy leaves or pine cones to one end that could be use as weapons.
The followers were usually involved drinking wine, singing (or howling like wild animals) and wild, ecstatic dancing. It is generally believed that part of the initiation to the cult involved sexual activity.
His main role was that of the wine god. As we all know, excessive drinking remove inhibition and caused drunkenness. Drunkenness was a sort of ecstatic madness.
Madness played a role in Dionysus' life, whether it was him who was suffering from it, because of his step-mother, Hera, or he inflicted them either upon anyone who persecuted him or his followers.
And those women who refused to join the revelry were punished, usually inflicted with madness, as in the case of Dionysus' aunts, or with the daughters of Minyas.
The fathers and husbands were often distressed by the women's participation in the Bacchic rites, but they don't interfere because of the fear of the god or the violence the women followers would commit, as it can be shown in several incidences in myths.
Some of the men killed were by the maenads, particularly Pentheus and Orpheus, where they were tore to pieces. Men were also inflicted with madness, for those who tried to interfere. Dionysus may punish the men with impotency, which is what happened in Athens.
The fear of being punished with madness or being torn apart by followers was still in evident, during historical time in ancient Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms.
(The tearing apart of limbs of their victims have another special importance in the Orphic Mysteries. According to the Orphic myth, Dionysus or Zagreus, as he was known to the Neoplatonists, was tore to pieces and devour, by the evil Titans. But Dionysus was reborn as the son of Semele. But this needs to be looked at in the Orphic Mysteries and the Orphic Creation.)
What is generally known about the Dionysiac Mysteries is the famous festivals, such as the Great Dionysia, Little or Rustic Dionysia, Oschophoria and the Anthesteria. These festivals usually involved in wine drinking, sexual orgies and choral singing. Though at first, these festivals were only participated by the initiated, later it was only to all people.
See Greek Festivals, Thesmophoria for a brief description of the festival.
The Romans called the Dionysiac cults, Bacchanalia, where the Romans called the wine god as Bacchus or Liber. It was brought to Rome from the Greek colonies in southern Italy.
When cults became public, the Romans were shocked by the drunken revelry and the orgies that were held in the festival that the Roman Senate tried to have it banned.
The Orphic Mysteries was said to have being founded by the mythical singer, Orpheus, though the earliest knowledge about this cult was only known to exist as early as the 6th century BC. Many poems and songs were attributed to Orpheus, which his pupil, named Musaeus, was said to have brought to Greece from Thrace.
The Orphic cult or mystery religion was named after its supposed founder, the mythical Thracian singer, Orpheus, who was either the son of the god Apollo or that of the Thracian king Oeagrus. His mother was the Muse Calliope. Orpheus was famously known for his both his music and his singing. It had power to enchanted people and animals. It could even calm a fierce storm, as Diodorus Siculus says in his version of the Argonauts.
His marriage with Eurydice was short, when she died from snakebite. Orpheus braved the Underworld to bring his wife back her back from the dead. Though he managed to charm Hades and Persephone with his singing and music, he failed because he had broken the condition that Hades had set upon him. Orpheus was still in morning, when a group of female Dionysiac followers, known as the Maenads, had tore him to pieces.
Distraught of failing to restore his wife back to life, Orpheus retired to the Thracian mountains. There are several reasons why he died in the mountains, at the hand of the maenads. Whatever was the reason, he was torn to pieces. The Muses gathered the pieces of his body and buried it at Mount Piera. His head, still singing his haunting song, was carried down the river Hebrus and drifted in the sea, until it reached the island of Lesbos, where it was buried.
Strange as this may seem, Orpheus was said to be founder of the new religion, and the central god of the cult was Dionysus. Not only that. According to the Orphics, Orpheus was said to be Dionysus' chief priest. So why would the maenads, the followers of Dionysus, murder Dionysus' own priest?
There are other Dionysiac cults, where the followers are involved in drunken revelry and sex orgies. The Orphic Mysteries was, however, different to the usual wild Dionysiac cults.
Central to the Orphic belief is the Creation myth (Theogony), where the cosmology began with first god being born from the Cosmic Egg.
This god was named Protogonus (First-born), but was known more popularly as Phanes (Light). Successive gods ruled the universe from Olympus after Protogonus/Phanes, including Uranus, Nyx, Cronus and Zeus, until Dionysus, the child of Semele. Dionysus was the last god to rule the entire universe from Olympus.
This Dionysus was actually the reincarnation of an earlier Dionysus (sometimes known as Zagreus), who was the son of Persephone. Zeus fathered a son upon his own daughter, Persephone, but the evil Titans tore him to pieces and devour the infant god (Dionysus-Zagreus).
One essential element found in this creation myth is that of the rebirth of the god, namely Dionysus. Dionysus (Bacchus) was reincarnated from Dionysus-Zagreus, son of Persephone. It is believed that Dionysus-Zagreus was also the reincarnation of Protogonus-Phanes.
So it seemed that Orpheus suffered the same fate of Dionysus-Zagreus, when the maenads tore the singer to pieces.
See the Orphic Creation.
According to the Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote that Orpheus had sung a different song to the Orphic myth, about the Creation, particularly about the Cosmic Egg, Eurynome and Ophion. Apollonius doesn't give much detail about the Creation (see Eurynome and Ophion). Apollonius' Creation was noticeably different to that of the Orphic Theogony.
When Zeus destroyed the Titans with his thunderbolts, mankind sprang into existence from the ashes of the Titans. Since the Titans had devoured Dionysus' body, except the heart, mankind possessed both good and evil in his natures. So each man's soul possessed a dual nature. His evil nature comes from the Titans, while his good side come from the god Dionysus.
The Orphic cult was heavily influenced by Eastern belief, particularly on the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), and that of guilt and sins. The ultimate goal of the believers is that when a person die, he will be rewarded and live his afterlife in Elysium or Elysian Fields.
Elysium is the Greek/Roman version of the Isles of Blessed or Heaven, where a person may eternally live in a paradise, only if he led a blameless life when he was living in the flesh of the physical world.
To achieve this afterlife, a believer must live an austere and virtuous life that involved in remaining celibate, and abstaining from eating meat and drinking wine, which is the exact opposite from the normal Dionysiac cults. Only by living three virtuous lives could a person gain entry to Elysium, which would release them from continuous cycles of rebirth (reincarnations).
The other, most important, requirement for achieving Elysium is becoming initiated into the Orphic mysteries.
To the Orphic followers, the physical body is a prisoner or tomb to the soul. A person, who lived a wicked life, may be punished in Tartarus or in hell, for their sins. They believed that the physical body represented the titanic nature of a person, while the Dionysiac part is the soul. It is the titanic nature that prevented a person from reaching Elysium.
Before a person, who had died, can be reincarnated into another body, he must undergo spiritual purification in the netherworld (Erebus). The whole purpose of the Orphic cult to live an austere and virtuous life, ridding oneself of evil or Titanic nature, through living three consecutive, blameless lives in order to gain final eternal peace in the Elysian Fields. The Elysium is like heaven to the Greeks. According to the Orphic belief, Persephone is the final judge, whether a person enter Elysium or not.
The Orphic cult was known to exist as early the 6th century BC, where it was influenced by some of the Eastern religions, as well as from some of the philosophy of that time, particularly that of Pythagoras (c. 580-500 BC), the founder of Pythagorean school (Pythagoreanism). Pythagoras was both a philosopher and mathematician, born on the island of Samos, but had migrated to Croton, in southern Italy.
The teaching of the Orphic religion had also heavily influenced other philosophical schools, such as Platonism and Neoplatonism. Plato may many references to the Orphism, in his writings. Some Neoplatonist authors have written extensively about Orphism. It seemed to also have influences upon the Gnosticism, with the teaching about dualism nature of man, the entrapment of soul in the physical body and life after death.
When Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) created a vast Macedonian empire that stretch from Greece to the Indus kingdoms in the east, they brought with them their Greek cultures and religions with them. Alexander had in fact conquered a pre-existing empire of Persia. When the Greeks and Macedonians taught the Easterners their ways of life, naturally they came into contact with the mystical religions of the East.
The Hellenistic period (323-30 BC) saw the Greeks and Macedonians adopting or incorporating foreign religions to their own religion. The greatest culture centre of the Hellenistic world was no longer in Athens; it now focused on Egypt's great Macedonian city, Alexandria.
Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, founded Alexandria. Alexandria became the centre of learning, where a great library was built. Alexandria had preserved many writings on papyrus, including religious works. Many scribes and scholars were involved in copying and translating many foreign writings, including religious texts. Among the translation to Greek was the Hebrew Bible, which was called Septuagint.
Similarly, the Romans had also adopted other gods and religions when they had come into contact with both Greek and Eastern cults.
There are many different mystery religions, but I will only deal with a few other cults of non-Greek origins in this article.
Cybele or Kybele, known as the Great Mother of the Gods, was a goddess of Phrygian origin from northwest of Asia Minor. Cybele was essentially a mother goddess. She was known by other name, such as Agdistis and Dindymene.
The Greeks living along the western coasts of Asia Minor had naturally come into contact with Cybele as early as the late 6th century BC. Though no name was given in the Homeric Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, it is believed that this goddess was Cybele. Her consort, Attis was usually worshipped with her.
Her priests (galli) castrated themselves in honor of Attis, before they could serve her in her temple. Her festivals were held on March 15-27 and on April 4. The pine trees were sacred to both Cybele and Attis.
Her cult had reach Rome, sometimes during the 3rd century BC. Her cult reached a new height during the early Roman Empire. During the war against Carthaginian army in the 2nd Punic War, Rome brought the worship of Cybele from the East, because they believed that prophecy indicated that the Romans would only achieve victory against Hannibal if they erected a temple to Cybele, and installed the sacred stone in her new shrine. The mysteries of Cybele remained popular through most of Roman imperial time.
Egypt was another province that was added to Alexander's empire and like the ancient Greek religions; Egypt was polytheistic in their belief. Of all the Egyptian gods, the mother goddess Isis was most popular to those outside of Egypt, particularly among the Greeks, Macedonians and the Romans.
Her true Egyptian name was either Aset or Eset. Isis was actually a name given to her by the Greeks or Macedonians. She shared some of the attributes of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and fertility. The Greeks also identified Isis with Demeter and Aphrodite.
According to Apollodorus' myth of Io, when the heroine married Telegonus, king of Egypt, she erected a statue to Demeter, which was called Isis. Strangely enough, the Egyptians also called Io by Isis, as well.
Isis was a goddess with many functions and powers. She was the mother goddess and the goddess of fertility. Isis was also the goddess of healing and magic.
Isis was the daughter of Geb (god of the earth) and Nut (sky goddess), and the sister of Osiris, Nephthys and Seth. Isis married her brother Osiris, and became his consort.
Her other brother, Seth, murdered her husband/brother, cutting Osiris' body to pieces before tossing them into the Nile. Nephthys helped Isis gathered the pieces of their brother's body, and burying them, except his phallus. With her magic, Isis preserved the still potent phallus. She became pregnant by the seed of Osiris' phallus and gave birth to the sun god, Horus.
Fearing for her son, Isis hid Horus until he reached adulthood. Horus confronted and fought Seth, until the younger god overcame his uncle.
In her mystery cult, her husband/brother Osiris and her son Horus shared the honours of being worshipped with her.
Mithra was a god that originated in the east, in India, where he was known as Mitra, but the cult of Mithra had spread to the west during the Hellenistic period, after Alexander the Great had conquered the mighty empire of Persia. Mithra and the Mithraism religion became increasingly popular in Europe, reaching the height, during late Imperial Rome, of the 3rd and 4th century AD.
Mithra appeared to be the sun god in the cults of the mighty empire of Persia. The Romans see him, as the soldier or warrior god.
At the moment I haven't the myth concerning Mithra. When I have more time, I will write more detail about All I do know is that the bull was sacred to him, which symbolised strength, vitality and fertility. So the worshippers often sacrifice bull to him.
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