Classical Mystery Religions: an Introduction

The mystery religions were ancient religious movements that featured initiation rites, cult secrets (mysteries) and offered hope for a better life after death.

Mystery religions were widespread religious movements that existed in ancient Greece and later, Rome. Orphism, bacchism and the Elusinian mysteries are the best known of the early Greek mysteries. In later Greece and Rome, these were joined by such mysteries as the worship of Mithras and Isis. The mysteries vary widely, but generally centered around an initiation rite which featured revelation of cult secrets, the mysteries. The mysteries also included some sort of promise for a better life after death, which accounted for much of their popularity. Through the initiation, a worshipper became united with the god and thus shared in divine power and, perhaps, immortality.

The different classical mystery religions cannot always be easily distinguished from one another, or from Greek religion in its entirety. They were not in fact entirely seperate. The mysteries were parts of a larger Greek polytheistic religion, not independant religions themselves. Mystery initiates worshipped the same gods as the rest of the Greeks, though their ceremonies might have a different focus, and their myths also varied.

Orphism, bacchism and the Elusinian mysteries all placed a special emphasis on Dionysos and Demeter and Persephone, and gave importance to poems supposed to have been written by Orpheus and his son Musaeus. They also all included central myths which feadured the physical or metaphorical death of a god or goddess, followed by his or her resurrection. Because of these central myths and the promise for a better life after death, the mysteries have often been compared with Christianity. Christianity also features an initiation rite of a sort, baptism.