Greco-Roman mysteries

Mystery religions, sacred mysteries or simply mysteries were religious schools of the Greco-Roman world for which participation was reserved to initiates (mystai).[1] The main characterization of this religion is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the ritual practice, which may not be revealed to outsiders. The most famous mysteries of Greco-Roman antiquity were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were of considerable antiquity and predated the Greek Dark Ages. The mystery schools flourished in Late Antiquity; Julian the Apostate in the mid 4th century is known to have been initiated into three distinct mystery schools—most notably the mithraists. Due to the secret nature of the school, and because the mystery religions of Late Antiquity were persecuted by the Christian Roman Empire from the 4th century, the details of these religious practices are derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies. "Because of this element of secrecy, we are ill-informed as to the beliefs and practices of the various mystery faiths. We know that they had a general likeness to one another".[2] Much information on the Mysteries come from Marcus Terentius Varro.

Justin Martyr in the 2nd century explicitly noted and identified them as "demonic imitations" of the true faith, and that "the devils, in imitation of what was said by Moses, asserted that Proserpine was the daughter of Jupiter, and instigated the people to set up an image of her under the name of Kore" (First Apology). Through the 1st to 4th century, Christianity stood in direct competition for adherents with the mystery schools, insofar as the "mystery schools too were an intrinsic element of the non-Jewish horizon of the reception of the Christian message". Beginning in the third century, and especially after Constantine became emperor, components of mystery religions began to be incorporated into mainstream Christian thinking, such as is reflected by the disciplina arcani.

Eleusinian hydria Antikensammlung Berlin 1984.46
Hydria by the Varrese Painter (c. 340 BC) depicting Eleusinian scenes


The English word 'mystery' originally appeared as the plural Greek Mystêria, and developed into the Latin mysterium where the English term originates. The etymology of the Greek mystêrion is not entirely clear though scholars have traditionally thought it to have derived from the Greek myo, meaning "to close or shut" (chiefly referring to shutting the eyes, hence, one who shuts their eyes and is initiated into the mysteries).[3] More recently, a number of Hittite scholars have suggested that the Greek term derives from the Hittite verb munnae, "to conceal, to hide, to shut out of sight".[4]


Mystery religions formed one of three types of Hellenistic religion, the others being the imperial cult, or the ethnic religion particular to a nation or state, and the philosophic religions such as Neoplatonism. This is also reflected in the tripartite division of "theology"—by Varro—into civil theology (concerning the state religion and its stabilizing effect on society), natural theology (philosophical speculation about the nature of the divine), and mythical theology (concerning myth and ritual).

Mysteries thus supplement rather than compete with civil religion. An individual could easily observe the rites of the state religion, be an initiate in one or more mysteries, and at the same time adhere to a certain philosophical school.[5] Many of the aspects of public religion such as sacrifices, ritual meals, and ritual purification were repeated within the mystery, but with the additional requirement that they take place in secrecy and be confined to a closed set of initiates. The mystery schools offered a niche for the preservation of ancient religious ritual.

Though historians have given up trying to outline a rigid definition to categorize all mystery cults, a number of characteristics that the mystery cults shared can be outlined. All the mystery cults placed emphasis on the secrecy of their practices and an emotional initiation ritual for a new member to join the group. The members were voluntary participants, had nocturnal settings and preliminary purifications for their gatherings, there was an obligation to pay in order to participate, promised rewards for this life and the next, and the older mysteries were located at a variable distance from the nearest city. Furthermore, they were all, with the exception of the Mithraic cult, open to all people, including men and women, slaves and freeman, the young and old, etc. However, the expenses required to participate in all the rituals often precluded many from joining. And though the mysteries were secret, they were not very mysterious. [6]

For this reason, what glimpses we do have of the older Greek mysteries have been understood as reflecting certain archaic aspects of common Indo-European religion, with parallels in Indo-Iranian religion. The mystery schools of Greco-Roman antiquity include the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Orphic Mysteries. Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshipped in Mysteries, for instance, Egyptian Isis, Persian Mithras from the Mithraic Mysteries, Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, and Phrygian Cybele.

Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the earliest and most famous of the mystery cults and lasted for over a millennium. Whenever they first originated, by the end of the 5th century BC, they had been heavily influenced by Orphism, and in Late Antiquity, they had become allegorized. These mysteries were more concerned with prosperity than eschatalogy and hope in the afterlife, and so belief in an afterlife had always belonged to a minority and no person initiated into the mysteries made reference to it on their tombstones until the 2nd century BC.[7]


In the 15th of the month of Boedromion (September/October) in the Attic calendar, as many as 3,000 potential initiates would have gathered in the agora of Athens, the gathering limited to those that spoke Greek and had never killed (as the emphasis on purity grew, this ban would include those who had "impure" souls). Like other large festivals such as the Diasia and Thesmophoria, the prospective initiates would bring their own sacrificial animals and hear the festivals proclamation as it began. The next day, they would have gone to the sea and purified themselves and the animals. Three days of rest would pass until the 19th, the agora was once more filled with the initiates at the procession at the sanctuary of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Two Eleusinian priestesses were at the front of the procession followed by many Greeks holding special items in preparation for the rest of the ceremony, and the procession would leave the city on an hours-long 15-mile journey constantly interrupted by celebration, dances, etc, to the city of Eleusis. The initiates would carry torches on the way to the city. Once the city was reached, the pilgrims would dance into the sanctuary. The next day would begin with sacrifices, and at sunset, the initiates would go to a building called the telestêrion where the actual initiations would commence. The initiates washed themselves to be pure and everyone sat in silence surrounded by the smell of extinguished torches. The initiation may have taken place over two nights. If so, the first night may have concerned the myths of the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (where Persephone is kidnapped and her mother, Demeter, searches the earth for her, and once her daughter was returned, Demeter promised prosperity in this life and the next) and ended with Persephone's return and the guarantee of fertility, whereas the second night concerned the epopteia (the higher degree of the Mysteries) which was a performance that included singing, dancing, potentially the showing of a phallus, a terrifying experience for the audience by the skilled Eleusinian clergy, and the climax of the event which must have included displaying a statue of Demeter and showing of an ear of wheat and a "birth" of agricultural wealth. Hence, these mysteries had associations with fertility and agriculture.[7] In an attempt to solve the mystery of how so many people over the span of two millennia could have consistently experienced revelatory states during the culminating ceremony of the Eleusinian Mysteries, numerous scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the kykeon's functioning as an entheogen.[8]


The day of the completion of the initiation was called the Plemochoai (after a type of vessel used to conclude a libation), and the new members could now wear a myrtle wreath like the priests. Eventually, the initiates would leave and utter the phrases paks or konks, which referenced the proclamation of a conclusion of an event. The new members used their clothing in the journey as lucky blankets for children or perhaps were given to their sanctuary.[7]

Samothracian Mysteries

The second most famous Mysteries were those on the island of Samothrace and promised safety to sailors from the perils of the sea, and most participants would come to be initiated from the neighboring regions. While the information here is even more scarce than that available with the Eleusinian Mysteries (and more late, dating to the Hellenistic and Roman periods), it's known that the Samothracian Mysteries significantly borrowed from the ones at Eleusis (including the word 'Mysteries'), furthermore, archaeological and linguistic data continues elucidating more of what happened at Samothrace. These rituals were also associated with others on neighboring island such as the mysteries of the deities of Cabeiri. Philip II of Macedon and his later wife Olympias were said to have met during the initiation ceremony at Samothrace.[9] Heracles, Jason, Cadmus, Orpheus and the Dioscuri were all said to have been initiated here. The deities at Samothrace tended to be anonymously identified, being referred to as the "Samothracian gods", "gods of Samothrace","Great Gods", etc. This makes it difficult to reconstruct who they were, though they were often compared to the Cabeiri.[10]


Unlike at Eleusis, initiation at Samothrace was not restricted to a narrow few days of the year and lasted from April to November (the sailing season) with a large event likely taking place in June but may have taken place over two nights. Like in Samothrace, the future initiates would enter the sanctuary of Samothrace from the east where they would have enterred into a 9-meter in diameter circular space with flagstones and a grandstand of five steps now called the Theatral Circle. Livy records that here, the initiates would listen to a proclamation concerning the absence of crime and bloodshed. Near the beginning of the rituals, like at Eleusis, sacrifices and libations were likely made, where the prospective animal for the sacrifice would have been a ram. The initiates would have moved to a building where the actual initiation took place at night with torches, though archaeologists are unsure of which building it was considering the abundance of possibilities including the Hall of Choral Dancers, the Hieron, the Anaktoron and the Rotunda of Arsinoe II. In the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome in his Refutation of All Heresies quotes a Gnostic author who provides a summary of some of the images here;

There stand two statues of naked men in the Anaktoron of the Samothracians, with both hands stretched up toward heaven and their pudenda turned up, just as the statue of Hermes at Kyllene. The aforesaid statues are images of the primal man and of the regenerated, spiritual man who is in every respect consubstantial with that man.

The scarcity of information precludes understanding what went on during the initiation, though there may have been dancing such as at Eleusis associated with the mythology of the search for Harmonia. At the end of the initiation, the initiates were given a purple fillet. There was also a second night of initiation, the epopteia where the "usual preliminary lustration rites and sacrifices" took place though not much else can be known besides that it may have been similar to the epopteia at Eleusis and would have climaxed with the showing of a great light.[7]


The initiation of the first night was concluded by banqueting together and many dining rooms have been uncovered by archaeologists in association with the cult at Samothrace. The bowls used for the libation were also left behind, revealed by the thousands of discovered libation bowls at the cult sites. The participants occasionally left behind other materials, such as lamps. In addition to the purple fillet, they also left with a 'Samothracian ring' (magnetic iron ring coated in gold) and some initiates would set up a record of their initiation in the stoa of the sanctuary. The initiation of the second night was also concluded by a banquet.[7]

Influence on Early Christianity

Modern scholars reject simplistic notions of dependence of Christianity on the mystery religions.[11] Towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, it was becoming more popular in German scholarship to connect the origins of Christianity with heavy influence from the mystery cults, if not labeling Christianity itself as a mystery cult. This trend was partly the result of the increasing growth of critical historical analysis of Christianity's history, as exemplified by David Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (1835-6) and the secularizing trend among scholars that sought to derive Christianity from its pagan surroundings. Scholars, for example, began attempting to derive Paul's theology from a Mithraic mystery cult in Tarsus, even though no mystery cult existed there nor did a Mithraic mystery cult exist before the end of the 1st century.[12] The attitudes of scholars began to change as Egyptology continued emerging as a discipline and a seminal article published by Arthur Nock in 1952 that noted the near absence of mystery terminology in the New Testament.[13] While some have tried to tie the origins of rites in Christianity such as baptism and the Eucharist to mystery religions, it has been demonstrated that the origins of baptism rather lie in Jewish purificatory ritual and that cult meals were so widespread in the ancient world that attempting to demonstrate their origins from any one source is arbitrary. Searches for Christianity deriving content from mystery religions has also been unsuccessful; many of them (such as the mysteries of Eleusis and Samothrace) had no content but rather limited themselves to showing objects in initiation.[14]

The studies of modern scholarship reveal that while Christianity was not a mystery religion, it was compared to them by various opponents of the early religion, such as Lucian[15] and Celsus.[16] Most early Christians, including Justin Martyr, launched attacks against the mysteries. Justin also compared Christianity to pagan religions, however scholars have criticized Justin for the shallowness of his comparisons. On the other hand, once Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire and legalized the Christian religion, Christians lost their fear of pagan persecution and some concepts from the mystery religions, for the first time, became mainstream in Christian thought.[14]

List of mystery schools

See also


  1. ^ Crystal, David, ed. (1995), "Mystery Religions", Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  2. ^ Barnes, Ernest William. The rise of Christianity. Longmans, Green and Company, 1947, 50-51.
  3. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 451.
  4. ^ Puhvel 1984, pp. 188-192.
  5. ^ Johnson 2009, pp. 98-99.
  6. ^ Bremmer 2014, p. XI.
  7. ^ a b c d e Bremmer 2014, pp. 1-20.
  8. ^ Webster, P. (April 1999). "The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Twentieth Anniversary Edition, by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A.P. Ruck, Hermes Press, 1998. (Originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1978). ISBN 0-915148-20-X". International Journal of Drug Policy. 10 (2): 157–166. doi:10.1016/s0955-3959(99)00012-2. ISSN 0955-3959.
  9. ^ W. Greenwalt, ‘Philip II and Olympias on Samothrace: A Clue to Macedonian Politics during the 360s’, in T. Howe and J. Reames (eds), Macedonian Legacies (Claremont, 2008) 79–106
  10. ^ Bremmer 2014, pp. 21-36.
  11. ^ (ed.) Patte, Daniel. The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 848-849.
  12. ^ Lease, Gary. "Mithraism and Christianity: borrowings and transformations." Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2 (1980): 1306-1322
  13. ^ A.D. Nock, Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, 2 vols (Oxford, 1972) 2.791–820
  14. ^ a b Bremmer 2014, pp. 142-164.
  15. ^ Peregrinus 11
  16. ^ Against Celsus 6.24; see also 3.59


  • Bremmer, Jan (2014). Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 9783110376999.
  • Bromiley, Geoffrey (1995). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802837851.
  • Johnson, Sarah (2009). Ancient Religions. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674039186.
  • Puhvel, Jaan (1984). The Hittite Etymological Dictionary. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 9789027930491.

Further reading

  • Alvar, Jaime. Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras (Leiden, 2008).
  • Aneziri, Sophia. Die Vereine der Dionysischen Techniten im Kontext der hellenistischen Gesellschaft (Stuttgart, 2003).
  • Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton, Princeton UP, 2010).
  • Bremmer, Jan N. Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin, 2014).
  • Burkert, Walter (1987), Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Casadio, Giovanni Casadio and Johnston, Patricia A. (eds), Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia (Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 2009).

External links


Adonis was the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite in Greek mythology. In Ovid's first-century AD telling of the myth, he was conceived after Aphrodite cursed his mother Myrrha to lust after her own father, King Cinyras of Cyprus. Myrrha had sex with her father in complete darkness for nine nights, but he discovered her identity and chased her with a sword. The gods transformed her into a myrrh tree and, in the form of a tree, she gave birth to Adonis. Aphrodite found the infant and gave him to be raised by Persephone, the queen of the Underworld. Adonis grew into an astonishingly handsome young man, causing Aphrodite and Persephone to feud over him, with Zeus eventually decreeing that Adonis would spend one third of the year in the Underworld with Persephone, one third of the year with Aphrodite, and the final third of the year with whomever he chose. Adonis chose to spend his final third of the year with Aphrodite.

One day, Adonis was gored by a wild boar during a hunting trip and died in Aphrodite's arms as she wept. His blood mingled with her tears and became the anemone flower. Aphrodite declared the Adonia festival commemorating his tragic death, which was celebrated by women every year in midsummer. During this festival, Greek women would plant "gardens of Adonis", small pots containing fast-growing plants, which they would set on top of their houses in the hot sun. The plants would sprout, but soon wither and die. Then the women would mourn the death of Adonis, tearing their clothes and beating their breasts in a public display of grief. The Greeks considered Adonis's cult to be of Oriental origin. Adonis's name comes from a Canaanite word meaning "lord" and modern scholars consider the story of Aphrodite and Adonis to be derived from the earlier Mesopotamian myth of Inanna (Ishtar) and Dumuzid (Tammuz).

In late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship of religion, Adonis was widely seen as a prime example of the archetypal dying-and-rising god, but the existence of the "dying-and-rising god" archetype has been largely rejected by modern scholars and its application to Adonis is undermined by the fact that no pre-Christian text ever describes Adonis as rising from the dead and the only possible references to his resurrection are late, ambiguous allusions made by Christian writers. His name is often applied in modern times to handsome youths, of whom he is the archetype.

Aion (deity)

Aion (Greek: Αἰών) is a Hellenistic deity associated with time, the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the zodiac. The "time" represented by Aion is unbounded, in contrast to Chronos as empirical time divided into past, present, and future. He is thus a god of the ages, associated with mystery religions concerned with the afterlife, such as the mysteries of Cybele, Dionysus, Orpheus, and Mithras. In Latin the concept of the deity may appear as Aevum or Saeculum. He is typically in the company of an earth or mother goddess such as Tellus or Cybele, as on the Parabiago plate.


The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus based on various ecstatic elements of the Greek Dionysia. They seem to have been popular and well-organised throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula. They were almost certainly associated with Rome's native cult of Liber, and probably arrived in Rome itself around 200 BC. However, like all mystery religions of the ancient world, very little is known of their rites.

Livy, writing some 200 years after the event, offers a scandalised, extremely colourful account of the Bacchanalia. Modern scholarship takes a skeptical approach to his allegations of frenzied rites, sexually violent initiations of both sexes, all ages and all social classes, and the cult as a murderous instrument of conspiracy against the state. Livy claims that seven thousand cult leaders and followers were arrested, and that most were executed.

Senatorial legislation to reform the Bacchanalia in 186 BC attempted to control their size, organisation, and priesthoods, under threat of the death penalty. This may have been motivated less by the kind of lurid and dramatic rumours that Livy describes than by the senate's determination to assert its civil and religious authority over Rome and her allies, after the prolonged social, political and military crisis of the Second Punic War ( 218-201 BC ). The reformed Bacchanalia rites may have been merged with the Liberalia festival. Bacchus, Liber and Dionysus became virtually interchangeable from the late Republican era ( 133 BC and onward ), and their mystery cults persisted well into the Principate of Roman Imperial era.


In Greek mythology, the Cabeiri or Cabiri (Ancient Greek: Κάβειροι, Kábeiroi), also transliterated Kabiri , were a group of enigmatic chthonic deities. They were worshiped in a mystery cult closely associated with that of Hephaestus, centered in the north Aegean islands of Lemnos and possibly Samothrace—at the Samothrace temple complex—and at Thebes. In their distant origins the Cabeiri and the Samothracian gods may include pre-Greek elements, or other non-Greek elements, such as Thracian, Tyrrhenian, Pelasgian, Phrygian or Hittite. The Lemnian cult was always local to Lemnos, but the Samothracian mystery cult spread rapidly throughout the Greek world during the Hellenistic period, eventually initiating Romans.

The ancient sources disagree about whether the deities of Samothrace were Cabeiri or not; and the accounts of the two cults differ in detail. But the two islands are close to each other, at the northern end of the Aegean, and the cults are at least similar, and neither fits easily into the Olympic pantheon: the Cabeiri were given a mythic genealogy as sons of Hephaestus and Cabeiro. The accounts of the Samothracian gods, whose names were secret, differ in the number and sexes of the gods: usually between two and four, some of either sex. The number of Cabeiri also varies, with some accounts citing four (often a pair of males and a pair of females), and some even more, such as a tribe or whole race of Cabeiri, often presented as all male.The Cabeiri were also worshipped at other sites in the vicinity, including Seuthopolis in Thrace and various sites in Asia Minor. According to Strabo, Cabeiri are most honored in Imbros and Lemnos but also in other cities too.

Dionysian Mysteries

The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves, outlaws, and non-citizens. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly. By its nature as a mystery religion reserved for the initiated, many aspects of the Dionysian cult remain unknown and were lost with the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism; modern knowledge is derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies.


Dionysus-Osiris, or alternatively, Osiris-Dionysus, is a deity that arises from the syncretism of the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek god Dionysus. As early as the 5th century BC, the two deities had been identified with each other, seen most notably in the historian Herodotus' 'Histories'. Other syncretic GrecoEgyptian deities arose out of these conflations, such as Serapis and Hermanubis. Dionysus-Osiris was particularly popular in Ptolemaic Egypt, as the Ptolemies claimed descent from Dionysus, and as Pharaoes they had claim to the lineage of Osiris. This association was most notable during a deification ceremony where Mark Antony became Dionysus-Osiris, alongside Cleopatra as Isis-Aphrodite.

Disciplina arcani

Disciplina arcani (Latin for "Discipline of the Secret" or "Discipline of the Arcane") is the custom that prevailed in the 4th and 5th centuries of Early Christianity, whereby knowledge of the more intimate doctrines of the Christian religion was carefully kept from non-Christians and even from those who were undergoing instruction in the faith so that they may progressively learn the teachings of the faith and not fall to heresy due to simplistic misunderstandings (hence, doctrines were kept from catechumens; Christian converts who had not yet been baptized).


Dumuzid, later known by the alternate form Tammuz, is an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with shepherds, who was also the primary consort of the goddess Inanna (later known as Ishtar). In Sumerian mythology, Dumuzid's sister was Geshtinanna, the goddess of vegetation. In the Sumerian King List, Dumuzid is listed as an antediluvian king of the city of Bad-tibira and also an early king of the city of Uruk. In the Sumerian poem Inanna Prefers the Farmer, Dumuzid competes against the farmer Enkimdu for Inanna's hand in marriage. In Inanna's Descent into the Underworld, Dumuzid fails to mourn Inanna's death and, when she returns from the Underworld, she allows the galla demons to drag him down to the Underworld as her replacement. Inanna later regrets this decision and decrees that Dumuzid will spend half the year in the Underworld, but the other half of the year with her, while his sister Geshtinanna stays in the Underworld in his place, thus resulting in the cycle of the seasons.

Gilgamesh references Tammuz in Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh as one of Ishtar's past lovers, who was turned into an allalu bird with a broken wing. Dumuzid was associated with fertility and vegetation and the hot, dry summers of Mesopotamia were believed to be caused by Dumuzid's yearly death. During the month in midsummer bearing his name, people all across Mesopotamia would engage in public, ritual mourning for him. During the late twentieth century, scholars widely thought that, during the Sumerian Akitu festival, kings may have established their legitimacy by taking on the role of Dumuzid and engaging in ritualized sexual intercourse with the high priestess of Inanna as part of a sacred marriage ceremony. This notion is now generally rejected by scholars as a misinterpretation of Sumerian literary texts. The cult of Dumuzid was later spread to the Levant and to Greece, where he became known under the West Semitic name Adonis.

The cult of Ishtar and Tammuz continued to thrive until the eleventh century AD and survived in parts of Mesopotamia as late as the eighteenth century. Tammuz is mentioned by name in the Book of Ezekiel and possibly alluded to in other passages from the Hebrew Bible. In late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship of religion, Tammuz was widely seen as a prime example of the archetypal dying-and-rising god, but the discovery of the full Sumerian text of Inanna's Descent in the mid-twentieth century disproved the previous scholarly assumption that the narrative ended with Dumuzid's resurrection and instead revealed that it ended with Dumuzid's death. The existence of the "dying-and-rising god" archetype has been largely rejected by modern scholars.

Esoteric Christianity

Esoteric Christianity (linked with the Hermetic Corpus since the Renaissance) is an ensemble of Christian theology which proposes that some spiritual doctrines of Christianity can only be understood by those who have undergone certain rites (such as baptism) within the religion. In mainstream Christianity, there is a similar idea that faith is the only means by which a true understanding of God can be gained. The term esoteric was coined in the 17th century and derives from the Greek ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos, "inner").These spiritual currents share some common denominators, such as heterodox or heretical Christian theology; the canonical gospels, various apocalyptic literature, and some New Testament apocrypha as sacred texts; and disciplina arcani, a supposed oral tradition from the Twelve Apostles containing esoteric teachings of Jesus the Christ.

Jupiter Dolichenus

Jupiter Dolichenus was a Roman god whose mystery cult was widespread in the Roman Empire from the early-2nd to mid-3rd centuries AD. Like several other figures of the mystery cults, Jupiter Dolichenus was one of the so-called 'oriental' gods; that is Roman re-inventions of ostensibly foreign figures in order to give their cults legitimacy and to distinguish them from the cults of the traditional Roman gods.

Like the other mystery cults (including the other pseudo-oriental ones), the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus gained popularity in the Roman Empire as a complement of the open 'public' religion of mainstream Roman society. Unlike the Roman public cults, but like the other mysteries, the temples of the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus were nominally closed to outsiders and followers had to undergo rites of initiation before they could be accepted as devotees. As a result, very little is known about the cult's beliefs and practices from the few clues that can be obtained from the sparse iconographic, archaeological or epigraphic evidence.

The cult gained popularity in the 2nd century AD, reached a peak under the Severan dynasty in the early 3rd century AD, and died out shortly thereafter. At least nineteen temples (including two discovered in 2000) are known to have been built in Rome and the provinces which, while substantial, is far below the popularity enjoyed by the comparable pseudo-oriental cults of Mithras, Isis or Cybele.

Mysteries of Isis

The mysteries of Isis were religious initiation rites performed in the cult of the goddess Isis in the Greco-Roman world. They were modeled on other mystery rites, particularly the Eleusinian Mysteries in honor of the Greek goddess Demeter, and originated sometime between the third century BCE and the second century CE. Despite their mainly Hellenistic origins, the mysteries did allude to beliefs from ancient Egyptian religion, in which the worship of Isis arose. By undergoing the mystery rites, initiates signaled their dedication to Isis, although they were not required to worship her exclusively. The rites were seen as a symbolic death and rebirth, and they may have been thought to guarantee that the initiate's soul, with the goddess's help, would continue after death in a blissful afterlife.

Many texts from the Roman Empire refer to the mysteries of Isis, but the only source to describe them is a work of fiction, the novel The Golden Ass, written in the second century CE by Apuleius. In it, the initiate undergoes elaborate ritual purification before descending into the innermost part of Isis's temple, where he has an intense religious experience, seeing the gods in person.

Some aspects of the mysteries of Isis and of other mystery cults, particularly their connection with the afterlife, resemble important elements of Christianity. The question of whether the mysteries influenced Christianity is controversial and the evidence is unclear; some scholars today attribute the similarities to a shared cultural background rather than direct influence. In contrast, Apuleius's account has had direct effects in modern times. Through his description, the mysteries of Isis have influenced many works of fiction and modern fraternal organizations, as well as a widespread, though false, belief that the ancient Egyptians themselves had an elaborate system of mystery initiations.


Mysterium may refer to:

Mysterium (album), a 2005 album by John Zorn

Mysterium (album), a 2013 album by Manilla Road

Mysterium (board game), a cooperative board game designed by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko

Mysterium (novel), an alternate history novel by Robert Charles Wilson

Mysterium (Scriabin), an unfinished work by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin

Mysterium (video game), a video game published in 1991

Mysterium (Symbol: MYST), a cryptocurrency

An annual conference concerned with the Myst series of computer games

Greco-Roman mysteries, religious schools for which participation was reserved to initiates

Nicaea (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Nicaea or Nikaia was a naiad nymph ("the Astakid nymph", as referred to by Nonnus) of the springs or fountain of the Greek colony of Nikaia in Bithynia (northwestern Anatolia) or else the goddess of the adjacent lake Askanios (Ascanius). She was the daughter of the river-god Sangarius and Cybele. By the god of wine, Dionysus, she mothered Telete (consecration)

Orphism (religion)

Orphism (more rarely Orphicism; Ancient Greek: Ὀρφικά) is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices originating in the ancient Greek and Hellenistic world, as well as from the Thracians, associated with literature ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus, who descended into the Greek underworld and returned. Orphics also revered Persephone (who annually descended into the Underworld for a season and then returned) and Dionysus or Bacchus (who also descended into the Underworld and returned). Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus. Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BC or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".Classical sources, such as Plato, refer to "Orpheus-initiators" (Ὀρφεοτελεσταί), and associated rites, although how far "Orphic" literature in general related to these rites is not certain. As in the Eleusinian mysteries, initiation into Orphic mysteries promised advantages in the afterlife.

Sacred mysteries

Sacred mysteries are the areas of supernatural phenomena associated with a divinity or a religious ideology. Sacred mysteries may be either:

Religious beliefs, rituals or practices which are kept secret from non-believers, or lower levels of believers, who have not had an initiation into the higher levels of belief (the concealed knowledge may be called esoteric).

Beliefs of the religion which are public knowledge but cannot be easily explained by normal rational or scientific means.Although the term "mystery" is not often used in anthropology, access by initiation or rite of passage to otherwise secret beliefs is an extremely common feature of indigenous religions all over the world.

A mystagogue or hierophant is a holder and teacher of secret knowledge in the former sense above. Whereas, mysticism may be defined as an area of philosophical or religious thought which focuses on mysteries in the latter sense above.

Samothrace temple complex

The Samothrace Temple Complex, known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods (Modern Greek: Ιερό των Μεγάλων Θεών Ieró ton Megalón Theón), is one of the principal Pan-Hellenic religious sanctuaries, located on the island of Samothrace within the larger Thrace. Built immediately to the west of the ramparts of the city of Samothrace, it was nonetheless independent, as attested to by the dispatch of city ambassadors during festivals.

It was celebrated throughout Ancient Greece for its Mystery religion. Numerous famous people were initiates, including the historian Herodotus – one of very few authors to have left behind a few clues to the nature of the mysteries, the Spartan leader Lysander, and numerous Athenians. The temple complex is mentioned by Plato and Aristophanes.

During the Hellenistic period, after the investiture of Phillip II, it formed a Macedonian national sanctuary where the successors to Alexander the Great vied to outdo each other's munificence. It remained an important religious site throughout the Roman period. Hadrian visited, and Varro described the mysteries. The cult fades from history towards the end of Late Antiquity, when the temple would have been closed during the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire.


Tauroctony is a modern name given to the central cult reliefs of the Roman Mithraic Mysteries. The imagery depicts Mithras killing a bull, hence the name tauroctony after the Greek word tauroktonos (ταυροκτόνος, "bull killing"). It is distinct from the cultic slaughter of a bull in ancient Rome and known as a Taurobolium, which was mainly associated with the cult of Cybele.

Despite the name, the scene is symbolic, and there is no evidence that patrons of the Roman cult ever performed such a rite. Like all Greco-Roman mysteries, the Mithraic Mysteries was limited to initiates, and there is very little known about the cult's beliefs or practices. However, several images of the bull include a dorsuale ribbon or blanket, which was a Roman convention to identify a sacrificial animal, so it is fairly certain that the killing of the bull represents a sacrificial act. And, because the main bull-killing scene is often accompanied by explicit depictions of the sun, moon, and stars, it is also fairly certain that the scene has astrological connotations. But despite dozens of theories on the subject, none has received widespread acceptance. While the basic bull-killing image appears to have been adopted from a similar depiction of Nike, and it is certain that the bull-killing symbolism and the ancillary elements together tell a story (i.e. the cult myth, the cult's mystery, told only to initiates), that story has been lost and is now unknown. Following several decades of increasingly convoluted theories, Mithraic scholarship is now generally disinclined to speculation.

The tauroctony should not be confused with a "taurobolium", which was an actual bull-killing cult act performed by initiates of the Mysteries of Magna Mater, and has nothing to do with the Mithraic Mysteries. "There is no evidence that [initiates of the Mithraic mysteries] ever performed such a rite [i.e. a real bull killing], and a priori considerations suggest that a mithraeum – any mithraeum – would be a most impractical place to attempt it."

Villa of the Mysteries

The Villa of the Mysteries (Italian: Villa dei Misteri) is a well-preserved suburban ancient Roman villa on the outskirts of Pompeii, southern Italy, famous for the series of exquisite frescos in one room, which are usually thought to show the initiation of a young woman into a Greco-Roman mystery cult. These are now among the best known of the relatively rare survivals of Ancient Roman painting. Like the rest of the Roman city of Pompeii, the villa was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 and excavated from 1909 onwards (long after much of the main city). It is now a popular part of tourist visits to Pompeii, and forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Pompeii.

Excavations in 2018 have revealed important remains of horses in a stable near the villa.

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