Articles from the
Oxford Classical Dictionary
mysteries | initiation | telete | ecstasy | Eleusis | Demeter | Persephone/Kore | Hades | Adonis | Cybele | Attis | Dionysus | Egyptian deities | Osiris | Neoplatonism | Orphism | Orpheus | Orphic literature | Oriental cults & religion
This is the first book to describe and explain all of the ancient world's major mystery cults--one of the most intriguing but least understood aspects of Greek and Roman religion. In the nocturnal Mysteries at Eleusis, participants dramatically re-enacted the story of Demeter's loss and recovery of her daughter Persephone; in the Bacchic cult, bands of women ran wild in the Greek countryside to honor Dionysus; and in the mysteries of Mithras, men came to understand the nature of the universe and their place within it through frightening initiation ceremonies and astrological teachings. These cults were an important part of life in the ancient Mediterranean world, but their actual practices were shrouded in secrecy, and many of their features have remained unclear until now. By richly illustrating the evidence from ancient art and archaeology, and drawing on enlightening new work in the anthropology and cognitive science of religion, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World allows readers to imagine as never before what it was like to take part in these ecstatic and life-changing religious rituals--and what they meant to those who participated in them. Stunning images of Greek painted pottery, Roman frescoes, inscribed gold tablets from Greek and South Italian tombs, and excavated remains of religious sanctuaries help show what participants in these initiatory cults actually did and experienced. A fresh and accessible introduction to a fascinating subject, this is a book that will interest general readers, as well as students and scholars of classics and religion.
There are probably as many views on death as there are civilizations; even within one civilization views may shift from one century to another, as is exemplified by ancient Greece. This has been observed in our own era as well: previously death seemed to be banned to sterile hospital beds and funeral homes, nowadays dying tends to become more 'social' and comes into the open again. On the whole, a renewed interest in death is noticeable, and the present book is an expression of that trend. This volume of essays grew out of a symposium held in December 1992 at the University of Amsterdam and organized by the Institute for Mediterranean Studies. They are arranged in four sections, viz. general, literary, philosophical and archaeological. After four general articles concerning the views on death and immortality held in Ancient Egypt, Hittite Anatolia, Homeric and Classical Greece, and Israel in Biblical times, some of the cultures not yet represented are dealt with in the other sections: Rome and Italy in the literary and archaeological sections, and the Arabic-Islamic world in the literary and philosophical sections. All papers conclude with bibliographies and there is a subject index to the book as a whole. Although representing only some of the many cultures once bordering the Mediterranean, the contributions do reflect the wide variety of ideas on death and immortality to be found in that area. As such, this book is of interest not only to specialists in the various fields treated here, but also to historians and students of comparative religion and literature, as well as to the general academic reader.
Bronze Age Eleusis and the Origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries
For more than one thousand years, people from every corner of the Greco-Roman world sought the hope for a blessed afterlife through initiation into the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. In antiquity itself and in our memory of antiquity, the Eleusinian Mysteries stand out as the oldest and most venerable mystery cult. Despite the tremendous popularity of the Eleusinian Mysteries, their origins are unknown. Because they are lost in an era without written records, they can only be reconstructed with the help of archaeology. This book provides a much-needed synthesis of the archaeology of Eleusis during the Bronze Age and reconstructs the formation and early development of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The discussion of the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries is complemented with discussions of the theology of Demeter and an update on the state of research in the archaeology of Eleusis from the Bronze Age to the end of antiquity.
Death and the Maiden: Girls' Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology
A remarkable number of Greek myths concern the plight of virgins – slaughtered, sacrificed, hanged, transformed into birds, cows, dear, bears, trees, and punished in Hades. This book contextualises this mythology in terms of geography, history and culture, and offers a comprehensive theory firmly grounded in an ubiquitous ritual: pubescent girls’ rites of passage. By means of comparative anthropology, it is argued that many local ceremonies are echoed throughout the whole range of myths, both famous and obscure. Further, Professor Dowden examines boys’ rites, as well as the renewal of entire communities at regular intervals. The first full-length work in English devoted to passage-rites in Greek myth, Death and the Maiden is an important contribution to the exciting developments in the study of the interrelation between myth and ritual: from it an innovative view on the origination of many Greek myths emerges.
Below: Scene VI on the East Wall of the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, thought by scholars to cryptically depict certain ideas and rites associated with mystery religion; Roman, 1st c. CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: WolfgangRieger. License: Public domain.
This book examines the fragmentary and contradictory evidence for Orpheus as the author of rites and poems to redefine Orphism as a label applied polemically to extra-ordinary religious phenomena. Replacing older models of an Orphic religion, this richer and more complex model provides insight into the boundaries of normal and abnormal Greek religion. The study traces the construction of the category of 'Orphic' from its first appearances in the Classical period, through the centuries of philosophical and religious polemics, especially in the formation of early Christianity and again in the debates over the origins of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A paradigm shift in the study of Greek religion, this study provides scholars of classics, early Christianity, ancient religion and philosophy with a new model for understanding the nature of ancient Orphism, including ideas of afterlife, cosmogony, sacred scriptures, rituals of purification and initiation, and exotic mythology.
Scholars of classical history and literature have for more than a century accepted `initiation' as a tool for understanding a variety of obscure rituals and myths, ranging from the ancient Greek wedding and adolescent haircutting rituals to initiatory motifs or structures in Greek myth, comedy and tragedy. In this books an international group of experts including Gloria Ferrari, Fritz Graf and Bruce Lincoln, critique many of these past studies, and challenge strongly the tradition of privileging the concept of initiation as a tool for studying social performances and literary texts, in which changes in status or group membership occur in unusual ways. These new modes of research mark an important turning point in the modern study of the religion and myths of ancient Greece and Rome, making this a valuable collection across a number of classical subjects.
The tales told of Orpheus are legion. He is said to have been an Argonaut--and to have saved Jason's life. Rivers are reported to have stopped their flow to listen to the sounds of his lyre and his voice. Plato cites his poetry and Herodotus refers to "practices that are called Orphic." Did Orpheus, in fact, exist? His influence on Greek thought is undeniable, but his disciples left little of substance behind them. Indeed, their Orphic precepts have been lost to time. W.K.C. Guthrie attempts to uncover and define Orphism by following its circuitous path through ancient history. He tackles this daunting task with the determination of a detective and the analytical rigor of a classical scholar. He ferries his readers with him on a singular voyage of discovery.
Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter
Carl Kerényi, trans. Ralph Manheim, 2020
The Sanctuary of Eleusis, near Athens, was the center of a religious cult that endured for nearly two thousand years and whose initiates came from all parts of the civilized world. Looking at the tendency to "see visions," C. Kerenyi examines the Mysteries of Eleusis from the standpoint not only of Greek myth but also of human nature. Kerenyi holds that the yearly autumnal "mysteries" were based on the ancient myth of Demeter's search for her ravished daughter Persephone--a search that he equates not only with woman's quest for completion but also with every person's pursuit of identity. As he explores what the content of the mysteries may have been for those who experienced them, he draws on the study of archaeology, objects of art, and religious history, and suggests rich parallels from other mythologies.
The most famous conspiracy of silence in the history of antiquity is examined here by one of the three archaeologists entrusted by the Archaeological Society of Athens with the final excavations of the Sanctuary. He traces the history of the cult in the archaeological remains, from the first traces of habitation at the site in the Middle Bronze Age (around 1900 B.C.) to its final grandeur and decay in Imperial Roman times. A guided tour of the Museum at Eleusis, illustrated with photographs of objects in the Museum, as well as air views, plans, and detailed photographs of the ruins closely correlated with the text, takes into account the needs of the visitor at the site as well as the reader at home.
Finding Persephone: Women's Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean
ed. Maryline Parca & Angeliki Tzanetou, 2007
Drawing upon the latest research in gender studies, history of religion, feminism, ritual theory, performance, anthropology, archaeology, and art history, Finding Persephone investigates the ways in which the religious lives and ritual practices of women in Greek and Roman antiquity helped shape their social and civic identity. Barred from participating in many public arenas, women asserted their presence by performing rituals at festivals and presiding over rites associated with life passages and healing. The essays in this lively and timely volume reveal the central place of women in the religious and ritual practices of the societies of the ancient Mediterranean. Readers interested in religion, women's studies, and classical antiquity will find a unique exploration of the nature and character of women's autonomy within the religious sphere and a full account of women's agency in the public domain.
Fresco from the temple of Isis in Pompeii: landscape with priest making an offering before the sarcophagus of Osiris; Roman, 1st c. CE.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: WolfgangRieger. License: Public domain.
Artemis of Ephesos was one of the most widely worshiped deities of the Graeco-Roman World. Her temple, the Artemision, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and for more than half a millennium people flocked to Ephesos to learn the great secret of the mysteries and sacrifices that were celebrated every year on her birthday. In this work Guy MacLean Rogers sets out the evidence for the celebration of Artemis's mysteries against the background of the remarkable urban development of the city during the Roman Empire and then proposes an entirely new theory about the great secret that was revealed to initiates into Artemis's mysteries. The revelation of that secret helps to explain not only the success of Artemis's cult and polytheism itself but, more surprisingly, the demise of both and the success of Christianity. Contrary to many anthropological and scientific theories, the history of polytheism, including the celebration of Artemis's mysteries, is best understood as a Darwinian tale of adaptation, competition, and change.
Charles Segal surveys the literary treatment of the Orpheus myth as the myth of the essence of poetry - the ability to encounter the fullest possible intensity of beauty and sorrow and to transform them into song. The first half of the book concentrates on the ancient literary tradition, from the myth's Greek origins through the influential poetic versions of Ovid and Virgil and its treatment by other Latin authors such as Horace and Seneca. Later chapters focus on the continuities of the myth in modern literature, including the poetry of H.D., Rukeyser, Rich, Ashbery, and, especially, Rilke. Segal's leitmotif throughout is the relation of poetry to art, love and death, the "three points of the Orphic triangle". Through close readings of individual texts, he shows how various versions of the myth oscillate between a poetry of transcendence that asserts its power over the necessities of nature - including the ultimate necessity, death - and a poetry that celebrates its immersion in the stream of life.
View of the Telesterion ('place of initiation') at the archaeological site of Eleusis.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Carole Raddato. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.