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"Mystery Cults of the Ancient World" Review

Hugh Bowden looks at all the major Greco-Roman mystery cults

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Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

Princeton University Press

In Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, Hugh Bowden systematically reviews literature, anthropology, and archaeology to dispel illusions and provide a picture of what we know of the ancient mystery religions. He begins with ordinary religion then and now, distinguishing between modern-style religions -- especially religions of the Book -- and ancient, gods-based ones where individuals and communities had transactional relationships with supernatural beings who could make a difference in their lives. [See Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.] Communities had uniquely identifiable practices, but there were also cults and festivals that were shared throughout the Greco-Roman world.

Approach - Relationship Between the God and the Participant

Taking a slightly different approach from the traditional attempt to understand the content of mystery cults, Bowden is interested in the relationship between participants and gods. Mystery religions were often associated with the grain goddess Demeter, titled gods, like the Mother, the drama and wine god Dionysus, Isis, and Mithras. Bowden says cult practices of the mystery religions tended to be different from the ordinary practices in that they were frightening, secret, and usually nocturnal. The fright could be connected with the god's becoming visible.

Isis and Apuleius

The book begins with a passage from Apuleius' Metamorphoses and comes back to it near the end when discussing the imported cult of Isis. As Metamorphoses' Lucius experiences the Isaic (of Isis) cult, it is subtly different from native (Greek) mystery cults, but includes some practices familiar from the Thesmophoria. Like Mithraic practices, there are different levels of initiation to the goddess (Isis) who "is worshiped under many names, including the Mother of the Gods (Proserpina (ie. Persphone) and Demeter...."

Eleusinian Mysteries

Between the introduction and the foreign cults, Bowden examines what we know of the Eleusinian mysteries and their annual group-initiation ceremonies, which he contrasts with less popular, local cults that have ongoing individual initiations.

The Mother Goddess

The fourth chapter considers the Mother of the gods and her confused identity. The Mother could be Gaia (Ge), Rhea, Demeter, or (usually) Cybele. The cult of the Mother of the gods is best known from Cyzicus, located on a peninsula in the Sea of Propontis. She was honored with a community-wide festival with music and animal sacrifice -- as is common in the non-mystery cults -- as well as ecstatic dancing and snake-handling, associated with mystery cults. The Corybantes, associated with madness and ecstatic worship, attended the great Mother, as did Galli, often described as eunuch priests, but whom Bowden thinks were not -- although clearly some men did castrate themselves in their service to the Mother, and itinerant devotees known as Metragyrtai.

Mad Devotees of Dionysus

The fifth chapter discusses the god most often associated with mad devotees, Dionysus. Usually considered a late arrival in the Greek pantheon, Bowden says he may actually have been in Greece before some of the other gods. Dionysus enjoyed public ceremonies and secret, usually women-only activities "on the mountain." Certain Bacchic rites were forbidden in Rome following a decree of 186 B.C. In the 6th chapter, Bowden says that a couple of decades earlier, Ptolemy IV Philopator of Egypt issued an edict controlling rites performed for Dionysus, as well, but these were done by private religious practitioners. Some itinerant religious practitioners were unscrupulous, as portrayed by Plato in the Republic.

Religious Texts

The seventh chapter describes the use of religious texts, especially ones written on thin leaves of gold. These include descriptions from initiates of the mystery cults. The eighth chapter explicates Apuleius' description of the Lucius/ass' adventures in connection with the goddess Isis. Following his chapter on the Greco-Roman importation of the Egyptian cult, Bowden turns to the Roman Mithraic practices, followed by the end of cults with the adoption of Christianity with its mystery-like rituals of baptism and confirmation. The final chapter is a post mortem looking at the common traits of the mysteries.

"T]he titles of officials of the Eleusinian Mysteries -- hierophant, dadoukhos and others -- are used not only in other cults of Demeter but also in Bacchic thiasoi. The attributes of Dionysus, including the thyrsos and ivy wreaths, are associated with Osiris in Isiac cult. The very term 'the Mysteries' (ta mysteria) originally belonged specifically to Eleusis and was then used by analogy to refer to similar cults. This indicates a recognition that the different mysteries had common features."

This well-illustrated thickly paged volume brings mystery cults up to date. Although sections reviewing parts of ancient history, maps, notes, a list of abbreviations, and a bibliography help, I wouldn't recommend Princeton University Press' Mystery Cults of the Ancient World for the general reader (pace Cambridge's Robin Osborne) because of the difficulty of its subject matter. The publicity statement says it should interest everyone from fans of HBO's Rome to students and scholars of classics and religion. This seems a fair appraisal.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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