Greco-Roman Mystery Cults

CybeleThe term mystery, when used in the context of concealed customs or doctrines, generally referred to a religious tradition that involved ancient rites to which the populace did not gain access. Each cult required some form of initiation, one usually shrouded in secrecy and requiring specific rituals. Their impact was particularly felt under Roman rule as the church was emerging, for at that time these associations represented deities from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Anatolia, and Syria. The word mystery derived from the verb “to close,” and when applied to these foreign traditions, what was revealed in a private ceremony was not to be divulged to the uninitiated public.

While each cult varied, collectively they shared a few things in common, the most essential of which was a vow of silence. An initiate’s eyes were kept closed during this rite until a designated time when they were opened and enlightenment occurred. These associations were also known for parades and processions, rituals of purification, music and dance, and sacrificial observances. Similarly, they included a sacred meal that members attended and mysterious ceremonies at which personal death and rebirth were encountered. Emotionally gripping events transpired that emphasized experience over knowl­edge and, at times, resulted in states of ecstasy or euphoria. Some of these practices led to egalitarian communities, and this was a stark contrast to the sanctioned religions of the state.

To most observers in the Roman empire, Christianity functioned like a mystery cult, especially its shunning of foreign deities, teaching on redemption, performing ceremonial rites, and initiating catechumens. Fasting and communal meals were expected of all believers, and baptism was interpreted as a vicarious death experience, an essential element in the cults. The church’s instruction on the saving power of the resurrection that resulted in new life had thematic overtones with the mysteries. The same was true of the agape meal, for the Eucharist was withheld from the uninitiated, because it required a participation in the Lord’s passion.

Likewise, some of the miracle stories involving Jesus share features in common with the narratives of these cults, and an advanced role for woman beyond what society generally accepted further defined them. In essence, there were enough similarities that early patristic writers felt the need to explain their differences, especially Justin and Tertullian, one for the Greek and the other for the Latin-speaking communities. This indicates that Christianity responded to the social and spiritual needs of the populace that sought more than what was offered in the impersonal religion of the state. Understanding the mysteries is therefore essential to comprehend the attraction of the church in the Greco-Roman world.

to be continued …