Mysteries were secret cults that offered to individuals religious experiences different from those of the recognised churches and religions. Their origins are found in the tribal ceremonies of primitive people all over the world. At that time almost every members of the clan, or the village, were initiated. Later on, in Greece for instance, initiation was a matter of personal choice. Mysteries have always been secret cults that only accepted trusted and well-prepared individuals as members. Moreover, these people had to swear not to reveal the “secrets” of their organisation. In consequence the content of their doctrines, rules, rituals, and ceremonies are generally unknown. However. Most mysteries had some features in common like initiation ceremonies, common meals, and dances.
Theology of the Mystery Religions
The creeds of the mystery religions were never well developed; nevertheless, their doctrine mysteries may be called theologies. One central subjects in mystery writings was cosmogony, the theory of the origin or creation of the world. In the Hermetic treatises, in the Chaldean Oracles, and in the writings of Mithraism, the cosmogony was modelled after Plato’s Timaeus, and it always dealt with the creation of the soul and with the soul’s subsequent fate. The theological doctrine of the soul, and the myth about its celestial home, its fall, and its redemption were inseparable. Many of the questions that were the subject of later Christian theological discussions were already debated in the mystery religions. For many people of that time the idea that man could achieve nothing by his own will was frightening, and the mystery religions promised to liberate them from that fear. The mystery religions’ theologies taught that the stars ruled the world, and that the planets had evil influences. But the highest god of the Mystery religions stood far above the stars and was their master. A man who decided to become a servant of this god stepped out of the circle of determination and entered into the sphere of liberty. The god could suspend determination, because he ruled over the stars. In the Isis Mysteries there was a theology of grace foreshadowing Christian doctrine. Many mystery cults were based on henotheism, the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods.
The most common rites of initiation among societies of the ancient world were those observed at coming-of-age. These have frequently been called puberty rites:
- Puberty among females is defined as the time of onset of menses (the menstrual flow)
- No such clearly identifiable point exists in the sexual maturation of males
Moreover, the age at which rites of attaining maturity are observed vary greatly from society to society, going far beyond the normal range of years at which sexual maturity is attained. The definition of maturation is thus seen to be largely social, or cultural, rather than solely biological.
The rituals at coming-of-age generally include many stages. Ordeals and other tests of manhood and womanhood are also common. Circumcision or other genital operations are also a fairly normal feature of rites celebrating the attainment of maturity. Although most commonly applying to males, genital operations are performed on females in a few societies. Where circumcision is the practice for male initiates, the uncircumcised male is not a full-fledged adult. It may be remembered that at this time other parts of the body are also modified, by incision, piercing, filing, tattooing, and by other kinds of practices that can be painful. Circumcision may in fact have no direct relation to the attainment of sexual maturity. A feature of coming of age rites is their emphasis upon instruction in behaviour appropriate to the status of adults. Instruction in dress, speech, deportment, and morality may be given over a period of months. Very commonly, instruction in matters of religion that have until then been kept secret are first given at this time. Initiates may at this time be expected, or required, to commune with the supernatural, sometimes by means of revelatory trances induced by fasting, violent physical exertion, or the consumption of substances that produce hallucinations or otherwise alter the sensibilities. Separation of male initiates from their mothers and all other females is also common, and ritual events may dramatize the transition from a world of women and children to one that is ideally male.
Symbolism of these rites sometimes requires the young men to wear temporarily the clothing of women, and to exclude all females from participation in the rites. The great religions of the world all included rites at coming-of-age but, in most modern nations, the rites either are not observed, or are simply vestiges of the old religious ceremonies. One unanswered question is why rites at coming-of-age are so poorly developed today among the advanced societies. Many factors appear to have contributed to the decline of rites of passage. In many parts of the world, the association of adult status with sexual maturity, as expressed in the term puberty rites, is unwelcome and is ignored. The social and psychological value of rites of coming-of-age in making the transition to adulthood appears to be substantial, but modern cultural circumstances seem incompatible with the conduct of such rites.
Most rites of passage are connected with the biological crises of life (birth, maturity, reproduction, and death) all of which bring changes in social status. Other rites of passage celebrate changes that are wholly cultural, such as initiation into societies composed of people with special interests (for example, fraternities). Rites of passage are universal, and evidences from archaeology suggest that they go back to very early times. These rites are means by which individuals are led through the difficulties of transition from one social role to another. Extensive survey of preliterate and literate societies shows that the rites consist of three distinguishable, consecutive elements: preliminal, liminal, and postliminal stages (before, at, and past the threshold).
The person on whom the rites centre is first symbolically severed from his old environment, then undergoes adjustment to his new role during the period of transition, and is finally reincorporated in society in his new social status. The significances of the ceremonies are social or cultural rather than biological. The passage from one status to another is the result, rather than the cause, of these ceremonies. Symbolic death and rebirth into the new status are common forms of symbolism in rites of passage of various kinds. These are based on the model of the investiture ritual of kings, in which symbolic killing and rebirth of the new ruler, and sometimes, actual killing of the old, were required.
Modern scholars believe that the rites of passages have positive value for the individual in relieving stress at times when great rearrangements in his life occur (coming of age, marriage, becoming a parent, death of a close relative) and in providing instruction in and approval of his new roles. In the past the rites of passage have generally been religious events, that is, they have been conducted in a religious framework and regarded as religious acts. In the modern world their nature is generally seen as being fundamentally secular. Until recent times, religion was intimately connected with most aspects of life, and events of such social importance as the changes in society that the rites celebrate were most frequently incorporated in the system of religious beliefs and acts. The present tendency toward secularisation of rites of passage suggests that the primary significance of most rites is social, or secular, rather than religious. In the modern world many rites of passage, such as rites of initiation into fraternal and honorary societies, are wholly secular while others have only small elements of religion. Even marriage may be a wholly secular rite.
The study of the significance of rites has attempted to account for similarities and differences in the rites among societies of the world. The similarities reflect the close analogy in ways of human thought and behaviour all over the world and at all time. Religion and rites of passage are seen as elements that affect, and are affected, by other elements in the system such as means of gaining a livelihood, and the manner in which society is organised in groups. Following the view that culture, including social order, is a coherent and inclusive system, modern scholars have interpreted the rites of passage in terms of their functional significance in the social system Often the explicit goals of the rites have been forgotten and their continuation is a matter of following tradition, so that means have become goals.
Classifications of Rites
Purification ceremonies are very common in rites of passage, and also in other kinds of religious events. The goal of purification is to prepare the individual for communication with the supernatural, but purification in rites of passage may also be seen to have the symbolic significance of erasing an old status in preparation for a new one. Life-cycle ceremonies and crisis rites are usually synonymous terms referring to rites connected with the biological crises of life, but they also include ritual observances aimed at curing serious illnesses. Ceremonies of social transformation and of religious transformation overlap, and similarly overlap crisis rites. Religious transformations, such as baptism and rites of ordination, always involve social transformations; social transformations such as at coming-of-age and life-cycle ceremonies may also bring new religious status.
Rites of Passage in the Context of the Social System
Most interpretations of the rites of passage in the 20th century have considered their relation to the social system and have seen the functional significance of the rites as a contribution to the maintenance of society. For the system to operate effectively, its elements must be mutually supportive or congruous, and the system is then described as being in a state of equilibrium. Rites of passage are seen to foster the development of a new state of equilibrium in adjustment to the social changes. By means of the rites, members of society are informed of the new social circumstances and at the same time give social approval to them.
By reducing the anxiety of individuals who are undergoing change, social disruption is avoided. Rites of passage characteristically give assurance of mastery of the new situation and often include instruction in the new roles. The anxiety and potential social disruption caused by death, and the grief of the bereaved, are similarly held in check. Funeral rites customarily point up grief and then firmly instruct the bereaved to resume normal behaviour in a way that is not disruptive to others.
Rites of passage, and all other group rites, are seen to be socially supporting in still another implicit way. Relatives have special roles that are congruent with, or enactments of, their positions in normal social life, and the entire social hierarchy may be on display during the rites through the assignment of ritual roles. Thus status of kinship, caste, social equality, and hierarchy are all seen to be reinforced by dramatic presentation of them. A fundamental assumption is the commonplace idea that the greater the importance of a social change, the greater the ritual attention will be. The birth, marriage, and death of a ruler obviously are more important to the entire society than these events in the life of a commoner.
Psychological Aspects of Rites of Passage
Scholarly attention has neglected psychological in favour to social or cultural aspects of rites of passage. However, psychological aspects of rites enter strongly into anthropological interpretations. Emotional ties to kin and other members of society, personal identification with social groups and religious statuses, and commitment to religious ideology and other values are reinforced and sometimes created by rites of passage. Familial rites of ancestor worship, for example, are not only reinforcements of familial solidarity but also have psychological value in reinforcing emotional ties among relatives. A recurrent feature of the rites is acts of magic that assure that the outcome of the endeavour will be successful. The ordeal that a young man, or young woman, must often undergo during rites of coming-of-age may similarly be seen to provide psychological assurance of success in the new status. Ordeals of this kind are characteristically uncomfortable or frightening, but they are events that any human being ordinarily can endure. When anxiety is induced by religious beliefs, such as by ideas that if ritual acts are not performed unwanted results will follow, the rites of passage may be said both to create and to allay anxiety.
Rites of Passage in the Context of the Religious System
Certain passage rites represent first and foremost transformations in the religious status or circumstances of the people concerned. In many societies, one is not fully or properly a human being until he has undergone the rites of passage appropriate for his age and sex. When passage rites are religious ceremonies, as has generally been the case until modern times, some kind of sacrament or divine blessing, vaguely or clearly defined, is entailed. At the time of death, rites of passage placing the deceased in the realm of the supernatural customarily have been required. Symbolism in many rites of passage denotes communion with the supernatural. In common with many other kinds of religious events, passage rites relate the individual and the society to the sacred world, conferring benefit upon him thereby.
Rites of passage frequently have ethical value for the maintenance of social equilibrium. All societies have moral or ethical codes, rules of what is appropriate and inappropriate in human relations, and these are enforced by various means. Rites of passage commonly incorporate statements or dramatizations of moral values, and rites of coming-of-age often give moral instruction in highly explicit terms. No necessary or inherent connection exists, however, between morality and religious beliefs. Any serious breach of proper moral conduct results in the imposition of a network of sanctions, many of them secular. Whenever morality is a part of religious precepts, the direct sanctioning force of passage rites stressing moral rules may be powerful and important to the maintenance of society. In other societies, the ethical import of passage rites and other features of religion may operate less directly.
Primary rites of Passage
In simple, primitive societies dependent for subsistence upon hunting and gathering, in which social groups are small and specialization in labour is limited to distinctions by sex and age, no social status may exist except those of child, adult, male, female, and disembodied spirit.
Among primitive societies somewhat more advanced technologically and culturally, however, specialized groups based upon common interests appear, and these customarily require rites of induction or initiation.
In culturally sophisticated societies, with elaborate divisions of labour, social statuses of leadership and specialized occupation are multiple.
In all societies of the world, preliterate and literate, the most commonly recurrent rites of passage are those connected with the normal but critical events in the human life span: birth, attainment of physical maturity, mating and reproduction, and death.
Cults of the Greco-Roman World
Many secret cults of the Greco-Roman world offered religious experiences not provided to individuals by the official public religions. They originated in tribal ceremonies that were performed by primitive peoples in many parts of the world. Whereas in these tribal communities almost every member of the clan or the village was initiated, initiation in Greece became a matter of personal choice. The mystery religions reached their peak of popularity in the first three centuries AD. Their origin, however, goes back to the earlier centuries of Greek history. Etymologically, the word mystery is derived from the Greek verb myein (“to close”), referring to the lips and the eyes. Mysteries were always secret cults into which a person had to be “initiated” (taken in). The initiate was called “mystes”, the introducing person “mystagogos” (leader of the mystes). The leaders of the cults included the “hierophants” (“revealer of holy things”) and the “dadouchos” (“torchbearer”). The constitutive features of a mystery society were common meals, dances, and ceremonies, especially initiation rites. These common experiences strengthened the bonds between the members of each cult.
The Hellenistic Period
Alexander the Great conquered Asia as far east as the Indus River, and the Greek world became very big. The religious ideas in Greece, and in the western part of the Alexandrian Empire, changed very slowly, because the Greeks, now masters of the world, felt no need for change. In the Messenian town of Andania, mysteries were celebrated in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Kore. The mysteries in honour of the Cabeiri (gods of fertility) on the island of Samothrace were also important. Initiation into their mysteries was regarded as a safeguard against all misfortune but particularly against shipwreck. The Dionysiac Mysteries continued throughout the whole of Greek history. This cult spread to Italy but they were prohibited in 186 BC following a scandal about the “Bacchanalia” -the Latin name for the Hellenistic Dionysiac Mysteries. These mysteries were popular with the lower middle class people and involved gross sex parties and violence conducted under the cover of mystery secrecy. Important developments in the mystery rites during the Hellenistic period took place in the Greek Orient, where elements from the Greek and Oriental religions were blended. Changes in religion were inevitable, and some influence of Oriental traditions upon the Greeks followed, but at a slow pace. Ancient Near Eastern kingship was originally sacral. The Syrian and Egyptian inhabitants of the newly created Greek kingdoms inevitably regarded the Greco-Macedonian kings as semi-divine beings, and the Greeks soon submitted to this mixture of politics and religion. Mystery rituals, called Royal Mysteries, were developed especially in Egypt. According to traditional Egyptian religion, the ruling pharaoh was an incarnation of Horus (the sun-god), his mother or wife an incarnation of Isis (the heavenly queen), and his deceased father an incarnation of Osiris (the god of fertility). In Hellenistic times, Osiris was commonly known by the name Sarapis. These gods became equated with Greek gods: Isis with Demeter and Aphrodite; Horus with Apollo and Helios; Sarapis with Zeus, Dionysus, and Hades (Pluto). Both Greek and Egyptian myths were adopted for these divinities. A suburb of Alexandria, the Greek capital of Egypt, was called Eleusis after the city of Demeter in Greece, and the Eleusinian Mysteries were adapted to the Greco-Egyptian world. Dionysiac Mysteries were introduced and the royal court was involved in a number of Bacchic ceremonies in which the king was considered to be a reincarnation of Dionysus. The Pythagorean concept of the migration of the soul was also taken over and was blended with the Egyptian belief in the reincarnation of the Sun-God Horus in the reigning king. The cult of rulers introduced ideas from the Greek Orient into Greek communities. The mixture of religion and politics was a great obstacle to the propagation of the Greco-Oriental mysteries in the Mediterranean world. Even the numerous Greeks who lived in Egypt and Syria maintained the traditional Greek concept of the separation of god and man, and it was only after the political aspect of the mysteries was discarded that the religious elements could gain a life of their own. The worship of Sarapis was introduced at Delos during the time the island was temporarily a naval base of the Greco-Egyptian kings. When the Egyptian influence on the island receded, the cult of Sarapis not only remained but also reached new heights. The Romans later used Delos as a free port for the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and from there the worship of Sarapis and Isis spread to the harbours of the Greek world and to the cities in the Bay of Naples, from where it was brought by Italian merchants to Rome. The combination of mystery elements with ruler worship is also evident in the kingdom of Commagene (eastern Turkey and northern Syria). Here, the kings assigned large funds to construct big sanctuaries, where festivals of the gods and the royal ancestors were celebrated annually on the kings’ anniversary days. The ceremonies seem to have contained little true religion.
The god Dionysus was worshipped all over Greece by fraternities and by mixed communities. Dionysus was a god of fruitfulness and vegetation, but especially of wine. The festivals included drinking wine, engaging in sexual activity, but also participating in choral singing and mimes. Generally only the initiated could participate in the ceremonies, but as most Greek joined in, initiation into the Dionysiac cult might be compared to tribal initiations. It seems that initiation into the Dionysiac Mysteries included initiation into sexual life. Procreating children was not separated from the thought of death, so that the worshippers of Dionysus were aware of a mystic communion among the ancestors, the living generation, and the future members of the community.
This was an ancient Greek mystery cult, held in honour of the earth goddess Demeter and her daughter Kore (Persephone) at the town of Andania in Messenia. An inscription of 92 BC describes the rites, but it does not give any information of the initiation ceremonies. The ritual was performed by “holy ones” of both sexes, who were chosen from the various tribes, presumably the same number from each tribe. Initiation was open to men, women, and children, bonded and free. Some details of the costumes to be worn by each class of initiates are known: all were to be severely plain and of inexpensive material, but an exception was made for those who were to be “costumed into the likeness of deities”. There was a procession with strict precedence and the main ceremonial was preceded by sacrifices to a number of deities.
Beliefs and practices – Common Features in Roman Imperial Times
During the first three centuries of the Christian era, the different mystery religions existed side-by-side in the Roman Empire. They had all developed out of local and national cults. The mystery religions developed and expanded because of the new social climate due to the creation of the Roman Empire. Many people migrated and suffered from loneliness, and they longed for assimilation in their new communities. Economic and political conditions also accelerated the growth of the mysteries. Members of a mystery society helped one another. Already then there was less opportunity for private initiative in a dictatorial rather than in a democratic society. The individual, whose initiative was frustrated, often turned to a community that offered him the hope of a better future. The mystery societies satisfied both a taste for individualism and a longing for brotherhood. At least in principle, the members of the communities were considered equal: one man was the other man’s brother, irrespective of his origin, social rank, or nationality. Membership in each of the mystery communities was a matter of personal choice and this led to propaganda and missionary work. In the religions of Isis and Mithra, missionary zeal was particularly important. The followers of Isis and Mithra considered Rome to be the centre of their worship, and the city was called “sacrosancta civitas” (sacred city) in an Isis romance written in the second century AD by the Latin author Apuleius.
Mystery Religions and Christianity
Christianity originated during the time of the Roman Empire when the mysteries reached their height of popularity. The mystery religions and Christianity grew at the same time and they have many similarities. A mutual dependence has been suggested -especially a dependence of Christianity upon the mysteries- but such theories have no been generally accepted. The similarities are due to parallel developments from similar origins. In both cases, national religions of a ritualistic type were transformed following similar lines:
- From national to ecumenical religion
- From ritualistic ceremonies and taboos to spiritual doctrines set down in books
- From the idea of inherited tradition to the idea of revelation.
This parallel development was made possible by the conditions existing in the Roman Empire:
- The old political units were dissolved, and one monarch ruled the whole civilized world
- People were free to move from one country to another and became cosmopolitan
- The ideas of Greek philosophy penetrated everywhere in this society.
In this context new forms of religious communities sprang from similar roots. The mystery religions and Christianity had many similar features:
- A time of preparation before initiation, and periods of fasting
- Baptism and banquets
- Vigils and early-morning ceremonies
- Pilgrimages and new names for the initiates
- The purity demanded in the worship of Sol and in the Chaldean fire rites was similar to Christian standards
- The first Christian communities resembled the mystery communities in providing social security and the feeling of brotherhood
- In the Christian congregations of the first two centuries, the variety of rites and creeds was almost as great as in the mystery communities; few of the early Christian congregations could have been called orthodox according to later standards
- The date of Christmas was purposely fixed on December 25 to push into the background the great festival of the sun god, and Epiphany on January 6 to supplant an Egyptian festival of the same day
- The Easter ceremonies rivalled the pagan spring festivals
- The religious art of the Christians continued the pagan art of the preceding generations
- The Christian representations of the Madonna and child are clearly the continuation of the representations of Isis and her son suckling her breast
- The statue of the Good Shepherd carrying his lost sheep and the pastoral themes on Christian sarcophagi were also taken over from pagan craftsmanship
- In theology, the differences between early Christians, Gnostics and pagan Hermetists were slight. In the large Gnostic library discovered at Naj’Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, in 1945, Hermetic writings were found side-by-side with Christian Gnostic texts
- The doctrine of the soul taught in Gnostic communities was almost identical to that taught in the mysteries: the soul emanated from the Father, fell into the body, and had to return to its former home.
Thus, the religions had a common conceptual framework. The pagan writer and philosopher Synesius was chosen by the people of Cyrene to be their bishop, and he was able to accept it without sacrificing his intellectual honesty. In his pagan period his hymns were in line with the fire theology of the Chaldean Oracles; later he wrote hymns to Jesus Christ. The doctrine is almost identical and the similarity of the religious vocabulary is also great. Democratic institutions, seafaring, gymnasium, athletic games, theatre, and philosophy characterized Greek life. The mystery religions adopted many expressions from these domains. They spoke of:
- The assembly (ekklesia) of the “mystai”; the voyage of life
- The ship, the anchor, and the port of religion
- The wreath of the initiate. Life was a stage and man, the actor.
The Christians took over the entire terminology but many pagan words were twisted in order to fit into the Christian world:
- The service of the state (leitourgia) became the ritual, or liturgy, of the church
- The decree of the assembly and the opinions of the philosophers (dogma) became the fixed doctrine of Christianity
- The correct opinion (orthedoxa) about things became orthodoxy.
There are also great differences between Christianity and the mysteries:
- Mystery religions can be traced back to tribal origins while Christianity is attributed to a historical person
- The holy stories of the mysteries were myths; the Gospels of the New Testament are said to relate historical events
- The essential features of Christianity were fixed once and for all in the New Testament
- The mystery doctrines always remained in a much greater state of fluidity
- The theology of the mysteries was developed to a far lesser degree than the Christian theology
- There are no parallels in Christianity to the sexual rites in the Dionysiac and Isiac religion, with the exception of a few Gnostic communities
- The cult of rulers in the manner of the imperial mysteries was impossible in Jewish and Christian’s worship.
The mysteries declined quickly when Emperor Constantine chose Christianity as the state religion. After a short period of tolerance, the pagan religions were prohibited, the property of the pagan gods was confiscated, and the temples were destroyed. The capital of the empire was transferred to the new Christian city of Constantinople, while the centres of pagan resistance remained in Rome (where the old aristocracy clung to the mysteries) and Alexandria, (where the pagan Neoplatonist philosophers expounded the mystery doctrines). Both these cities sided with Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor from AD 361 to 363, who tried to re-establish pagan worship. After his death, the pagan opposition to Christianity continued for one more generation. In 391, however, the Sarapeum at Alexandria was demolished, and in 394 the opposition of the Roman aristocracy was defeated forever. Only remnants of the mystery doctrines and Platonism were transmitted to the religious thinkers of the Byzantine Empire and they influenced some thinkers of the Middle Ages and the philosophers of the Italian Renaissance.
God and the Godhead
The most daring forms of Christian mysticism have emphasized the impossibility to know God. True contact with the transcendent would involve going beyond God to an inner “God beyond God”. This “mystical atheism” was deemed suspicious to established religion. The main exponent of this teaching in the early centuries was the Pseudo-Dionysius, who distinguished “the super-essential Godhead” from all positive terms ascribed to God. God is eternally the dark mystery of which nothing can be said.
Religious Art and Iconography
The Greco-Roman art was created for use in the mystery communities. The Dionysiac monuments were the best probably because the worship of Dionysus was also a worship of beauty.
The mystery religions developed different types of buildings. Every Greek city had temples and precincts of Dionysus. The Isis Mysteries adopted the Greek temples, frequently adding a cupola. Many Isis temples were modest in size but some, like the temple at Pergamum (modern Bergama, Turkey), was a great basilica in the style of the Roman architecture. The Isis temple erected by Emperor Domitian at the end of the 1st century AD and the subterranean basilica near Porta Maggiore (both in Rome) as well as the Temple of Sarapis (the Sarapeum) at Alexandria were imposing constructions. The Mithraic sanctuaries were artificial caves illuminated from above by light shafts and designed to be functional for the religious ceremonies. The Mithraeum under the church of S. Clemente at Rome contained a system of underground galleries for initiation ceremonies. Beneath the temple of the Egyptian gods at Pergamum, subterranean passages existed for the use of the priests. The Sarapeum at Alexandria was arranged in such a way that those waiting to be initiated could hire rooms in an adjacent building during the time of preparation before the ceremony. The location of the temples was often determined by the availability of water that was important in most mystery rites. Mithraic sanctuaries were always erected on the spot at which a fountain had its source. In the temples of Isis, a cistern for holy water was required. In Delos and in a house at Pompeii in Italy, a system of water basins could imitate the flood of the Nile. The Dionysiac temple at Corinth had an underground system of tubes and barrels. Before leaving the building and sealing the door the priest showed the worshippers of the god a barrel filled with water. By pressing buttons, the water was let out of the barrel, and wine was poured in. The following day, when the seal was removed, the spectator witnessed the Dionysiac miracle of water turned into wine. On the ground floor of the Mithraic sanctuaries at Ostia, mosaic pavements showed the seven grades of the initiation and their symbols together with the ladder of the seven steps that led to religious salvation. In initiation ceremonies, the mosaic was perhaps used to indicate the place where the different participants were to take their places.