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What’s a Mystery Religion?

What’s a mystery religion and what makes it a mystery? No, not like the “mystery flavor” of that sugary drink you had as a kid. 

More like a club that you formed with your friends that your parents knew existed but didn’t know anything more about and you pinky-swore not to tell the secret handshake to anyone.

Table of Contents

Basic Definition of ‘Mystery Religion’

Essentially, a mystery religion or mystery cult is an optional and initiatory component of a larger collection of religious practices, the exact details of which were unknown to everyone except the initiated. Mystery comes, not surprisingly, from Greek, and its etymology actually helps to understand its meaning in this context:

“In Greek to initiate is myein or else telein, the initiate is called mystes, and the whole proceedings mysteria, while telesterion is the special building where initiations take place. The ceremony can also be called telete, but this word is also used for religious celebrations generally. Orgia too is a word for ritual which is used especially for mysteries: to celebrate in exaltation, having been transformed to a higher status by initiation, is orgiazein.” (Burkert, Greek Religion, 276)

While the term is “mystery religion,” there is some general agreement that this isn’t quite correct:

it is clear that they cannot be considered independent movements, let alone religions, but as merely an ingrained modality of (Greek, later Graeco-Roman) polytheism.”(Gordon, 1017)

Burkert agrees, saying:

mysteries are seen to be a special form of worship offered in the larger context of religious practice. Thus the use of the term ‘mystery religion’ as a pervasive and exclusive name for a closed system, is inappropriate.(Burkert, Mystery Cults, 10)

Common Features

Several different cult practices get this label in scholarship, but they all have some common threads.

  • A common, though not universal feature, is that the mystery cults were foreign. Significant examples include Mithras, Cybele, and Magna Mater. This was not always the case, though, and Burkert notes that this is a common stereotype (Burkert, Mystery Cults, 2). The Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, were native Greek.
  • A common thread in mystery religions is that something was held back; some secret bit of information was only intended to be known by initiated members. This is not to say that the cults were necessarily outside the mainstream of Greek society; the Eleusinian mysteries, for example, were incredibly mainstream and officially sanctioned by the polis of Athens.
  • Another common thread is that mystery religions were voluntary. Unlike a civic cult where everyone was a member by default, and anyone could make offerings or appeals to a god, mystery religions had an initiation process. You had to put in the effort to get involved. That’s the main thing that sets them apart. To someone not initiated, they were sort of mysterious in the way that we would use the term.

While they were optional, they were “usually felt to confer special benefits, often a better fate after death. Secrecy was a prominent characteristic, and the experience was often a profoundly emotional one.” (Gordon, 1300) Mystery religions didn’t exist as separate beliefs and were often related to a larger cult:

there exists forms of a ‘normal’ cult alongside the mysteries, that is, worship for the noninitiated, independent of possible candidacy for myesis or telete. There were yearly festivals at fixed dates; private offerings were invited and accepted without restriction-only Mithras constitutes a special case.”(Burkert, Mystery Cult, 10)

Overall, there were three types: the itinerant practitioner or charismatic, the clergy attached to a sanctuary, and the association of worshipers in the form of a club, thiasos. (Burkert, Mystery Cult, 31)

Initiation

The idea of initiation is common in religion, and, in that sense, the “mystery religions” were religions. Eliade describes it:

the term initiation in the most general sense denotes a body of rites and oral teachings whose purpose is to produce a radical modification of the religious and social status of the person to be initiated. (112)

The types he goes on to discuss are:

  • Collective rituals of a society
  • Rites completed for entering a society
  • Rites associated with a mystical vocation

Mystery religions fall into the second type here, and initiation involved learning some manner of secret. What the secret was varied from group to group, but it usually had something to do with the primary divinity worshipped:

“In general, each divinity of a mystery cult has a specific myth to which he or she is intimately bound. Usually the general outlines are well known: some details, though, are said to be ‘sacred’ and are allegedly kept secret.” (Burkert, Mystery Cults,73)

This is a significant component of the practices, the thing that makes them “mysteries” and was not supposed to be revealed to outsiders:

“certain parts or aspects of the myth that were only told to the initiates, sealed by horrible oaths of secrecy. Allusions point to particularly bizarre, cruel, or obscene incidents.” 74

It might be tempting to draw parallels between initiation and Christian baptism, for example, but this analogy really doesn’t work. The initiations described above weren’t exclusive; ancient religions tended not to be exclusive in any real sense. So whereas Christian baptism is a kind of entry into the religion itself, the mystery religions were essentially part of the larger collection of religious practices. Someone initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, still took part in the civil cult:

In the pre-Christian epoch, the various forms of worship, including new and foreign gods in general and the institution of mysteries in particular, are never exclusive; they appear as varying forms, trends, or options within one disparate yet continuous conglomerate of ancient religion” (Burkert, Mystery Cults, 4) Secrecy was radical. However, it remained an open question whether in mysteries the sacred was forbidden, aporrheton, or unspeakable, arrheton in an absolute sense. (Burkert, Greek Religion, 207)

Conclusion

The things that we call mystery religions or mystery cults were essentially non-exclusive offshoots of religious practices associated with some divinity, involving initiation into a set of specific rituals and knowledge for some benefit in this life or the next.

Bibliography

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults (Carl Newell Jackson Lectures).Harvard University Press, 1989

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Gordon, Richard, “Mysteries”. In The Oxford Classical Dictionary. eds. Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. OUP Oxford, 2012.

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