Several different cults or societies characterized in part by elaborate initiation rituals and secret rites. Though attested in Greece before 600 B.C., the mystery religions flourished during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (after 333 B.C.) before dying out before A.D. 500. In particular the intermingling of religious concepts made possible by Alexander the Great’s far-flung conquests accelerated the spread of some cults and facilitated the development of
others. Knowledge of the mystery religions is fragmentary due to the strict secrecy imposed on those initiated; scattered references in ancient writers, some antagonistic to mystery religions, and archaeological data provide the most important evidence. Scholars often disagree about the interpretation of the data,
Many mystery religions emerged, but among the more important were the associated with the following deities: the Greek Demeter (the famous Eleusinian mysteries) and Dionysus, the Phyrgian Cybele (The Magna Mater) and Attis; the Syrian Adonis; the Egyptian Isis and Osiris (Sarapis); and Mithra, originally a Persian deity. Orphism and Sabazius both contributed to the mysteries of Dionysus while Samothrace was the home of the Cabiri mysteries. Many of the deities in the mystery religions were ancient and were worshipped in separate cults both before and after the development of the mystery cults.
The central features of each mystery religion were the sacred rites, called mysteries, in which the cultic myth of the god or goddess worshiped in the cult was reenacted. Only those formally initiated into the cult could participate. The precise nature of these rites is unknown due to the vow of secrecy but probably involved a drama based upon the cult myth and the dramatic visual presentation of certain sacred objects. Mention is made of “things said,” probably sacred formulas and secret love. References exist to eating and drinking, likely a form of communion. By participating in these rites the worshiper identified with the deity and shared in the deity fate. These powerful symbols afforded those initiated the means to overcome the suffering and difficulties of life and promised a share in the life beyond. END OF PART 1