Citizens whispered about their disturbing activities
Unlike today, it was much easier to be secret and mysterious in ancient times.
Ancient societies had little or no media, and the news stories that did exist took weeks, if not months, to circulate to the general. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that these mystery cults thrived during the first three centuries.
Common traits of ancient mystery cults
These secretive ancient cults shared many common traits:
- All of them had very rigorous and prolonged initiation ceremonies, which included ritual purifications and fasting.
- Secrecy was demanded of its members through vows.
- They performed group rituals, orgies, meals, and dancing, which reinforced bonds among its members.
- All of them emphasized a connection to the movements of the stars and planets and the seasons.
- These mystery cults shared a central belief in death and resurrection. Part of their mystery was whether or not they took this literally or allegorically.
- There was no written scripture or dogma as all things were based on individual experience, which added to the mystery.
- All of them used mental shock, such as physical pain and terror, to induce altered states.
The challenge of learning about mystery cults
One of the biggest problems in learning about ancient mystery cults is trying to find information about them. In addition to their hiding behind a shroud of secrecy, most written ancient records have been lost. And we’re only left with scattered pieces of information to reconstruct entire ancient civilizations.
Mystery cults offered a personal appeal to certain people during those times. Keep in mind that many of them lived in societies where their emperor’s worship was demanded of all citizens.
Apart from these official observances, people who desired an individual experience were perfect candidates for these ancient cults. They offered individuality and direct contact with a divine being in an atmosphere of others with like-minded goals.
Let us examine three of these ancient mystery cults.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries began as a small local cult that gradually expanded to Athens and later circulated throughout Greece. They even reached Rome by the 1st century AD. Their invisible network eventually spread all through the Roman Empire.
New candidates went through an initiation process that was a yearlong spiritual odyssey. This process ended in Eleusis, which was a small city outside of Athens, Greece.
On that final day, they were required to walk the Sacred Way from Athens to ‘Telesterion,’ an underground amphitheater. This was a 14-mile walk in the hot sun, interrupted by prayers to Demeter, the fertility goddess.
The initiates then drank kykeon, which was a sacred brew that contained various hallucinogens that provided the required illumination for them. In total darkness, they waited in Telesterion for the great mystery to start.
Suddenly a great fire was lit. This was when the initiates began dancing and would become immortal by night’s end - never again fearing death.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, who were among the most prestigious secret society in the Greco-Roman world, allegedly possessed the secrets about the pain of death. Adding to the mystery was that all members kept quiet, which certainly says something regarding their experiences.
Their rituals ended in 391 AD when Christian emperor Theodosius shut down the shrine and abolished their practices. Four years after this, marauding Visigoths invaded Eleusis and left it a pile of rubble.
The Pythagorean Brotherhood
The great mathematician Pythagoras created a secret society based on the immortal human soul, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and math. The Pythagorean brotherhood began to appear around 500 BC in southern Italy.
Initiates in this ancient cult lived a monastic lifestyle; they shared all their possessions and labor and were sworn to secrecy. The brotherhood’s Initiation process took five years. Pythagoras taught them that numerical ratios and numbers were the only way to understand reality - this meant that mathematics was the real mystery.
Pythagoras also believed our immortal souls first fell from the heavens and were later imprisoned in our earthly flesh bodies. Their main objective was to end this earthly cycle of rebirth, escape our fleshly prisons, and return to our heavenly home.
The Pythagorean brotherhood also subscribed to a unique political agenda. In 5th-century Athens, they began infiltrating aristocratic secret societies in an attempt to overthrow the democratic government.
It was this political activity that led to the Pythagorean brotherhood’s persecution and disappearance. Unfortunately, this is a common pattern - political agendas disguised by spiritualism as a way of enlisting others to achieve its ends.
While the Pythagoreans may have disappeared, they weren’t destroyed. Future cults adopted some of their doctrines.
The Mithraic Mysteries
The Roman Empire witnessed another popular cult called the Mithraic Mysteries. This cult was named after a Persian god named ‘Mithra’ because he was typically portrayed in Roman attire in popular paintings. Aside from this, there was no connection at all to Persia or its customs and rituals.
The Mithras cult originally appeared in Italy during the 1st century AD and spread from there. It was even more secretive than was the Eleusinian cult. Mithraists often gathered in underground temples or in natural caves where Mithraeums had been constructed. There were no written records left behind about them, most likely because they were never written in the first place.
The Mithraic Mysteries were made up mostly of males. It was prevalent among Roman soldiers, explaining why it was spread to frontier posts along the Danube and Rhine Rivers and Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.
Artifacts from this cult have been discovered in their underground temples. They are characterized by a centerpiece that was called the tauroctony. Some believe this tauroctony is actually a coded celestial map. Reinforcing this belief is an image where stars are covering Mithras’s blue cloak.
The Mithraists also took part in a sacred meal of unleavened bread that was marked with a cross. This observation has led many to believe that Christianity and Mithraism were somehow connected.
Mithraic initiates received temporary names like lion and raven. Brethren recognized one another by the signs of the mouth, hand, and crescent. The first two signs were vocal and visual, and the final sign was a ritual scar. Initiates were usually blindfolded and then ritually slain so they could be reborn anew.