in antiquity, secret cults of certain divinities. Only the initiated, or mystae, participated in the cults, which consisted of a series of sequential dramatized actions illustrating the myths associated with the worshiped divinities. The dramatizations were accompanied by a particular ritual and usually by processions, incantations, and orgies.
Mystery cults were engendered by the cults of the most ancient gods, who personified death and rebirth in nature. When class society developed, some cults broke away from official religion and became secret cults. The first mystery cults grew out of ancient Oriental rituals (the cults of Osiris and Isis in Egypt and Tammuz in Babylon). There is evidence suggesting the existence of mystery cults in ancient Greece from the seventh century B.C.
Among the best known of the early mystery cults are the Eleusinian mysteries in honor of the fertility goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone (Kore); the Orphic mysteries, which, according to tradition, were founded by Orpheus, a mythical Thracian bard; and the Samothracian mysteries, which honored the Cabiri, patrons of seafarers. Archaeological evidence suggests that a number of Oriental mystery cults, including those of Isis, Attis, Cybele, and Mithra (Mithras), were introduced into Italy as early as the second century B.C. Near Pompeii archaeologists have excavated the Villa of Mysteries, which has a central room containing unique representations of the practices of mystery cults. Many elements of the mystery cults of late antiquity, particularly those of Isis and Mithra, were borrowed by Christianity and became an integral part of Christian religious services.
REFERENCESNovosadskii, N. I. Elevsinskie misterii. St. Petersburg, 1887.
Kern, O. Die griechischen Mysterien der klassischen Zeit. Berlin, 1927.
Maiuri, A. La villa dei misteri. Rome, 1931.
Kerenyi, K. Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Zürich, 1962.