Mystery Cults

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mystery Cults


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.


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Kern, O. Die griechischen Mysterien der klassischen Zeit. Berlin, 1927.
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Kerenyi, K. Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Zürich, 1962.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
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In his chapter on "Art and Religion," Elsner discusses the seemingly contradictory phenomena of differentiation and syncretism at work in the imagery of competing religions of the late empire--the traditional civic and imperial rituals as well as the more esoteric mystery cults. He emphasizes monotheism and sacred Scripture as the key elements, inherited from Judaism, that gave Christianity the capacity to triumph as the new state religion in the fourth century, this in the face of its new need to accommodate aspects of civic imperial rituals that it had long opposed and "to promulgate that [Christian] identity through the active process of conversion" throughout the empire (225).
As a little girl, I'd learned about every detail of the resurrection as extraordinary -- which made it rather disconcerting when I found out that crucifixion was a common practice of the times, and that dozens of Greek mystery cults told stories of resurrections.