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Ancient mystery cults.

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Ancient mystery cults.

Postby Ben C. Smith » Wed May 10, 2017 6:09 pm

My purpose on this thread is simply to collect ancient texts and modern comments on the ancient mystery cults, especially as might pertain to various aspects of Judaism and Christianity.

Ancient Texts

Herodotus, Histories 2.170.1-171.1: 170.1 There is also at Saïs the burial-place of one whose name I think it impious to mention in speaking of such a matter; it is in the temple of Athena, behind and close to the length of the wall of the shrine. 2 Moreover, great stone obelisks stand in the precinct; and there is a lake nearby, adorned with a stone margin and made in a complete circle; it is, as it seemed to me, the size of the lake at Delos which they call the Round Pond. 171.1 On this lake they enact by night the story of the god's sufferings, a rite which the Egyptians call the mysteries [ἐν δὲ τῇ λίμνῃ ταύτῃ τὰ δείκηλα τῶν παθέων αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς ποιεῦσι, τὰ καλέουσι μυστήρια Αἰγύπτιοι]. I could say more about this, for I know the truth, but let me preserve a discreet silence.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 7.5: 5 It would appear, moreover, that Alexander not only received from his master his ethical and political doctrines, but also participated in those secret and more profound teachings which philosophers designate by the special terms "acroamatic" and "epoptic" ( ἀκροατικὰς καὶ ἐποπτικὰς), and do not impart to many.

Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades 22.3: 3 His impeachment is on record, and runs as follows: "Thessalus, son of Cimon, of the deme Laciadae, impeaches Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, of the deme Scambonidae, for committing crime against the goddesses of Eleusis, Demeter and Cora, by mimicking the mysteries and showing them forth to his companions in his own house, wearing a robe such as the High Priest wears when he shows forth the sacred secrets to the initiates, and calling himself High Priest, Pulytion Torch-bearer, and Theodorus, of the deme Phegaea, Herald, and hailing the rest of his companions as Mystae [μύστας] and Epoptae [ἐπόπτας], contrary to the laws and institutions of the Eumolpidae, Heralds, and Priests of Eleusis."

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen 2.21-22a: And the following is the token of the Eleusinian mysteries: "I have fasted, I have drunk the cup; I have received from the box; having done, I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chest" [«ἐνήστευσα, ἔπιον τὸν κυκεῶνα, ἔλαβον ἐκ κίστης, ἐργασάμενος ἀπεθέμην εἰς κάλαθον καὶ ἐκ καλάθου εἰς κίστην»]. Fine sights truly, and becoming a goddess; mysteries worthy of the night, and flame, and the magnanimous or rather silly people of the Erechthidæ and the other Greeks besides, "whom a fate they hope not for awaits after death" [«μένει τελευτήσαντας ἅσσα οὐδὲ ἔλπονται»]. And in truth against these Heraclitus the Ephesian prophesies, as "the night-walkers, the magi, the bacchanals, the Lenæn revellers, the initiated" [«νυκτιπόλοις, μάγοις, βάκχοις, λήναις, μύσταις»]. These he threatens with what will follow death, and predicts for them fire. For what are regarded among men as mysteries, they celebrate sacrilegiously. Law, then, and opinion, are nugatory. And the mysteries of the dragon are an imposture, which celebrates religiously mysteries that are no mysteries at all, and observes with a spurious piety profane rites. What are these mystic chests?— for I must expose their sacred things, and divulge things not fit for speech. Are they not sesame cakes, and pyramidal cakes, and globular and flat cakes, embossed all over, and lumps of salt, and a serpent the symbol of Dionysus Bassareus? And besides these, are they not pomegranates, and branches, and rods, and ivy leaves? And besides, round cakes and poppy seeds? And further, there are the unmentionable symbols of Themis, marjoram, a lamp, a sword, a woman's comb, which is a euphemism and mystic expression for the muliebria. [Suggested by Andrew.]

Firmicus Maternus, On the Error of Profane Religion 22: Aliud etiam symbolum proferimus, ut contaminatae cogitationis scelera revelentur. Cuius totus ordo dicendus est, ut aput omnes constet divinae dispositionis legem perversa diaboli esse imitatione corruptam. Nocte quadam simulacrum in lectica supinum ponitur, et per numeros digestis fletibus plangitur. Deinde cum se ficta lamentatione satiaverint, lumen infertur. Tunc a sacerdote omnium qui flebant fauces unguentur, quibus perunctis. Sacerdos hoc lento murmure susurrat: θαρεῖτε, μύσται, τοῦ θεοῦ σεσωσμένου· ἔσται γάρ ἡμῖν ἐκ πόνων σωτηρία. / We also mention another symbol, in order that the evil crimes of a contaminated mind might be revealed. The whole sequence of it must be told, so that it might be evident among all that the law of the divine arrangement was disturbed by the perverted imitation of the devil. On a certain night, the image is placed face up on a bier and is lamented by many with divided mournings. Then, when they have satisfied themselves with this imagined lamentation, a light is brought in. At that time, the throat of all who mourned was anointed by the priest. After this anointing, the priest, whispered the following in a slow muttering, "Rejoice, initiates, since the god is redeemed. For salvation from toils shall be ours." [No one is certain which cult this is about; guesses include that of Osiris.]

Column 7 of the Derveni papyrus: ... hymn saying sound and lawful things. For ... by his poetry. For it is not possible to state what way the words are used and at the same time the text itself His poetry is something strange and riddling for people. But Orpheus did not intend to tell them captious riddles, but momentous things in riddles. Indeed, he is telling a holy discourse from the first and up to his last word. As he also makes clear in the well-chosen verse: for having ordered them to put doors to their ears he says that he is [? not legislating] for the many... [? but only for] those pure in hearing... according... in the next verse ... [Translation from The Art of Wise website.] / <I shall also prove that Orpheus composed a> hymn that tells of wholesome and permissible things. For he was speaking allegorically with his poetic composition, and it was impossible to state the application of his words and what was meant. His composition is prophetic and riddling for people. But Orpheus himself did not wish to utter disputable riddles, but important things in riddles. In fact he is speaking allegorically from his very first word right through to his last, as he reveals even in his easily-explained verse: for the one who bids them ‘shut the doors’ on their ears is saying that he is certainly not making laws for the many, but instructing those who are pure in hearing . . .’ [Translation by Richard Janko; Greek text available online.]

Modern Comments

Mircea Eliade, History of Religious Ideas 1, page 297 (speaking of the Eleusinian mysteries, original Greek added by me): A quite surprising piece of information has been transmitted to us by Bishop Asterius. He lived about 440, when Christianity had become the official religion of the empire, which is to say that the author no longer feared denials on the part of pagan writers. Asterius speaks of an underground passage, wrapped in darkness, where the solemn meeting between the hierophant and the priestess took place, of torches extinguished, and of the "vast crowd who believe that their salvation depends on what those two do in the darkness" [ὁ πολύς καὶ ἀναρίθμητος δῆμος τὴν σωτηρίαν αὐτῶν εἶναι νομίζουσι τὰ ἐν τῷ σκότῳ παρὰ τῶν δύο πραττόμενα].

Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, pages 77-78 (original Greek added by me): Without a need for consistency, but rather with an affection for details, myth communicates living experience. The Eleusinian mystai abstain from food, as Demeter did in her grief, and they end their fast when the first star is seen, because Demeter did the same; they carry torches, because Demeter lit them at the flames of Mount Aetna; but they do not sit on the well because Demeter sat there, mourning for her daughter. The hymn to Demeter makes the goddess perform what must have been part of the initiation ritual: sitting down on a stool covered with fleece, veiling her head, keeping silence, then laughing and tasting the kykeon. The worshipers of Isis imitate their goddess, beating their breasts and wailing for Osiris, but bursting into joy when the god has been found again. The castrated galloi clearly impersonate Attis. Since Attis is said to have died under a pine tree, this kind of tree is brought into the sanctuary with fillets hanging from its branches; these are said to be the bandages with which Meter tried to stop Attis' bleeding, and she adorned him with spring flowers, like the flowers hanging from the tree. At the same time the tree represents the nymph who lured Attis into infidelity, and for this reason it is cut and "killed" on account of the wrath of Meter. As for Dionysus, things "brought in" in the mysteries are said to correspond to the dismemberment myth; these might include the phallus in the liknon. The initiates wear wreaths of black poplar because this tree is said to grow in the netherworld, where Chthonian Dionysus belongs. The enthronement of Chthonian Dionysus by his father Zeus, and especially the playthings and the mirror brought to him in myth and used in ritual, clearly refer to an initiation pattern; once Dionysus himself is called mystes, and Attis too is assimilated to his followers. Plutarch says that the sufferings of Isis, as enacted in the teletai, should be a lesson in piety and a consolation to men and women caught in "similar sufferings" [καὶ παραμύθιον ἀνδράσι καὶ γυναιξὶν ὑπὸ συμφορῶν ἐχομένοις ὁμοίων καθωσίωσεν].

Feel free to suggest others.
Last edited by Ben C. Smith on Mon May 15, 2017 7:50 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby MrMacSon » Wed May 10, 2017 11:37 pm

I wonder if the Corpus Hermeticum is pertinent to various aspects of Judaism and Christianity - viewtopic.php?p=50802#p50802

I have previously mused whether the cult of Serapis has contributed to Chrstianity - viewtopic.php?p=26614#p26614


and there is a short thread here on Plutarch - viewtopic.php?p=59170#p59170

and some stuff on Sethians - viewtopic.php?f=11&t=2195

There's a recent article on pagan angels in Roman Asia Minor - viewtopic.php?p=57775#p57775
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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby Ben C. Smith » Thu May 11, 2017 7:36 am

MrMacSon wrote:I wonder if the Corpus Hermeticum is pertinent to various aspects of Judaism and Christianity - http://www.earlywritings.com/forum/view ... 802#p50802

I have previously mused whether the cult of Serapis has contributed to Chrstianity - http://www.earlywritings.com/forum/view ... 614#p26614


Thanks for those links.

I have been meaning to take a closer look at the letter from Hadrian to Servianus. Its authenticity as a Hadrianic letter is, to my mind, very much to be questioned, at the very least; however, that does not necessarily mean that its contents are mistaken. Serapis = Osiris + Apis. A connection between this god and Jesus Christ would make some sense, and ought to be explored with neither the allergic evasions of those scholars who would hate to find Christianity to be derivative in any way nor the eager delight of those scholars who would love to find Christianity to be the result of pagan syncretism.
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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby andrewcriddle » Thu May 11, 2017 10:45 am

Ben C. Smith wrote:......................................................................
I have been meaning to take a closer look at the letter from Hadrian to Servianus. Its authenticity as a Hadrianic letter is, to my mind, very much to be questioned, at the very least; however, that does not necessarily mean that its contents are mistaken. Serapis = Osiris + Apis. A connection between this god and Jesus Christ would make some sense, and ought to be explored with neither the allergic evasions of those scholars who would hate to find Christianity to be derivative in any way nor the eager delight of those scholars who would love to find Christianity to be the result of pagan syncretism.
If, as seems highly probable, the letter is inauthentic then it is likely to be a deliberate anti-Christian hoax, like a lot of other material in the Augustan Histories.

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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby andrewcriddle » Thu May 11, 2017 10:51 am

Hippolytus on the Naassenes is relevant.
As is this passage from Clement of Alexandria

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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby MrMacSon » Thu May 11, 2017 1:06 pm

andrewcriddle wrote:.......................................................
If, as seems highly probable, the letter is inauthentic then it is likely to be a deliberate anti-Christian hoax, like a lot of other material in the Augustan Histories.

I'm aware the Augustan Histories are considered to be dubious histories, though I don't know why. I didn't realise they are considered to be deliberate anti-Christian hoaxes. To see arguments as to why would be interesting.

Ben C. Smith wrote:......................................................
I have been meaning to take a closer look at the letter from Hadrian to Servianus. Its authenticity as a Hadrianic letter is, to my mind, very much to be questioned, at the very least; however, that does not necessarily mean that its contents are mistaken. Serapis = Osiris + Apis. A connection between this god and Jesus Christ would make some sense, and ought to be explored with neither the allergic evasions of those scholars who would hate to find Christianity to be derivative in any way nor the eager delight of those scholars who would love to find Christianity to be the result of pagan syncretism.


To Andrew and Ben;

It certainly seems that Hadrian had an strong interest in the cult of Serapis with there being a Hadrian's 'serapeum' for which there is archaeological evidence.

What the letter reflects is another matter. I have wondered if it is tied to the supposed list of supposed Christian bishops in Alexandria.

The interesting things for me are that

    a. Serapis became to be portrayed as a human, and that portrayal in busts etc is somewhat identical to the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth.

    b. the cult of Sepapis (and other mystery religions) was(were) spreading & growing through the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st-3rd centuries ad/ce. Diasporic Jews would have been very likely to have interacted with it (them) and syncretism could have been due to a passive 'theological evolution'.

Serapis is supposed to have been a god invented or co-opted by Ptolemy Solter I to engage and 'co-ordinate' / 'keep together' the Greeks and the Egyptians after the death of Alexander the Great. I wonder if Jesus the Christ of Nazareth served a similar deliberate purpose ie. to smooth diasporic Jew-Gentile relations in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (but how that might have been coordinated would have to be determined beyond such speculation)

It is also possible Constantine and Eusebius etc later used Christianity in the same way Ptolemy Soter I (and his successors(?)) had or may have used the cult of Serapis.

    (particularly with the Eastern v Western Roman Empire divisions in the early 4th century)

    We don't seem to know much about the geo-spatial distribution of Christianity before the 4th century.
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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby Ben C. Smith » Fri May 12, 2017 6:14 am

andrewcriddle wrote:Hippolytus on the Naassenes is relevant.
As is this passage from Clement of Alexandria


Thanks, Andrew.
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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby Ben C. Smith » Fri May 12, 2017 7:13 am

andrewcriddle wrote:Hippolytus on the Naassenes is relevant.
As is this passage from Clement of Alexandria


I have added a passage from Clement to the OP.

There is a passage about the Naassenes in that chapter from Hippolytus which twice quotes the gospel of John:

This, he says, is the water that is above the firmament, concerning which, he says, the Saviour has declared, If you knew who it is that asks, you would have asked from Him, and He would have given you to drink living, bubbling water [John 4.10]. ....

But if any one, he says, is blind from birth, and has never beheld the true light, which lightens every man that comes into the world [John 1.9], by us let him recover his sight, and behold, as it were, through some paradise planted with every description of tree, and supplied with abundance of fruits, water coursing its way through all the trees and fruits; and he will see that from one and the same water the olive chooses for itself and draws the oil, and the vine the wine; and (so is it with) the rest of plants, according to each genus.

This serves to remind me just how many concepts are expressed in John which (A) do not find expression in the synoptic gospels and (B) are of a highly symbolic nature which one might justly call gnostic, as they seem to reveal, through simple elemental imagery, deep truths. I think especially of the "I am" statements here (I am the light of the world, the true vine, the door, the good shepherd, the bread of life, the resurrection, the way). And I think of how Justin Martyr seems to truly reflect the gospel of John only once, in a formulation which some have argued Justin did not derive from the gospel of John, but rather from a baptismal saying of some kind (1 Apology 61.4-5): "For Christ also said, 'Unless you are born again, you shall not go into the kingdom of the heavens. But that those who have once been born are unable to enter into the maternal womb is apparent to all'" (John 3.3-4). And I think of how disjointed the gospel of John is: so many apparent editorial dislocations: investigators from Bultmann to our own Bernard Muller have attempted to put the puzzle pieces back together again.

What if the gospel of John relied far more heavily on the actual, raw stuff of Christian ritual than the synoptics? While the synoptics fill out their picture of Jesus from scripture, Judean history, and local lore, John fills out his picture of Jesus from the actual words used in baptismal, eucharistic, and other Christian rites. This is not to say that the synoptics never do this, nor that John never uses Judean history, scripture, and lore; rather, it is merely an observation on the possible ratio of ritual materials to other kinds. Perhaps John is taking those ritual materials and placing them on the lips of Jesus and his disciples in much the same way that the Wisdom of Jesus Christ (the Sophia) takes the words of Eugnostos the Blessed and places them on the lips of Jesus and his disciples. Thus, when gnostic groups like the Naassenes quote from the gospel of John, maybe they are not just finding the most mysterious sayings they can lay their hands on and exploiting their very mysteriousness toward gnostic ends; maybe, instead, they are recognizing those materials which reflect the deeper mysteries, and which did so even before John was written.

Notice how Justin Martyr places all of John 3.3-4 on Christ's lips, whereas John has verse 3 on Jesus' lips and verse 4 on Nicodemus' lips. Does this not suggest that the same underlying baptismal script is being drawn upon, but the two authors (John and Justin) have divided up the words (originally unmarked, just as we find in Eugnostos the Blessed) differently?

Just thinking out loud here.
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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby andrewcriddle » Sat May 13, 2017 1:16 am

MrMacSon wrote:
andrewcriddle wrote:.......................................................
If, as seems highly probable, the letter is inauthentic then it is likely to be a deliberate anti-Christian hoax, like a lot of other material in the Augustan Histories.

I'm aware the Augustan Histories are considered to be dubious histories, though I don't know why. I didn't realise they are considered to be deliberate anti-Christian hoaxes. To see arguments as to why would be interesting.


The Augustan Histories claim to be written by several different writers in the early 300s CE. It is now generally accepted that they were actually written by a single author in the very late 300s CE. The detailed argumentation is mostly not online. Important books include Historia Augusta papers and other works by Ronald Syme. The Augustan Histories had access to good historical sources now lost but also simply made things up. Most quoted documents in the Augustan Histories are regarded as inventions. Most of the information in the lives of the Imperial Pretenders is fictional. The letter is a document quoted in the life of an imperial pretender (Saturninus) see http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Firmus_et_al*.html Also See this article on Livius about the problems of the Historia Augusta.

For the anti-Christian nature of the Augustan Histories see for example Héliogabale précurseur de Constantin? by Turcan arguing that the largely fiction life of Elagabalus is a hostile parody of Constantine.

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Re: Ancient mystery cults.

Postby MrMacSon » Sat May 13, 2017 6:02 pm

Cheers Andrew
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