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See Western esotericism for modern "mystery religions" in the Western cultural sphere.

Mystery religions, sacred Mysteries or simply Mysteries, were religious cults of the Greco-Roman world, participation in which was reserved to initiates.[1] The main characterization of this religion is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the cult practice, which may not be revealed to outsiders. The most famous Mysteries of Greco-Roman antiquity were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were of considerable antiquity and predated the Greek Dark Ages. The popularity of mystery cults flourished in Late Antiquity; Julian the Apostate in the mid 4th century is known to have been initiated into three distinct mystery cults. Notable among these late cults was the Mithraic Mysteries.

Due to the secret nature of the cult, and because the mystery religions of Late Antiquity disappeared after the 4th century (Theodosius I closed the Eleusian sanctuaries by decree in 392 AD), the details of these religious practices are unknown to scholarship, although there are educated guesses as to their general content.[2]:50f

Although Early Christianity was not a mystery religion, its central theology and ritual being available, and indeed actively preached, it had many parallels to the popular mystery cults in terms of terminology (salvation, resurrection, eternal life) and in the particulars of the performance of initiation and ritual (the sacraments). Justin Martyr explicitly noted these parallels and identified them as "demonic imitations" of the true faith, and that "the devils, in imitation of what was said by Moses, asserted that Proserpine was the daughter of Jupiter, and instigated the people to set up an image of her under the name of Kore" (First Apology). Through the 1st to 4th century, it stood in direct competition for adherents with the mystery cults, insofar as "[t]he mystery cults too [were] an intrinsic element of the non-Jewish horizon of the reception of the Christian message." They too were "embraced by the process of the inculturation of Christianity in its initial phase," and they made "their own contribution to this process."[3]:152 In Klauck & McNeil's opinion, "the Christian doctrine of the sacraments, in the form in which we know it, would not have arisen without this interaction; and Christology too understood how to 'take up' the mythical inheritance, purifying it and elevating it."[3]:152



The term "Mystery" derives from Latin mysterium, from Greek musterion (usually as the plural musteria μυστήρια), in this context meaning "secret rite or doctrine." An individual who followed such a "Mystery" was a mystes (a mystic) "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut," a reference to secrecy (closure of "the eyes and mouth"[4]:56) or that only initiates were allowed to observe and participate in rituals. The Mysteries were thus cults in which all religious functions were closed to the uninitiated and for which the inner-working of the cult were kept secret from the general public.


Mystery religions form one of three types of Hellenistic religion, the others being the imperial cult or ethnic religion particular to a nation or state, and the philosophic religions such as Neoplatonism. This is also reflected in the tripartite division of "theology" by Varro, in civil theology (concerning the state cult and its stabilizing effect on society), natural theology (philosophical speculation about the nature of the divine) and mythical theology (concerning myth and ritual).

Mysteries thus supplements rather than competes with civil religion. An individual could easily observe the rites of the state cult, be an initiate in one or several mysteries, and at the same time adhere to a certain philosophical school.[5]:99 In contrast to the public rituals of civil religion, participation in which was expected of every member of society, initiation to a mystery was optional within Graeco-Roman polytheism. Many of the cultic aspects of public religion are repeated within the mystery, sacrifices, ritual meals, ritual purifications etc., just with the additional aspect that they take place in secrecy, confined to a closed set of initiates.[3]:86

This is important in the context of the early persecution of Christians: Christianity was seen as objectionable by the Roman establishment not on grounds of being its religious tenets or cultic practice, but because early Christians chose to consider their new faith as precluding the participation in the imperial cult, which was seen as subversive by the Roman establishment.

The mystery cults offered a niche for the preservation of archaic religious ritual, and there is reason to assume that they were very conservative. The Eleusian Mysteries persisted for more than a millennium, more likely close to two millennia, during which period the ritual of public religion changed significantly, from the archaic cult of the Bronze to Early Iron Age to the Hero cult of Hellenistic civilization and again to the imperial cult of the Roman era, while the ritual performances of the mysteries for all we know remained unchanged. "They had, more often than not, come up from a barbarous underworld. They were singularly persistent. The mysteries at Eleusis near Athens lasted for a thousand years; and there is reason to believe that they changed little during that long period."[2]:51 For this reason, what glimpses we do have of the older Greek mysteries have been taken as reflecting certain archaic aspects of common Indo-European religion, with parallels in Indo-Iranian religion in particular, by Janda (2000).[6]

The mystery cults of Greco-Roman antiquity include the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries and the Mithraic Mysteries. Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshipped in Mysteries, so for instance Egyptian Isis, Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius and Phrygian Cybele.[7]:21


  1. ^ Crystal, David, ed. (1995), "Mystery Religions", Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, .
  2. ^ a b Barnes, Ernest William (1947), The Rise of Christianity .
  3. ^ a b c Klauck, Brian; McNeil (2003), The Religious Context of Early Christianity, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 9780567089434 .
  4. ^ Newberg, Andrew (2001), Why God Won't Go Away, New York: Ballantine 
  5. ^ Iles Johnson, Sarah (2007), "Mysteries", in Iles Johnson, Sarah, Ancient Religions, Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard UP, ISBN 978-0-674-02548-6 
  6. ^ Janda, Michael (2000), Eleusis: das indogermanische Erbe der Mysterien, (Habil. Thesis), Innsbruck .
  7. ^ Hall, Manly P. (1928), The Secret Teachings of all ages, San Francisco: s.p., 

Further reading

  • Burkert, Walter (1987), Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge, Mass. 
  • Kirk, Geoffrey S. (1970), Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures, Cambridge: Cambridge UP 
  • Meyer, W. M. (1987), The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook. Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World, San Francisco 
  • Willoughby, H. R. (1929), Pagan Regeneration: Study of Mystery Initiations in the Graeco-Roman World, Chicago 


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