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Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

By Hugh Bowden. Pp. 256, b&w figs. 145, color figs. 25, plans 7, maps 2. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2010. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-691-14638-6 (cloth).

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Ancient religion remains a hot topic: it is difficult to name a major academic press that has not produced in the past two decades a survey volume of some aspect of Greek and Roman cults and sanctuaries. Princeton affirms its place among their ranks with an innovative, highly appealing contribution: a survey of Graeco-Roman mystery cults, by Hugh Bowden, author of a well-received study of the Delphic oracle (Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: Divination and Democracy [Cambridge 2005]). Who doesn’t like a mystery?

In 1987, Burkert published Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, Mass.), until now the most accessible book-length discussion of the topic in English. His text, in four chapters that originated as a series of lectures, attempted, in his own words, “a comparative phenomenology of ancient mysteries” (Burkert 1987 [4]) by identifying commonalities among five mystery cults that he treats synchronically: Eleusinian Demeter, Isis, Dionysos, Meter, and Mithras. Useful and enlightening though it is, Burkert’s book is not, nor was it intended to be, a systematic survey of the topic. Bowden’s book begins to fill this gap admirably.

Students and generalist readers, as well as classicists looking for basic information on mystery cults, will find much useful information here. The strengths of Bowden’s book are many: clear organization and lucid, engaging prose; numerous high-quality photographs, plans, and drawings, including glossy color plates; judicious analysis of the limits and challenges of the evidence, both material and textual; and discussion and bibliography well seeded with recent evidence and publications in addition to many of the standard references. Moreover, Bowden treats many more cults than did Burkert.

Bowden arranges the material largely by cult: there are substantial chapters on each of the five major cults discussed by Burkert: “Eleusinian Mysteries” (ch. 1), “Mother of the Gods” (ch. 4), “Dionysus” (ch. 5), “Isis” (ch. 8), and “Mithras” (ch. 9). There are also chapters dedicated to the mysteries of the Great Gods at Samothrace and the Kabeiroi in Boeotia and on Lemnos (ch. 2); initiatory cults at Adania, Messenia, and Arcadia, as well as in Asia Minor, Italy, and Sicily (ch. 3); private, itinerant initiators (ch. 6); and gold tablets from graves in Italy and Greece that traditionally have been associated with Orphic rites, although Bowden questions this association (ch. 7). Bowden treats the cults for which we have the earliest Graeco-Roman evidence first, and he is careful to point out just how late the evidence is for mysteries of Isis and Mithras in Greece and Rome.

Bowden follows all these chapters with one on the decline of mystery cults (ch. 10), arguing that as late as the fourth century C.E., mystery cults maintained a strong presence in Roman culture alongside other pagan cults, even as Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the empire, but that by the fifth century, mystery cults were “no longer a feature of the Mediterranean world” (210). In the same chapter, he argues that there is little evidence for the direct influence of mystery cults on Christianity, a view shared also by Burkert.

Bowden opens his book with a helpful introduction to the category of “religion” as applied to the ancient world and consideration of what the terms “mystery” and “mystery cult” mean, but he resists defining them too closely. He also introduces a distinction made by anthropologists between “doctrinal” and “imagistic” modes of religiosity (the latter characterized in part by infrequent but dramatic ritual events) as a way of better understanding mystery cults as opposed to, for example, modern mainstream Christianity. In the final chapter (ch. 11), Bowden reflects more fully on features common among mystery cults, such as secrecy, disorienting rituals, and direct contact with the gods—the purpose of initiation being “to gain a new status and to establish a closer relationship with the divine” (213).

Bowden synthesizes and evaluates a huge amount of material, some of it discovered and/or published only recently, such as a Mithraeum in Tienen, Belgium, where a pit full of animal bones and dinnerware gives a sense of Mithraic feasts (189–90), and the Derveni papyrus, deposited in a burial of ca. 300 B.C.E., whose text mentions mystery rites (141–43). There are no great surprises in the chapters on the major cults; as Burkert had done (1987 [ch. 1]), Bowden questions long-held assumptions (22–3), such as that mystery cults focused on the afterlife and that drugs were used to enhance the experience of Eleusinian initiates (43; see also Burkert 1987 [108–9]). Yet Bowden extends several of these points. For instance, he argues that drunkenness played no role in Bacchic revelry; rather, music was a key element that spurred worshipers into an ecstatic state, and it is this same element—loud, rhythmic music—that Dionysiac ritual shares with modern rave culture, not the use of chemical intoxicants (214). The use of modern parallels is a hallmark of Bowden’s approach. He rounds out his final chapter with discussion of snake handling in Pentecostalist Christianity as a parallel for certain ecstatic mystery cults, especially of Bacchus. The use of snake handling, loud, disorienting music, and open-air meetings are but some of the parallels that Bowden elucidates, but snake handling per se is not the critical analogue for Bowden; rather, it is the inexplicable experience of possession by a supernatural power that culminates in behavior beyond the worshiper’s control.

The quibbles that I have with Bowden’s discussion are few indeed. Bowden states emphatically that mystery cults ceased to exist by the fifth century C.E.: sanctuaries such as Eleusis were destroyed in 395 and not rebuilt, and decrees issued at the end of the fourth century legislated the destruction of pagan sanctuaries (210). But the reality may be more complicated: for instance, Sanders has demonstrated that evidence long understood to signal the end of pagan worship at Corinth must now be reevaluated (“Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in D.N. Schowalter and S.J. Friesen, eds., Urban Religion in Roman Corinth [Cambridge, Mass. 2005]). In some communities, at any rate, pagan cults, including mystery cults, may have existed longer and Christianity may have been accepted later than the apparently definitive decrees of Theodosius and the nonrebuilding of major sites suggest. I notice only a few factual errors: for example, figure 61, a relief from Athens depicting the Mother of the Gods, dates to the Roman period, not the fourth century B.C.E. At just under $40 list price, Bowden’s book is affordable; when released in soft cover (or e-book?), it will be easily portable.

In short, this is an eminently readable, enlightening overview of a fascinating topic and will become the go-to generalist resource (a helpful mystagogue) on ancient mystery cults.

Bronwen L. Wickkiser
Department of Classical Studies
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee 37203

Book Review of Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, by Hugh Bowden

Reviewed by Bronwen L. Wickkiser

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Wickkiser

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