mystery religions

Mystery cult

Mystery Religions, Sacred Mysteries or simply Mysteries, were "religious cults of the Graeco-Roman world, full admission to which was restricted to those who had gone through certain secret initiation rites.


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 "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut," a reference to secrecy (closure of "the eyes and mouth) or that only initiates were allowed to observe and participate in rituals. Mysteries were often supplements to civil religion, rather than competing alternatives of such, and that is the reason these are referred by many scholars as "mystery cults" rather than religions.

The Mysteries were thus cults in which all religious functions were closed to the non-inducted and for which the inner-working of the cult were kept secret from the general public. Although there are no other formal qualifications, mystery cults were also characterized by their lack of an orthodoxy and scripture. Religions that were practiced in secret only in order to avoid religious persecution are not by default Mysteries.

The Mysteries are frequently confused with Gnosticism, perhaps in part because Greek gnosis means "knowledge." The gnosis of Gnosticism is however distinct from the arcanum, the "secret wisdom" of the Mysteries: while the Gnostics hoped to acquire knowledge through divine revelation, the mystery religions presumed to have it, with mystes of high rank revealing the possessed wisdom to acolytes of lower rank.

Mystery cults classified as such

The term 'mystery cult' applies to a few of the numerous religious rituals of the eastern Mediterranean of late classical antiquity, including 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.

"Plato, an initiate of one of these sacred orders, was severely criticized because in his writings he revealed to the public many of the secret philosophic principles of the Mysteries."


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