Back to top

Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia

Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia

An anthology of important discoveries exploring the "mystery religions" of the classical world.

Series: Classics and the Ancient World Endowment

August 2009
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
390 pages | 6 x 9 | 53 b&w photos, 38 line drawings, 1 map |

In Vergil's Aeneid, the poet implies that those who have been initiated into mystery cults enjoy a blessed situation both in life and after death. This collection of essays brings new insight to the study of mystic cults in the ancient world, particularly those that flourished in Magna Graecia (essentially the area of present-day Southern Italy and Sicily).

Implementing a variety of methodologies, the contributors to Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia examine an array of features associated with such "mystery religions" that were concerned with individual salvation through initiation and hidden knowledge rather than civic cults directed toward Olympian deities usually associated with Greek religion. Contributors present contemporary theories of ancient religion, field reports from recent archaeological work, and other frameworks for exploring mystic cults in general and individual deities specifically, with observations about cultural interactions throughout. Topics include Dionysos and Orpheus, the Goddess Cults, Isis in Italy, and Roman Mithras, explored by an international array of scholars including Giulia Sfameni Gasparro ("Aspects of the Cult of Demeter in Magna Graecia") and Alberto Bernabé ("Imago Inferorum Orphica"). The resulting volume illuminates this often misunderstood range of religious phenomena.

  • Illustrations
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction (Giovanni Casadio and Patricia A. Johnston)
  • I. Dionysus and Orpheus
    • 2. Dionysus in Campania: Cumae (Giovanni Casadio)
    • 3. The Meaning of bavkco" and bakceuvein in Orphism (Ana Jiménez San Cristóbal)
    • 4. New Contributions of Dionysiac Iconography to the History of Religions in Greece and Italy (Cornelia Isler-Kerényi)
    • 5. Who Are You? Mythic Narrative and Identity in the "Orphic" Gold Tablets (Radcliffe G. Edmonds)
    • 6. Imago Inferorum Orphica (Alberto Bernabé)
    • 7. Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Is: Eumolpus' Will, Pasta e Fagioli, and the Fate of the Soul in South Italian Thought from Pythagoras to Ennius (R. Drew Griffith)
  • II. Demeter and Isis
    • 8. Aspects of the Cult of Demeter in Magna Graecia: The "Case" of San Nicola di Albanella (Giulia Sfameni Gasparro)
    • 9. Landscape Synchesis: A Demeter Temple in Latium (Kathryn M. Lucchese)
    • 10. The Eleusinian Mysteries and Vergil's "Appearance-of-a-Terrifying-Female-Apparition-in-the-Underworld" Motif in Aeneid 6 (Raymond J. Clark)
    • 11. Women and Nymphs at the Grotta Caruso (Bonnie MacLachlan)
    • 12. "Great Royal Spouse Who Protects Her Brother Osiris": Isis in the Isaeum at Pompeii (Frederick Brenk)
    • 13. Aegyptiaca from Cumae: New Evidence for Isis Cult in Campania: Site and Materials (Paolo Caputo)
    • 14. The Mystery Cults and Vergil's Georgics (Patricia A. Johnston)
  • III. Mithras
    • 15. The Amor and Psyche Relief in the Mithraeum of Capua Vetere: An Exceptional Case of Graeco-Roman Syncretism or an Ordinary Instance of Human Cognition? (Luther H. Martin)
    • 16. The Mythraic Body: The Example of the Capua Mithraeum (Richard Gordon)
    • 17. Why the Shoulder? A Study of the Placement of the Wound in the Mithraic Tauroctony (Glenn Palmer)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Giovanni Casadio is Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Salerno in Italy. He is the associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and has written more than one hundred articles on various topics of religious history and historiography.

Patricia A. Johnston is Professor of Greek and Latin Philology and Literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. A past president of the Vergilian Society and founder and director of the Vergilian Society's annual Symposia Cumana, she has published extensively on Greek and Latin literature and culture, specializing in Vergil.

Information about other contributors


The definition of "Magna Graecia" has varied from the time the Greeks first settled the coastal regions of Italy—sometimes including the area from Campania to Sicily, at other times excluding significant portions of this territory. But this area has always been home to the mystic cults and traditions that preceded and accompanied Christianity, including the Sibyl of Cumae, the worship of Demeter and Persephone (her abduction took place in Sicily), Dionysian and Orphic cults, and other cults such as those of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras. In June 2002 a symposium sponsored by the Vergilian Society and Brandeis University was held at the Villa Vergiliana in Cuma, Italy, on the topic, "The Cults of Magna Graecia." The purpose of this symposium was to examine the evidence in the material remains and surviving literature related to cults of Greek, Oriental, and Egyptian origin in southern Italy and the religious perceptions of these practices in Rome. The phrase Fortunatae gentes, from Vergil's Aeneid (11.252), implies that those who have been initiated into the mystery cults enjoy a blessed (fortunatus) situation both in life and after death—a basic belief in the mystery cults that was later adopted by Christianity.


Why "Mystic" Cults? Historical and Critical Perspectives


In introducing the papers collected in this volume, one must inevitably consider the degree to which these cults, particularly the so-called mystery cults, often referred to as "mysteries," can properly be viewed as religio-historical phenomena. We must also recognize the existence of a certain tension between the evidence pertaining to these cults as practiced at the "local" level, and their practice in the more "central" metropolises (such as mainland Greece, especially Attica, Anatolia, and Egypt), for example, by taking into consideration the links between the cults and the geographical and ecological realities.


Mysteries and the Orient are inherently intriguing. They have always held a remarkable appeal even for the most traditional students of the ancient world. Before World War II, two interpretive approaches dominated the arena. One was historical, propagated by Richard Reitzenstein (1861-1931), who envisaged an Iranian origin of all the saving gods, including the Judaeo-Christian messiah, and Franz Cumont (1868-1947), who interpreted Mithraism as the mystical offspring of Persian religion. The alternative model was phenomenological, based on the pattern of the "dying-and-rising gods" (gods prevalently of oriental origins), formulated by James G. Frazer (1854-1941) and developed by British and Scandinavian adepts of the Myth-and-Ritual School. "'Mystery' was taken to be the essence of oriental religiosity." In spite of its painstaking erudition, broad comparative perspective (including Christians and Australian aborigines), and characteristic awareness of historical dynamisms, even the groundbreaking work of Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959) paid homage to these clichés. Now, however, Pettazzoni’s historical reconstructions are seriously impaired by progress in philological research. As in other domains of the history of ancient religions, Arthur Darby Nock (1902-63) was perhaps the most brilliant and constructive actor in reassessing the evidence and theories about the mysteries. A useful synthesis of the work done in the period after Cumont is provided by Vermaseren (1981) in a collection of monographs on the individual cults by eminent specialists, completed by Carsten Colpe's invaluable introduction.


More recently, Ugo Bianchi (1922-95) gave a tremendous impetus to the research on mystery cults (and related phenomena) in ancient Mediterranean cultures and the Roman Empire. His primary merit was that of gathering specialists of various disciplines (philologists, archaeologists, epigraphists, orientalists, historians of religions) who were not previously accustomed to converse together, and of convincing them—despite a certain reluctance—to share their data and interpretations on a common terrain. Four scholars who participated in Bianchi's historic conference on Mithraism in Rome in 1978, and also in his conference on the soteriology of oriental cults in the Roman Empire in 1979—Beck, Gordon, Sfameni Gasparro, and Casadio—also participated in the Cumae 2002 symposium, and thus were in a position to reflect on changes and/or persistence in the focus of the research. One of these witnesses aptly recalls:


The most useful recent typology of Greco-Roman mysteries as forms of personal religious choice is that of Bianchi and others. Three modes are distinguished: "mystery" proper, an entire initiatory structure of some duration and complexity, of which the type (and in many cases the actual model . . .) is Eleusis; "mystic" cult, involving not initiation but rather a relation of intense communion, typically ecstatic or enthusiastic, with the divinity (e.g., Bacchic frenzy, or the kybeboi of Cybele); and "mysteriosophic" cult, offering an anthropology, an eschatology, and a practical means of individual reunion with divinity—the primitive and original form is Orphism, . . . Hermeticism and Gnosis, though these are late Egyptian and Judaeo-Christian forms of religiosity. Bianchi himself has sought to provide an element of thematic unity by adapting Frazer's "dying-rising god" typology: these cults are all focused upon a "god subject to some vicissitude." This tack has rightly been criticized, but the scheme has heuristic value without it.


It is perhaps helpful to report Bianchi's definitions in his own terms, because there every single word is the result of a long-lasting, careful analysis of historical data. For the term mystic he understands


the concept and the experience of a lively participated interference between the divine, the cosmic and the human realms, and this both in the sense of a participation of some divinities to vicissitudes and fates, "human" in character (disappearance and return, death and life, etc.), and in the sense of a participation of human beings in a destiny and a vicissitude relating to the "divine" (attainment or restoration of divine or celestial conditions of immortality, happiness and totality). (Bianchi 1979: 5)


The category of mystic cults and deities (as opposed to the Olympic cults and gods, untouched by any vicissitude in their Olympic serenity and immortality) can be further specified in two more restricted types: cults to be properly called mystery religions, which are centered on a sanctuary and a precise form of gradual initiation and esotericism (the prototype is the cult of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, on which are based the mysteric forms of the cults of Isis or Cybele), and cults conventionally denominated mysteriosophical, in which "the initiatic element consists mostly of a sophia and a gnosis (initiation through 'reading,' doctrine, 'knowledge,' illumination—from Orphism down to Hermeticism and gnosticism)" (Bianchi 1979: 7).


Another clear distinction between "mystic" in the broad sense of the word (including the fertility cults of the ancient oriental religions in which the female element is stable, albeit sympathetic with the crisis of the male god, as in the couples Isis-Osiris and Cybele-Attis) and the more specific categories of "mysteries" and "mysteriosophies" may be found in the consideration that mystic cults in general "concern the country with whatever lies in it (fields, animals, and human collectivity represented by its king), while the mystery and mysteriosophic cults also concern (or only concern, in the case of mysteriosophy) human individuals" (Bianchi 1979: 9).


Certainly, as Bianchi himself acknowledged at the end of his 1979 conference, dedicated to the oriental cults (see his "Epilegomena" in Bianchi and Vermaseren 1982: 917-929, which is pervaded by a sense of disillusion), the "historical typology" for which he had always pleaded is a kind of chimera. Robert Turcan, one of the most prestigious scholars present at the 1979 meeting, had already recommended in the "final document" of the proceedings the avoidance of any generalizations. He pointed out, for example, that the god Mithras does not seem so mystic, in the sense that he does not suffer any path? or crisis, and, in any case, in its drama no goddess plays any role; and in Mithraism, afterlife salvation is connected with salvation in this life, "dans une continuité et une solidarité biocosmiques" (Bianchi and Vermaseren 1982: xvii). A certain vein of skepticism vis-à-vis the rigidity of certain typologies can also be seen in a survey of the literature on the mysteries as a historical category. How extremely precarious it is to fix boundaries between mystic-orgiastic practices, mystery cult, and mysteriosophic (or "Orphic") religiosity is evident from subsequent research carried out by Casadio and others, in the field of the Dionysus cult.


Bianchi's two conferences resulted in a fervid stream of initiatives, reinterpretations, and criticisms, the repercussions of which have been wide and long-lasting. One of the first fruits was a synthesis article written by Kurt Rudolph for The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), from which the assessment of some basic topics concerning the typology of the mysteries and their historical developments will here be drawn.


Mysteries in general entail special initiation ceremonies that are esoteric in character and often connected with the yearly agricultural cycle. Usually they involve the destiny of the divine powers being venerated and the communication of religious wisdom that enables the initiates to conquer death. They were part of the general religious life, but they were separate from the public cult that was accessible to all; for this reason, they were also called "secret cults" (aporrh?ta). Because of the obligation of strict secrecy, we now know little more about the mysteries than what was occasionally passed on as "reliable" information by the ancient sources, including ancient Roman literature. Our historical knowledge is limited because of the polemical and/or apologetic interpretations that color the accounts given by Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria and Firmicus Maternus.


We do have relatively sound information about the general structure of some of the ceremonies, such as those of Eleusis, Samothrace, Isis, and Mithras. We know that processions and public functions (sacrifices, dances, music) framed the actual celebration, which was held in closed rooms (telest?rion, spelunca, temple) and usually comprised two or three acts, consisting of the dramatic action (dr?menon), including the "producing and showing" of certain symbols (deiknumena), and the interpretation (ex?g?sis), consisting of communication of the myth (legomena) and its attendant formulas. The sacred action (dr?menon) and the sacred narrative (legomenon, mythos, hieros logos) were closely connected. We know relatively little about the central ceremony, that is, the initiation proper. Consequently we can only interpret it hypothetically. It would appear that the heart of the celebration was intended to link the initiate (myst?s), through word and performance, with the destiny of the divinity or divinities and thereby to bestow the basis for some kind of better hope (agath? elpis) after death. This interpretation is also suggested by burial gifts for the deceased (e.g., the "Orphic" gold plates from southern Italy, discussed in this volume by Edmonds and Bernabé). The ancient human problems of suffering, death, and guilt undoubtedly played an important part in the efficacy of the mysteries. The idea of rebirth can be documented only in later Hellenism. There is no evidence, however, of a unitary theology of the mysteries common to all the mysteries, since the discrepancies in their origins and historical developments, including even later philosophical explanation of their logos, were too great to allow that.


The historical and phenomenological problem of the origin of the mysteries remains unresolved. Repeated attempts have been made to move beyond the apparently outdated nature-myth theory. Ethnologists in particular have repeatedly focused on the mysteries and interpreted them as survivals of ancient "rites of passage," a theory maintained especially by Mircea Eliade and Angelo Brelich. Both interpretations merge in the traditional idea that the origin of the mysteries is to be sought in some stage of primitive agricultural development. The Hellenistic mysteries of Isis have been influenced by the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone (Kore). In any case, all our ancient informants confirm the view that the so-called oriental mysteries in general took their character primarily from the Eleusinian mysteries and became widespread only as a result of Hellenization. Within the confines of this overview, therefore, we must begin with the ancient Greek mysteric (in the narrower sense of the term, as opposed to the more inclusive term, "mystic," as defined above by Gordon and Bianchi) cults, particularly those of Eleusis and Dionysus/Orpheus, and move on to related oriental cults, namely of Cybele and Mithras.


The Greek mysteries were from the outset cults of clan or tribe. They can in many cases be traced back to the pre-Greek Mycenaean period and were probably ancient rituals of initiation into a clan or an "association." The most important were the mysteries of Eleusis, which in fact provided the pattern for the idea of mysteries. The independent town of Eleusis became an Athenian dependency in the seventh century BCE and thereby acquired, especially from the sixth century on, a pan-Hellenic role that in the Roman imperial age attracted the attention of Rome. Augustus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Gallienus chose to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. The mythological background for the Eleusinian mysteries was provided by the story of the goddesses Demeter and Kore, preserved in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The pair was presented as mother and daughter. Their relationship developed in a gripping manner the theme of loss (death), grief, search, and (re)discovery (i.e., life). The interpretation of the story as purely a nature myth and specifically a vegetation myth is actually an old one and can appeal to ancient witnesses for support (see below); nonetheless, it is oversimplified precisely because it loses sight of the human and social content of the myth.


The public ceremonies of the annual Eleusinian ritual are well known to us and are confirmed by archaeological findings. The director was the hierophant, who from time immemorial had been a member of the Eumolpides, a noble family that had held the kingship of old. The Kerykes family filled the other offices. All classes, including slaves, were admitted to the cult. According to degree of participation, a distinction was made between the myst?s ("initiate") and the epopt?s ("contemplator"); only the latter was regarded as fully initiated. But this distinction was not original; it came in when the Eleusinian mysteries were combined with the mysteries of Agrai on the Ilissos (near Athens) in the seventh century BCE. The Lesser Mysteries at Agrai took place annually in February (the month Anthesterion) and were regarded as a preliminary stage leading to the Greater Mysteries held at Eleusis in September (16-20 Boedromion). Sacrifices, libations, baths, ablutions, fasts, processions (especially bringing the "holy things," the cult symbols, to Eleusis), and torches all played an important role in both feasts. The center of all activity was the ceremony, which was not open to the public. It was held in the "place of consecration" known as the telest?rion, which is not to be confused with the temple of Demeter at the same location.


Perhaps more important for our purposes were the Dionysian mysteries, about whose character and date of formation there is no agreement among the specialists. As is well known, Dionysus was an unusual god who represented a side of Greek life long regarded as un-Greek—a view that has caused interpreters many difficulties. His thiasos ("company") was probably originally an association of women that spread throughout Greece, especially the islands, and carried on a proselytizing activity by means of itinerant priestesses. There was no one central sanctuary, but there were centers in southern Italy (Cumae), Asia Minor, and Egypt. Ecstatic and orgiastic activity remained characteristic of this cult as late as the fourth century CE and only after the Classical age assumed more strictly regulated, at times esoteric, forms, as can be seen from the laws of the Iobacchoi community at Athens, where the cult of Dionysus (Bacchus) had become a kind of club. The myth of Dionysus had for its focus the divine forces hidden in nature and human beings; these forces were enacted in ecstatic nocturnal celebrations that showed traits of promiscuity (compare the companionship of maenads and satyrs in the myth, and of course pejorative accounts in later sources) and took place in the open air.


As Jimenez shows in her chapter here, the myth of Dionysus was at an early stage combined with Orphic mysticism. The hope of another world that was promised and confirmed in the rites is well attested by burial gifts (gold plates) from Greece and southern Italy. Even after death, the initiate remained under the protection of the god. Orphic mysticism is a difficult phenomenon with which to deal. Often it is not easily distinguished from the Dionysian mysteries. It is certain that at an early date, Orpheus was credited with being the founder of the Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Samothracian mysteries. Orphism therefore had no central sanctuary. It seems to have been more of a missionary religion that, unlike the official cults, devoted itself to the theme of the immortal soul (psych?) and its deliverance from the present world. It had an ethical view of the relation between initiation and behavior. A way of life that was shaped by certain rules served to liberate the soul or the divine in human beings. The anthropogonic and cosmogonic myth that provided an explanation of the hybrid human condition also showed the way to redemption; thus cosmology and soteriology were already closely connected. As a result, Orphism broke away from the religion of the polis, not only because it possessed holy books that contained its teachings, but also because the idea of the immortality of the soul made the official cult superfluous. Greek philosophy, beginning with Pythagoras (see Drew Griffith's contribution here) and Plato, gave a theoretical justification for all this.


Mysteries of Cybele, the great mother-goddess (Magna Mater) of Anatolia, are attested on the Greek mainland and islands from the third century BCE. Oddly, little mention is made of Cybele's companion Attis in the early period, although some inscriptions and depictions place Attis with Cybele as early as the fourth century BCE in the Piraeus and Thrace (where an even more common male companion is Hermes, along with Hekate/Persephone). The mythological relation is attested by Catullus in his Poem 63 (first century BCE), and by Pausanias in the second century CE, the earliest written witnesses to the connection. We know nothing about the structure and content of these mysteries; perhaps they were an imitation of the Eleusinian mysteries. In any case, the Roman cult of Cybele, who was worshiped on the Palatine from 204 BCE on, was not a mystery religion. Beginning in the second century CE and down to the fifth century, the literature speaks of the mysteries of Magna Mater or M?t?r Megal? but tells us no more about them. On the supposition that we are not dealing simply with a misleading terminology, these mysteries may have focused on the ritual castration of novices (galli) and the deeper meaning of this practice. With regard to Attis, inscriptions from Pessinous in Asia Minor dating from the first century CE speak of the "initiates of Attis" (Attabokaoi). The initiation involved an anointing of the initiates (see Firm. Mat. De err. prof. rel. 22, 1); there is also reference to a kind of sacred meal (eating from a tambourine, drinking from a cymbal). The meaning of an accompanying formula is uncertain in the version given by Clement of Alexandria (Protr. 15): "I have entered the adyton [bridal chamber?]." Firmicus Maternus has a simpler version: "I have become an initiate of Attis" (De err. prof. rel. 18.1). At the end of the fourth century CE, the cult of Cybele and Attis also included baptism in bull's blood (taurobolium). This ceremony had developed out of an older sacrifice of a bull performed, in most cases, pro salute imperatoris, which is attested from the middle of the second century (as in a recently discovered Beneventum taurobolium inscription) onward. It was supposed to bring renewal to the initiates; only a few inscriptions interpret the renewal as a "new birth." The baptism was, in these cases, a one-time rite and perhaps was intended to compete with Christian baptism. Cybele was in all respects responsible for her people's well-being in peace and in war, as goddess of fertility and as goddess of the mountains and mistress of wild nature, symbolized by her attendant lions.


The Hellenistic cult of Isis in late antiquity undoubtedly involved secret initiatory celebrations. We learn something about them from Apuleius's famous novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass (second century CE). Greek influence is especially clear here: it was only through the identification of Isis with Demeter (attested in Herodotus 2.59) and the Hellenization of the cult of Isis that the latter came to include mysteries (first attested c. 220 BCE on Delos). In this form it spread, despite occasional opposition, throughout the whole civilized world of the time, reaching Rome in the first century BCE. It became one of the most widely disseminated oriental cults of late antiquity, especially from the second century BCE on. Isis became the great thousand-named, universal goddess (panthea) who had conquered destiny and was invoked in numerous hymns and aretalogies that display a remarkable Greco-Egyptian atmosphere and tone (see the chapters by Brenk, Caputo, and Johnston below).


This successful Hellenization was probably due to the introduction of the cult of Sarapis under Ptolemy I, son of Lagus (305-283 BCE), when this novel Greco-Egyptian cult (Sarapis combines Osiris and Apis) was celebrated with both an Eleusinian priest (Timotheos, a Eumolpid) and an Egyptian priest (Manetho) participating. Isis, Thoth, and Anubis were naturally linked with Sarapis (Osiris). The well-known story of Isis, Osiris, and Horus (Harpocrates) acquired its complete form only in Greek and in this version was probably a product of Hellenism (Osiris being assimilated to Adonis). The ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris was originally connected with the monarchy and displayed the character of a mystery religion only to the extent that the dead pharaoh was looked upon as Osiris and brought to Abydos not simply to be buried but also to be greeted by the people as one restored to life in the form of a new statue in the temple. The hope of survival as or with or like Osiris was the predominant form that the hope of another world took in ancient Egypt, and it continued uninterrupted in the Greco-Roman period; it provided a point of attachment for the mysteries of Isis.


The cult of Isis had its official place in the Roman festal calendar (beginning in the second century CE) and comprised two principal feasts: the Iseia, which was celebrated from 26 October to 3 November and included the dr?menon of the myth, with the "finding" (heur?sis, inventio) of Osiris as its climax; and the sea-journey feast (Navigium Isidis, Ploiaphesia) on 5 March, the beginning of the season for seafaring, of which Isis had become the patron deity. According to Apuleius (Metamorphoses 11), the actual mysteries began with preliminary rites such as baptism (sprinkling), a ten-day fast, and being clothed in a linen robe. At sunset the initiates entered the adyton for further ceremonies to which only allusions are made: the initiate made a journey through the lower world and the upper world (the twelve houses of the zodiac, which represented the power of destiny) and was vested as the sun god (instar solis); the initiate was renatus ("reborn") and became sol ("the sun")—in other words, experienced a deification (theomorphosis). He thereby became a "servant" of Isis and "triumphed over his destiny (fortuna)." In addition to a consecration to Isis, there was evidently also a consecration to Osiris, but we know even less about this ceremony. In the Roman period, Isis and Demeter sometimes merge but still retain their powers, as P. A. Johnston and R. J. Clark demonstrate in their examinations of Vergil's Georgics and Aeneid.


The cult of Mithras in the Roman imperial age, like that of Isis, was not originally oriental but was a creation of Hellenistic syncretism. It is true that the name of the god Mithras is Indo-Iranian in origin and initially meant "contract" (mithra, mitra) and that some Iranian-Zoroastrian elements are recognizable in the iconographic and epigraphic sources; these facts, however, do not point to a Persian origin of the cult. No testimonies to the existence of Mithraea in Iran have as yet been discovered. On the other hand, the vast majority of these sanctuaries have been found in the Roman military provinces of central and eastern Europe, especially in Dalmatia and the Danube Valley. The Mithraeum at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates is the most eastern. It was built by Roman soldiers from Syria in 168 CE, rebuilt in 209 CE, and expanded in 240 CE. It was thus not the creation of a native community. The "Parthian" style is simply a matter of adaptation to local tradition and no proof of an Iranian origin of the mysteries.


According to Plutarch (Life of Pompey 24), Mithraea were introduced into the West by Syrian pirates in the first century BCE. This report may have a historical basis because the veneration of Mithras in Syria, Pontus, and Commagene is well attested, though no reference is made to any mysteries of Mithras. It is likely that soldiers from this area, where Greeks and Orientals came in contact, brought the cult of Mithras to the West in the first century CE. In the second century CE, however, the cult was transformed into mysteries in the proper sense and widely disseminated, until finally Mithras was elevated to the position of Sol Invictus, the god of the empire, under Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE). As in the case of the cult of Isis, the Hellenistic worshipers of Mithras transformed the foreign god and his cult along lines inspired by the awakening individualism of the time, with its rejection of the traditional official cult and its longing for liberation from death and fate.


We are poorly informed about the myth and rites of the Mithraic mysteries. We have mainly a large mass of archaeological documents that are not always easy to interpret. The Mithraic mysteries took place in small cave-like rooms that were usually decorated with the characteristic relief or cult statue of Mithras Tauroctonus ("bull-slayer"). In form, this representation and its accompanying astrological symbols are Greco-Roman; its content has some relation to cosmology and soteriology, that is, the sacrifice of a bull is thought of as life-giving. Other iconographic evidence indicates that the god was a model for the faithful and wanted them to share his destiny: birth from a rock, combats like those of Herakles, ascent to the sun, dominion over time and the cosmos. Acceptance into the community of initiates (consecranei) or brothers (fratres) was achieved through consecratory rites in which baptisms or ablutions, purifications (with honey), meals (bread, water, wine, meat), crownings with garlands, costumes, tests of valor, and blessings played a part. There were seven degrees of initiation (Corax, Nymphus, Miles, Leo, Perses, Heliodromus, Pater), which were connected with the planetary deities and certain symbols or insignia. Surviving inscriptions attest the profound seriousness of the mysteries. Also worth noting is the close link between Mithras and Saturn (Kronos) as god of the universe and of time (Aion, Saeculum, Aevum); Saturn is the father of Mithras and the one who commissions him, whereas Mithras is in turn connected with the sun god (Sol, Apollo).


Mystic cults of Greek, Egyptian, Persian or Phrygian genealogy all have in common certain family resemblances that converge in a definite typology. This typology is based on two categories, one pertaining to the deities involved in the mythic-ritual pattern, that of the Mediterranean "dying and rising gods," the other pertaining to the human actors, that of "initiation" (in Greek, my?sis or telet?). Both categories have been seriously challenged, the first one since the pioneering researches of Pierre (Pieter) Lambrechts (1910-74) in the 1950s, so that it has now become commonplace to assume that it is a product of modern imagination. The attempts to deconstruct the second category are more recent but no less surreptitious. In a recent collection, Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narrative (Dodd and Faraone 2003), one of the two editors maintains that current perspectives in "critical theory" (namely American rumination on French postmodernist and deconstructionist ideas) have ultimately rendered the usage of the category irrelevant, "since it reveals it to be merely a tool for the production of false consciousness." This view is largely based on the "genealogy of scholarship" (on the topic "initiation") devised by Bruce Lincoln in the concluding chapter of the above-mentioned book. Lincoln's argument is clearly dictated by an ideological agenda: if an interpretive paradigm sounds unsympathetic with "correct" political views, its banishment from the academic discourse is surely welcome. From a scholarly point of view, on the contrary, a paradigm should be disposed of if it sounds unsatisfactory in comparison with the historical data. So, if, for historically based arguments, the usefulness of the concept of initiation as an explanatory paradigm for a range of religious and nonreligious phenomena of antiquity is questionable, its suitability cannot be objected to when it is used in relation to cults (like the ancient mysteries) that contain rites that in classical antiquity were recognized as teletai or initiationes.


Similar considerations can be developed to show the hermeneutical suitability of the type of the "deity subject to change or vicissitude" (to use Bianchi's terminology, which is more adherent to historical realities than the Frazerian ill-reputed model of the dying/rising god that is, in any case, its recognizable ancestor). The facets of this suffering, quasi-human demon (not necessarily a male: its characters are present even in such female acolytes as Kore, Leukothea, or Ariadne) are easily recognizable in the divine actors of the mystery cults examined above (see further examples in Johnston's contribution to this volume). More important, this notion is of an emic type; that is, it involves an analysis of cultural phenomena from the perspective of the participants in the culture being studied (as opposed to the etic type, which reflects the perspective of the outsider). This notion of daim?n (to use the corresponding Greek term) has manifested itself since the beginning of Greek theological and historical reflection. First, the Ionian poet and philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570-480) declared the affinity between the cult of the Greek Leukothea, who was worshiped with funeral dirges (thr?noi) but was considered a deity (and therefore, for the Greeks, immortal), and the cult of the Egyptian Osiris, who was ritually mourned by his worshipers (as befitted a dead god) but was at the same time honored as a very high-ranking god. This ability to perceive religious phenomena cross-culturally, which earned Xenophanes the mantle of "precursor of comparative ethnology," is certainly connected with his experience as an Ionian citizen who since birth had been familiar with the beliefs and customs of the other peoples of Anatolia: the Lydians, the Carians, and the Median-Persian dominators. One century later, Herodotus (fl. 450 BCE) does not hesitate to call myst?ria the rites of Osiris enacted by the Egyptians on a lake to commemorate the god's sufferings (path?). He notices the analogy (actually the homology, inasmuch as he envisaged a common origin, namely a transmission of the rite from Egypt to Greece) between Osiris' mourning ritual and the telet? of Demeter "that the Greeks call Thesmophoria" (Hist. 2.171). In fact, he is first induced to call the Osirian ritual myst?ria because of the similarity between the mourning for Osiris in the Khoiak festival and the dirge for Persephone in the Eleusinian mysteries. Then, for an association of ideas, he mentions the Thesmophoria, another Demetriac ritual, which, though not myst?ria in the strict sense of the word, were shrouded in the atmosphere of secrecy and taboo particularly associated with such cults. (See Gasparro's contribution in this volume for more details.)


It thus becomes clear that the experience of path? (or path?mata) is the characteristic trait shared by these Greek and Egyptian divine pairs in the myth and in the liturgical enactment. Pathos at the same time means "change" (affecting the ontological level) and "suffering" (affecting the ethical level of the divinity) and can be aptly rendered with a polysemic term like "vicissitude." This characteristic of experiencing a pathos, or rather a sequence of path?, is shared by other ancient deities who bear family resemblances to Osiris and Persephone. Apparently this category of gods "subject to vicissitudes" (a vicissitude embodies the tension inherent in the seasonal drama, as stressed by Johnston in the introduction to her contribution) was not invented by modern scholars (either Frazer or Bianchi), but was individuated much earlier by the Greek writer Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE), a historian and theologian with a keen comprehension of religious dynamisms. Starting from his (middle-Platonic) speculations on the daimones, he individuates a class of gods intermediate between the Olympian, unaffected attitude of the celestial deities like Zeus, and the quasi-human precariousness of the heroes. In De defectu oraculorum (10.415A), his spokesman Cleombrotus of Sparta assesses clearly this category of daimones or demigods "midway between gods and men" and, in a style that would be fitting to modern supporters of the theory of the Eastern origins of basic traits of Greek culture (such as M. L. West and W. Burkert), draws a genealogy of the doctrine of the common fellowship of gods and men (mediated by the "race of daimones"),


whether this doctrine comes from the magi of Zoroaster, or whether it is Thracian and harks back to Orpheus, or is Egyptian, or Phrygian, as we may infer from observing that many things connected with death and mourning in the rites (teletai) of those lands are combined in the ceremonies celebrated there as orgia and dr?mena [technical terms for ritual components of the mystic cults]. (Plut. Def. orac. 10.415A)


Phrygian and Egyptian logoi recur again in connection with the poems of Orpheus in a passage of the Daedala (fr. 157, 1 Sandbach). Further, Attis is probably the Phrygian god alluded to in De Iside et Osiride 69.378D-F, where the set of resemblances between the Greek and oriental suffering gods is clearly established:


Among the Greeks also many things are done that are similar to the Egyptian ceremonies in the shrines of Isis, and they do them at about the same time. At Athens the women fast at the Thesmophoria sitting upon the ground, and the Boeotians move the halls of the Goddess of Sorrow (Achaia) and name that festival the Festival of Sorrow, since Demeter is in sorrow (achos) because of Kore's descent to the underworld. . . . The Phrygians, on the other hand, believing that the god is asleep in the winter and awake in the summer, sing lullabies for him in the winter and in the summer sound the reveille, after the manner of Bacchants. (Plut. Is. Os. 69.378D-F)


The role of the seasonal drama (a role that is nonetheless obstinately denied by a number of influential contemporary historians) in the imaginaire of the mysteries is explicitly stressed by Plutarch in the subsequent chapter of the treatise:


The season of the year also gives us a suspicion that this gloominess is brought about because of the disappearance from our sight of the crops and fruits that people in days of old did not regard as gods, but as necessary and important gifts of the gods contributing to the avoidance of a savage and bestial life. At the time of year when they saw some of the fruits vanishing and disappearing completely from the trees, while they themselves were sowing others in a mean and poor fashion still, scraping away the earth with their hands and again replacing it, committing the seeds to the ground with uncertain expectation of their ever growing up again and giving a fruit, they accomplished many things similar to the ceremonies enacted by those who bury and bewail their dead. (Plut. Is. Os. 70.378F-379A)


The synergism between vegetal and human life could not be established in a clearer or more suggestive way.


In 1987, Walter Burkert produced a work (Ancient Mystery Cults) that has since become one of the more frequently read books on the ancient mystery cults. Notwithstanding some flaws, which have been highlighted by critics, the book presented for the first time a kind of "comparative phenomenology of ancient mysteries" (Burkert 1987: 4) rather than a collection of monographs on the single cults, as his predecessors had done.


Robert Turcan's 1989 manual (Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain) comes closer to Cumont's approach. Consequently, instead of declaring his distance from Cumont and other scholars (from Ernest Renan to Maarten Vermaseren) who had the model of the "oriental religions" as their frame of reference, he simply states that it is more exact to refer to "religions of oriental origin or Graeco-oriental religions." Turcan has no preference vis-à-vis any methodology in vogue; he simply pleads for the avoidance of generalizations based on the oriental mirage or an idealized mysticism in favor of empirical research (his motto is "comparing for distinguishing, distinguishing for understanding"). He does not refrain from typologies as such, only from applications to historical phenomena that—in his view—do not fit the type involved. He recognizes, for example, the legitimacy of the category of the "suffering gods" (including Dionysus, Attis, Osiris, and Adonis), but he excludes from it a god such as Mithras, who is only "operating in this world" (Turcan 1989: 336).


John North's short but insightful 1992 essay, "The Development of Religious Pluralism," is important because, in the best British polemical vein, it challenges current general views about the mysteries that Burkert (1987: 3 and 51-52) has upheld in a most determined way. North claims that Burkert's statement that mysteries were from beginning to end Greek in their attitudes and never offered their adherents any alternative to the civic religion of their contemporaries or any space for subversion of the normal ancient way of life (as Christians did, undeniably) is simply untrue. Like many contemporary ancient historians in the Oxbridge lineage who are familiar with a strong social-scientific tradition, North holds that the most solid criteria for establishing the potential for change of a religious movement are to be found "in terms of the social/religious behavior of groups and their members rather than in the nature of the beliefs or aspirations they held" (North 1992: 184). Having fixed these criteria (autonomy, commitment, separateness with regard to values, rituals, dietary rules), he proceeds to demonstrate that religious groups like the "Bacchists" and the "Mithraists" broke the rules of the established paganism and roused a conflict with the authority of family and state. Thus these groups were in a position, at least potentially, to start a revolution in religious life in the same way the Christians did. Notwithstanding both a certain overstatement in his handling of historical data and a kind of sociological rigidity, North raises an issue that is well founded and of relevance also for the methodology of comparison in the history of ancient religions. In this volume, Richard Gordon pursues similar concerns, with further innovations.


In the proceedings of the international conference of Montpellier (Moreau 1992—which provided, inter alia, a useful bibliography on initiation in general and initiation in Greece in particular), only a few contributions deal with initiation in Greek mystery cults, and all of these have to do with Dionysus. There Casadio seeks to date the initiation ritual attested in the Lernaean cult back to the Classical age. Turcan instead denies that full-fledged mysteries of Dionysus existed in Greece before the Hellenistic-Roman age and (rightly) refuses to assign this characteristic to the orgiastic-ecstatic procedures of the bacchants in archaic and classical Greece.


The old evidence and the new theories have been aptly summarized by Zeller, Gordon, and Turcan in three entries in encyclopedias that appeared almost contemporaneously in subsequent years. The first one is the work of a New Testament scholar, Dieter Zeller, who has a remarkable insight into issues of comparison within the field of the religions produced by Hellenistic syncretism (including, historically, Christianity). His contribution distinguishes itself for the thorough analysis of the evidence focused on the individuation of traits related to a doctrine of salvation (he recognizes his debt to Bianchi's school and adopts his terminology of the dio in vicenda, "god subject to vicissitude"), a synopsis of the general characteristics common to all (or some) mysteries with emphasis on mythic and ritual structures, and a balanced assessment of the thorny issue of the relationship with early Christian sacraments (Baptism and the Eucharist).


Whereas Zeller's article has appeared in a theological encyclopedia that, because of its subject matter, tends to be unfamiliar to ancient historians, Richard L. Gordon, an expert in Mithraism and an extremely astute interpreter of ancient world religious phenomena in general, contributed a pithy article on the same subject for the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the standard reference work for all classical scholars. Gordon firmly refused the (Christiano-centric) model of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule and adopted without reservation the three-pronged typology devised by Bianchi. Consequently, he characterized the hopes of the mystery cults in general, and the Eleusinian cult in particular, as decidedly mundane, in contrast with the world-rejecting, dualistic attitudes of the Orphics or other mysteriosophic circles.


The third of these publications is important both because it is signed by Robert Turcan, an unparalleled authority in the field, and because it appeared in a prestigious lexicon that, as indicated by its own title—Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, referring to the interrelationship of antiquity and Christianity—is a reference tool to be used by students of both classical antiquity and ancient religions. In this article, all the sources are analyzed in detail and the relevant bibliography is discussed with customary shrewdness. What is more important, the discussion is focused on the core and meaning of the various initiation rituals, with attention to similarities and differences. For example, in the Eleusinian initiation, by which all subsequent mystery cults were apparently influenced, the mother goddess Demeter guarantees prosperity in this world, and the daughter Persephone provides a better hope for the other world. In other words, one helps the initiates during their lives, the other in their afterlives. In a similar way, the Bacchic rituals (teletai)—at least in certain cases—promised bliss after death, but also bestowed in this life escape and oblivion from everyday anxieties. By contrast, the oriental mystery cults—Isis/Osiris, Cybele, and Mithras—integrated the single devotees into a cosmic order, warranted by divine grace and providence, within a perspective that can appropriately be defined as "cosmotheandric." In a final synthesis, Turcan outlines the six elements that were shared by all the mystery cults (secret, preliminary purification, symbolic formulary, simulation of death, visual revelation, sacramental meal) and the four functions inherent to initiation: a feeling of belonging to a privileged group; protection in this and the other world; an explanation of the world and one's individual fate; and the initiate's identification with the god and participation in his destiny (Turcan 1998: 121).


Giulia Gasparro, an eminent expert in ancient mystery cults from the viewpoint of the history of religions, agrees with Burkert on basic issues such as the definition of the mysteries (Gasparro 2003: 22) and the typological differences from Christianity (Gasparro 2003: 15 and 43), but sympathizes with the cutting-edge research on Mithraism recently carried out by R. Beck and R. Gordon with regard to the speculative dimension and the ritual and social dimension of the Mithraic mysteries, respectively. She is more cautious about the most sophisticated reconstruction of the origin of the mysteries they have recently elaborated, in a delicate balance of the Iranian and Anatolian matrix and the Roman innovation (Gasparro 2003: 37-42). The vindication of the oriental side of Mithras (shared by these scholars) is consistent with Gasparro's resolute opposition to recent attempts to "deconstruct" the oriental (Phrygian in the case at issue) identity of two oriental deities such as Meter and her paredros Attis, in order to overemphasize the role played by Hellenization in the mythopoeic process of these figures (Gasparro 2003: 18-21). Theoretical preconceptions (of blatantly postmodern genealogy) whose historical reliability is quite dubious—if not utterly inconsistent—lie hidden behind these apparently innocuous scholarly constructs.


Burkert's comprehensive article, "Initiation," in the second (2004) volume of the Thesaurus cultus et rituum antiquorum (ThesCRA), presents a collection of sources (mainly in German translation) related to initiation as a social and religious phenomenon in Greece and Rome, with preliminary discussion. Unfortunately, the Greek or Latin original wording is given only sporadically (this is understandable, since the Thesaurus is a reference work designed primarily for archaeologists), and very few pictures are included (this is also explainable, given the fact that the ThesCRA has been conceived as a continuation of the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae [LIMC], which offers a much broader corpus of illustrations). In his concise but engaging compendium of extensive, multifarious materials (including useful sections on pubertal initiations, initiations to priesthood, and various secret and non-secret associations), the author reaffirms the views he has developed over more than forty years of untiring research, and in great part already made known in his epoch-making 1977 handbook on ancient Greek religion and in his 1987 treatise. In this article's section "Bakchika," however (a subject to which he has contributed first-hand and ground-breaking inquiries), Burkert's deliberate merging of Dionysiac ritualism and Orphic mysticism is open to debate. If it is sometimes hard to distinguish between these two entities (especially in Magna Graecia: see contributions in this volume by Bernabé and Edmonds, whose views often diverge), the distinction between the rather mundane Bacchic mysteries and the eminently transmundane Orphic initiations (variously connected with esoteric Pythagorean lore: see Drew Griffith in this volume) is (as stated above) an important one and, in specific historico-geographical contexts, did operate in actuality.


The chapters related to aspects of Eleusinian, Dionysiac, and Orphic mysteries in a recent volume on the Greek mysteries edited by archaeologist M. B. Cosmopoulos are of special relevance here. Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood brilliantly argues that the Eleusinian cult "had a double nature: it was an integral part of Athenian polis religion and at the same time a restricted cult accessible through initiation by individual choice" (p. 26). She further argues that the nature of the cult changed in the early sixth century, when it became mysteric and eschatological, promising a happy afterlife. The focus of the Eleusis festival was on the "divine advent" (of Demeter, of Kore, of the sacred implements), an element existing in the premysteric phase and then reshaped in the mysteric scenario to encompass the initiatory-eschatological dimension. The main concern of Kevin Clinton in the same volume is typological. He examines the Eleusinian terminology in the literary and inscriptional evidence with the intention of determining the precise meaning of my?sis and telet?. The important inference of his investigation is that teletai, which originally denominated rituals with emphasis on performance (including, for example, the Thesmophoria and some Bacchic rites), in the post-Classical period was narrowed to indicate only initiation. The meaning of myst?ria, on the other hand—previously rather technical and restricted to the preliminary grade of initiation in the Eleusinian mystery cult—was subsequently broadened, so that thereafter it simply hinted at a kind of esotericism. Susan Guettel Cole examines the evidence about Dionysian afterlife in connection with the role of the gods (primarily Dionysus and Persephone) in the Eleusinian and Orphic literature. (She refrains, in fact, from using the latter category, referring simply to "independent groups supervised by inspired leaders" [in Cosmopulos 2003: 207].) Her prospectus—which provides a list and description of all the gold tablets from northern Greece, western Crete, and southern Italy organized according to location, date, type of burial, gender of the dead, shape, placement, literary type and imagery, password, mystic terminology, divinities mentioned, and names of the initiates—will render a great service to any future research. In "Orphic Mysteries and Dionysiac Ritual," Noel Robertson attacks the current approach, which envisions as a background to the Greek mysteries a prehistory of initiation rites, and renews the older view that mysteries go back to standard ceremonies of public worship and are in fact rather more indebted to ancestral fertility rites involving a kind of magic sympathy between man and natural life than to any initiatory rituals of private or collective character.


In 2005, an important exhibition dedicated to the imagery of the mysteries in Greece and Rome took place in Rome. The catalogue (Bottini 2005) has an intriguing title (Il rito segreto: Misteri in Grecia e a Roma), but in fact the great majority of the illustrations have a very loose (if any) connection with the mystery cults. The introduction by Fritz Graf is concise but provides a fine survey of topics and critical issues. Graf's approach is characterized by a critical awareness of typological distinctions (the rituals of Dionysus or Cybele have the character of a mystery cult only under certain conditions; eschatological hopes and ecstatic experiences can only be attested factually in a few cases), but he perhaps overemphasizes the role played by tribal initiations and male secret societies in the prehistory of the mysteries. Monographic chapters signed by qualified specialists (Sfameni Gasparro, Isler-Kerényi, and Coarelli) deal with individual cults (from Eleusis to Mithras) in compendious style, whereas two specialized contributions investigate in depth the same topics that are addressed in the present collection, although from a different point of view. In "I pinakes di Locri: Immagini di feste e culti misterici dionisiaci nel santuario di Persefone" (in Bottini 2005: 49-57), Madeleine Mertens Horn provides a new comprehensive exegesis of the famous Locrian pinakes, unearthed more than a century ago from the most celebrated sanctuary of Persephone in Italy. Her interpretation focuses on the special relationship between Persephone, queen of the underworld, and Dionysus (as a child and as a male adult), thus supplying the most appropriate background for the Orphic scenario outlined by Bernabé in this volume. From both contributions it ensues that the religious perception of these two deities in Magna Graecia differed significantly from that which was current in the Greek metropolis. Mertens Horn provides also an explanation of the characteristic interplay between funeral and nuptial imagery present in the pinakes that supplements the interpretation envisaged by MacLachlan in this collection. Fausto Zevi, in "Demetra e Kore nel santuario di Valle Ariccia" (in Bottini 2005: 59-67), analyzes the evidence of the Thesmophoria in an extramural sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone situated in the countryside of Ariccia, a town in the surroundings of Rome. The presence of this Thesmophoriac sanctuary (active from the fourth century until the beginning of the second century BCE) in the center of Latium supplies an apt chronological link between the fifth-century Thesmophoriac sanctuary in the chora of Poseidonia-Paestum (studied by Sfameni Gasparro in this volume) and the much later (dating at the second century CE) temple of Ceres and Faustina, where the presence of a Thesmophoriac ritual has been advocated by Lucchese in another contribution to this volume.


This, then, is the current status of research in the field of mystic cults with particular reference to Magna Graecia, to which we hope this volume will contribute new insights.


The Contributions to This Collection


The first contribution in this book deals with the cult of Dionysus and related Orphic religiosity in the vicinity of Cumae. In "Dionysus in Campania: Cumae," Giovanni Casadio examines the sources and secondary literature concerning the Dionysiac cults in Cumae, within Campania: "The place where the most pagan of all the gods of Mediterranean paganism—Dionysus-Bacchus—might have liked to spend his third age, without renouncing his most deeply ingrained habits, can ideally be identified with Campania: a land of intrinsically orgiastic nature." He presents evidence and arguments to demonstrate the connection between the famous archaic inscription from Cumae and the circumstances of Dionysiac worship there under the tyrant Aristodemus Malakos. Ana Jiménez San Cristóbal interprets the meaning of bavkco" and bakceuvein in Orphism as different from their meaning in other religious contexts. The traditional meaning of bakcheuein is "to go into ecstasy" or "to celebrate Bacchic rites," which in most cases implies a violent attitude that, in principle, is incompatible with the rules of the Orphic life. The Orphics avoided bloody practices. Instead, they considered the ecstatic experience implied in bakcheuein as the means of access to an Orphikos bios through the observation of certain rules that affect the initiates' personal existence as well as through the performance of certain rites that convert them into bakchoi. For the Orphic initiate, the ecstasy consists of putting oneself at the level of the worshiped divinity, not as a transitory ecstasy but as a lasting condition. This leads to the rebirth of the initiates into a new existence, free from bodily ties.


In "New Contributions of Dionysiac Iconography to the History of Religions in Greece and Italy," Cornelia Isler-Kerényi examines the question of how painters and users of Greek vases in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE viewed Dionysus. During this period, Greek ceramics can be dated with sufficient precision, and hence it is possible to establish a connection between the history of the images and the history of the cult. The Dionysus theme, moreover, is numerically the most important of the vase inventory. Kerényi pays particular attention to the iconographic themes that refer to ritual: the meeting of Dionysus with a matronal figure, the dance of grotesque characters and of satyrs with or without Dionysus, and the ride of the mule. Every one of these subjects constitutes its own iconographic line whose sequence can illuminate the history of the cult of Dionysus.


Radcliffe G. Edmonds and Alberto Bernabé then pursue close examinations of Orphic cult, with the one focusing on the narrative, the other on the imagery. Edmonds, in "Who Are You? Mythic Narrative and Identity in the Orphic Gold Tablets," focuses on the narrative itself rather than, as earlier scholars have done, on the texts behind the variants, such as on an Orphic katabasis poem or a Pythagorean Book of the Dead. Edmonds examines the narrative created by verses in the Orphic tablets, and concludes that the nature of the afterlife and its contrast to the world of the living is less important than the contrast between the nature and identity of the deceased as compared with the nature of other people. In "Imago Inferorum Orphica," Bernabé is concerned with the Orphic imagery of the netherworld, as based on the testimony found in both the Orphic texts (the gold leaves and other literary texts) and the images of southern Italian pottery. In both these sources, Hades is seen to be an underground place containing buildings, presided over by Persephone and Pluto. The underworld is a dual space, with one way leading to a locus amoenus (a "pleasant place") and the other, for the uninitiated, leading to mud, physical punishment, and terror. Initiation provides the myst?s (initiate) with the knowledge necessary for taking the correct path, aided by the goddess Mnemosyne (Memory). The initiates are protected by Orpheus, while Dionysus and Orpheus act as mediators, so that, for the initiate, the underworld may be a pleasant rather than terrible place. Then, on a lighter note, R. Drew Griffith examines the codicil to Eumolpus' will in Petronius' Satyricon in "Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Is: Eumolpus' Will, pasta e Fagioli, and the Fate of the Soul in South Italian Thought from Pythagoras to Ennius." Griffith examines the passage (Satyricon 141) where Eumolpus asks that his heirs make him a "living tomb" by eating his mortal remains, as a basis for considering the Pythagorean doctrines of reincarnation, the body-tomb image, and such dietary laws as the ban on beans in view of their influence on Vergil (Aen. 6.734). He argues that the Pythagoreans acquired these ideas from Croton and Metapontum, and not the reverse.


The cult of Demeter in Italy is reflected in the articles by Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Kathryn M. Lucchese, and Raymond J. Clark. Gasparro, in "Aspects of the Cult of Demeter in Magna Graecia: The 'Case' of S. Nicola di Albanella," provides a general overview of Thesmophoria in Greece, then presents the relevant materials found in a characteristically rural sanctuary located near Paestum. These findings (especially the terracottas) permit acknowledgment of the Demetriac (and in particular the Thesmophoriac) pertinence of this shrine. At the same time, the presence of male donors highlights the peculiarity of this local cult. As a result, it is possible to assume in this site the confluence of male and female worship, even if at different times and on different occasions.


In "Landscape Synchesis: A Demeter Temple in Latium," Lucchese examines the late fall pre-planting rites of the Thesmophoria, which, in addition to the Eleusinian mysteries, were characteristic festivals of Demeter. The thesmophoria themselves were offerings flung into a natural crevice or man-made chamber in the rock known as a megaron, left to decay, and then retrieved and ploughed into a nearby ritual field, thus securing the region's fertility for the season to come. By metaphoric extension, the Thesmophoria became associated with the civilization that developed in the wake of sedentary agriculture, the "things laid down" (thesmophoria) being understood as a code of civil laws, and the goddess' title being translated into Latin as legifera, "law-giver." A small temple just outside Rome, built by Herodes Atticus, can now be firmly identified as dedicated to Demeter/Ceres, due in part to the recent discovery of a well-preserved megaron there. Herodes used the construction of this sanctuary as a gesture of synchesis, linking himself to the goddess of laws in order both to exonerate himself of his wife's bloodguilt and to increase his own social standing. Raymond J. Clark, in "The Eleusinian Mysteries and Vergil's 'Appearance-of-a-Terrifying-Female-Apparition-in-the-Underworld' Motif," focuses on the single incident in Aeneid 6 where Aeneas raises his sword in terror against the phantoms of the Gorgons and other monsters who appear before him in Pluto's house (Aen. 6.285-294). He compares a number of Greek passages that Eduard Norden believed were influenced by a now-lost epic version of the descent into the underworld by the Eleusinian Herakles, and concludes that Vergil's account cannot be associated with the Eleusinian mysteries.


Bonnie MacLachlan raises probing questions about the ritual activities of women at the Grotta Caruso outside the ancient city of Locri, in "Women and Nymphs at the Grotta Caruso." Although Persephone stands at this intersection, the significance of these details undergoes a striking transformation at the Grotta between the Classical and the Hellenistic periods. Other questions raised are what the significance was of the eroticized dead in Greek ritual practice, and how the divinization of the dead in hero cults intersected with Orphism in Magna Graecia, and finally, what role was played by Dionysus in women's ritual activities at a cave of the nymphs, including the mystical wedding of this god and Ariadne celebrated in Athens at the Anthesteria, or on the iconography of the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries.


The cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis arrives in Italy somewhat later, but is also of great importance in the Roman Empire. Isis' temple at Pompeii was one of the first to be restored in that city after the 62 CE earthquake preceding the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79. Frederick Brenk examines the Temple of Isis at Pompeii in the light of recent publications, beginning with the partial recreation of the temple in 1992 and in 2000. Since a detailed analysis of the Egyptian and other artifacts discovered there is still lacking, Brenk, in "'Great Royal Spouse Who Protects Her Brother Osiris': Isis in the Isaeum at Pompeii," examines these materials. Piecing together the evidence of the relative worship of Isis and Osiris in the temple, he shows that the temple, in a Hellenistic zone of Pompeii, seems to represent primarily the Augustan complex of Isis worship, which appears to be quite different from that later found in the Isaeum Campense in Rome, as rebuilt by Domitian and as portrayed in Apuleius. At Pompeii, Isis is dominant, with limited representations of Osiris, but there are a number of indications of the presence of Osiris in the shrine. This was probably the situation at Rome by the time of Domitian, offering a strong contrast to Osiris' role at Pompeii.


Paolo Caputo, director of excavations at Cumae, Italy, then presents a report on the status of the Temple of Isis found at Cumae in 1992, in "Aegyptiaca from Cumae: New Evidence for Isis Cult in Campania: Site and Materials." This is the first evidence for the presence in Cumae of a place for the cult of Egyptian deities, apart from the uncovering of an Anubis statue (in 1836) and a fragmentary Harpocrates statue (in 1837), both now lost. The extensive remains and the findings provide new evidence for a re-evaluation of the question whether Cumae also had an Isaeum.


The appearance of all of these cults in Vergil's Georgics, which were composed in Campania, is then discussed by Patricia A. Johnston in "The Mystery Cults and Vergil's Georgics." The cult of Cybele appears only in the fourth Georgic, in reference to her followers noisily masking the cries of the infant Zeus and feeding him honey, but the references to the more properly "mystic" cults—Eleusis, Isis, and Dionysus—are, as one might expect in a poem on agriculture, much more prominent throughout the poem than is usually acknowledged.


The final group of chapters here is concerned with the Mithraic mysteries. Luther Martin focuses on initiation, drawing on cognitive theory, an approach to Mithraic studies that he developed in a series of papers and that has since then been adopted by Roger Beck. In "The Amor and Psyche Relief in the Mithraeum of Capua Vetere: An Exceptional Case of Graeco-Roman Syncretism or an Ordinary Instance of Human Cognition?" Martin considers the degree of syncretism operative in this cult, as exemplified by the Amor-Psyche relief at Capua. He is particularly interested in the variations in these rituals, which differ considerably from one location to another. Richard Gordon then discusses the rite of Mithraic initiation in order to establish whether that rite led to a specifically Mithraic type of knowledge. He focuses on the figures painted on the walls of the Capua Mithraeum, which appear to reveal the stages of initiation at that site. In "The 'Ritualized Body' in the Mithraeum at Capua," he points out the fairly consistent pattern of the nudity of the initiate, as opposed to the clothed, supervising figure, and finds a parallel between the sufferings of these figures and of Christian martyrs. He interprets these sufferings in a Foucauldian perspective. Glenn Palmer, in "Why the Shoulder? A Study of the Placement of the Wound in the Mithraic Tauroctony," then contrasts the placement of the sword into the shoulder, which is common to all Mithraic representations of the killing of the bull, with the more usual placement of the knife in actual bull sacrifices, and concludes that stabbing the bull in the shoulder would never be adequate anatomically to kill a bull. He then explores other possible reasons for the placement of the sword in the shoulder, and argues for a connection between the tauroctony and Egyptian mythology, astrology, and funerary ritual.



“This thematic structure is excellent. . . . As the first comprehensive collection of essays examining the range of cults of Magna Graecia, this book represents important reading.”
Journal of the Platonic Tradition

“This book represents the most current state of knowledge about cults in Magna Graecia and will set standards for subsequent discussions of the topic.”
Larry J. Alderink, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse