7 Greco-Roman Mystery Cults You Should Know

Zardulu
Zardulu

The ancient Greco-Roman mystery religions were a group of secret cults that worshiped lesser-known gods outside the official pantheons. Because members were banned from discussing their beliefs and practices with outsiders, details of their activities are now scarce, but scholars speculate that initiates were given some form of secret knowledge, handled sacred objects, and acted out sacred stories to gain favor with their deity and to secure a better afterlife.

While participation in these cults is believed to have ended with the rise of Christianity, their influence is still evident in society’s widespread fascination with secret societies and the occult. Here are seven of the most influential Greco-Roman Mysteries and some of what little we know about them.

1. CULT OF CYBELE

Cybele, or Magna Mater, came to Greece around the 5th century BCE from the ancient Indo-European people known as the Phrygians. She was believed to reside on mountaintops where, accompanied by lions, she ruled over the natural world. She is often depicted—as she is above—holding a primitive tambourine, which is fitting, since rituals associated with her included loud, percussive music and frenzied dancing. Worshippers of Cybele also participated in the taurobolium, a ritual bull slaughter that according to one (admittedly hostile) late Roman account involved initiates positioning themselves below the bull and showering in its blood.

The cult of Attis was a later addition to the Cybele mythos. Attis was a mortal who spurned Cybele’s romantic advances and was punished with madness, causing him to cut off his own testicles and die. Eventually, Cybele had a change of heart and petitioned Zeus to allow Attis to be resurrected. As a result, all priests of Cybele during this era performed the same cutting, often publicly, in hopes of being reborn one day themselves.

2. CULT OF SABAZIOS

A watercolor of the deity Sabazios by Zardulu.
Zardulu

The cult of Sabazios originated with the Phrygians and Thracians of Eastern Europe but was known in Greece by the 5th century BCE. Sabazios is depicted as a nomadic horseman, often battling a serpent. Like many of the gods worshiped by mystery cults, there are no surviving myths related to him—only a brief historical reference saying that his initiates practiced ritual serpent handling. There are also several somewhat mysterious examples of metal sculptures called "hands of Sabazios," which have symbolic items decorating the palm and fingertips, such as snakes, frogs, lizards, human figures, pinecones, and lightning bolts.

3. ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES

A watercolor of Persephone and Demeter by Zardulu.
Zardulu

The Eleusinian mysteries were the longest-running and most popular of the mystery cults. They were devoted to the worship of the goddess Demeter, who was believed to have given agriculture to humans, bringing them into civilized existence. The most prominent myth associated with Demeter is the kidnapping of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades. Demeter's search eventually brought her to the ancient Greek city of Eleusis, and to the underworld. It was said that during this time her failure to attend to the crops caused the fall season, but when she emerged with Persephone she was able to attend to the crops again, ushering in the spring.

Though details are scarce, it is believed that this myth was acted out in ceremonies at Eleusis, with the symbolic harvesting of grain being a focal element. Some suspect this was done while initiates were under the influence of hallucinogens. The Eleusinian mysteries were abolished by the 4th century CE by the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great.

A cult also developed around Despoina, the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon, said to have been conceived while both parents were in the form of horses. This has led some to believe she was the vestige of an ancient equine goddess. The details of her worship are unknown, and even her name is not exactly accurate—her true name was only told to initiates, none of whom ever repeated it.

4. MITHRAISM

A watercolor of Mithras by Zardulu.
Zardulu

Mithras is perhaps best known for being worshipped by the Roman army as the protector of the empire, but his origins can be traced to the earlier Persian god Mithra, and he is probably related to the Hindu god Mitra. There are no surviving myths about Mithras, whose cult was established in the Roman world by the 1st century CE, and everything we know comes from images in underground temple-caves called mithraeum. These images generally depict the god stabbing a bull in the neck and meeting the sun, with the two of them dining on the bull together. Occasionally, a scorpion is depicted stinging the bull's testicles as a dog licks the bull's blood.

5. CULT OF ISIS

A watercolor of Isis by Zardulu.
Zardulu

Isis is a goddess of Egyptian origin who developed a wide following in Greece and Rome after about 300 BCE. She had prominent temples, a dedicated priesthood, and devoted followers. She was believed to influence fertility and agriculture, but as her worship spread to new areas, this changed to fit the needs of her followers. Her most well-known myth deals with the death of her husband, Osiris, and her efforts to resurrect him. This myth was ritualistically acted out by initiates of her cult, who shaved their heads, wore linen uniforms, and played Egyptian percussion instruments called sistrums.

Closely related to the cult of Isis was that of Serapis. A lover of Isis, he was equal parts Greek and Egyptian, and is thought to have been introduced as a way to unify the two cultures. Harpokrates, the son of Isis and Serapis, is often depicted holding his finger over his lips—as if to remind their initiates not to reveal their secrets.

6. CABEIRI MYSTERIES

A watercolor of Axiocersu and Cadmilus, part of the Cabeiri Mysteries, by Zardulu.
Zardulu

The Cabeiri were a group of gods worshiped primarily on the Greek islands, most prominently on Samothrace and Lemnos, as well as elsewhere in Greece and Asia Minor. They were most commonly depicted as Axiocersu and his son Cadmilus, although sometimes depictions included two females, Axierus and Axiocersa. Popular with seamen, initiation into their mysteries promised safety from the misfortunes of the sea, and their worshippers also engaged in purification and fertility rituals. Their secrets were well-guarded, so little else is known about them and their followers.

7. DIONYSIAN MYSTERIES

A watercolor depicting the deities of the Dionysian Mysteries by Zardulu
Zardulu

Dionysus, the god of wine, represented the primitive nature of humans, which his followers believed was accessible through wine's ability to lower inhibitions. He was also believed to have power over death, as a result of being torn to pieces by titans and then resurrected by his father, Zeus. Like the other mysteries, a great deal about his worship remains unknown, but some aspects were practiced publicly—frenzied, drunken orgies, the playing of instruments called bullroarers, and the sacrifice of animals using a double-headed axe followed by the drinking of their blood mixed with wine. In art, Dionysus is often depicted in a procession of satyrs and women wearing animal skins, with ivy wrapped around their brows and holding staffs with pinecones on top.

The Dionysian mysteries eventually evolved into the Orphic mysteries, which were established by about the 5th century BCE. These cults dealt with the worship of Orpheus, a legendary musician who was said to have established the Dionysian mysteries. The Orphics, as they are called, lived an ascetic lifestyle, leaving behind the decadent practices of their predecessors. They believed that humans were divine, created from the ashes of the titans who murdered Dionysus. Unfortunately, they also inherited the titan’s sins, for which they had to atone. Some of their rituals included the actual or symbolic dismembering of a person representing Dionysus, who was then understood to be reborn.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
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Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
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Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

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11 Life Lessons From Alexander Hamilton

If you’re looking to the Founding Fathers for a role model, you could do worse than Alexander Hamilton, the self-taught orphan from the Virgin Islands who went on to create the U.S. financial system, the Coast Guard, and, in a break from politics, The New York Post. Inspired by the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda—which will premiere on the streaming service Disney+ July 3—author Jeff Wilser dug through the prolific Hamilton’s documents and letters, as well as those of his colleagues and biographers, to create Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life, a tome full of wisdom from everyone’s favorite treasury secretary.

Here are 11 life lessons you can learn from Alexander Hamilton (excluding the best advice of all, which is “don’t duel”):

1. Genius comes from hard work.

“Men give me some credit for genius,” Hamilton once told a friend (at least according to later reports). “All the genius I have lies in this, when I have a subject in hand I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Hamilton’s absurd work ethic was a theme throughout his life—over the course of a few months, he wrote 51 essays included in The Federalist Papers (compared to James Madison’s 29 and John Jay’s five). He did it all while keeping his day job, working full time as a lawyer.

2. Don't procrastinate.

A prolific writer, Hamilton didn’t let little things like sleep get in his way. In 1791, Congress was in an uproar over whether a national bank would be constitutional. George Washington had only 10 days to decide whether to veto the controversial bill that came before him. Hamilton—with the help of his wife, Elizabeth (often called Eliza)—stayed up all night and dashed off some 40 pages in favor of the bill, rebutting anti-bank arguments from men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Hamilton could always be counted on to get his work done on time, if not early. “I hate procrastination,” he wrote in a letter in 1795.

Indeed, when Congress demanded a complete audit of his books in 1792 to check for corruption, Hamilton was required to present a detailed survey of the financial system he created, including balances between the government and the central bank and a tally of purchases of government debt. He was given a deadline just four months away, but he managed to whip up a 21,000-word report that he turned in two weeks early. (The numbers checked out.)

3. Marry rich.

In a letter to his friend John Laurens written when he was 22, Hamilton shows more than a passing interest in landing a sugar mama. Discussing what he would require in a future spouse, he mentions money multiple times, saying in one instance, “as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better … money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world—as I have not much of my own and I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry—it must needs be that my wife, if i get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.” Though he may have been joking around a bit, the man was pragmatic to a fault.

4. Don't fight for a cause you don't believe in.

As a lawyer, Hamilton was occasionally asked to defend behavior he didn’t really condone. He took no issue with defending British soldiers who were prosecuted for crimes they committed during the Revolutionary War's occupation of New York City because he felt that the law was on their side. But in a case early on in his career, he defended someone he knew to be guilty and came to regret it: He successfully defended a woman who had stolen a fan. “I will never again take up a cause in which I was convinced I ought not to prevail,” he later decided.

5. Don't take on debt you can't pay.

Despite being a crusader for the national debt, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t always a proponent of borrowing money. “The creation of debt should always be accompanied by the means of extinguishment,” he argued in 1790 during his campaign to have the U.S. federal government assume states’ debt from the war. In other words, debt is all good and fine—as long as you have a way to pay it back.

6. Look sharp.

Alexander Hamilton wouldn’t have been caught dead in athleisure. “A smart dress is essential,” he declared in a 1799 letter. He was talking about soldiers—he raised America’s first standing army and personally designed George Washington’s uniform during the Quasi-War between the U.S. and France from 1798 and 1800—but the advice applies to any endeavor. As a self-made man, Hamilton was all about dressing for the job you want.

7. Don't forget to spend time with your family.

While he was busy helping a fledgling nation come into its own, Hamilton still found time to be a family man. (He and his wife, Eliza, had eight children.) “Experience more and more convinces me that true happiness is only to be found in the bosom of one’s own family,” he wrote to Eliza in 1801. According to his family doctor, in the midst of his business as a statesman, whenever someone in his family got sick, Hamilton rushed home to nurse them back to health—literally; he insisted on administering all the medicine himself.

8. Don't let the haters get to you.

Hamilton was a famously divisive figure. While he was a beloved adviser to George Washington, he was loathed by some other Founding Fathers. In 1790, he encouraged George Washington to raise a militia to stamp out the Whiskey Rebellion—ultimately a peaceful end to the tax conflict—but it wasn’t a popular stance. “The very existence of government demands this course,” he maintained. Taxes were the only way to pay off the government’s then-$54.1 million federal debt.

He was right, but that didn’t mean the public or his fellow politicians agreed. Thomas Jefferson called the whole thing “Hamilton’s Insurrection.” Luckily, he never treated government like a popularity contest (even if he did have that dueling problem). “I have learned to hold popular opinion of no value,” he wrote to Washington in 1794.

9. Embrace adversity.

Alexander Hamilton was never too far from conflict, as the Whiskey Rebellion incident underscores. His greatest accomplishments—the creation of the U.S. banking system, founding what would become the U.S. Coast Guard, encouraging the manufacturing industry—turned out to be visionary, but weren’t readily accepted by contemporaries like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. But he saw conflict as a time to shine: “A man of real merit is never seen in so favorable a light as through the medium of adversity; the clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities,” he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1780.

10. Honor your commitments.

Hamilton considered his word his bond, in both politics and his personal life. In a letter to his then-9-year-old son, Philip, in 1791, he wrote that “a promise must never be broken, and I will never make you one, which I will not fulfill as I am able.”

11. Forgive your enemies.

Following his ultimately fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton lay in bed in intense pain for several hours before he finally passed away. As Wilser tells it, he took one of his final moments to absolve his opponent. “In one of Hamilton’s final lucid moments, he said, ‘I have no ill will against Colonel Burr … I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.’” Even in moments of great pain, he maintained his integrity.