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 Like many of the gods worshiped by mystery cults, there are no surviving myths related to him—only a brief historical reference saying that his initiates practiced ritual serpent handling.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.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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