You weren't supposed to understand the secrets of the ancient Greek and Roman mystery cults in the times that they flourished, unless you were yourself an initiate. Now a couple of thousand years after, the secrets remain undisclosed and tantalizing. Not all the cults were small, with some of them, for instance, being important parts of annual civic celebrations. Much of what the initiates went through might have simply been an ineffable religious frenzy that no outsider is going to understand, but there must have been rites, music, and dramas that we ought at least to be able to view historically as spectators. But no; there were plenty of people who said they were giving us descriptions of what was going on in those caves or temples, but they were not initiates themselves. The members of the cults were so scrupulously secret that we have only indirect evidence to go by. So that evidence has been gathered and sifted, sometimes by those who had a grudge against the cults and so deliberately described disreputable rites. Now in _Mystery Cults of the Ancient World_ (Princeton University Press), classics scholar Hugh Bowden looks at what we can know about the cults, especially those at Eleusis, the Bacchic cults, and the Mithraic one. This is a fine-looking book, beautifully produced, with many more pictures and plates than accompany the usual academic treatise, and Bowden's lucid descriptions of what we can know about the cults, or reasonably speculate about them, represent a welcome interpretation of a murky subject.
The main ancient religions were overtly practiced, with ceremonies and sacrifices in the open, during the day. The cults explored here, however, secreted themselves away for their practices which were often held at night. The ceremonies for the main religions certainly did not concentrate on disorientation and fear, but such feelings were relied upon during the cult rites, with their loud music and other noise, bright lights, and blindfolds. Participants might achieve a state of ecstatic disorientation and high emotion, a single transformative religious experience contrasted with routine or regular meeting ceremonies. They had the capacity during these rites to experience the divine directly. Bowden explains that previous scholarship has concentrated on the eschatological function of the cults, but he downplays this: "Compared to the certainty and intensity of the immediate experience of initiation or Bacchic ecstasy, the hope of a better experience in the uncertain world beyond death must have weighed little." The Eleusinian Mysteries, about which we have the best and yet meager understanding, had their main celebrations in a sanctuary near Athens. There were sacrifices, processions, and fasting beforehand, but the rites themselves remain obscure. There was probably a dramatic performance recreating the Persephone story, blindfolds, sounding of gongs, and so on. It is, quite appropriately, very mysterious, and it might have been that to the participants, too. Bowden goes on to compare and contrast the mystery cults at Samothrace and Cyzicus, as well as the more widespread cults of Dionysus and Mithras.
Christianity itself may have been a mystery cult in the beginning, or at least was influenced by such cults; this is a common scholastic view, but Bowden suggests that there was little contact between mystery cults and Christianity. There are ritual analogues in both, such as baptism or communion, but there is not evidence that Christianity borrowed the practices. Once Christianity became the state supported religion, mystery cults no longer were a feature in the Mediterranean world. There was still ecstatic religious experience, but religious frenzy by large groups was discouraged. In his final pages Bowden says that the closest current analogue to mystery cults is the snake handling sects. This is not because they handle snakes just as some of the mystery cults handled snakes, but because of the possessive and ecstatic nature of the experience snake handlers have described, and also because the experience is fundamentally incapable of being fully explained or communicated to outsiders. In the same way, there is too much of a gap between our world and that of 1,600 years ago when the mystery cults flourished. "We just don't know" is the theme of many of the pages here, but Bowden's summary helps limn the borders of the knowable within a strange religious tradition.