venerdì 28 maggio 2010

How the Greeks met their gods

What was so mysterious about mystery cults in the ancient world?
Mary Beard

The ancient Greeks and Romans must have been very good at keeping secrets. Or so our lack of information on the famous “Eleusinian Mysteries” (celebrated in an impressive sanctuary just a few miles outside Athens) would suggest – not to mention our lack of information on all the other, similar, initiatory religions found throughout the ancient world, from the ecstatic cult of Dionysus featured in Euripides’ Bacchae to the worship of the god Mithras by the Roman squaddies on Hadrian’s wall. There must have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of initiates, across the millennium of Classical history. And at Eleusis they included some of the most prominent (and garrulous) writers, thinkers and politicians of antiquity: Socrates and Plato, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, and many more. These cults are often set apart, by modern writers, from the calmer, less participatory, less emotional traditions of Graeco-Roman state religion. But we have no explicit ancient account of what the secret mysteries of any cult actually were, what happened at initiation or what exactly was revealed to the initiates. So far as we can now tell, there was hardly a leaky vessel among them; or, at any rate, whatever the gossip on the ancient street, there was no one who risked committing the religious secrets to writing and so sharing them with posterity.

It is true that on one notorious occasion, in the middle of the Peloponnesian War just before the disastrous expedition sailed to Sicily, a group of elite young Athenians were said to have parodied the Eleusinian Mysteries at private parties, and so “revealed the secret things to the uninitiated”. The jape (assuming it was no more than that) had a deathly serious end. Prosecuted for the offence, the men were found guilty and – those that had not escaped into exile first – were executed. But we hear of nothing of that kind ever again. The attitude of Pausanias in his second-century ad Guide to Greece is far more typical. Whenever he comes to describe a sanctuary of a secret cult of this type, he makes it very clear that he cannot give the game away. At Eleusis he even claims to have been warned in a dream not to divulge any of “the things within the wall of the sanctuary” – because “the uninitiated [that is, many of his readers] are not allowed to learn about what they cannot take part in”.

In the absence of any explicit eyewitness (or even second-hand) accounts, we have to rely on various kinds of indirect evidence. There are some general descriptions of initiation by ancient writers, which often dwell on strange sounds and bright lights, or the clash of light and dark. There are some notable works of literature which may engage with the theology of these cults: the so-called “Homeric Hymn to Demeter”, which tells the story of Demeter’s grief after the rape of her daughter Persephone by Hades, is often thought to reflect the myth underlying the rituals at Eleusis. There are also a number of speculative, and probably almost entirely imaginary, accounts written by ancient critics of the cults. Livy includes in his history of Rome a lurid tale of the cult of Bacchus, which stresses debauchery, murder and a clever trick with sulphurous torches, which stayed alight even when plunged into the waters of the Tiber. Early Christian writers found these initiatory cults a predictably easy target. Clement of Alexandria, for example, at the end of the second or beginning of the third century AD, tried to forge an etymological link between the ritual cry of the Bacchic worshippers (“euan, euoi”) and the Judaeo-Christian figure of Eve – helped by a reputed fondness of the Bacchists for snakes. Clement’s idea was that they were actually worshipping the originator of human sin.

So, for modern scholars, it has always been a frustrating task to discover the secret of these ancient mystery cults (“mystery” from the Greek mysterion, which has a range of meaning, from “Eleusinian ritual” to “secret knowledge” in a wider sense). What was it that the initiates of Dionysus or the “Great Mother” knew that the uninitiated did not? In his refreshing new survey, Mystery Cults in Ancient World, Hugh Bowden suggests that we have perhaps been worrying unnecessarily about that question. In fact, we don’t have to imagine the ancients were so much better keepers of secrets than we are, for no secret knowledge, as such, was transmitted at all. To be sure, there was a whole range of objects involved in these cults that outsiders could not see, and words that they were not allowed to hear. (In the cult at Eleusis, from descriptions of the public procession to the sanctuary, we can judge that the cult objects were small – at least small enough comfortably to be carried in containers by the priestesses.) But that is quite different from thinking that some particular piece of secret doctrine was revealed to the faithful at their initiation.

Bowden would prefer to see the religious culture of the mysteries in “imagistic” terms. Drawing – perhaps a little over-enthusiastically – on recent work on the anthropology of prehistoric religions, he contrasts imagistic with doctrinal forms of religious experience. The latter are best seen in the institutionalized, regular patterns of (relatively low-key) worship, associated with modern mainstream Christianity. The former rely on the kind of striking, occasional, intense, episodic moments of religious change that are associated with ancient mystery and initiatory cults: impressive and mind-blowing maybe, but not defined by a doctrinal message (hence all that stuff about sound and light).

Not to say that it was, therefore, all empty impression, signifying little. For Bowden, what these initiatory religions offer is a face-to-face vision of the divine. One of the big issues of Greek and Roman culture in general is exactly how far the gods are, safely, visible to mortals. The cautionary mythological tale here is that of Semele, who (as brilliantly refigured in Handel’s opera) demands to look at her lover, Jupiter, only to be destroyed by that vision of godhead. In standard ancient ritual practice, there were all kinds of ways in which the worshipper’s direct vision of the gods was avoided (through representation in statues, for example). Bowden shows convincingly that the mysteries broke through this veil, and offered a direct vision of the god – and, unlike Semele’s experience, one that did not kill the worshipper. As Lucius, the initiand in the cult of Isis in Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, observes: “I approached the gods below and the gods above face-to-face, and worshipped them from nearby”.

Bowden’s Mystery Cults is a consistently sensible book in a field where common sense is often lacking (the temptation to see some ancient initiatory rituals as if they were New Age religions has proved almost irresistible). And, in the course of a wonderfully, and intelligently, illustrated 250 pages, he debunks an impressive number of myths about ancient mystery religions. He pours some much-needed cold water over the idea that the inscribed golden “leaves” (offering instructions for navigating the underworld) found with a number of burials in the Greek world attest to a defined “Orphic cult” with advanced ideas of eschatology; better, perhaps, to see them as examples of a much more humdrum commercial religious trade, selling reassurances of a happy afterlife for grieving relatives to put in the graves of their loved ones. And he takes many scholars to task (myself included) for assuming that the cult of the Great Mother in Rome, based on the Palatine Hill, just next to the Roman imperial palace, was served by ecstatic eunuch priests who castrated themselves with a piece of flint. Some of us had already been a little more circumspect about this than Bowden allows: you only have to read accounts of pre-modern full castration (for the Great Mother was supposed to demand the removal of both penis and testicles) to recognize that few priests could have survived any such procedure. But he shows that, feasible or not, the practice is anyway much less clearly attested in Roman literature than we like to think.

More often than not, in fact, the details of these cults may not be quite as they seem. He cites an intriguing second-century AD inscription from just outside Rome, listing the members of a Bacchic troupe (or thiasos), under a priestess called Agripinilla. It is anyone’s guess whether we see here a group of respectable Roman men and women really imitating the mad Bacchants of Euripides’ play, and taking to the mountains in religious fervour – or whether this was the ancient equivalent of modern morris dancing (that is to say the Roman equivalent group of bank managers on their days off pretending to be lusty medieval rustics). My hunch, as Bowden almost suggests, is the latter.

The book, however, is concerned to do much more than debunk. Taken overall, Bowden’s examples of mystery cults – from the famous rituals of Eleusis to those little communities of Mithraists huddled in their ritual “caves” along Hadrian’s Wall – suggest a much fuzzier boundary with the official, civic cult of Greece and Rome than even he acknowledges. For a start, many of these religions are not only personal and initiatory but also part of the state religious framework. The rituals in the sanctuary at Eleusis, where the secret initiation (whatever it was) happened, were preceded and followed by large public processions of the citizens of Athens. The sanctuary of the Great Mother at Ostia was a place of considerable local splendour, castration or no castration – and, as we know from the inscriptions found there, it was subsidized by grandees of the local community.

But it is also the case that some of the concerns of the initiatory religions overlap strikingly with those of civic cult. Bowden rightly lays stress on all kinds of problematic issues of naming, and on the uncertainty of divine identity within mystery cults. Some mystery gods are nameless, some are addressed under a variety of alternative titles. Some inscribed texts hedge their bets: “Great Gods of Samothrace”, or “Dioscuri”, or “Kabeiroi”? Uncertainty and ambivalence, in Bowden’s view, were part of the essence of the mysteries. But so also were they part of the essence of civic cults, where those who wanted to play safe in addressing a god always hedged their bets: “whether you are god or goddess” was a standard Roman formula of prayer, just to make sure that there had been no mistake about the sex of the deity.

Likewise the question of incomprehensibility. As Bowden explains, the Greek mysteries of the island of Samothrace “included someone reciting incomprehensible words” – another index of the intellectual puzzlement at the heart of such mystery cults. But, although Bowden does not mention it, there is plenty of incomprehensibility in ancient civic, official cults too: in the first century AD, when the priests known as the “Salii” danced through the streets of Rome twice a year and sang their special hymn, no one (not even the priests themselves) had the foggiest clue what the hymn meant. Perhaps in the early periods of Rome’s history, the participants had understood; or more likely it had always been mumbo-jumbo. All ancient religion celebrates its own incomprehensibility, as part of its mystique.

This overlap between civic and initiatory religion comes out particularly vividly in a series of inscriptions commemorating leading pagan aristocrats of the late Roman Empire, which proudly list all their religious offices – initiation into mystery cults next to official state priesthoods. These were men who boasted of holding the traditional offices of augur or pontifex, as well as of being initiated into the cult of Mithras or Egyptian Isis. Bowden rightly focuses on these at the end of his book and argues against a common view that they reflect a new form of aggressive pagan religiosity, developed in response to the rise of Christianity, or that they are part of a pagan “revival” in a Christian context. Much more likely they show – albeit under the magnifying glass of late imperial Rome (where everything appears larger than life) – just how closely different forms and styles of cult, “mystery” or not, had always gone hand in hand. However secretive they might have been about what went on in their ceremonies, however uncertain or elusive the “message” of the cults might have been amid all that sound and light – initiation in a variety of different cults was something that these late antique aristocrats were happy to parade.

Hugh Bowden
256pp. Thames and Hudson. £28 (US $39.95).
978 0 500 25164 5

Mary Beard is the author of The Roman Triumph, published in 2007, and Pompeii: The life of a Roman town, 2008. Her most recent book, It’s a Don’s Life, a collection of her TLS blogs, appeared in 2009. She is Professor of Classics and Professorial Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, and the Classics editor of the TLS.

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