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Mystery Cults in the Ancient World

Hugh Bowden

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A landmark study of ancient Greek and Roman cults, from the nocturnal mysteries at Eleusis to the cults of Dionysus and Mithras


Mystery cults are one of the most intriguing areas of Greek and Roman religion. In the nocturnal mysteries at Eleusis, participants dramatically re-enacted the story of Demeter's loss and recovery of her daughter Persephone; in Bacchic cult, bands of women ran wild in the Greek countryside to honour Dionysus; in the mysteries of Mithras, men came to understand the nature of the universe and their place within it through frightening initiation ceremonies and astrological teachings.

These cults were an important part of life in the ancient Mediterranean world, but their actual practices were shrouded in secrecy, and much of what they were about has remained unclear until now. The earliest modern works on mystery cults emphasized their perceived relationship with Christianity, as both were concerned with hopes for the afterlife. More recent work has tended to follow this interest in doctrines rather than practices. But it is what participants did, and what they actually experienced, that should be central to our understanding.

This is the first book to describe and explain all the major mystery cults of the ancient world, cult by cult, reconstructing the rituals and exploring their origins. It makes plentiful use of artistic and archaeological evidence, as well as ancient literature and epigraphy. Greek painted pottery, Roman frescoes, inscribed gold tablets from Greek and South Italian tombs and the excavated sites of ancient religious sanctuaries all contribute to our understanding of ancient mystery cults. Making use of the most recent work on these cults, the book is also informed by crucial current work on the anthropology and cognitive science of religion.

Richly illustrated and clearly written, it is a significant contribution to the study of these cults, but it is also accessible to a general readership. More than any other book on ancient religion, it allows the reader to understand what it was like to participate in these life-transforming religious events.

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'A wonderful revelation. Piece by archaeological and textual piece, Bowden jigsaw-puzzles together the heady, high-octane, highly charged world of mystery ritual in Greece and Rome'
Bettany Hughes

'Bowden debunks an impressive number of myths about ancient mystery religions'
Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement

'As clear and well-informed an account as one could imagine. In a highly accessible way Hugh Bowden puts together the literary and material evidence. Well-paced and an attractive read'
Robin Osborne, Professor of Ancient History, University of Cambridge

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 25.5 x 18.3 cm

Extent: 256 pp

Illustrations: 189

Publication date: 12 April 2010

ISBN: 9780500251645

Contents List

1. The Eleusinian Mysteries • 2. The Mysteries of the Kabeiroi and the Great Gods of Samothrace • 3. Other Mystery Sanctuaries in the Greek World • 4. The Mother of the Gods • 5. Dionysus • 6. Private Initiation 7. Words Written on Gold • 8. Isis • 9. Mithras • 10. End of the Mysteries

About the Author

Hugh Bowden is Senior Lecture in Ancient History at King’s College London.Among his other books are Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: Divination and Democracy and Herakles and Hercules>/i>.