Ancient Mystery Cults – Pagan Doctrines of Salvation

“A bitter struggle had to be fought before the Greek-Roman world at last accepted Jesus instead of Isis.”[iii

Both the origins and the essence of the ancient Mystery religions are clouded in darkness. They existed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria and ancient Greece. They influenced the younger Jewish traditions, such as the Kabbalah and the Gnostic Christians. It has been suggested, and with good reason, that even Christianity itself started out as a Mystery religion, still wearing essential outer features associated with the Mysteries.

The same cultural areas were also promoters of the ancient rite of the Sacred Marriage – mostly taking form of the king marrying the Great Goddess, legitimating his rule by becoming the consort of the High Queen of the Heavens. This rite reached far outside of the Classical world. Even as early as the Bronze Age, the Sacred Marriage ritual was well established in the Celtic and Scandinavian cultures, as well as other ideas and symbols. In the Mystery cults, Sacred Marriage became a purely spiritual experience available to all individuals – it was the union of the individual soul with the All-Soul. Since the idea of Sacred Marriage spread so far from its place of origin: Is it not possible that the essential idea of Mystery rites may also have reached outside of the borders of Classical Civilization?

 The Merciful Saviouress:

Oldest Mysteries of the Ancient World 

Oh, All-Nature, Queen, Mother of all things, untiring Mother, exalted,
creating, She who tames all, Unmentionable, shining, the first born who quenches everything, who brings the Light….
Born of yourself, present everywhere and all-knowing…
You Blessed One, who makes things grow and rot – Father and Mother of all things, Universal Worker, you who walk forth in an endless maelstrom, conserving, you who uphold yourself through repeated metamorphosis
I pray to you – give me peace.
Orphic poem[i]

Clay tablets from ancient Sumer – what came to be known as Mesopotamia, one of the oldest known great civilizations in the world – hinted at Mysteries: Nisaba, the goddess of wisdom, teaching and writing, “was established” wherever mankind was present – and “the wise taught the mystery to the wise.”

In the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus attended the Mysteries of “the one who must not be mentioned” in Egypt, by a lake, together with other initiates. The Egyptian Mysteries had to do with the re-enactment of “his sufferings”, but more than that, Herodotus would not reveal. Plutarch, who was a mystery initiate, mentioned an inscription above the temple of Neith (the goddess of existence), saying: “I am everything there is, everything that has ever been, and everything there ever will be. No mortal has ever seen beyond my veil.”

It is in Greece that we have the amplest documentation of the oldest Mystery Cults – and it is Greek that has offered the term Mystery – from mysteria, which translates “to initiate”. Initiation was at the heart and center of the Mysteries. The concept of Mysteries had its origin in Eleusis, an ancient cultic center of goddess-worship.

Worship of the Holy Mother and Daughter was firmly established at Eleusis far back into prehistory. The two goddesses, Demeter and Kore, were of old European origin, and were represented by anthropomorphic and animal figures. Demeter in particular is associated with mares, sows and serpents. Occasionally she is depicted as driving a wagon drawn by a serpent – an interesting image to us since the Scandinavian Bronze Age offers identical depictions of goddesses. Serpents were closely associated to goddess-worship in all regions of the Ancient world.

Among plants, the goddess Demeter was particularly associated with grains, mushrooms and poppy, and is thus associated with the Cretan Poppy-Goddess, whose cult included the production and use of opium. A type of hallucinogenic mushroom was also connected to Demeter, as well as the so-called “Horn of Plenty”, a symbol of the goddess reaching back into the Paleolithic. The sacred drinking horn is a prominent feature in Old Norse art and poetry, always carried by a woman.

We know very little of the early rites in Eleusis, but when the city-state of Athens took control of the site, the celebrations of the Mother and Daughter in Eleusis became famously known as “the Mysteries” because of the great central ritual of initiation that took place during them.

When reading about goddesses in the ancient world one often gets the impression that they belonged to the cult of the home and the hearth, the marriage bed and other things particular to women. This is simply not true. All over the Pagan world, goddesses belonged to the great public cults. Even patriarchal societies like Greece acknowledged the power of feminine deities and honored their celebration at the expense of the state.  The state of Athens economically supported a large and well-organized priesthood consisting of both male and female priests of the goddess. The festival of the Holy Mother and Daughter lasted for nine days every year and included large processions, sacrifices, traditional ceremonies and public re-enactment – Mystery-plays – based on the mythologies of the goddesses. Thousands of people all over the area would attend, and even travel far to do so. The celebration of Kore´s resurrection from death through her mother´s efforts was among the most important in Greece and Eleusis remained a great cultic center even into the Middle Ages.

At the center of this great celebration was the actual initiation ceremony that took place at night. Everybody who wished to – men and women of all classes, even slaves and foreigners – could participate in the initiations. The initiates only had to be able to speak intelligible and have a clean record. Two thousand people were initiated every year at Eleusis for more than two thousand years. Thus it is remarkable how all these thousands of people, throughout thousands of years, managed to keep the promise of secrecy to the extent that no one may know exactly what these rituals were really about.

We may only deduce the essence of the secret rituals from parables and hints by ancient authors. The initiation certainly had to do with the journey into another world, a journey whose purpose it was to renew the life of the initiate and make his or her soul immortal.

In the eight century B.C we find the first proofs that this “rebirth” or “resurrection” of the soul of the initiate had become the major aim of the Mysteries at Eleusis. The cult now included a doctrine of salvation where the initiate could look forward to a bright existence after death. The ceremonies were soon divided into the lesser and the greater Mysteries.

The lesser Mysteries involved purification-rites and preparation-rites. The Great Mysteries had to do with the final initiation that took place in the midst of the great annual celebrations.

In the fifth century B.C the Mysteries of Eleusis expanded. A third ceremony was introduced, offering initiation into the highest and deepest of all the Mysteries. The old Mystery cult of Dionysos, which had only been open to female initiates, was absorbed into the cult of Demeter, and Eleusis was strongly influenced by the so-called Orphic Doctrine.

The Orphic Doctrine essentially meant the belief that all gods and goddesses are forms of the Supreme Spirit, the Universal Life, the Ultimate Being. Essentially, this pantheistic philosophy claimed that all individual souls are temporary, separated parts of the original Universal Soul.

The holy trinity of Demeter, Kore and Dionysos are, according to the Orphic Doctrine, only mythological expressions of the Universal Soul, the Ultimate Being. Whether this doctrine had its origin in what was being taught during the initiation, or whether it was an entirely new idea, it spread and became known to be the basic philosophy behind all Mystery cults in the ancient world. However, the idea might be very ancient indeed – it is the basic philosophy behind Old Indian thought as revealed in the Vedas, and may thus have its origin in an Indo-European past reaching back thousands of years.

Each cult would respect the others because each cult knew that it only worshipped a certain image of the actual Ultimate Being.

A Bloom of Mystery Cults

 “You shall live blessed in this world, you shall live in honor through my guidance and my protection, and when, after your given life-span, you descend into the Underworld, you shall see me there, shining.”
(The Speech of Great Goddess Isis to her initiate, Metamorphosis. XI.6)

 The Mysteries at Eleusis reached back into pre-history and kept strong until invading (Christian) Goths destroyed the temple in 395 A.D. It was probably the largest and most enduring of all the Mystery cults. But in Classical times, a number of other Mystery cults bloomed, all carrying the same essential doctrine of the resurrection of the soul and the great Unity behind all souls and all gods. Among the strongest cults in the late Roman Empire was the cult of Isis and Osiris.

The Greeks and the Romans drew both from their own old mythologies as well as foreign ones. The Mysteries of Greek Demeter, Hecate, Apollo, Orpheus and Dionysus flourished side by side with the imported cults of Isis, Cybele, Mithras and other Asian and African deities. Whether these foreign cults were “proper” Mystery cults before they were imported to Greece, we do not know for sure. There are many signs that the cult of Isis, for example, was greatly influenced by the Mysteries of Eleusis.[ii] But, as we have mentioned before, there are some indications that African and Asian Mysteries already existed and may as ancient as the European ones – if not more so.

Thanks to one Apuleius, we know quite a bit about the procedures of the Mysteries of Isis during the Roman period. This ancient African goddess has her roots in Ethiopia and Egypt, where she seems to have played the role of the resurrecting goddess who brought the dead Osiris back to life. The Mysteries by the lake in Egypt that Herodotus mentioned may very well have been about Osiris´s sufferings – being parted into small bits and thrown all over the Nile – before the Great Goddess Isis restored his body – except his genitals – and thus conquered Seth, the God of Death. Isis made love to Osiris during his stay in the Underworld, without the help of Osiris´s male parts, and then gave birth to Horus, the first “virgin” birth known of. Isis was often depicted with the holy child in her lap, much like the later Virgin Mary.

Apuleius, an initiate of Isis and Osiris, described his experiences in a novel known as “The Golden Ass”, or “Metamorphosis”, in the second century A.D. In the novel, the hero Lucius is sadly transformed into an ass, and in the shape of this unlucky, unblessed beast he suffers the most outrageous and demeaning humiliation among the worst of people. One night Lucius, overcome by desperation, runs to the beach and drenches himself in the ocean seven times while praying to the Great Goddess.

The goddess reveals her “real face” to Lucius and tells him how he will, through her love, be returned to his true human shape, if only he has faith in her. This is of course symbolic: Apuleius indicates that before initiation, we do not have a true human shape, but are like beast at the mercy of our surroundings.

In a dramatic speech, the Goddess declares Herself to be the One behind everything else, ruler of the three spheres – Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. She is the real Being behind all other deities, even if the people worships Her under different names. She is the one who leads the initiate through the Underworld and resurrects his soul and gives him life anew, just as She gathered the scattered pieces of her brother and husband Osiris and restored him back to life. She is the ruler of the Universe, Mother of the stars, Mother of all Life, Mistress of the elements. She is the first child of Time, the Supreme God, Queen of the Underworld, the first among heavenly creatures, the unifying manifestation of all gods and goddesses. She is the ruler of life and death, and She offers to her worshippers a shining alternative to the misty and hapless existence of the Afterlife. In fact, She is the Savioress, the healing and loving goddess who taught her worshippers about forgiveness, inner peace and penitence for sins. She will reveal herself through dreams that let the initiate know his destiny.

The initiates, Apuleius explains, may only be initiated after a priest or a priestess receives dreams that allow for it. Yet the Isis Mysteries were also part of an important official and public cult with large festivals and processions. The cult or religion had its established priesthood of initiates who attended various ceremonies in the temples. The temples of Isis were open to everybody, also the uninitiated, who could come for prayer and healing. Yet only the initiates knew about the deeper religious revelations, and only they could receive the merciful salvation or blessed existence after death. The initiations, according to Apuleius, consisted of a voluntary death in which the Goddess through Her love brought the initiate back to life. After such an experience, the soul could look forward to a blessed existence after death.

Isis as Creator and Savior made her the hardest competition to Christianity towards the end of the Pagan era. By then she was the mot popular deity of all, offering her worshippers salvation, healing miracles and a deep religious experience of unity with the divine. When Bishop Cyril argued his successful doctrine of Virgin Mary at Ephesus, 431 A.D., he was struggling hard against the faith in Isis and the popular Gnostic belief that Mary and Isis shared the same basic characteristics – and that they were ultimately the same. As R.E. Witts describes it:

“A bitter struggle had to be fought before the Greek-Roman world at last accepted Jesus instead of Isis.”[iii]

 The Mystery Experience

 “I came out of the Mystery hall and felt like a stranger to myself.”
 (Initiate at Eleusis)

The Mysteries are not the same as the Mysticism we see in Mystic traditions such as Yoga and Tantra in India. There, Mysticism is about transformation of consciousness through solitary meditation and asceticism. It does not appear that the Mysteries used this kind of technique – although it must be said that, because of the strict secrecy, we do not know what kind of techniques were used at all. Whatever techniques were used, the deep personal experience did not happen in solitude – the initiations were major collective events. Just like with Christianity, their aim seems to have been the certainty of love and closeness to the Supreme Deity and Salvation through that Deity´s mercy. Christianity, in fact, seems to have developed this essential idea from the far older Mysteries –  it is rather plausible that Christianity itself began as a Jewish Mystery cult.[iv]

Yet whereas Christianity has left out – or forgotten – the secret “higher” Mysteries, we know that the Pagan cults performed rites of initiation that seemed to have given the initiate a revolutionary sense of revelation and unity with the divine that made him or her feel transformed and reborn. 

Secrecy was at the heart of all the Mysteries. To reveal the experience to the uninitiated would result in capital punishment – by the state. The result is that we probably know less about the real contents of the Mysteries even than the uninitiated did during the long era when Mysteries flourished. Yet we may form some opinion of what the initiation was about from what the initiated themselves let on.

First of all, the concept of seeing light in the darkness of death was a major theme. As Apuleius wrote in his Metamorphosis:

“I approached the borders of death, I put my foot on the doorsteps of Persephone[1], I traveled through all the elements and returned, I saw the sun by midnight, shining in a white light, I came close to the gods of the higher and lower regions, and worshipped them in their closeness.”

The philosopher Pluthark described the experience of dying and compared the experience of the soul at death with the experiences of the initiates during a Mystery initiation: The soul wanders around in tiring circles, on scary roads through absolute darkness that lead nowhere; and then, just before the final end to all cruelties the soul experiences panic, perspiration and trembling. Then a wonderful light approaches the soul, it is met by clean spheres and fields that welcomes the soul with sacred words and sacred sights, and there the initiate will, now in its most perfect form, free of bondage, wander about, crowned with laurel, celebrating great festivals with others of sacred, pure souls. After such an experience, Pluthark concludes, the initiate will look at the uninitiated with new eyes and see all their impurity.

The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius described the Mystery initiations as one of three ways to be certain about the existence of the gods. The two other ways are through dreams and miraculous healing.

It is obvious that the Mysteries were meant to create a strong, personal religious experience of death and resurrection and closeness to the divine – an experience that would change ones life and approach to life forever.

The Goddess as Savior and Gender in General

“Both the keys to the gates of the Underworld, as well as the guarantee of Salvation were in the hands of the Goddess; The Initiation itself was like a voluntary death and a gracious salvation…”
(Met. XI, 2)

It is notable that the most ancient, enduring and popular Mystery cults were cults of the Great Goddess in one shape or another. Indeed, Demeter, Isis and Cybele reigned as major goddesses of salvation throughout the whole of the Pagan era, and their popularity was enormous. Even Christianity eventually had to accept the idea of a “Mother of God.” The idea of the Great Goddess of the whole Universe, such as described by Apuleius above, was widely common. Thus it becomes obvious that hierarchic and patriarchal societies were fully capable of celebrating the ideas of a Sovereign Female. Goddess worship – even a belief in a Great Goddess as the Supreme Being, does not necessarily mean that women hold a strong position in society. We only have to look to India today to see proof of that. 

Goddess-worship is, however, the oldest kind of worship, reaching back into a time when women most certainly held strong positions.  Anthropomorphic goddesses were depicted as far back as forty thousand years ago, already then holding the Horn of Plenty. Paleolithic goddesses had pointed sticks instead of feet, used for sticking the idols into the ground, often in circles and often in association with burials or hunting-rites. They were closely connected to the depiction of animals.

Neolithic goddesses resemble their Ice Age predecessors, but are depicted more fully connected with a symbolic system that was common all over Europe. Erroneously, they are often described as “fertility idols”. Their association with death, however, and all other aspects of existence, is as strong as their association with “fertility”. To call these idols “vegetation deities” and “fertility goddesses” is to limit our understanding of them. The goddesses and their symbols are associated with shape changing, with all the various forces of the world, with birth and creation on various levels and, particularly, with death. The goddesses, if we may not talk about the Goddess in her many shapes, were the major deities of Europe for countless millennia. Depictions of male figures take up less than four per cent of the collected anthropomorphic material. The female body was in focus, perhaps bearing a shape that was considered magical, protective and renewing.

All primitive societies have had some kind of initiation ritual in which a symbolic death features. The deities presiding over the rituals are always the major deities of death. In the Stone Age, both the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, it seems safe indeed to say that the major deity of death was the goddesses, or the Goddess. Any initiation must have involved the presence of the Mistress of the Underworld in one shape or another. And alas! As soon as writing started to accompany the imagery, it becomes clear that  goddess figurines, particularly naked ones, are most closely associated with both male and female initiation.[v]

Thus the Great Goddess as Resurrector may be an ancient idea indeed. Perhaps this is why all the older Mystery cults placed the Great Goddess first, even in later times when male gods and negative views on females had become generally popular – the Mysteries were, after all, initiation cults, with their most ancient roots in the cult of the Holy Mother and Daughter.

The Mysteries are perhaps notable for their general lack of sexual discrimination among the initiates. The cult of Demeter was open for everybody and seems to have had a quite even membership. The later cult of Isis was more dominated by male priests. But there was no essential difference between the initiates based on gender.

There were exceptions to this in certain cults. The old, ecstatic cult of Dionysus was only open to women, whereas the cult of Cybele seems to have been dominated by eunuchs, men literally having offered their manhood to the Goddess. The younger warrior cult of Mithras, with its origin in Iran, was only open to men.


 Article by Maria Kvilhaug

[1] Persephone is identical with Kore, who has become the Goddess of the Underworld

[i] D`Alviella, 1981, p. 81

[ii] Meyer, p. 179-181, Burkert, 1987, p. 2-3, 6, Witt, 1971, p. 23, 111-129, Griffiths, 1975, p. 20-47, 51-55

[iii] Witt, 1971, s. 185

[iv] Jesus Mysteries, Jesus and the Goddess

[v] Marinatos, 2000, p. 32-44, 59-66

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