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Mystery Cults of the Ancient World Hardcover – April 4, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

This intriguing book offers the latest archaeological and textual information about some of the ancient world’s least-known, most compelling religions, most of which center on goddesses; for instance, Demeter, whose rites at Eleusis were attended by millions of initiates who kept the experience secret for hundreds of years, so that we still do not know exactly what happened in the “mysteries.” Two goddesses imported to Rome, Isis of Egypt and Cybele of Asia Minor, developed ecstatic cults among their converted followers. Among the male gods considered, the most significant is Dionysus, the wine god worshiped by the wild maenads, whose religion may have survived for almost a thousand years to crop up again in Pompeii. Bowden distinguishes these religions from others by noting that they are based in experience rather than in doctrine. Full of rarely published information but accessibly written, this is an excellent addition to the literature of ancient religions. --Patricia Monaghan


"Mystery Cults of the Ancient World is clearly written and richly illustrated, and gives a solid introduction to an extremely elusive phenomenon. . . . [I]t remains a reliable and accessible guide to the religions that gave 'mystery' its name."--Richard Smoley, Parabola Magazine

"Greek and Roman men and women by the thousands, even millions, chose to be initiated into religious cults amid strict vows of secrecy; remarkably, not a single voice from antiquity has ever spilled the beans. Despite centuries of scholarly probing, the exact words, visions, benefits, or promises revealed during these closely guarded rituals remain unknown. This important book presents a sensible, convincing account of what these occasions may have offered their participants; how they related to mainstream, public traditions; and what the mysteries likely entailed. . . . Well-organized by cult types, splendidly illustrated, and jargon-free, the book deserves a wide readership."--Choice

"This book should be on the bookshelf of every thinking pagan, from the most scholarly reconstructionist to the most insouciant eclectic. What we need to know--and what it abundantly reveals--is why mystery cults were (and still are) important. . . . [A]s a guide to pre-Christian classical Paganism, this book is unsurpassed."--Barbara Ardinger, Witches and Pagans Magazine

"Students and generalist readers, as well as classicists looking for basic information on mystery cults, will find much useful information here. . . . [T]his is an eminently readable, enlightening overview of a fascinating topic and will become the go-to generalist resource . . . on ancient mystery cults."--Bronwen L. Wickkiser, American Journal of Archaeology

"Mystery Cults of the Ancient World is clearly written and highly accessible both to scholars and interested general readers alike. . . . Bowden's multi-discipline approach to studying the value of these cults in people's lives, rather than an attempt to piece together a list of rituals or practices from scattered sources, is refreshing."--Carey Fleiner, Canadian Journal of History

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691146381
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691146386
  • Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 7.6 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #771,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at King's College London, where I have taught for over twenty years. I have always been interested in the religious practices of ancient societies, and this is a subject I have explored in two books, 'Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle' (2005) and 'Mystery Cults of the Ancient World' (2010). I think that world events in the last few years have shown that understanding the nature of religion, its origins and its forms is vital for making sense of both the past and the present. My current research is concerned with the religious activities of one of the most interesting figures in the ancient world, Alexander the Great. I am married with two children, and live in London, a city I love.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Captain Texas on February 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Dr. Bowden's book covers several mystery cults from the Greco-Roman era. Although this book certainly rounds up the existing rather scanty material on these cults, it does not give a good sense of how these rites fit into people's lives. Frequently it was not clear to me whether it was men, women, or both who took part in them, poor or rich, married or unmarried. Nor was it easy to see how these cults fit in with the larger societies and religions around them. There are copious photos and maps, which help break up the dry test.

In his introduction, Bowden discusses two types of religious experience, the imagistic and the doctrinal. The imagistic experience involves infrequent, dramatic, ecstatic events, such as might occur at a voudun ceremony (my example, not his), where the doctrinal approach involves more regular, repetitive rituals, such as going to a synagogue or a mainstream christian church every week. He places mystery cults firmly in the former category. But he does not ever really expand on this overall theme. Instead he just presents a series of mystery cults and their practices, as far as they were known. (Eleusinian, the Great Gods of Samothrace, other assorted littler cults of Greece and Asia Minor and some minor independent practioners, the Magna Mater, Dionysius, Isis, and Mithras). In the last chapter he again refers briefly to these two types of religious experiences and discusses Pentecostal churches which practice snake-handling as modern day examples of a mystery cult.

The book's last paragraph is a quote from a journalist reporting on his experience in a snake-handling church. And with that quote Dr. Bowden comes closer to capturing a sense of the actual people who participated in these cults than he does in the whole rest of the book.
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63 of 83 people found the following review helpful By G. Beke on December 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Warning: This book seriously misrepresents aspects of the Mystery cults it claims to elucidate.

Pg. 47-48: "There is also the importance of Persephone at Eleusis. She is Queen of the Underworld... We have already seen in the Introduction that the references to a happy afterlife do not imply that the Eleusinian Mysteries were explicitly concerned with the afterlife... We can also see that the Queen of the Underworld had little to do with the Mysteries either."

WHAT...!!?? The Queen of the Underworld, abducted by Hades (Death), had little to do with the afterlife or the Eleusinian Mysteries...??? Please read the 'Homeric Hymn to Demeter' for yourself, and explore the amazing iconography on the 4-foot tall vase in the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Pg. 161: "Isis was at times accompanied not by Osiris but by the god Sarapis. Scholars debate the origins of Sarapis, whose name is derived from Apis, a god who took the form of a bull..."

HUHHH...?!!! The name Serapis comes from Osir-Apis, with Osiris, the Egyptian king of the dead (equivalent to the Greek Hades), incarnating as the oracular bull Apis. Serapis was the Greek amalgam of Osiris and Hades, and his 3-headed dog Cerberus also guarded the gate to the afterlife, as shown on coins of the Roman emperors Trajan, Hadrian (see 'customer images'), Caracalla, etc. In other words, Serapis = Osiris = Hades (Pluto).

The hero Heracles was said to have been initiated at Eleusis before his trip to the underworld to bring back the 3-headed hellhound Cerberus. Why would Heracles need the Eleusinian Mysteries for his trip to the world beyond unless they were "explicitly concerned with the afterlife?
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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.
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