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3.7 out of 5 stars
Mystery Cults of the Ancient World
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on December 28, 2012
Bowden's "Mystery Cults of the Ancient World" is comprehensive and well researched. He investigates what we know of the different mystery cults in Greek and Roman times and how they developed over time, from the hints left in literature as well as remains of temples and meeting places. The work is well laid out and contains many illustrations and photos.

Interestingly, at the end of the book he tries to provide a sense of the "feel" of the cults by comparing some modern "cults" like Pentecostals and snake handlers, where estatic states are invoked through rituals and euphoric meetings. Perhaps a little speculative, but this is a minor criticism to an otherwise excellent study about what we know of the pre-Christian and Christian-era mystery cults.
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on October 31, 2010
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on May 6, 2016
In the past decade, several books have come out that look at a variety of mystery cults. This one is aimed at a popular audience more than the others. However, I sometimes found it surprisingly difficult to grasp the overall picture from Bowden's detailed discussions—for example, when trying to picture the sequence of events in the Eleusinian mysteries. A slightly more academic book on the subject, Jan Bremmer's Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World, was actually more readable for me in that respect.

The major advantage of this book is that its coverage is broader than the others. Bremmer covers much but not all of the same ground as Bowden and discusses less of the cultural context, and Romanising Oriental Gods is limited to the three "oriental" mystery cults. Bowden dedicates a chapter each to the Eleusinian Mysteries; the Kabeiroi and the mysteries of Samothrace; other Greek mysteries; the cult of Cybele (Magna Mater); the Dionysian or Bacchic mysteries; private initiation rites; the Orphic tablets connected with the Bacchic mysteries; the cult of Isis; and the cult of Mithras. That may not include all of the mystery cults in the Mediterranean (for example, there's some evidence for mysteries in the worship of the Roman emperor), but it certainly covers most of them. The next-to-last chapter describes the extinction of all the mystery cults and the possible interaction between them and Christianity.

The conclusion discusses the religious ecstasy that mystery rites seem meant to induce, which the initiates interpreted as contact with the gods. He lists a lot of modern parallels to this phenomenon before settling, rather strangely, on Pentecostal snake handling as his prime example. Bowden considers this ecstatic state the most important element of the rites, and he downplays the importance of secrets and symbolism in the mysteries. He implies that the symbols had no single authoritative interpretation, imparted no secret knowledge, and were deliberately vague in their meaning. Though Bowden doesn't quite say so, he seems to think that each initiate interpreted the rites differently based on this vague symbolism. One can disagree with that viewpoint, but it does counterbalance the more imaginative attempts to interpret the symbolism in the cults—Mithraic studies are particularly plagued by this kind of elaborate speculation.

Bowden's aversion to speculation is partly why the book is drier than you'd expect. He's reluctant to give a straightforward description of the mysteries because it's hard to piece one together using the evidence we have. Despite that flaw, I recommend either this book or Bremmer's as a starting point for understanding the mystery cults.
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on December 15, 2010
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?"

And why would a book on the "Mystery Cults of the Ancient World" fail to mention that Heracles, the great hero and inspiration of the ancient world, was initiated in the Mysteries of Eleusis, a ritual that was open to ALL who spoke Greek over hundreds of years, and later to ALL citizens of the Roman Empire?

The answer to this puzzling question pops up on pg. 208:

"Christian rituals are referred to as 'mysteria' because, like everything else to do with Christianity, they were once secret, known only to God and hinted at by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, but later revealed to all through Jesus. Indeed, by revealing God's mysteries to all, Christ is doing the opposite of what would be expected from those involved in mystery cults."

There we have it. Bowden's Christian bias reveals his evangelical agenda (stripping the pagan Mysteries of any relevant spiritual value), which of course negates any possible claim to scholarly objectivity.

But still, nice pictures.
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on April 29, 2015
Lots of interesting information, but it lacks excitement. Moreover, in the penultimate Chapter it dismisses the possibility of the relationship between Christianity and mystery religions, but without providing much evidence or discussion. I found that aspect somewhat biased. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading for the its informative content.
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on February 21, 2011
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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HALL OF FAMEon June 15, 2010
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.
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Hugh Bowden is clearly an excellent researcher and historian and an acceptably good writer. While this tome fully merits its five-stars, it still failed to completely engage my interest. Part of this, I think, stems from the fact that "Mystery Cults" contains all the faults of an academic text: no matter how interesting the subject, the academic style of the presentation weighs it down. Section headings such as "How Important were Private Initiators?" may excite academics and students, but this history buff remained largely unmoved.

That said, the failure to fully engage my interest, is not a reflection on the worthiness of the book.

Like most people, I imagine, I had never given much thought to how religious practices developed. What little thought I gave to the subject presumed (falsely) that worship always assumed the form we see today as ritualized services or, perhaps better yet, as the frenetic sequences seen in Hollywood movies of a certain day where scantily clad young women danced to loud music before an animal or human was sacrificed.

Bowden dispels this misconception quickly with his explanation of imagistic religious experiences versus the doctrinal mode that developed later.

One of the reasons the subject activities are referred to as "mystery cults" is because they were intended to be mysteries to the uninitiated at the time, secret eligions if you will. As a result, the historical record is sparse and it is here, in putting together clues, that Bowden achieves stellar height. I just wish his style weren't so academic. It isn't dry as dust academic, but it is academic.

From bits and pieces, Bowden assembles portraits of the various cults, how people were indoctrinated and initiated, what they practiced and believe and their role in the larger community - often no more than a single town - around them.

It is all fascinating if presented in a manner too dry for my taste. The book is profusely and beautifully illustrated.

Overall, this is a excellent book about an obscure subject. I just wish the presentation weren't so pedestrian.

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