Mystery Cults of Secret Societies—The Inside Story

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B.Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Studying mystery cults has never been easy. There is not much evidence to depend on as far as the ancient world is concerned, but whatever is known about them can be quite intriguing. Secret societies were never like other civil societies.

This picture shows Eleusinian scenes on a hydria vessel.
Hydria by the Varrese Painter (340 B.C.) depicting Eleusinian scenes. Eleusinian mysteries had a lot of similarities with the more mystical Samothracian cult. (Image: Altes Museum/Public domain)

There was much secrecy in the ancient world and almost all the written documents concerning the mystery cults were lost. All that is left are pieces of information around which the ancient civilizations have been reconstructed. Much of the popular perception of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations has come from Hollywood and not from any scholarly findings or writings. But it has become quite clear that the mysteries were entirely different from the actual civic life of Greece.

In ancient Greece, people were officially expected to worship the emperor. But that was not the case with mystery cults. They offered fellowship and mystical experience that was personal to everyone. They even went to the extent of making people have direct contact with the divine. Redemption, salvation, and immortality were what mystery cults sought. 

The image shows a small group of people listening to a reading.
The first mural fresco depicting the reading of the rituals of the bridal mysteries. (Image: Pompejanischer Maler um 60 v. Chr./Public domain)

The Greeks found that mystery cults had roots in Egypt and had originated there. However, this has not been established although there may be some truth in it. Modern researchers have associated mystery cults with the likes of the sinister brotherhood which was introduced and expanded by Babylonian King Nimrod or even an Indo-European proto religion. But no one has been able to prove their origins with any kind of evidence. As per William Cooper, the late American conspiracy theorist, mystery cults originated in a primitive secret society named the Dragon society or Brotherhood of the snake. But again, there is nothing to prove that.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What was Common in Various Mystery Cults?

However, these mystery cults did have some common features. Each one of them had a connection with seasonal movements like those of stars and planets and progressions like equinoxes and solstices. All of them practiced initiation ceremonies, which were tough and long most of the time. Initiation here means taking in, and the ceremonies meant taking someone into a select community. Furthermore, all communities took vows of secrecy which bound them together and protected them. These bonds between the communities were strengthened by individual group rituals, meals, dancing together, and—sometimes—by an orgy. There was a central myth or story to these mystery cults which invariably involved subjects of death and resurrection. It was part of the mystery as to whether this myth or story was to be taken precisely or symbolically. Some of these elements can be found, for example, in medieval passion plays. Much depended on the individual experience, but the ultimate goal was an individual’s spiritual awakening and unification with god.

Although mystery cults observed a lot of secrecy, some things are known. There used to be an internal hierarchy in these mysteries. The top-most person was hierophant or apostle, who was the revealer of holy things. Ordinary people who were initiated were called mystes. One of the rituals for initiation was taking sacred objects from a chest and putting them into a basket. Although this action seems foolish, its significance lay in what it symbolized. The uninitiated do not understand. The last revelation was simple but perplexing. It involved reaping an ear of grain in silence. This was ridiculed by Christian writers and called a proof of the foolishness of the cult. They wondered why one should go through all this just for an ear of grain. But it meant a lot in the context of initiation.

As initiating a person in multiple mysteries was a common practice, cults had an inevitable influencing effect on each other, in the same way as a person belonging to the Elks, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows. For example, Eleusinian mysteries had a lot of similarities with the more mystical Samothracian cult. This cult, based on the small island of Aegean in Samothrace, revered what they called “the great gods”, with their names known only to the initiated. The center was held by a Demeter-like great mother, who was attended by two junior male deities. Rituals were held both outdoors and indoors with sacred objects in place. One of the premises is that Samothracian mysteries disguised a cult which was devoted to the strange goddess Hecate. Apart from other things, she practiced witchcraft and European witches would revere her as their deity. In the Shakespeare play Macbeth, Hecate who was invoked by the three sisters at the beginning of the play.

Learn more about the secret societies behind the Boston Tea Party and Bastille Day.

The Pythagorean Brotherhood

This fresco depicts Pythagoras writing a book with people around him watching.
In this fresco named The School of Athens by Raphael, Pythagoras can be seen writing a book while a young man presents him with a tablet. (Image: Raphael/Public domain)

In the study of geometry or trigonometry, the Pythagoras theorem is well known. However, Pythagoras also founded a secret society that was based on reincarnation, vegetarianism, the immortality of the soul, and, of course, mathematics. Around 500 B.C., the Pythagorean Brotherhood came up in southern Italy. Although called a brotherhood, sometimes it initiated women too. The first three centuries of the A.D. era was the period when mystery cults bloomed most. And this was also the period when the Roman empire had its heydays. But this was no coincidence. As Rome brought most of the Mediterranean and Near East under its control, it acted as a melting pot for different religions, people, and ideas. And one of the mystery cults which was most popular in Rome was devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Like other secret societies, mystery cults were not equal. Some were preferred by the poor and downtrodden while others by the rich and affluent. But it can be concluded that mystery cults were not crazy societies who just indulged in wild sex and lust for blood. They also handled the mysteries of life and death in some way, and they provided fellowship and exclusivity. And, to top it all, how the brotherhood and sisterhood kept their vows of secrecy is truly amazing.

Learn more about the Knights Templar.

Common Questions About Mystery Cults

Q: Where did the mystery cults originate?

The Greeks found that mystery cults had roots in Egypt and had originated there. However, this has not been established, although there may be some truth in it. Modern researchers have associated mystery cults with the likes of the sinister brotherhood which was introduced and expanded by Babylonian King Nimrod or even an Indo-European proto religion.

Q: What were the common features among all mystery cults?

Each one of them had a connection with seasonal movements like those of stars and planets and progressions like equinoxes and solstices. All of them practiced initiation ceremonies. And, above all, all communities took vows of secrecy which bound them together and protected them.

Q: How is Pythagoras connected to mystery cults?

Pythagoras founded a secret society that was based on reincarnation, vegetarianism, the immortality of the soul, and, of course, mathematics. Around 500 B.C., the Pythagorean Brotherhood came up in southern Italy.

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