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7 Greco-Roman Mystery Cults You Should Know

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The ancient Greco-Roman mystery religions were a group of secret cults that worshiped lesser-known gods outside the official pantheons. Because members were banned from discussing their beliefs and practices with outsiders, details of their activities are now scarce, but scholars speculate that initiates were given some form of secret knowledge, handled sacred objects, and acted out sacred stories to gain favor with their deity and to secure a better afterlife.

While participation in these cults is believed to have ended with the rise of Christianity, their influence is still evident in society’s widespread fascination with secret societies and the occult. Here are seven of the most influential Greco-Roman Mysteries and some of what little we know about them.

1. CULT OF CYBELE

Cybele, or Magna Mater, came to Greece around the 5th century BCE from the ancient Indo-European people known as the Phrygians. She was believed to reside on mountaintops where, accompanied by lions, she ruled over the natural world. She is often depicted—as she is above—holding a primitive tambourine, which is fitting, since rituals associated with her included loud, percussive music and frenzied dancing. Worshippers of Cybele also participated in the taurobolium, a ritual bull slaughter that according to one (admittedly hostile) late Roman account involved initiates positioning themselves below the bull and showering in its blood.

The cult of Attis was a later addition to the Cybele mythos. Attis was a mortal who spurned Cybele’s romantic advances and was punished with madness, causing him to cut off his own testicles and die. Eventually, Cybele had a change of heart and petitioned Zeus to allow Attis to be resurrected. As a result, all priests of Cybele during this era performed the same cutting, often publicly, in hopes of being reborn one day themselves.

2. CULT OF SABAZIOS

A watercolor of the deity Sabazios by Zardulu.
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The cult of Sabazios originated with the Phrygians and Thracians of Eastern Europe but was known in Greece by the 5th century BCE. Sabazios is depicted as a nomadic horseman, often battling a serpent. Like many of the gods worshiped by mystery cults, there are no surviving myths related to him—only a brief historical reference saying that his initiates practiced ritual serpent handling. There are also several somewhat mysterious examples of metal sculptures called "hands of Sabazios," which have symbolic items decorating the palm and fingertips, such as snakes, frogs, lizards, human figures, pinecones, and lightning bolts.

3. ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES

A watercolor of Persephone and Demeter by Zardulu.
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The Eleusinian mysteries were the longest-running and most popular of the mystery cults. They were devoted to the worship of the goddess Demeter, who was believed to have given agriculture to humans, bringing them into civilized existence. The most prominent myth associated with Demeter is the kidnapping of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades. Demeter's search eventually brought her to the ancient Greek city of Eleusis, and to the underworld. It was said that during this time her failure to attend to the crops caused the fall season, but when she emerged with Persephone she was able to attend to the crops again, ushering in the spring.

Though details are scarce, it is believed that this myth was acted out in ceremonies at Eleusis, with the symbolic harvesting of grain being a focal element. Some suspect this was done while initiates were under the influence of hallucinogens. The Eleusinian mysteries were abolished by the 4th century CE by the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great.

A cult also developed around Despoina, the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon, said to have been conceived while both parents were in the form of horses. This has led some to believe she was the vestige of an ancient equine goddess. The details of her worship are unknown, and even her name is not exactly accurate—her true name was only told to initiates, none of whom ever repeated it.

4. MITHRAISM

A watercolor of Mithras by Zardulu.
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Mithras is perhaps best known for being worshipped by the Roman army as the protector of the empire, but his origins can be traced to the earlier Persian god Mithra, and he is probably related to the Hindu god Mitra. There are no surviving myths about Mithras, whose cult was established in the Roman world by the 1st century CE, and everything we know comes from images in underground temple-caves called mithraeum. These images generally depict the god stabbing a bull in the neck and meeting the sun, with the two of them dining on the bull together. Occasionally, a scorpion is depicted stinging the bull's testicles as a dog licks the bull's blood.

5. CULT OF ISIS

A watercolor of Isis by Zardulu.
Zardulu

Isis is a goddess of Egyptian origin who developed a wide following in Greece and Rome after about 300 BCE. She had prominent temples, a dedicated priesthood, and devoted followers. She was believed to influence fertility and agriculture, but as her worship spread to new areas, this changed to fit the needs of her followers. Her most well-known myth deals with the death of her husband, Osiris, and her efforts to resurrect him. This myth was ritualistically acted out by initiates of her cult, who shaved their heads, wore linen uniforms, and played Egyptian percussion instruments called sistrums.

Closely related to the cult of Isis was that of Serapis. A lover of Isis, he was equal parts Greek and Egyptian, and is thought to have been introduced as a way to unify the two cultures. Harpokrates, the son of Isis and Serapis, is often depicted holding his finger over his lips—as if to remind their initiates not to reveal their secrets.

6. CABEIRI MYSTERIES

A watercolor of Axiocersu and Cadmilus, part of the Cabeiri Mysteries, by Zardulu.
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The Cabeiri were a group of gods worshiped primarily on the Greek islands, most prominently on Samothrace and Lemnos, as well as elsewhere in Greece and Asia Minor. They were most commonly depicted as Axiocersu and his son Cadmilus, although sometimes depictions included two females, Axierus and Axiocersa. Popular with seamen, initiation into their mysteries promised safety from the misfortunes of the sea, and their worshippers also engaged in purification and fertility rituals. Their secrets were well-guarded, so little else is known about them and their followers.

7. DIONYSIAN MYSTERIES

A watercolor depicting the deities of the Dionysian Mysteries by Zardulu
Zardulu

Dionysus, the god of wine, represented the primitive nature of humans, which his followers believed was accessible through wine's ability to lower inhibitions. He was also believed to have power over death, as a result of being torn to pieces by titans and then resurrected by his father, Zeus. Like the other mysteries, a great deal about his worship remains unknown, but some aspects were practiced publicly—frenzied, drunken orgies, the playing of instruments called bullroarers, and the sacrifice of animals using a double-headed axe followed by the drinking of their blood mixed with wine. In art, Dionysus is often depicted in a procession of satyrs and women wearing animal skins, with ivy wrapped around their brows and holding staffs with pinecones on top.

The Dionysian mysteries eventually evolved into the Orphic mysteries, which were established by about the 5th century BCE. These cults dealt with the worship of Orpheus, a legendary musician who was said to have established the Dionysian mysteries. The Orphics, as they are called, lived an ascetic lifestyle, leaving behind the decadent practices of their predecessors. They believed that humans were divine, created from the ashes of the titans who murdered Dionysus. Unfortunately, they also inherited the titan’s sins, for which they had to atone. Some of their rituals included the actual or symbolic dismembering of a person representing Dionysus, who was then understood to be reborn.

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History
Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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iStock

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
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Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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