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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.
Zardulu

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 Like many of the gods worshiped by mystery cults, there are no surviving myths related to him—only a brief historical reference saying that his initiates practiced ritual serpent handling.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.
Zardulu

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.
Zardulu

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.
Zardulu

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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Food
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook
Amazon

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

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History
The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.

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