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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 Like many of the gods worshiped by mystery cults, there are no surviving myths related to him—only a brief historical reference saying that his initiates practiced ritual serpent handling.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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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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