Mystery cults were a parallel across Greek and Roman society and were based upon many myths, including the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, myth of Dionysus and other Orphic Hymns. These mystery cults were centred around a belief that human beings have a soul and that belonging to a mystery cult can affect what will become of the soul after death. In essence, mystery cults promised initiates a better afterlife. With the terrifying myths associated with the realm of Hades and it’s divisions, citizens of ancient Greece had a great desire to better their afterlife and avoid going to Tartarus; the most horrifying level of the underworld. This paper will explore the mystery cults of Orpheus, Dionysus, Artemis and Demeter and will discuss their significance and popularity in the Graeco-Roman world.
Mystery cults or religions in these ancient societies involved the intertwining of myth and religion. Those belonging to mystery religions worshipped specific Greek deities, participated in an initiation of some sort and were said to have exclusive knowledge that was not available to the general public. Although mystery religions were exclusive organizations, individuals were not limited to joining only one, there was not a limit on the number of cults one could be initiated into. By being members of these mystery cults, individuals participated in rituals specific to the cult such as taurobolium or tauroctony; baptism by bulls blood and killing of a bull. Members were promised a superior afterlife over those who did not participate in the religions. This was essentially the draw toward being a member of a mystery cult, the enticing notion of a better life after death.
Orphic mystery religions are credited with being the first of many mystery cults present in ancient Greek and Roman societies. They held a strong belief in the transmigration of the soul. Orphic mysteries were based upon the Orphic Hymns. Orphism as a religion seemed to worship those who went to the underworld and returned, such as the man whom the religious cult takes it’s name from, Orpheus. In the myth of the Orpheus and Eurydice, as recounted by Ovid, Orpheus lost his wife to the bite of a snake. Orpheus made a great journey to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice. He could not resist the temptation to look back at her, defying the orders of the Hades, and Eurydice was again taken from him. Orpheus was not viewed as a god, but rather as a hero. He was one of the few who went to the underworld and returned.
Along with Orpheus, the god of wine Dionysus, was also worshipped under the Orphic mystery religions. Dionysus, like Orpheus, was one of the few spoken of in mythology that goes to the underwood and returns. It was not common to escape the realm of Hades. The god is said to have retrieved his mother from the underworld after she was killed, struck by the lighting bolt of Zeus.
Not many of the rituals involved in Orphic mystery cults are known today. Through interpretation of...