Mystery cults are one of the most fascinating and yet generally misunderstood aspects of pagan religion. While the ancient mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world are the most well-known and studied examples of mystery cults, there are in fact many cultures that participate in the phenomenon. My research sought to define mystery cults as a cultural occurrence across time and space by examining mystery cults from two different cultures: the mystery cults of ancient Greece and Rome and the Kachina cult of the Pueblo Indians. In order to create a definition of mystery cults, common characteristics were established and then examined in primary and secondary sources. Ultimately, all mystery cults can be defined as an established organization of initiated members who share an esoteric knowledge, participate in private and public rituals, and develop a sense of identity by creating a personal connection and identification with the spiritual beings or deities being worshipped. These fundamental characteristics can be divided into three categories: structure and organization, ceremonies and beliefs, and social functions. Ultimately, I found that mystery cults are important culturally for several reasons: they provide entertainment, are a source of mutual support, and create a social and spiritual identity for both individuals and groups during a time of social crisis. My presentation will provide a broad overview of the fundamental characteristics of mystery cults, citing examples from both the ancient mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world and from the Kachina cult of the Pueblo Indians.
Melanie Dedecker, ’03 Larkspur, CO
Major: Classical Studies
Sponsor: John Gruber-Miller