31 Cults

The Imperial Cult

The idea of deification of the emperor came during the time of Emperor Augustus. He resisted the Senate’s attempts to name him a god during his reign as he thought himself the son of a god, not a god. Upon his death, the Roman Senate rewarded him with deification which was an honor that would be bestowed upon many of his successors. Often, an emperor would request his predecessor to be deified. Of course, there were a few exceptions, notably, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian, who were considered too abhorrent to receive the honor. Caligula and Nero believed themselves living gods while Domitian thought himself the reincarnation of Hercules.

As Imperial cult developed over time, the worshipper would receive a libellus, or certificate of proof that certified that the worshipper had sacrificed to the Roman Emperor (more affectionately known as the “Son of God”). As the proliferation of private religions began to spring up throughout the Roman Empire promising personal salvation in exchange for fidelity to the cult, proof of sacrifice developed as a way to identify Roman citizens whose allegiance were not with the Roman state. (76)

Private Cults

Private religious cults — or “Mystery Religions” as they have come to be called — that appeared throughout the Roman Empire were often imported from areas taken over by the Roman state. As “foreign religions’ they gained in popularity because they offered a religious experience that was personalized, unlike the religion promoted by the Roman state. Indeed, whereas the religion of the state promised only solidarity at the level of citizenship, mystery faiths thrived because they provided a sense of solidarity between likeminded believers. That they often addressed individualized matters such as forgiveness, salvation, and personal identification with the Divine made them even more attractive to persons living in the Roman Empire. (1)


The Mithraic Mysteries, also known as Mithraism, were a mystery cult in the Roman world where followers worshipped the Indo-Iranian deity Mithras (Akkadian for “contract”) as the god of friendship, contract and order. The cult first appeared in the late 1 st century CE and, at an extraordinary pace, spread from the Italian Peninsula and border regions across the whole of the Roman empire.

The cult, like many others, was a secret one. The most important element of the myth behind the Mithraic Mysteries was Mithras’ killing of a bull; this scene is also known as “tauroctony”. It was believed that from the death of the bull — an animal often seen as a symbol of strength and fertility — sprung new life. Rebirth was an essential idea in the myth of Mithraic Mysteries. The sacrifice of the bull established a new cosmic order and was also associated with the moon, which was also associated with fertility.

Marble relief illustrating the go Mithra slaying a bull. Stationed around Mithra are other beasts. A scorpion and dog are at the bottom of the relief while a snake intertwines around the bull.
Figure 6-3: Cult relief of the Mithraic Mysteries by Marcuc Cyron is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

What is special about the Mithraic Mysteries is its visuality. The sacrifice of the bull was depicted in a stone relief that had a central place in nearly every cult temple. In the relief, Mithras is often shown as he wrangles the bull to the ground and kills it. In a typical example, such as the celebrated sculpture from the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne, Mithras looks away from the dying bull, up to the moon. In addition, Mithras has a few helpers that assist him in taking the bull’s fertility: A dog and a snake drink from the bull’s blood, and a scorpion stings the bull’s scrotum. Also, a raven sits on the bull’s tail that typically ends in ears of grain. The raven could have played the role of a mediator between Mithras and the sun god Sol invictus, with whom Mithras will share the meat of the bull.

The bull sacrifice relief was typically placed at the end of the temple, which was essentially built like a stretched-out Roman dining room — an aisle flanked by two broad, raised benches. However, the sacrifice of the bull was rarely enacted by the worshippers themselves. Worshippers did imitate how Mithras shared the bull’s meat with Sol, as fragments of dishes and bones of animals that have been found in these temples testify. High-quality pork, chicken and a large quantity of wine were consumed in high-spirited cultic feasts that connected the worshippers to each other and to Mithras.

The Mithraic Mysteries were not just about fun and games, however. There were strict rules as to how the feasts were organised, for example, regarding hygiene. What is more, there were seven degrees of initiation, ranging from “corax” (raven) to “pater” (father), of which each had its own type of clothing. The other degrees were “nymphus” (bridegroom), “miles” (soldier), “leo” (lion), “perses” (Persian), and “heliodromus” (sun-runner). Each degree of initiation had a different task to fulfill, e.g. a “raven” had to carry the food, while the “lions” offered sacrifices to the “father”. Also, the initiates had to take part in tests of courage. The paintings in the temple of Mithras at Santa Maria Capua Vetere show us different scenes of this ritual.

A temple-cave dedicated to Mithras found in the German city of Saarbricken. At the entrance of a cave stand five columns through which a ritual procession might have walked.
Figure 6-4: Mithraeum in Saarbrucken by Anna16 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

An initiate, blindfolded and naked, is led to the ceremony by an assistant. Later, the initiate has to kneel before the “father”, who holds a torch or a sword in his face. Finally, he is stretched out on the floor, as if he had died. This probably was a ritual “suicide” in which the initiate was “killed” with a non-lethal theatre-sword, and was then reborn. (77)

Isis Cult

Isis is an ancient Egyptian goddess, associated with the earlier goddess Hathor, who became the most popular and enduring of all the Egyptian deities. Her name comes from the Egyptian Eset, (“the seat”) which referred to her stability and also the throne of Egypt as she was considered the mother of every pharaoh through the king’s association with Horus, Isis’ son. Her name has also been interpreted as Queen of the Throne, and her original headdress was the empty throne of her murdered husband Osiris. Her symbols are the scorpion (who kept her safe when she was in hiding), the kite (a kind of falcon whose shape she assumed in bringing her husband back to life), the empty throne, and the sistrum. She is regularly portrayed as the selfless, giving, mother, wife, and protectress, who places other’s interests and well-being ahead of her own.

Remains of a temple once dedicated to Isis. The onlooker today sees four marble columns on a raised platform with the stone walls still partially in place.
Figure 6-5: Temple of Isis, Delos by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

She was also known as Weret-Kekau (“the Great Magic”) for her power and Mut-Netjer, “Mother of the Gods” but was known by many names depending on which role she was fulfilling at the moment. As the goddess who brought the yearly inundation of the Nile which fertilized the land she was Sati, for example, and as the goddess who created and preserved life she was Ankhet, and so on.

In time, she became so popular that all gods were considered mere aspects of Isis and she was the only Egyptian deity worshiped by everyone in the country. She and her husband and son replaced the Theban Triad of Amon, Mut, and Khons, who had been the most popular trinity of gods in Egypt. Osiris, Isis, and Horus are referred to as the Abydos Triad. Her cult began in the Nile Delta and her most important sanctuary was there at the shrine of Behbeit El-Hagar, but worship of Isis eventually spread to all parts of Egypt.

Both men and women served Isis as clergy and no doubt rituals concerning her worship were conducted along the lines of other deities: a temple was built as her earthly home which housed her statue and this image was reverently cared for by the priests and priestesses. The people of Egypt were encouraged to visit the temple to leave offerings and make supplications but no one except the high priest or priestess was allowed into the sanctuary where the statue of the goddess resided. Beyond this, however, little is known of the details of the rituals surrounding her worship. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Cult of Isis grew into a Mystery Religion promising the secrets of life and death to initiates, who were then sworn to secrecy. It is known that the cult promised eternal life to those who were admitted to its secrets. The people who worshiped her throughout Egypt may or may not have been full initiates into her cult and, either way, left no record of how the goddess was honored.

It was not until Isis was worshiped in Rome that people wrote about the cult to any great degree and by then it was clear that knowledge of the rituals involved was only for initiates. Her temple on the island of Philae in Upper Egypt would remain an active pilgrimage site for thousands of years until closed in the 6 th century CE by the Christian emperor Justinian. In her role as “throne goddess”, she was considered the mother of all kings, but her benevolence was not limited to royalty. Isis dominated the religious sensibilities of the people at the same time that Christianity was taking form through the evangelical missions of St. Paul c. 42–62 CE. The concept of the Dying and Reviving God which had long been established through the Osiris myth was now made manifest in the figure of the son of God, Jesus the Christ. In time, epithets for Isis became those for the Virgin Mary such as “Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven” as the new religion drew on the power of the older belief to establish itself. The worship of Isis was the most stubborn of pagan beliefs to rival the new faith and continued longer than any other. (78)

Bacchus Cult

Dionysus (Roman name: Bacchus) was the ancient Greek god of wine, merriment, and theatre. Being the bad boy of Mt. Olympus, he was perhaps the most colorful of the Olympian Gods. In Greek mythology, despite being the son of Zeus and Semele (the daughter of Kadmos and Harmonia), Dionysus did not receive the best start in life when his mother died while still pregnant. Hera, wife of Zeus, was jealous of her husband’s illicit affair and craftily persuaded Semele to ask Zeus to reveal himself to her in all his godly splendour. This was too much for the mortal and she immediately expired; however, Zeus took the unborn child and reared him in his thigh.

A tiled frieze of the bust of Dionysus. In this image, the viewer sees the long-haired deity with vines surrounding his head.
Figure 6-6: Dionysos by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Dionysus travelled widely, even as far as India, and spread his cult throughout Greece, indeed he was known as being of an eastern origin himself. Orgiastic rituals were held in his honor, where the participants were taken over by a Dionysian frenzy of dancing and merriment to such a degree that they transcended themselves. It is believed that theatre sprang from this activity as, like Dionysus’ worshippers, actors strive to leave behind their own persona and become one with the character they are playing. Indeed, priests of Dionysus were given seats of honor in Greek theatres. (79)

As the Romans incorporated Greek culture into itself, so also came the worship of Dionysus. The appearance of Greek culture had been, for the most part, positive. Under this Greek influence, the Roman gods became more human, exhibiting such diverse characteristics as jealousy, love, and hate. However, unlike in Greece, in Rome an individual’s self-expression of belief was not considered as important as adherence to ritual. In an effort to avoid religious zeal, the state demanded a strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals. While this integration of the Greeks gods was never seen as a viable threat — they easily fit into the existing array of gods — some cults proved to be something completely different: a genuine danger to the prevailing state religion.

In 186 BCE the Roman Senate, recognizing a potential menace, suppressed the worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, known to the Romans as Bacchus. His worship is best remembered for its intoxicating festival held on March 17, a day when a Roman male youth would supposedly become a man. The cult was viewed as being excessively brutal, supposedly involving ritual murder and sexual excess. As a result, many of its adherents were either imprisoned or executed. It should be noted, however, that the authority’s fear of this cult was largely generated, not from first-hand experience (the cult’s rituals were always conducted in secret) but from the writings of the historian Livy (c. 64 BCE–17 CE) who consistently portrayed the cult as a dangerous menace to social stability and characterized adherents as little more than drunken beasts. (80)

Cybele, the mother goddess, wears a crown in the form of a towered wall, a symbol of her role as protectress of cities, 50 CE, Roman, Getty Villa.
Figure 6-7: Cybele by Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Cybele Cult

Originally, the Cybelean cult was brought to Rome during the time of the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE). At that time the Carthaginian general Hannibal was wreaking havoc in Italy, posing a serious threat to the city of Rome. The Sibylline Books, books of prophecy consulted by the Roman Senate in times of emergencies, predicted that Italy would be freed by an Idaean mother of Pessinus; to many, this meant Cybele. A black meteorite, representing the goddess, was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in 204 BCE. Miraculously, Hannibal and his army left shortly afterwards to defend Carthage against the invading Romans; a temple honoring Cybele would be built on Palatine Hill in 191 BCE.

The cult eventually achieved official recognition during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41–44 CE). Ultimately, her appeal as an agrarian goddess would enable her to find adherents in northern Africa as well as Transalpine Gaul.

Due to its agricultural nature, her cult had tremendous appeal to the average Roman citizen, more so women than men. She was responsible for every aspect of an individual’s life. She was the mistress of wild nature, symbolized by her constant companion, the lion. Not only was she was a healer (she both cured and caused disease) but also the goddess of fertility and protectress in time of war (although, interestingly, not a favorite among soldiers), even offering immortality to her adherents.

She is depicted in statues either on a chariot pulled by lions or enthroned carrying a bowl and drum, wearing a mural crown, flanked by lions. Followers of her cult would work themselves into an emotional frenzy and self-mutilate, symbolic of her lover’s self-castration.

Important to the worship of Cybele was Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation, also considered a resurrection god (similar to the Greek Adonis). Supposedly, Attis was Cybele’s lover, although some sources claim him to be her son. Unfortunately, he fell in love with a mortal and chose to marry. According to one story, on the day of their wedding banquet, the irate and jealous goddess apparently struck panic into those who attended the wedding. Afraid for his own safety (no mention is made of his bride), the frightened groom fled to the nearby mountains where he gradually became insane, eventually committing suicide but not before castrating himself. Regaining her own sanity, the remorseful Cybele appealed to Zeus to never allow Attis’s corpse to decay. Myth claims that he would return to life during the yearly rebirth of vegetation; thus identifying Attis as an early dying-and-reviving god figure.

Cybele was one of many cults that appeared in Rome. Some were considered harmless, the Cult of Isis for example, and allowed to survive while others, like Bacchus, were seen as a serious threat to the Roman citizens and was persecuted. Of course, almost all of these cults disappeared with the arrival of Christianity when Rome became the center of this new religion. The Cult of Cybele lasted until the 4 th century CE, at which time Christianity dominated the religious landscape and pagan beliefs and rituals gradually became transformed or discarded to suit the new faith. (80)


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