Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mystery Religions in the Ancient World

Just read a fascinating book by the British author Joscelyn Godwin entitled "Mystery Religions in the Ancient World."  I was especially interested in how she was able to identify five archetypal paths through which the ancients believed they could fathom the divine mysteries.  I believe the book is useful in that it provides some religious context to the Greco-Roman environment which is helpful when trying to understand the socio-religious background of the New Testament--specifically the book of Colossians.

Here are some of my notes from the book if you're interested:

According to the ancient mystery religions, there were essentially five paths to the divine mysteries:

(1) the path of the warrior;

(2) the path of the monk;

(3) the path of the magician;

(4) the path of love;

(5) the path of knowledge.


"Ancient societies...were intimate with war.  Greek and Roman civilization had always been conducted on the assumption that this was part of life," pg. 11.

And so naturally the ancients came to idealize war, making each war a religious war fought on behalf of various deities.


"The religion of Isis, which appealed in Imperial times largely to city-dwellers and middle-class women, welcomed Lucius (in Apuleius, Metamorphoses xi, 15) with the words:  'Enrol yourself in this holy military service.'  But the allegiance of the actual warriors was more usually to the overtly military gods:  Mars, Hercules, Sol Invictus, Jupiter Dolichenus, and especially Mithras.  Mithraism was based on a real warrior's world-view.  It imagined a supreme Lord of Light, powerful beyond any cosmos known to man, constantly opposed by the supreme Dark Lord Ahriman.  Thus to the Mithraist the whole universe is in a perpetual state of warfare between the ultimately good and the ultimately evil....So war between humans is only to be expected as an image of the cosmic and even metacosmic strife," pg. 13.


"The monk's path, like the warrior's, is based on a dualistic vision of the cosmos.  The essential difference lies in this:  while the warrior's enemy is without, the monk's lies within himself....

Fundamental to the monk's attitude is a duality of spirit and matter, which is manifested in the human being as a fulf between soul and body.  It is the ascetic's view that the spirit or soul has become entangled in the material world, or in the human body, and that it is the purpose of religion to free it," pg. 17.


"For the Orphics and Pythagoreans, our existence on earth is forced upon us as expiation of our sins.  It is a terrible thing for one's soul to be imprisoned in the physical body....

For all the philosophers of the Pythagorean-Platonic-Hermetic tradition, the situation is the same.  The universe is a hierarchy of different states of being, of which the very lowest is our tangible world and the things made of its four elements:  earth, water, air and fire.  Everything in this region, the sphere beneath the Moon, is imperfect and subject to pain, suffering, decay and death.  Beyond, in the ethereal spheres of the planets, we would find progressively purer states, and above the fixed stars is the realm of the gods where perfection reigns--at least from our point of view... The ascetic's task  [with regard to the soul which is within the body] is to release it, and he does this by wearing away, by one means or another, the prison of flesh and blood," pg. 17

"It is chastity above all that distinguishes the monk's life from that of lay people," pg. 19.


"The magician's attitude to the gulf between body and spirit is to unite them..."

So the magician believes that he can contact the divine mysteries through various magical rituals.


"The most obvious example of this world-view is astrology, which assumes that the movements of the planets are reflected in world events and in the human psyche," pg. 22.

A magician believes that by performing magical rituals that he can affect both the physical and spiritual realms.

"The commonest form of magic practised in the ancient world was animal sacrifice.  Regarded form the point of view of a simple-minded worshipper, the victim's life-force is offered as a kind of food to the god...Such a gift incurred an obligation on the god's part, or at least encouraged reciprocal favours," pg. 22.


The person on this path sees unification with god as the ultimate goal, becoming so intimate with the divine that one actually becomes divine.


"Dionysus was believed to be present, not merely symbolically but actually, in the wine and raw flesh which his devotees consumed.  A Persian Mithraic text, amazingly reminiscent of Jesus's words, states that 'he who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.'  The initiates of Cybele and Attis had some form of communion, too, for they declared:  'I have eaten from the tambourine:  I have drunk form the cymbal'--the instruments sacred to them--but what they ate or drank we do not know"


The essential ingredients of ancient gnostic thought, derived from various philosophical schools and blended with various mythologies, were that man, through diligent study, could attain enlightenment, salvation, unity with the divine, etc.  The initiates to Gnosticism were taught an entirely new way of viewing man, his role in the cosmos, his relationship with the divine.


  1. If you're interested in ancient mystery religions and their influence on "Christian" practices, you should look into Mithraism and what happened when Constantine took all their material goods (buildings, robes, rings, shepherd's crooks, high pointy hats and the like) and gave it to the newly made state religion of "Christianity". Interesting stuff!

  2. ..."Dionysus was believed to be present, not merely symbolically but actually, in the wine and raw flesh which his devotees consumed. A Persian Mithraic text, amazingly reminiscent of Jesus's words, states that 'he who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation...."

    Sounds very similar to John 6:

    53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. (NIV)

    If the quotation from the book is accurate and more importantly predates the words of Yeshua, its quite strange. I was thinking that perhaps Yeshua, aware of the Dionysian Myth in the Greco-Roman world, chose his words in John 6 precisely to demonstrate the truth of who he is. Kind of a subtle, unstated "you've heard the myth now get ready for the me, the reality". the problem with this explanation however, is Yeshua is talking to Jews/Jewish leaders so why compare himself to a Dionysian myth?

    Any one else have /explanations for this similarity?


    1. Noah, it may have been a cultural expression, that many in the time would have understood, and especially that region of the world, like an idiom of their day. Clearly, Yeshua's words cannot be taken literally, as even indicated in the text, it would have been against the Torah, so I don't see a fault in shared ideas or understanding.

      People have tried to discount the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, tying them to some other pagan cultural beliefs. For example, some have argued that circumcision was taken from surrounding pagan cultures, circumcision did predate Abraham's experience and it was practiced culturally in that period of time, but just because some practices maybe shared, does not discount what is being said, some want this to be true to make the Bible out to be no different than an ancient pagan religion, having no inspiration of God.

    2. Zion,

      Thanks for the comment... is very helpful. I'm with you as well regarding the pathetic attempt by many to reduce the bible to just another pagan religion's text. Its interesting to note that there is a growing number of secular scholars who are beginning to acknowledge the revolutionary nature of the Torah in terms of both its understanding of G-d and ethics relative to the surrounding peoples/cultures of its time.

      Of course, as believers, we would expect this to be the case and have known it all along.