One of the most widespread and influential religious institutions in the ancient Greek world, the mysteries of classical times were initiatory cults in which candidates passed through rituals meant to bring them into a personal relationship with pagan divinities. Most of the mysteries centered on the mythic life, death, and rebirth of a goddess or god, and initiates participated in a re-enactment of the deity’s myth. In the mysteries of Adonis, for example, candidates helped the goddess Aphrodite search for the body of Adonis, mourned him when his corpse was found, and then celebrated his resurrection. See Adonis, mysteries of.

Many of the most popular mysteries had close connections to the cycle of the seasons, and the god or goddess who died and rose again had close symbolic connections to grain, cut down in the harvest, buried beneath the earth at planting, and risen again in the green shoot to bring a promise of bounty to all. The mysteries of Adonis and Isis fell into this category, but the most famous of these agricultural rites was the Eleusinian mysteries, which centered on Persephone and her mother Demeter. A few mystery cults focused on different natural cycles; the Mithraic mysteries, for example, centered on the precession of the equinoxes. See Eleusinian mysteries; Isiac mysteries; Mithraic mysteries.

The mysteries, like nearly all other aspects of classical pagan spirituality, were suppressed after the Christian Church seized power in the Roman world during the fourth century of the Common Era. Ironically, Christianity itself probably gained a foothold in ancient times because of its close similarities to the ancient mysteries, since Christians then and now celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in much the same way that initiates of the mysteries participated in the myths of their own deities. See Christian origins.

The mysteries were creations of ancient Greek culture, and existed only where Greek ideas and religious practices spread. The claim that ancient Egypt had mystery initiations of its own, a staple of nineteenth- and twentieth-century occultism and of today’s alternative history scene, is accurate only in that Greeks brought the concept there after Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great, and several ancient Egyptian cults, including that of Isis, were reworked into mysteries on the Greek pattern thereafter. The seshtau – “that which is hidden,” the secret inner rituals of the Egyptian temples – were not initiations at all. See Egypt.

Nonetheless Egypt, and every other corner of the world, was retroactively populated with mystery cults in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As secret societies of various kinds spread to become among the most typical social institutions of the western world, the traditions of Freemasonry and several other secret orders were projected on the inkblot patterns of the past. Old books thus speak of the Gothic mysteries of northern Europe, focusing on the life and death of Baldur, son of the Norse god Odin; the Druidic mysteries, based on the adventures of Taliesin; the central American mysteries, derived from the Popol Vuh, a Quiché Maya sacred text; and many more. All of these were imagined as a blend of ancient Greek mystery cults and modern Masonic practice. Completely anachronistic, and unsupported by the least scrap of evidence, these “mystery cults” continue to be cited in the alternative-realities literature today. See rejected knowledge.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006