Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.35

Michael B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), Greek Mysteries. The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2003.  Pp. xv, 272.  ISBN 0-415-24873-6.  $27.95.  

Contributors: Pierre Bonnechere, Kevin Clinton, Susan G. Cole, Michael B. Cosmopoulos, Fritz Graf, Madeleine Jost, Mark L. Lawall, Noel Robertson, Albert Schachter, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood


Reviewed by Dobrinka Chiekova, Rutgers University (chiekova@rci.rutgers.edu)
Word count: 1912 words

An essential component in the rich heritage of ancient Greek religious thought, the mystery cults are today an object of significant scholarly interest and multidisciplinary research. This book, edited by Michael Cosmopoulos, includes 10 studies written by leading specialists exploring multiple topics related to the archaeology and ritual of ancient Greek secret cults. The aim of the volume, as stated in the preface (p. xiii), is to provide a close analysis of new information and a re-evaluation of the older evidence, attempting to promote a balanced examination of archaeological, literary and epigraphic data.

The first three articles are dedicated to the most famous ancient mystery cult Greek center, Eleusis.

M. Cosmopoulos's own essay reexamines the controversial issue of the function -- whether religious or residential -- of the Eleusinian building dating from the Late Bronze Age, known as Megaron B, above which the later Telesteria were built. On the basis of a thorough study of the architectural elements and the archaeological context, revealed by unpublished excavation records, C. convincingly demonstrates that ritual activities took place in this Mycenean structure. C. then expands on these findings and suggests the possibility that in the beginning Megaron B was used both as a residence and as a family shrine. Careful to remain close to the available evidence, C. leaves open the question of the religious continuity and the Mycenean roots of Demeter's cult at Eleusis.

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood offers a reconstruction of ritual schemata shaping segments of the Eleusinian festival, predominantly on the basis of literary and late sources. S.-I. is particularly attentive to defining the method on which her research is founded in order to avoid modern assumptions. This article builds on an earlier essay (Sourvinou-Inwood, C., 1997, "Reconstructing change: Ideology and ritual at Eleusis", in M. Golden, and P. Toohey, eds., Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World. London/New York: Routledge, 132-164), which stresses the double nature of the Eleusinian cult as part of Athenian polis religion and, at the same time, as mystery initiation based on individual choice. S.-I. brings in further archaeological evidence from the City Eleusinion in support of her previous conclusions that the Eleusinian cult was part of Athenian religion from the beginning and that it underwent significant changes in the early sixth century, when it became a mystery cult, reflecting individual choice and concerns for a happy afterlife. S.-I. reassesses her previous conclusions by a reconstruction of the sacred drama that, according to several sources, was part of the festival. S.-I. argues that a core moment in the sacred drama was the ritual search for Kore and her "finding", expressed by a rite during which an ear of corn was displayed. The analysis of the sources is careful and engaging. I felt, however, that the author ought to clarify why she does not comment on the cry "the Mistress has given birth to a holy son, Brimo to Brimos", which the Eleusinian hierophant raised after the reaping of the ear of corn according to the description by Hippolytos, Refutation of all Heresies 5.8.39-40. In her discussion on p. 36 she simply dismisses the topic: "I cannot consider Brimo here". The passage is an intriguing component of Hippolytos' testimony and the reader needs to know the reason S.-I. does not consider it relevant in this otherwise thorough essay. S.-I. concludes that the schema of "divine advent" of Demeter and of Kore structures segments of the Eleusinian festival and relates to both poliadic and individual concerns for protection of the crop and happy afterlife. An appendix to the study presents a response to the criticism of N.M. Kennell (BMCR 1997.11.01) of the author's previous article on Eleusis.

Kevin Clinton's contribution analyses the terminology of initiation in mystery cult as transmitted by literary and epigraphic sources. His discussion of terms is methodologically necessary and helps to distinguish the stages of the rituals performed at the Eleusinian Mysteries: preliminary initiations, the festival proper of the Mysteria, stage of epopteia. In the second part of his study, C. argues that an analogous terminology of initiation at the Samothracian Mysteries imitates the Eleusinian and suggests structural similarities in the rituals. Archaeological and literary data are evoked in support of the author's hypothesis that, as with the Eleusinian festival, during the Samothracian Mysteria a main component of the rituals was the "search for a goddess", which according to the "Samothracian legend", as conveyed by literary sources, was not Kore but Harmonia, and that the culmination of the ceremony was the celebration of her wedding with Cadmus. The hypothesis is well presented and justified. I have however one reservation: when Ephorus (FGrH 70 F 120; discussion on p. 67), says "even now in Samothrace they search for her (sc. Harmonia) in their festivals (en tais heortais)", we can not entirely rule out the possibility that he refers to a Samothracian festival (or festivals) other than the Mysteria.

The theme of Samothracian Mysteria is considered from a different prospective in an essay that follows by Mark L. Lawall on the sanctuary of the Samothracian Gods in Ilion. From a Hellenistic inscription, now lost, it is known that there was a sanctuary of the Samothracian Gods in Ilion, and, on the basis of recent excavation results, an identification has been proposed with the so-called West Sanctuary. The analysis of the architectural elements and the topographical context as offered by L. make this identification plausible. It seems, however, that to date there is no epigraphic evidence which corroborates beyond any doubt that some kind of mystery initiation rites were performed in this sanctuary. L.'s interpretation of a graffito on a kantharos, found in this area, reading "Melitêi tria", as a dedication of three (objects) "to Samothrace"(p. 95; for the ancient name of Samothrace cf. Strabo 10.3.19), seems to me unconvincing since L. offers no epigraphic parallels of other dedications to a sacred place as if it were a deity. Now, the hypothesis that Cybele was worshiped in the West Sanctuary is supported by the finds of terracotta figurines representing the goddess. On the other hand, the suggestion, favored by the author, that the hero Dardanos was worshiped in the same sanctuary lacks any direct solid evidence, iconographic or epigraphic. The rider on the series of clay plaques discovered in the sanctuary, sometimes accompanied by a snake or standing female figure, without an inscription or attribute (the Palladion) should not be assumed to represent Dardanos, and the author is correct to indicate that the identification remains uncertain. L. concludes his study with a captivating (though necessarily hypothetical) analysis of the relation between the cult activity in the West Sanctuary, and the political interests and relations of Ilion with Hellenistic dynasties and Rome.

Albert Schachter directs his attention to the evolution of the mystery cult of the Theban Kabiroi. The author outlines the architectural development of the sanctuary and describes the cult activities within the chronological framework set by the evidence. S. makes an important general point when he calls attention to natural rock formations as a central feature of mystery sanctuaries. More specifically, he discusses well the central role of the anonymous mother goddess and her consort (symbios) and the nature of the Kabiroi as "daimones attendants"; he points out the apparent contradiction between the relevant myth and the cult; and he suggests the possible introduction of the Kabiroi-cult to Thebes by a family group. The study draws on rich documentation -- archaeological, epigraphic, iconographic, and literary -- on the basis of which several persuasive suggestions are made, without a tendency to over-interpret the data.

The next contribution, by Madeleine Jost, offers a survey of the thirteen sanctuaries and mystery cults in Arcadia. The essay is distinguished by a fruitful collocation of archaeological data and literary sources (essentially Pausanias) and offers instructive insights on the local characteristics of these mystery cults as well as on the influence of the renowned Eleusinian Mysteries. Among other things, J. discusses the function of various architectural elements in the buildings designed for celebration of Mysteries.

Pierre Bonnechere studies the mystery aspects of the oracular cult of Trophonius of Lebadea. The author argues that indications in late sources, according to which Mysteries were performed in the Trophonion, reflect an authentic situation going back at least to the Classical period. The author defends well his thesis on the basis of literary sources and evaluation of themes and realia characteristic for mystery rituals. B. suggests, among other hypotheses, a possible link with the Eleusinian Mysteries. Two observations. If we are to believe Herodotus (4.93-96), Zalmoxis is not Greek and he does not dwell among Scythians as B. says (pp. 171, 177). Also, I agree with B. that "the concept of shamanism in ancient Greece is a vague one" (p. 177), but then how is it helpful to define and understand the phenomenon "Trophonius" (or "Zalmoxis") through a "vague concept" (Trophonius is said to be connected to "shamanistic milieux": p. 177)?

Susan G. Cole examines Greek eschatological concepts and representations starting from Homer and Hesiod, with special focus on the Orphic gold tablets and the ideas of the mystery initiation, in particular the Bacchic teletai, as a path toward better status after death. The imagery transmitted by this very particular category of texts is attentively discussed and the author's conclusions are persuasive on the role of the deities whose protection is sought, and on the preoccupations and aspirations of the initiates.

Noel Robertson explores the topic of Orphic mysteries and Dionysiac ritual. The author finds the roots of the "Orphic ritual and belief" in the public cult and rites of the Meter and Dionysos in Greek cities. In his opinion the Orphic Dionysiac stories derived from standard Dionysiac festivals, celebrated in winter and spring. R. proposes interpretations of the Orphic theogony and of several Dionysiac myths recounted by various authors. His analysis tends to reduce the concerns of the Greek initiates to a fundamental preoccupation "to promote the fertility of the corresponding part of nature, vine or grain." (p. 220). In his opinion, the god, torn by the Titans in the Orphic Dionysiac myth "stands for an animal victim, which is torn and scattered in a drastic fertility rite." (p. 226) For most of these cases, I cannot adhere to the R.'s analysis of the testimonia, which I think is somewhat skewed by his insistence on the fertility motif.

The final essay, by Fritz Graf, offers a broad perspective of lesser-known mystery cults from main Greece and Asia Minor. The study is based mainly on epigraphic evidence and supports well the author's conclusions that mystery cults defined and confirmed identities -- from political groups to clans and cultic associations and that the initiates aspired to a permanent transformation, which would make them close to their god.

In concluding remarks, the editor outlines the main points contributed by the volume.

In brief, the book offers a variety of approaches, provokes questions, and inspires ideas. The association of archeological and literary data is salutary, and proves to be rewarding for the study of the mystery cults treated here. I do disagree with the emphasis placed, in some cases, on the agricultural and vegetative motivation behind the mystery rituals and even on the "overcoming of the fear of death" (Concluding remarks, p. 263), which, albeit present, are not, in my opinion, as central as the collective and individual need for an intense "experiencing" of the god's presence and believing: a type of experience, which public worship could not provide.

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