BMCR 2015.03.40

Housing the Chosen: The Architectural Context of Mystery Groups and Religious Associations in the Ancient World. Contextualizing the Sacred, 2

, Housing the Chosen: The Architectural Context of Mystery Groups and Religious Associations in the Ancient World. Contextualizing the Sacred, 2. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014. xv, 322. ISBN 9782503544373. €120.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This is the second volume of a new series Contextualizing the Sacred, edited by Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford) and Rubina Raja (Aarhus Universitet). A much shorter version is due to be published this March in the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World, co-edited by Rubina Raja and Jörg Rüpke.1

As she explains in the “Introduction”, the aim of Inge Nielsen’s monograph is “to show how architecture can illuminate the functions of religious assemblies of various kinds in ancient societies” (p. 1). The bulk of the book in fact consists of an analysis of mysteries and initiations, which is also the topic of a recent book by Jan Bremmer.2

The three main sections are very unequal in length. There is a long archaeological catalogue, with a detailed analysis of their architectural features (chapters 1-4); a synthetic survey of the cultic functions of initiations, mysteries, religious assemblies and communal banquets (chapters 5-6); and, more briefly still, a sketch of a typology of venues or settings chosen for their activities by mystery groups and religious associations (chapter 7).

Despite the subtitle of the series in which the book appears, viz. Sacred Space and its Material Culture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, 1000 BC – AD 600), the “external parallels” to Graeco-Roman mystery practices and their physical settings, i.e. their antecedents in the Near East and in Egypt, are sketched in just four pages of chapter 1, and few more elsewhere on the Hellenistic and Imperial period. Such reticence inevitably suggests that there are hardly any such “parallels”. Whatever the case with other Near Eastern traditions, it seems strange that Nielsen chooses to mostly ignore the continuing debate over the existence of mysteries and initiations in Pharaonic Egypt. The main reason for such a choice is the power of current convention: most modern scholarship operates with a markedly Graeco-centric notion of “mystery”, which means that it is a waste of time to look for parallels within the ‘source-cultures’ of the Graeco-Roman mystery cults of the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. Moreover, since Nielsen never attempts a precise definition of what she understands as ‘initiation’ and ‘mystery,’ the latter being merely described on p. 1 as “an interpretation and explanation of the initiation”, she has no reason to probe beyond the convention. In my view, a satisfactory solution to the debate concerning the possible existence of mysteries other than or prior to the Greek ones will only be found on the basis of more rigorous and explicit definitions, or rather criteria for the selection of material. Only when we have agreed on more searching criteria will there be any stimulus to look at the range of possible acquisitions of knowledge and related media, the processes of social inclusion/exclusion, and the relevant soteriological expectations, both in life and in death, that are to be found in extraneous Near Eastern religious traditions. As it is, by declining to set out her criteria, and by focusing almost exclusively on the Greek and Roman materials, Nielsen has surely failed to take advantage of the fresh opportunity offered her by the series she agreed to publish her book in.

Chapter 2 is a useful collection of the pre-Hellenistic literary and archaeological evidence for purpose-built spaces for the celebration of mysteries and initiations within the Greek sanctuaries at Eleusis, Samothrace, Lemnos, and Thebes, mainly devoted to the worship of Demeter and Kore or of the Kabeiroi). Beyond these short-term or ‘pilgrimage’ initiations, Nielsen devotes particular attention to associations such as the pythagoristai and Orphic groups (about which there is little information concerning their meeting places), and Dionysiac thiasoi and aristocratic syssitia or gene (which mainly met on a regular basis and thus required built accommodation). Although Nielsen argues on p. 2 that mysteries are to be seen as a relatively late development in the history of religion, the case of Eleusis, which reveals at any rate a continuity of religious practice (if not explicit mysteries) at least from the Late Bronze Age, is surely a sufficient counter-argument which suggests caution.

With chapter 3 and chapter 4, which deal respectively with spaces for religious assemblies inside and outside sanctuaries, we finally reach the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is however not very strict, since chap. 4, nominally on private residences used for religious associations (for which there is virtually no surviving archaeological evidence), is in fact largely devoted to sanctuaries and other buildings, whose identification as cult-spaces is often very speculative. The list of sanctuaries is thereby extended to include Andania, Delos, Lycosoura, Mantinea, Megalopolis, Pergamon, and Priene. A number of other spaces, such as those at Acrocorinth, Cyrene, Epidauros, Kourion, Oropos, Ostia, and Thasos, apparently used by associations or other religious groups as post-sacrificial banqueting rooms, are discussed here. Nielsen devotes special attention to Dionysiac groups (including the Dionysiac technitai, an Athenian synodos, an Isthmian koinon, a koinon of Asia Minor, an Egyptian association, and so on) and to their involvement in musical and theatrical performances. Special sub-chapters are devoted to the ‘ gens isiaca ’, Cybele and Attis, Mithras, Judaism and early Christianity.

Chapter 5, which opens the second part of the book on the “Cultic functions of religious groups”, is built on a sharp dichotomy between “collective” and “individual” mysteries. The first, as Nielsen has already explained on pp. 2-4, are understood as open to a large number of people, strictly bound to particular sanctuaries during specific feasts, celebrated by the initiates only once and involving simple preparatory rituals such as abstinence and cleansing. The second type is understood as open to fewer people, not bound to specific settings or particular festivals, celebrated repeatedly in mystery groups and involving a deeper knowledge, and a consequently longer preparation. The mysteries of Eleusis, Samothrace, Lemnos and Thebes are included within the first category, whereas the second is represented by the mysteries of Dionysos, Isis, Cybele and Attis, Sabazios, Mithras, and Christ.

Chapter 6, which is very brief, adds some further information about religious assemblies, communal banquets and related associations. The latter are characterized by voluntary membership (based on ethnicity, gender, age, social class and profession, etc.), inner solidarity and conformity, and hierarchy.

The third and last section of the book consists of only one chapter. Here Nielsen tries to combine the results of the two previous parts, focusing on the interaction between ritual practice and architecture. A useful chart assembles the basic features (locality, type of building, dimensions, deity and chronology) of the 165 archaeological cases she has found. These examples are then reduced to three main typologies of settings for mystery groups and religious associations: the temple type, the cave/grotto type and the banqueting/house type. In defending this typology, Nielsen shows successively the multifunctionality of sanctuaries, the link between cave- or grave-like rooms and the myth of the deity they were consecrated to, and the development from an informal private context to a ‘canonical’ form.

The volume is profusely illustrated by 136 good-quality text-figures and 62 plates at the end, and rounded off by a general bibliography, an index locorum of ancient authors, inscriptions, ostraka, papyri, clay tablets, an index of subjects and persons and, finally, a geographical index.

As we would expect of this author,3 the book’s main value lies in the attempt to provide an architectonic, or at any rate archaeological, context for ancient mystery-cults, which are usually discussed almost entirely on the basis of literary texts. In this case, however, one could have wished her to be somewhat more circumspect in her identifications. Although there are exceptions, such as Samothrace, mystery cults often preferred to keep a low profile. Consequently, the rich selection of examples provided by Nielsen, which could easily be greatly extended, is often based on mere conjecture: for example, the existence of nocturnal rites is often inferred simply on the basis of the discovery of lamps; the mere existence of underground structures, theatrical facilities, apsidal halls, courts and water crypts (e.g. pp. 79-82), legitimates the inference that mysteries must have been performed here. In this case, at any rate, I feel that less would have been more: the book would have benefitted from a narrower selection of material—i.e. the best documented cases—and a greater interest in the wider social context. I would have welcomed an attempt to discuss the various actors/agents, their motivations and their religious experiences. Recent contributions to environmental archaeology have helped us to understand the psychological impact of architecture in creating emotions and emotional commitment (e.g. the concept of biophilia). Given Nielsen’s awareness of the importance of the staging of religion in antiquity (especially theatrical performance, music and dance), this is surely another opportunity missed.

In view of the author’s great experience as a scholar, the bibliography at the end of the book is something of a surprise. It is frankly full of typos, over-concentrated on German and English titles, and largely out-of-date: more than half of the 670 references date from before the 1990s, rather less than 20% from the last 15 years. Indeed, apart from the mention of a forthcoming book in the same series, there are only a dozen references from the years 2008-2010 and not one from the years 2011-2013, period during which several important studies have been devoted to these and related topics. It must also be said that the link between citations in the footnotes (which lack the year of publication) and the bibliography is poor, though this may be due to the house rules for the series.

This lack of recent bibliographic references seriously limits the value of Nielsen’s book, that is otherwise a good collection of archaeological material that helps to approach the topic of mysteries from a very different perspective. Categories such as “personal”, “dying-” and “foreign gods”, or “Oriental religions” remain unfortunately undiscussed, as though there had been no serious recent criticism of them.4 Moreover the rigid dichotomies, between “private” and “public”, “religious” and “non-religious associations”, religious assemblies “inside” and “outside sanctuaries”, though they provide a satisfying sense of apparent order, actually occlude the complexity of the phenomenon under discussion. Even the distinction between “collective” and “individual” mysteries is merely schematic, being simply a modern re-description that fails to do justice to the spectrum of possible religious experiences, just as it fails to problematize the interaction between religious specialists and the individual in the processes of intensification of ritual praxis.5


1. I. Nielsen, “Buildings of Religious Communities”, in R. Raja, J. Rüpke (eds.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World, Oxford 2015, pp. 279-292.

2. J.N. Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Münchner Vorlesungen zu antiken Welten, I), Berlin-Boston 2014, and the survey of recent work at pages VII-XIV.

3. See her previous monographs: I. Nielsen, Thermae et Balnea: The Architecture and Cultural History of Roman Public Baths, Aarhus 1990 (2nd. edition 1993); I. Nielsen, Hellenistic Palaces: Tradition and Renewal (Studies in Hellenistic Civilization, V), Aarhus 1994 (2nd. edition 1999); I. Nielsen, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama: A Study in Regional Development and Religious Interchange between East and West in Antiquity (Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity, IV), Aarhus 2002.

4. See R. Gordon, “Coming to Terms with the ‘Oriental Religions of the Roman Empire”, Numen 61 (2014), pp. 657–672.

5. Cf. now K. Waldner, “Dimensions of Individuality in Ancient Mystery Cults: Religious Practice and Philosophical Discourse”, in J. Rüpke (ed.), The Individual in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, Oxford 2013, pp. 215–242.