BMCR 2022.03.39

Les mystères au IIe siècle de notre ère: un tournant

, , , Les mystères au IIe siècle de notre ère: un tournant. Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Sciences Religieuses, 187. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 592. ISBN 9782503594590 €80,00.

Table des matières
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The collective volume under review is part of a great project concerning mysteries in the Roman empire in a joint venture of the CNRS at Paris and a Genevan team.[1] The research is aiming at historicizing the development of the mysteries by situating the sources in their historical context. This approach differs from most earlier research, which reconstructed a phenomenon of ‘mystery cults’ under one denominator as a religion different from the ‘normal’ Classical religion performed throughout Hellenism and the empire.[2] The historicizing of ‘mystery religion’,[3] however, has led to the assumption that, during the early empire, religious practice in every religious tradition (and in philosophy and medicine as well), experienced a transformation according to the model of mysteries: a classical (‘pagan’), Jewish, and Christian ‘mystérisation’ of religion.[4] The present volume wants to survey this assumption of mystérisation as a ‘mysteric turn’[5]of the second century CE, not only in different religious traditions but also in other cultural realms like rhetoric, poetry, the medical and philosophical discourse.

Three issues are to be researched (7-8):
• The category mysteries as found in a common, globalized terminology of the languages of the time.[6]
• The visual representation of mysteries,[7] as observed in the monumental changes at the principal mystery-sanctuaries of the second century.
• The interrelation of mystery terminology with discourses in philosophy and medicine.[8]

In the introduction (7-22) NB and FM summarise their research on terminology:

Greek terms pervaded religious language, which had been coined in mystery cults like μυστήρια, τελετή, ἱεροφάντης, etc. whereas Latin language continued to use unspecific terms like sacra, but received the specific Greek terms as well (as ‘calques’).  Francesco Massa has already published his research on authors writing in Latin.[9]

In the first part of the volume the famous local mystery cults are visited concerning the question, what did change there during the second century. Nicole Belayche examines Eleusis (25-53) with its relatively enormous mass of sources: descriptions, epigraphy of initiated people (including emperors), and new architecture.[10] Sandra Blakely recognizes a cosmological turn in the architecture of Samothrace (55-102). New discoveries at Hierapolis in the Maeander-Valley (West Minor Asia) reveal not only a mystery cult modelled upon the cult of Eleusis, but also an entrance to Hades in the newly discovered Plutonion (Francesco D’Andria, 103-126). Beatriz Pañem Murcia (127-180) locates the Isis-Cults of the second century between “égyptianisation” and “mystérisation” and her result is on the Egyptian side. Jennifer Larson takes a cognitive approach to the mystery cults (181-197), challenging the issue of secrecy.[11]

In the second part on sciences and literature, Antoine Pietrobelli (201-216) presents Galen as a hierophantes to the mysteries of medicine. Similarly Georgia Petridou reveals the mystery language of Aelius Aristides in his reports of the medical cures in Hieroi Logoi (217-242, the terms used on p. 226). She maintains that Aelius recasts illness as the liminal period in the initiation process (227f). Jordi Pià-Comelia puts the question whether Stoicism in imperial times used the image of the initiation into the Eleusinian “mysteries” as the way to gain philosophical insights according to the model of Plato (as did Philo, the Jew, and Clement, the Christian)[12] (243-265). He can show that in Seneca, Cornutus, but especially in Epictetus (not in Marcus Aurelius) the mystery terminology is present. Again in Plutarch Plato’s model of philosophical truth as an initiation like that of the Eleusinian mysteries is received and expanded to the Isis mysteries (Mauro Bonazzi 267-278). Teaching mathematics and philosophy at Smyrna, Theon applies the pedagogical advices outlined in Plato, Republic book 7 for his curriculum (Andrei Timotin, 279-298). He proposes five stages for the revelation of the mysteries, μύησις into the τελετή. It seems, however, that the adaption of the stages of the Eleusinian mysteries is just metaphorical (‘de manière artificielle’ 283). Anne-France Morand asks if the mysteries in the Orphic hymns of the imperial times show continuity or a break with the older hymns (299-315). The author finds a latent ‘syntax’ that refers to the mysteries, especially when they allude in mythical language to the afterlife, exemplified in Hymn 29 to Persephone. The last paper attracts attention: Judaism and mystery cults (317-328). The author refrains from general remarks about this difficult relation, but discusses just one term misterin in Hebrew, which is taken over from Greek, but does not refer to the (pagan) mysteries. The term denotes “something possessed exclusively by the Jews and pertaining to the Jew’s God” (318), a secret, which is told only orally and in Hebrew. It may respond to the mysteric turn, but not earlier than ‘after Constantine’ (fourth century).

Part 3 on the effects of the mysteric turn begins with the so-called Phrygian mysteries, a modern category for a part of the cult of Mater Magna/Kybele, especially the ‘taurobolium’ (331-350). Françoise van Haeperen discusses the assumption that the autocastration of the galli was the supreme form of initiation, which could, however, be substituted by the castration of the bull before sacrifice. She shows that a combination of modern expectations about mysteries and ancient polemics in Christian sources have misled modern scholars. The cista mystica in the cult of Kybele in the second century is however an indicator that the cult was seen as a mystery cult. Charles Delattre compares the three authors of mythography of the second century Antoninus Liberalis, [Apollodoros], and [Plutarch] (351-378). The result are “les manipulations lexicales, qu’autorisent les termes teletê et mustêria.” Striking is another fact that these texts do not tell any mysteric myth. Romain Brethes discusses the current state of the debate of the mutual influences between mystery cults and the Greek novel since Karl Kerényi (379-400) with special concern on Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus. Brethes opts for a meta-narratological context with the cults, not only an allegorical use of mystery terms. Marie-Odile Boulois looks at the new (but late in his life) Homilies on the Psalms and contra Celsum by the Christian Platonist Origen. In contrast to pagan mysteries (the different cults tied together as a unit in cC 1,7) Origen claims Christianity to be the ‘true mysteries’ (401-433). Thomas Galoppin’s research concentrates on the question of what mystery terminology means in the magic papyri (435-461). Though some of the ritual prescriptions from Roman Egypt involve the clientele as initiates into mysteries, most of them claim the expertise of the magician as mystêria. One specific papyrus from Egypt, the ‘letter of Nephotes’ (PGM IV.154-285) is the object of Florian Audureau (463-488). He shows that the ritual itself is traditional divination, but uses terms like mystagogos, a rhetorical application, which he calls “mystérisation du discours.”

Wrapping up the conference ‘en forme de conclusion’ Philippe Hoffmann ties together some threads running through the papers (489-505). Is the mystery turn something new, or does it crystallise and intensify an earlier tradition? The question is hard to answer because the sources do not reveal what the ‘thing’ is that is to be revealed, shown, recognized. According to Aristotle F 15 the initiated is ‘slain’ (τυπουμένος) by emotions, sounds, flashes, a new cognition. “La mystérisation s’exerce puissamment, et le tournant ‘mystérique’ est attesté massivement dans les textes (philosophiques)” (502), but the connection to a specific mystery cult and its rituals is not given. The terminology gets out of hand. It emanates into practicing religions and pervades epistemology. Nevertheless, the assumption of a mystery turn in the second century CE has spurred valuable collective inquiry into many realms of culture in the middle Roman empire. Every contribution reflects current research in rich notes and quotations of texts. The volume as a whole rewards the effort to examine circumscribed epoch in the religious history of antiquity, and the assumption that there was a mystérisation/mystery turn is affirmed. Such a turn can be observed in the epoch of the beginning and middle of the Roman empire, especially, but not limited to, the second century CE, but it does not correspond to one specific cult of that epoch.

Table of contents

Introduction Nicole Belayche et Francesco Massa 7 –22

Ι Approcher des rituels mystériques au iie siècle : un état des « lieux »
Nicole Belayche: Percer la loi du silence ? Les « nuits illuminantes » à Eleusis au iie siècle 25
Sandra Blakely: A Cosmological Turn in an Architectural Setting: Roman Approaches to Samothrace into the Second Century ce 55
Francesco D‘Andria: Des « mystères » à Hiérapolis de Phrygie ? 103
Beatriz Pañem Murcia: Les cultes isiaques au iie siècle de notre ère : entre « égyptianisation » et « mystérisation » 127
Jennifer Larson: The Cognitive Anatomy of a Mystery Cult 181

II Une « mystérisation » dans les savoirs et la littérature du iie siècle ?
Antoine Pietrobelli: Galien hiérophante et les mystères de la médecine 201
Georgia Petridou: Mapping Medicine onto Mysteries in Aelius Aristides’ Hieroi Logoi 217
Jordi Pià-Comelia: “Mystery” in imperial Stoicism? 243
Mauro Bonazzi: Plutarch and the Mysteries of Philosophy 267
Andrei Timotin: Théon de Smyrne et la transposition platonicienne des mystères éleusiniens 279
Anne-France Morand: Les mystères dans les Hymnes orphiques : continuité ou rupture ? 299
Geoffrey Herman: On the Term ‘Mystery’ in the Classical Rabbinic Literature 317

III Des effets de la « mystérisation » ?
Françoise Van Haeperen: Mystères phrygiens et tauroboles au iie siècle 331
Charles Delattre: Mythographie et mystériographie. Fragments de discours dans et autour des mystères 351
Romain Brethes: Romans grecs, romans à mystères ? Un état des lieux 379
Marie-Odile Boulnois: « Les mystères véritables » : Origène en confrontation dans le Contre Celse et les nouvelles Homélies sur les Psaumes 401
Thomas Galoppin: « O bienheureux myste de la magie sacrée ! ». Mystères et teletai dans les papyrus « magiques » grecs 435
Florian Audureau: Rituel d’initiation ou « mystérisation » du discours : la fonction du μυσταγωγός  dans la lettre de Néphotès (PGM IV, 154-285) 463
Philippe Hoffmann: En forme de conclusion 489
Bibliographie sélective 507
Indices Emmy Martins Index des sources


[1] The cooperation began in 2014. The Paris crew is headed by Nicole Belayche in cooperation with the research group Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Antiques. The principal investigator of the Genevan team is Francesco Massa, now at Fribourg university. His Liste des publications (3.1.2022).

[2] Walter Burkert found the common experience in mystery cults that the initiated people underwent a personal transformation by confrontation with the realm of the Holy. “Man kann ein solches Vorgehen als ahistorisch tadeln.“ Antike Mysterien. Munich 1990, 11 (Burkert’s German version of the 1987 English text at Harvard [to which I have no access in the moment] “One might reproach this approach as unhistorical”). „New state of consciousness by experience of the Holy“(18). Van Haeperen calls it ‘la metanoia’ (350).

[3] Jan Bremmer in particular stressed the differences in historical evolution in his Initiation into the mysteries of the Ancient world (Münchner Vorlesungen zu antiken Welten 1) Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter 2014, see my review in: Gnomon 89 (2017), 481-485.

[4] “tester notre hypothèse d’une ‘mystérisation’” (8). This assumption is proposed as early as in the long article by Christoph Auffarth, Mysterien (Mysterienkulte). In: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum Band 25 (2013), 422-471, the term Mysterisierung col. 451-453, 467. The encyclopedia provides besides articles on the single cults (like the excellent ‘Mithras‘ by Richard Gordon) also the comprehensive article on Mysteries, which treats what Christians understood, accommodated, and rejected in the context of the religion(s) of the Early empire and in Late antiquity.

[5] So in the excellent systematic index (besides the index of quotations) compiled by Emmy Martins 523-571, here 571.

[6] Nicole Belayche et Francesco Massa (eds.): Les « mystères » : questionner une catégorie. [Special edition of the Journal] Mètis. Anthropologie des mondes grecs anciens NS 14 (2016), 5-132. The contributors to this volume refer many times to the ‘Quelques balises introductives. Lexique et historiographie’, ibidem, 7-19.

[7] A special volume Nicole Belayche; Francesco Massa: Mystery cults in visual representation in Graeco-Roman antiquity. Leiden: Brill 2021.

[8] Francesco Massa; Nicole Belayche (eds.): Les philosophes et les mystères dans l’empire romain. (Religions, 11) Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège 2021.

[9] Francesco Massa et D. Nelis (eds.): Mystery Cults in Latin Texts. In: Mnemosyne. A Journal of Classical Studies, à paraître.

[10] See also the reviewer’s: Athen – die heilige Stadt: Erbe, Umdeutung, Palimpsest der Sakrallandschaft. in: Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler; Leonie von Alvensleben (eds.): Athens II: Athens in Late Antiquity. (COMES Civitatum Orbis MEditerranei Studia 4) Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2020, 33-58.

[11] As I did in my Mysterien 2013 (note 4), 453-455.

[12] Christoph Riedweg: Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon und Klemens von Alexandrien. Berlin: de Gruyter 1987.