Monday, June 20, 2016

Divine Companionship and Eternal Life: Mystery Cults in Roman Britain

By Mark Patton.

The official religions of ancient Greece and Rome were largely formalised affairs. Gods and goddesses such as Jupiter, Minerva, Apollo and Venus existed, and had to be propitiated, but people could expect little from them in return. They were simply too remote to take any interest in the affairs of mortals. Their temples were not arenas for communal worship, like modern churches, synagogues or mosques, but rather places that one approached to sacrifice, in a spirit of public duty. There were few emotional dimensions to such devotion and, specifically, they offered little prospect of life after death.

Greek and Roman conceptions of an afterlife, to the extent that they had such a concept at all, were fairly dismal by most modern standards. Even a great hero such as Achilles would find himself in a dull grey twilight of eternity, a pale reflection of an all-to-brief life. "...never try to console me for dying," his spirit says to Odysseus, in the eleventh book of Homer's Odyssey. "I would rather follow the plough as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted to him, and not much to live on, than be a king over all the perished dead."

By the time that Britain became part of the Roman Empire, however, a new dimension to Roman religion had begun to emerge. Mystery cults, many of them centred on the worship of gods and goddesses from the fringes of the Roman world, spread rapidly across the Empire. Unlike the official religions, these cults were accessible only to initiates, and they offered a promise of ultimate resurrection, as a companion to a specific deity. Many of these were based on metaphors of death and rebirth drawn from elements of the natural world.

The oldest of these cults, The Mysteries of Eleusis, had grown up in ancient Greece, perhaps as early as 1500 BC, and persisted through the Second and Third Centuries AD, until they were suppressed by Christian emperors. Their focus was on Persephone, the daughter of the Goddess Demeter, who was abducted by Hades, the God of the Underworld, but rescued by her mother, and thereafter permitted to spend half the year above ground. Demeter and Persephone were associated with agrarian production, so the central metaphor concerned the growth, harvesting, re-planting and re-growth of wheat. By the beginning of the Second Century AD, however, The Mysteries of Eleusis had become one of the most exclusive clubs in the Roman world: few could afford the necessary pilgrimage to Greece, and the lengthy initiation ceremonies required to become an immortal companion of Persephone.

The "Ninnion Tablet," representing The Eleusinian Mysteries, 4th Century BC, found at Eleusis, Greece, National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo: Marsyas (licensed under GNU).

The cult of Mithras was, perhaps, the most widespread of the mystery religions in the Western Empire, not least because of its popularity within the Roman army. Originally a Persian deity, but much altered in the Roman context, the slaughtering of a bull by Mithras was the central motif, and it was through the redemptive blood of the bull that resurrection was believed to take place. Much about the cult and its rituals remains unknown, but initiation seems to have been available only to men: an odd conception of the afterlife - an eternity without women - but perhaps there was a secret twist that initiates took to their graves?

The Temple of Mithras in London. Mithras temples were underground, and represented the cave in which Mithras slew the sacred bull. Photo: Solar (licensed under CCA).
Figure of Mithras, from the London Mithraeum. Photo: Carole Raddato (licensed under CCA).

The cult of the Egyptian Goddess, Isis, seems to have been open to both men and women. In ancient Egyptian myth, her brother-husband, Osiris, was murdered, and chopped into pieces,by a treacherous rival. Isis gathered the pieces, bound them into the first "mummy," breathed new life into the body, and was then impregnated by the resurrected god, giving birth to a son, Horus. Like Mithras, she had a temple in London, although it has not been located (a flagon, found in Southwark, bears the inscription "Londini ad Fanum Isidis" - "at London by the Temple of Isis"). Her cult was closely linked to that of another Egyptian God, Serapis, who, like Demeter and Persephone, is associated with the grain harvest.

Bronze figurine of Isis, found in the Thames at London, Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain).
Figure of Serapis, from the London Mithraeum. Serapis was a Graeco-Egyptian god, closely associated with the cult of Isis. He brings together elements of the earlier Egyptian Gods, Horus (often portrayed with a falcon's head) and Apis (depicted as a bull) - the Greeks and Romans were uncomfortable with the animal attributes of Egyptian gods. His head-dress represents a grain measure. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU).
Inscription from Eboracum (York), recording the establishment of a Temple of Serapis by General Claudius Hieronymianus, Commander of the 6th Legion. He served at York from 190 to 212 AD, and may have inaugurated the temple to mark the visit of the Emperor Septimius Severus, known to be a devotee of the god. Hieronymianus later served as Governor of Cappadocia, where, Tertullian tells us, he was angered by his wife's conversion to Christianity. Some bodies in the Roman cemetery at York were buried encased in gypsum, probably an unsuccessful attempt to imitate Egyptian mummification practices. Photo: Mike Peel (, licensed under CCA. 

The cult of Bacchus seems, similarly, to have been open to men and women, and the rituals must surely have involved the consumption of much wine. The central metaphor of the cult was that of the annual cutting back of the vine in the autumn, followed by its regeneration in the spring, and the new harvest at the end of the summer. The god himself was symbolically reborn, and, with him, his male and female companions, wine taking the place of blood as the fluid by means of which resurrection is made possible.

Fourth Century figure of Bacchus, with his drinking companions, Silenus and Pan, and a female devotee, from the London Mithraeum, which was ultimately re-dedicated to Bacchus. Museum of London. The inscription reads "Hominibus Vagis Vitam" ("You give life to wandering mortals"). Photo: Zde (licensed under CCA).
Sarcophagus and lead coffin from a cemetery at Smithfield, London, Museum of London. The coffin contained the remains of a young woman of the highest social class, born in Rome, thus possibly a daughter or sister of the Governor. Some of the motifs on the coffin suggest that she may have been a devotee of Bacchus. Photo: Mike Peel (, licensed under CCA.

Christianity was, in the Second and Third Centuries AD, just another mystery cult, with Jesus as the latest heroic, divine figure, who was born; nurtured by a mother; shed his blood; died; and was resurrected; enabling his human companions to follow him into an eternal afterlife, free from all of the pains and indignities of life on Earth. Early depictions of him often resemble portrayals of Mithras, Bacchus or Horus, and his cult was especially popular with the lower classes, including slaves, excluded from many of the other cults. It was only with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, by the Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century AD that its character changed: ancient philosophical traditions were harnessed to the cause of theology, and the other cults were variously suppressed, or simply faded away.

Third Century depiction of Christ from a Roman villa at Hinton Saint Mary. Another room in the same villa included Pagan imagery, so were the family hedging their bets, or did members of the same family follow different religions? Photo: JMiall (licensed under CCA).
Isis suckling Horus, figurine in The Louvre. Such depictions, widespread throughout the Roman World, are believed to have influenced early Christian depictions of the Virgin Mary suckling the infant Christ. Photo: Guillaume Blanchard (licensed under CCA).

The mystery religions of the Second and Third Centuries AD were many and varied, but they drew on one another, and were often intertwined. Most of them offered hope in an afterlife that was absent from the official cults, and this was often in the context of a personal relationship with a deity that few (even emperors) could hope to have with Jupiter, Minerva or Venus. Many were based around similar metaphors: grain and bread; wine and blood; death and resurrection; and these metaphors, in their Christian variant, survived through the Middle Ages into our own times.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. Excellent overview of the mysteries, Mark - so look forward to your new book. Some years ago read "The Jesus Mysteries: Was The Original Jesus A Pagan God?" by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, which looked at the evidence for a Jewish Mystery School. Very interesting ideas and evidence.

  2. Nah, the original Jesus was a country rabbi who got on the wrong side of the Roman government by claiming to be the Messiah, therefore king. ;-) Christianity really didn't get going properly till Paul made it appealing to pagans. And I can see how it might have been considered just another mystery cult in its time. There were a lot of the same slanders against early Christians as the Christians later made against Jews, eg the blood libel.

    Speaking of pagan images in a non-pagan place, I have visited the Beit Alpha synagogue in Israel, where there are exquisite mosaics, including one of Helios in his four horse chariot.

  3. Thanks, Roland & Sue! The other fascinating place is Dura Europos, in Syria, although I don't suppose any of us will be visiting it any time soon. There are 2nd/3rd Century synagogues and churches with frescoes that may have been created by the same artists (quite possibly pagans). This was before the Jewish ban on representational art (or, at least, before the folks in Syria knew about the ban), so there are some truly unique images.


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