Roman-era Mystery Cults: Bremmer’s Recent Book
I’ve just learned from my friend, the respected scholar of ancient religion, Jan Bremmer (University of Groningen), about his recently published book on ancient “mystery cults”: Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation Into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014). I immediately read a few chapters, and can already register my praise for the book. It’s a readable, obviously informed study, drawing upon and engaging the whole history of scholarship on these ancient religious developments. Another noteworthy feature is that it is an “open access” publication, the “epub” version available free. The online version is freely available here.
As Bremmer notes, scholarly understanding of these various “mystery cults” has developed (and changed, markedly in some matters) over the last 100+ years. For example, there are now doubts about previous claims of supposedly common “dying/rising gods” (there are gods that die, but hard to find gods that get resurrected). To cite another example, it’s now increasingly thought that the “Mithraism” of the Roman era wasn’t actually an import from the East, but instead a concoction in the Roman empire itself.
Moreover, Bremmer helpfully emphasizes that some of the “mystery cults” were local cults, very much linked with a particular site or area, whereas others (e.g., Isis and Mithras) were much more trans-local and trans-ethnic.
Bremmer’s particular focus is on what we can know of the rituals, the actual practices of each of the mystery cults, e.g., initiation rituals, what devotees did when they met, etc. This brings to the many other books on these movements a helpful contribution that allows us to get more of a sense of what it was like to take part in these groups.
Of direct relevance to this blog site, Bremmer also considers questions (and dubious claims) about the relationship of early Christianity and these mystery cults, and he gives a nuanced, cogently argued, and well-supported analysis. He proposes that it is far easier to see borrowings or influences from some of the mystery cults on Christianity in the fourth century and thereafter. In the prior centuries, however, it’s hard to substantiate claims for such influences. Christians in the second century sometimes drew upon terminology used in the mystery cults to make contrasts with Christianity, but, of course, that’s not the same thing as being influenced/shaped by mystery cults.
But, as the book is so freely available, there’s little need for me to prattle on about it further here. Those interested can digest it for themselves.