Mystery Cults in the Ancient World


A landmark study of ancient Greek and Roman cults, from the nocturnal mysteries at Eleusis to the cults of Dionysus and Mithras


ISBN: 9780500297278 Category:

Hugh Bowden


A landmark study of ancient Greek and Roman cults, from the nocturnal mysteries at Eleusis to the cults of Dionysus and Mithras.

Mystery cults are one of the most intriguing areas of Greek and Roman religion. In the nocturnal mysteries at Eleusis, participants dramatically re-enacted the story of Demeter’s loss and recovery of her daughter Persephone; in Bacchic cult, bands of women ran wild in the Greek countryside to honour Dionysus; in the mysteries of Mithras, men came to understand the nature of the universe and their place within it through frightening initiation ceremonies and astrological teachings.

These cults were an important part of life in the ancient Mediterranean world, but their actual practices were shrouded in secrecy, and much of what they were about has remained unclear until now. This is the first book to describe and explain all the major mystery cults of the ancient world, cult by cult, reconstructing the rituals and exploring their origins. It makes plentiful use of artistic and archaeological evidence, as well as ancient literature and epigraphy. Greek painted pottery, Roman frescoes, inscribed gold tablets from Greek and South Italian tombs and the excavated sites of ancient religious sanctuaries all contribute to our understanding of ancient mystery cults. Making use of the most recent work on these cults, the book is also informed by crucial current work on the anthropology and cognitive science of religion.

Not only is this clearly written book a significant contribution to the study of these cults, but it is also accessible to a general readership. More than any other book on ancient religion, it allows the reader to understand what it was like to participate in these life-transforming religious events.

Additional information

Weight 318 g
Dimensions 12.8 x 19.6 cm
Publisher name Thames and Hudson Ltd
Publication date 18 October 2023
Number of pages 320
Format Paperback / softback
Dimensions 12.8 x 19.6 cm
Weight 318 g


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Hugh Bowden is Professor of Ancient History and Head of Arts at King's College London's Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Among his other books are Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: Divination and Democracy and Herakles and Hercules.