It is difficult for us today to visualize a thought-world which contained a heaven populated with dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of gods. Yet most people in the Roman world, apart from Jews and Christians, lived with the conviction there was a variety of gods, all requiring worship. All had their temples, their priesthoods, their followers. Each had a particular role to perform. Some people argued there could be only one god, but their influence was slight.

Three types of gods had their place in the Roman pantheon. There were the gods of civic religion, such as Janus, Jupiter, and Mars, inherited from Italy’s ancient inhabitants. There were the newly created gods, the emperors deified after their deaths—and sometimes before. And there were the gods of the mystery religions, Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and others, oriental cults brought to Rome by travelers, soldiers, and imported slaves. The God of the Jews and the God of the Christians were quite separate, but otherwise the various cults—civic, imperial, and oriental—dwelt more or less happily together.

The role of the civic cults was to reinforce the cohesion of the state. The Roman matrons had their own, as did the aristocratic families in general. There were cults for tradesmen and cults for soldiers. Each had its own meeting place, and their festivals brought people together socially and strengthened the bonds between them.

None of this had much to do with personal religion. Perhaps for the majority of people the external acts associated with the civic or imperial cults were enough to satisfy whatever need they felt for religious observance.

But there were those for whom it was not enough. They felt the need for assurance of personal salvation in a world increasingly filled with demons and other unseen powers. For persons such as these, the mystery cults provided an answer.

These cults had in common some classical or oriental myth, typically one of death and rebirth. They were also secret. Even today little is known about them, and what is known may have been colored by the views of Christians. There were elaborate initiation ceremonies; there were purifications; there were ritual meals. Those who had been initiated were assured some form of communion with the divinity they worshiped, a communion which in turn guaranteed them salvation. What made them especially attractive was that, in contrast to the civic cults, they cut across boundaries of class and race.

—Michael Walsh

The Triumph of the Meek

Curious Mystery Religions

Here, from other sources, are ancient accounts of practices in the mystery religions (though not all rites were this dramatic).

Bathing in bull’s blood—This rite was usually offered to expiate sins and grant rebirth for a period of 20 years. It was used in the cults of Cybele, the Great Mother, and less frequently, Mithras. This somewhat sarcastic account is from the second century.

As you know, a trench is dug, and the high priest plunges deep underground to be sanctified. He wears a curious headband, fastens fillets [ribbons] for the occasion around his temples, fixes his hair with a crown of gold, holds up his robes of silk with a belt from Gabii.

Over his head they lay a plank platform criss-cross, fixed so that the wood is open, not solid; then they cut or bore through the floor and make holes in the wood with an awl at several points till it is plentifully perforated with small openings.

A large bull, with grim, shaggy features and garlands of flowers round his neck or entangling his horns, is escorted to the spot. They consecrate a spear and with it pierce his breast. A gaping wound disgorges a stream of blood, still hot, and pours a steaming flood on the lattice of the bridge below, flowing copiously. Then the shower drops through the numerous paths offered by the thousand cracks, raining a ghastly dew.

The priest in the pit below catches the drops, puts his head underneath each one till it is stained, till his clothes and all his body are soaked in corruption. Yes, and he lays his head back, puts his cheeks in the stream, sets his ears underneath, gets lips and nose in the way, bathes his very eyes in the drops, does not spare his mouth, wets his tongue till he drains deep the blood with every pore. When the blood is exhausted the priests drag away the carcass, now growing stiff, from the structure of planks.

Then the high priest emerges, a grim spectacle. He displays his dripping head, his congealed beard, his sopping ornaments, his clothes inebriated. He bears all the stains of this polluting rite, filthy with the gore of the atoning victim just offered—and everyone stands to one side, welcomes him, honors him, just because he has been buried in a beastly pit and washed with the wretched blood of a dead ox.

Sacred guidelines—Some prescriptions of the mystery cult of Dionysus, also second century A.D.:

All you who enter the precinct and shrines of Bromios, abstain for forty days after exposing a young child [to die], for fear of divine wrath: the same number of days for a woman’s miscarriage. Do not approach the altars of our Lord in black clothes. Do not begin the sacred feast until the dishes have been blessed. Do not serve an egg at the sacred meal in the mysteries of Bacchus. Refrain from burning the heart on the holy altar. Abstain from mint … and the abominable root of beans.

Praying to the sun—A prayer from an undetermined mystery religion:

O Lord, hail, great in power, king great in sovereignty, greatest of gods, Helios [Sun], Lord of heaven and earth, god of gods, mighty is thy breath, mighty is thy power.