Thursday, April 7, 2011


Giovanni Casadio, Patricia A. Johnston (ed.), Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 372. ISBN 9780292719026. $60.00.

Reviewed by Kirsten Bedigan, University of Glasgow (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume presents the proceedings of a symposium on "The Mystic Cults of Magna Graecia" which took place at the Villa Vergiliana in Cuma, Italy in 2002. The symposium sought "to examine the evidence in the material remains and surviving literature related to cults of Greek, Oriental, and Egyptian origin in southern Italy and the religious perceptions of the practices in Rome" (p.1). The volume begins with an introduction by Casadio and Johnston, who place the discussion in context and clarify the themes presented in the papers, as well as offering a comprehensive overview of the previous research in this subject area. The contributions have been divided by the editors into three categories: Dionysus and Orpheus, Demeter and Isis, and Mithras. This volume should be approached primarily as a collection of papers which offer perspectives on the current debates regarding the archaeological and literary evidence of mystic cults in southern Italy. It also presents revised summaries of previously published material.

Casadio focuses on the textual evidence for the cults of Dionysus at Cumae in a paper which extends previous research on the worship of Dionysus in Magna Graecia.1 The discussion begins with the earliest evidence for the cult, a fifth-century BC inscription, and neatly summarises the published arguments as to whether the cult in question was Dionysiac or Orphic. Given the ambiguous nature of the text, Casadio necessarily avoids reaching a definitive conclusion. The ceramic material, in the form of the Anacreontic vases, is acknowledged and is discussed in relation to the nature of the cult as preserved in Aristodemus. The vase paintings of Dionysus are also the focus of Isler-Kerényi's paper, which explores how painters and users of vases viewed the god. The paper offers short summaries of Dionysus' role in connection with the stability of the polis and the thiasos as an indicator of ritual reintegration. It then offers more detailed interpretations of several vase images. Whilst the ideas presented are valid, there remains much work to be done on this line of enquiry and this paper should be viewed, perhaps, as a good starting point for future endeavours.

The interpretation of βάκχος and βακχεύειν in Orphism are presented by San Cristóbal. The paper begins with a discussion of these terms as they are usually understood within a Dionysiac context. The meanings of the terms are altered in Orphism to indicate non-violent rather than violent activity.

The gold Orphic tablets are also addressed. Edmonds explores the narratives presented within this corpus, with particular focus on the A1, A2 and A3 tablets from Thurii. These, in contrast to other tablets, show the deceased moving easily through the underworld before being granted a solution to his problem—a solution normally associated with his intended destination within Hades or his transition from mortal to immortal. The value of the text centres on the concept that it is the deceased's definition of his own identity which is central to the narrative and its outcome. A useful companion to this argument is Bernabé's interpretation of textual and iconographic evidence pertaining to the image of the underworld as presented in Orphic religion. The destinations for both the just and unjust are discussed, along with the guardians of these respective areas. Bernabé concludes that while initiation offered a chance to reach the 'happy place', the existence and knowledge of 'terrors' acted 'as a kind of psychological vaccine'(p.125) to ensure that initiates stayed on the correct path.

The last paper in the section pertaining to Dionysus and Orpheus seems, at first glance, incompatible with the other papers. Griffith's paper focuses on the character of Eumolpus and his desire to be cannibalized after death so as to acquire a 'living tomb'. The analysis of this interesting individual explores the origins of this idea and its relationship to reincarnation as well as the difficulties faced with such a situation. Consumption of Eumolpus would ensure that he continues to 'live' after death - this notion, that the individual becomes immortal after death, is also discussed in Edmonds (p.80) - even if it did not quite fit with the spiritual ideal (p.136).

The largest number of papers in the volume concern themselves with Demeter and Isis as well as other related cults. Gasparro details a selection of the textual evidence for the Thesmophoria before offering an overview of the sanctuary of Demeter at Poseidonia-Paestum (in San Nicola di Albanella) using the evidence derived from the texts. The conclusions indicate that this particular cult had its roots in local tradition and, in contrast to the Thesmophoria as practiced elsewhere in the Graeco-Roman world, involved active participation by both men and women. Male participation in the Demeter cult can be seen in Lucchese's paper, which posits that, in constructing a sanctuary to Demeter and Nemesis/Ops in honour of his deceased wife, Herodes Atticus appears to have had ulterior motives. It is possible that he played a part in her demise, and by appropriating her position as a descendant of Aeneas, Herodes reminds us of his loss while offering himself as Aeneas' counterpart. The nature of the divinities to which the sanctuary is dedicated could be interpreted as an attempt by Herodes to publicly display his innocence.

Echoing the journeys in the underworld depicted in the narratives and iconography discussed by Edmonds and Bernabé, Clark also details the topography of the land of the dead through the location of the various female monsters encountered within it. Emphasis is clearly placed on the interpretation offered by Norden 2, namely, that the topography and features "were influenced by a now-lost epic version of the descent into the underworld by the Eleusinian Herakles" (p.22-23). Clark's conclusion, in this paper (and elsewhere 3) instead suggests that the necro-landscape was altered as a means of heightening the terrors of Aeneas' experience.

The shrine of Persephone at the Grotto Caruso near Locri is discussed in MacLachan's paper. The focus is on the deposits at the shrine, including those which have erotic overtones Both Pan and Dionysus play a role here, and MacLachan also makes a tentative connection to the Orphic narratives. As a result, the arguments in this paper relate to the underworld presented by Edmonds earlier in the volume. The chthonic connection is further strengthened by the inclusion of the figure of Euthymos, a local hero. What emerges from this evidence is a cult that appears to have roots in a number of different traditions, mainly pertaining to experiences of transition or rites of passage.

The relative positions of Isis and Osiris within the Roman pantheon are explored by Brenk. In Apuleius' Metamorphoses, Osiris is depicted as the more senior deity, and this appears to be the situation in Rome during the second century AD. However, at Pompeii, Isis was supreme. Brenk attributes this difference to the relative positions of these deities in the eyes of the emperors. The rise of Osiris can be linked to Domitian and Vespasian, primarily through the prediction from the Sarapeion at Alexandria of the latter's rise to power. The remainder of the paper focuses upon the frescoes from the temple at Pompeii, exploring the iconography that documents the supremacy of Isis over her brother. Our knowledge of the cult of Isis in southern Italy is further developed through the interpretation of the evidence at Cumae. Caputo summarises the archaeological evidence pertaining to a small building complex with a pool. The finds from within the pool itself show a strong Egyptian connection as well as evidence of deliberate breakage before deposition. The question Caputo asks is whether this material can be interpreted as an indication that Cumae had its own Isaeum. The paper argues that this is indeed the case, and that there may be additional evidence for Egyptian cults within the city.

The final paper in the section on Demeter and Isis also relates to Dionysus and Orpheus. Johnston discusses the various cults as they appear in Vergil's Georgics. Her paper highlights the common themes of death, agricultural cycles and fertility. The mysteries of Cybele, Dionysus/Bacchus/Liber, Eleusis, Isis and Osiris are summarised and observations are offered as to their relative popularity and key features as well as their representation in the poem. Herakles is also included, despite having no associated cult, because his participation in the Eleusinian mysteries warrants discussion. As Johnston observes in the conclusion, "the Georgics…retain a number of…Egyptian and possibly Isiac elements, in contrast to the Aeneid, in which all references to things Egyptian are clearly cast in a negative light" (p.265). Johnston links this negativity to Augustus' view of Egypt in the light of Actium. However, many Egyptian elements were integral to Vergil's work and had to be retained (p.267). An appendix discussing the Agone tablet completes this article and offers some observations on Vergil's selection of deities for his poem.

The last section of the volume deals with Mithras. Two of the papers focus on the Mithraeum at Capua Vetere. Martin considers the roles of Amor and Psyche in Mithraic religion through the application of cognitive theory. The evidence for a relationship between Amor, Psyche, and Mithras is extremely limited; a difficulty which extends to Mithraic cult and its practice as well, due to the lack of textual evidence (p.290). Martin argues that his role is dependent on the concept that Amor is present in the cult as a guide for the soul of the initiate through his trials. These rites can vary dramatically from site to site, and he focuses primarily on the presence of 'rites of terror' as portrayed in the frescoes at the Capua Vetere Mithraeum. The frescoes also form the basis of Gordon's paper, which aims to explicate the initiatory practices of the cult. The idea of initiation through bodily suffering is present in studies of Christian martyrdom and Gordon draws on this evidence to support his conclusion. The enigmatic nature of these frescoes is also emphasised, especially in relation to the lack of concrete interpretation which has led many studies of Mithraic initiation and cult ritual to avoid them. Palmer focuses his paper on the characteristic bull sacrifice of Mithraism-- the Tauroctony--with particular emphasis on the wounds inflicted as part of this rite. The physical difficulties in sacrificing an animal in this manner are explored. The dissection of the foreleg and its significance within Egyptian mythology and astronomy point to an alternate interpretation. The foreleg, separated from the body, had its own symbolic function within the Mithraic cult and Palmer argues that the Tauroctony in fact depicts the first stage in this dissection.

Overall, this volume presents an excellent range of papers pertaining to a selection of mystic cults practiced in Magna Graecia. Many of the papers offer direction for further academic study. This collection represents a valuable resource for scholars of mystic and mystery cults as well as ancient religion. Sadly, some illustrations are reproduced at too small a scale to discern details or lack clarity when printed in black and white. In general, however, the volume is well-produced.


1.   Casadio, P.A. 'Dioniso italiota: Un dio Greco in Italia meridionale,' in Forme di religiosità e tradizioni sapienziali in Magna Graecia, (AION 16, 1994), (Pisa and Rome, 1995) 79-107.
2.   Norden, E. P. Vergilius Maro: Aeneis Buch VI. (Leipzig and Berlin, 1926).
3.   Clark, R.J. 'How Vergil expanded the Underworld in Aeneid 6.' PCPhS 53 (2001), 308-309.

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