Sunday, December 21, 2014


Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. Münchner Vorlesungen zu antiken Welten, Bd 1. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. xviii, 256. ISBN 9783110299298. $84.00.

Reviewed by Hugh Bowden, King's College London (

Version at BMCR home site

Complete text

In this short but thoroughly researched book, Jan Bremmer focuses on reconstructing the religious rituals of various mystery cults in antiquity. It is not therefore a study of 'initiation' as a general phenomenon, but of different initiation ceremonies. The implications of this are an issue to which I will return. The six chapters and two appendices can be read independently of each other (and have mostly been presented in separate talks in a number of locations, as the notes make clear), but they do form a more or less coherent whole.

Chapter I, 'Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries: A "Thin" Description', offers a new reconstruction of the whole programme of the Eleusinian Mysteries, with a particular focus on what happened in the sanctuary. There is plenty of room for scholarly debate about the details of the festival, and Bremmer makes clear on which side of the debate he comes down in each case. Thus he argues that would-be initiates were 'introduced into the secret teachings of the Mysteries' before the ceremony (3); there was a single procession, rather than two separate ones as favoured by some scholars (5 n. 31); the myesis and the epopteia were separate rituals that happened on different nights, rather than the latter being the same ritual experienced for the second time (11). In coming to his conclusions Bremmer pays a lot of attention to the (mostly very late) literary evidence and the arguments of modern scholars, which are given summary approval or criticism. For example Kevin Clinton's reconstruction of the events is dismissed as 'in my opinion unpersuasive' (1 n. 2). But Bremmer does not shy away from making comparisons with modern times: 'At times, the scene must have resembled that of fervent Catholic or Shi'ite processions' (6); 'the ancient Greeks were not yet like modern consumers who would certainly have demanded their money back if they had not seen everything. We may better compare church services in medieval cathedrals' (16). While there is a thorough analysis of the literature, the site itself is not so carefully considered. Pausanias (1.38.7) declined to describe anything within the walls of the sanctuary at Eleusis, suggesting that the whole of the sanctuary area had special significance. Bremmer has would-be initiates entering the sanctuary on arrival, then (presumably) coming out again to witness sacrifices, before going back in again – and only what took place within the telesterion counted as 'the actual initiation' (9). In his brief discussion of the goal of the Mysteries (18-20) Bremmer plays down the importance of eschatology in favour of an emphasis on agricultural fertility, but he notes that 'people will have made their own choices about what to bring home from the festival' (20).

Chapter II, 'Mysteries at the Interface of Greece and Anatolia: Samothracian Gods, Kabeiori and Korybantes', similarly attempts to reconstruct the ritual of initiation into the mysteries of the Great Gods of Samothrace, the Kab(e)iroi on Lemnos and in Boeotia, and the Korybantes primarily in Erythrae. Bremmer emphasizes the paucity of the evidence, but suggests that the ritual on Samothrace (but oddly not that on Athenian-controlled Lemnos) was modeled on that of Eleusis. He also suggests that the rituals of the Kabeiroi 'seem to have been a jollier affair than the more serious Eleusinian Mysteries' (48).

Chapter III, 'Orpheus, Orphism and Orphic-Bacchic Mysteries', starts with a discussion of 'Orphism' as a historical phenomenon, with a focus on Athens: Bremmer sees Orphic texts and an 'Orphic lifestyle', which 'rejected central values of Greek society of their day', being introduced to Athens in the fifth century by Orphic initiators (69-70). In taking this approach he aligns himself with the work of Alberto Bernabé (and against e.g. Radcliffe Edmonds, whose views are described as 'ultimately unpersuasive' (74 n. 104)). He goes on to suggest a convergence of these Orphic ideas and practices with Dionysiac ecstatic rituals to create Orphic-Bacchic Mysteries, the evidence for which is found in the Derveni Papyrus and the so-called 'Orphic Gold Leaves, and which he sees as similar to 'New Age cults' in the modern world (80).

Chapter IV, 'Greek Mysteries in Roman Times', focuses on two areas: 'local Greek mysteries', by which are meant the cult of Despoina at Lycosura, of the Great Gods at Andania, and of Hecate on Aegina, and 'the Dionysiac Mysteries'. We have the evidence of Pausanias for the local cults, and in the case of Andania a substantial inscription. These are the basis of Bremmer's reconstructions, but some of his assumptions seem at least open to question. In particular he emphasizes the solemnity of the events at the Andanian Mysteries, or at least the intention of solemnity ('Perhaps those who had already been initiated before were later less impressed and chatted to their neighbours or made funny faces at inappropriate moments.' (95)). There is no suggestion that such festivals were at the same time social and commercial occasions (as clearly was the festival of Isis at Tithoreia according to Pausanias (10.32.15).) The second part of the chapter discusses the vexed issue of Dionysiac Mysteries. Bremmer excludes from the book Greek maenadic practices, on the basis that these did not involve initiation. He also recognizes that the evidence for initiation associated with Dionysus is very limited (101-2). Nonetheless he offers what he calls a 'rather speculative' reconstruction, drawing on a range of literary and iconographic sources from across the Roman empire (102-9).

The first half of Chapter V, 'The Mysteries of Isis and Mithras', is essentially a discussion of the first description of initiation in Apuleius Metamorphoses, Book XI, which is taken to be a reasonably reliable account of Isiac initiation. The second half discusses the problems of reconstructing Mithraic initiation. Evidence for Mithraic rituals is very limited, but Bremmer argues that the evidence from the Mithraeum at Capua and the Mainz cup point to 'trials of humiliation and harassment', and further suggests, 'it is reasonable to suppose that the roughest treatment of an initiate would take place at the beginning when he was still fairly unknown to the others' (135-6).

Chapter VI, 'Did the Mysteries influence early Christianity?', begins with a discussion of the history of the study of mystery cult, with a particular focus on Rudolf Steiner, Isaac Casaubon and Arthur Darby Nock, intended to demonstrate that 'all efforts to derive earliest Christianity from the ancient Mysteries have been unsuccessful' (154). This is followed by discussion of the attitude of Christian apologists to 'Pagan' mysteries, which undergoes change from the hostility and rejection of earlier writers, to the co-option of mysteric terminology in the period after Constantine when the dominance of Christianity was assured. Bremmer notes in conclusion that mystery cults were never so widespread in society as to pose any real threat to the rise of Christianity.

The book is rounded off with two appendices, which have a tangential relationship to the main text. The first is a discussion of 'Demeter and Eleusis in Megara', offered as a set of observations on local cults. It deals with the temples of Demeter, the festival of the Thesmophoria (where Athenian and Megarian celebrations are compared) and the cult of Demeter Malophoros. No overall conclusions are drawn. The second appendix, 'The Golden Bough: Orphic, Eleusinian and Hellenistic-Jewish Sources of Virgil's underworld in Aeneid VI', proposes a revision of the discussion of the sources for the description of the underworld in Eduard Norden's commentary on Aeneid VI. Bremmer draws attention to those passages which appear to show 'Orphic and Eleusinian beliefs', and he also suggests the possibility that Virgil borrowed from 1 Enoch, a Jewish text of the third century BC. It is not clear whether such borrowings would have been direct, or via postulated 'Orphic katabaseis with Enochian influence' (204).

Bremmer expresses the hope at the end of the main part of the book, 'that I have succeeded in making these age-old Mysteries just a little bit less mysterious' (165). This prompts the question any reader must ask of this work: why should one prefer Bremmer's interpretation over that of previous scholars?

The first thing to note is that his bibliography is substantial (34 pages) and very definitely up-to-date: there are no fewer than 60 items from 2013 and seven from 2014. Some credit should also go to the publishers, De Gruyter, for the speed of production, and they should be congratulated even more for making the volume Open Access (under a Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0" license), and therefore free to all.

However, while Bremmer appears to have read everything that has been written on Greek religion in the last several decades, he cites very little other material. As I have noted, he is not averse to making comparisons with religion in the modern world, sometimes more convincingly than at others: he dismisses the idea that astrological ideas played a significant role in Mithraic cult by suggesting that 'just as most modern Protestants have not ploughed through the 13 volumes of Karl Barth's Kirchliche Dogmatik and most Catholics were not terribly interested in the latest dogmatic insights of Pope Benedict XVI, we need not suppose that most Mithras worshippers followed or were interested in these highly complicated speculations' (130). Given the visibility of astrologers and astrological symbolism in the Roman world, some might find the parallel 'unpersuasive' (to use Bremmer's adjective of choice). He is also aware of the importance of experience in religious activity, and of the potential value of scientific approaches: he notes at one point that 'recent neurological research has stressed that a good walk can produce euphoric effects' (7), but cites the research only indirectly, via a work on medieval Christian pilgrimage. But he shows no interest in work in the field of the cognitive science of religion: there is no place in the bibliography for Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley,1 or Harvey Whitehouse,2 despite the fact that much of Whitehouse's fieldwork dealt with initiation. Not all scholars of ancient religion are convinced that the work of cognitive scientists has anything to offer the study of ancient religion, but it seems odd to acknowledge the value of the work of the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner from the 1960s (7), and not to consider much more recent work in the area.

Bremmer's intention in this book is clear: he aims to reconstruct the actual initiation rituals associated with the various cults he discusses. This deliberately narrow focus means that he inevitably pays less attention to the wider context in which these rituals belonged. But such an approach may actually make the aim harder to achieve. If we are to ask why individuals chose to be initiated into these cults, or what the experience felt like, it helps to know how these rituals fitted in to wider social activity—not only religious activity. And since 'religion' in the ancient world did not necessarily occupy the same social space as in the modern world, comparisons between ancient religious rituals and modern ones may be at best limited and at worst misleading. Bremmer repeatedly notes that the ancient evidence is difficult to use and not reliable. How then can we determine what to trust and what not to? There is no easy answer to this question. But even if Bremmer's conclusions can be challenged, he has provided us with a very firm basis for developing alternative arguments. That is the value of the best kind of scholarship, and students of ancient religion should be grateful for this work, even more so because it can be reached by a single click of a mouse.


1.   E.g. McCauley, Robert N., and E. Thomas Lawson. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
2.   E.g. Whitehouse, Harvey. Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford University Press, 2000.

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