Mystery Religions in the Ancient Mediterranean (Fall 2002)


Course description

This course explores (the mysteries) in the Greco-Roman world. The mysteries were secretive rituals and gatherings associated with the worship of deities like Demeter, Dionysos, Isis, the Great Mother and Mithras. We will look at literary and archeological evidence regarding the myths and rituals associated with these goddesses and gods, considering the significance of these mysteries for the women and men who participated in them. The course concludes by looking at the relevance of the mysteries for early Judaism and Christianity.

Required Books

  • Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Marvin W. Meyer, ed. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook. Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World. Fredericksburg: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  • Course pack (ancient primary sources and modern scholarly articles)


  • Quiz (on Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults) in class Sept. 30 10%
  • Analysis of primary source 1, TBA (5 pp., no longer), due in class Oct. 16 15%
  • Test 1 in class Oct. 30 20%
  • Test 2 in class Nov. 20 20%
  • Analysis of primary source 2, TBA (8-10 pp.), due in class 25% Dec 2
  • Participation in class discussions and attendance 10%


Discussion schedule:

Unit 1: Orientation

Sept 4


Sept 9, 11

The Ancient Mediterranean: Geography, Society, and Culture Honouring the Gods and Goddesses (Religion) in the Greco-Roman World

Readings: Burkert, introduction and ch. 1; Cole, "Greek Cults" and Ferguson, "Roman Cults" (course pack)

Sept 16, 18

The "Mysteries" within Ancient Religious Life (Official and Unofficial)

Readings: Burkert, chs. 2-3; Meyer, ch. 1;

Unit 2: The Mysteries in Myth and Practice (Varieties)

Sept 23

The Grain Mother and Daughter (Demeter and Kore) from Eleusis (Greece),

Part 1

Readings: Meyer, ch. 2 (esp. Homeric Hymn to Demeter); Burkert, ch. 4

Sept 25

Part 2

Readings: Meyer, ch. 2 (esp. Herodotus and Aristophanes)

Sept 30

Quiz and discussion on Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (be sure to complete reading by this class)

*Quiz in class Sept 30

Oct 2

Mysteries of the "Great gods" at Samothrace (Asia Minor) and of the deities at Andania (Greece)

Readings: Meyer, ch. 2 (Diodorus Siculus and Herodotus on pp. 38-42) and ch. 3

Oct 7

Dionysos, God of Wine and Ecstacy, Part 1

Readings: Meyer, ch. 4 (esp. Euripides, Achilles Tatius, Pausanius); Henrichs, "Changing Dionysiac Identities" (course pack)

Oct 9

Dionysos, Part 2

Readings: Meyer, ch. 4 (esp. Livy)

Oct 14

***No class - University closed for Thanksgiving***

Oct 16

Dionysos, Part 3; Orpheus

Readings: Meyer, ch. 4 (esp. "Rule of the Iobacchoi" Plato and the "Orphic Hymns")

*Analysis of primary source due in class Oct 16

Oct 21

The Great Mother and Her Lover (Cybele and Attis) from Anatolia/Asia Minor, Part 1

Readings: Meyer, ch. 5 (esp. Arnobius, Livy and Catullus)

Oct 23

Part 2

Readings: Meyer, ch. 5 (esp. Prudentius, Apuleius of Madaura, Hippolytus)

Oct 28

The Mother Goddess from Syria (Hierapolis) Readings: Meyer, ch. 5 (Lucian of Samosata, The Syrian Goddess on pp. 120-141, Josephus)

Oct 30

*Test in class Oct 30

Nov 4

Isis and Osiris from Egypt, Part 1

Readings: Meyer, ch. 6 (esp. Plutarch, "Isis Aretalogy from Cyme," "Isis Love Spell...")

Nov 6

Part 2

Readings: Meyer, ch. 6 (esp. Apuleius of Madauros, The Golden Ass, book 11)

Nov 11

Mithras from Persia, Part 1

Readings: Meyer, ch. 7; Gordon, "Authority, Salvation and Mystery in the Mysteries of Mithras" (course pack)

Nov 13

Part 2

Readings: Meyer, ch. 7

Nov 18

Other Greco-Roman Mysteries Alexander the "false-prophet" Mysteries for the emperors as gods

Readings: Meyer, pp. 42-45 ("Lucian of Samosata, Alexander the False Prophet"); Jones, "Alexander of Abonuteichos" (course pack)

Nov 20

*Test in class Nov 20 Nov 25 Movie and discussion

Nov 27

The Mysteries within Judaism and Christianity, Part 1

Readings: Meyer, ch. 8; Ascough, "The Ancient Mysteries" (course pack)

Dec 2

Part 2

Readings: Meyer, ch. 8

*Final paper due in class Dec 2