“The word mystery (mysterion in Greek) derives from the Greek verb myein, “to close,” referring to the closing of the lips or the eyes”. Mystery religions were some of the most famous non-traditional religions of the Hellenistic era…
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Although the religions were present several years before the Hellenistic era, their popularity increased significantly during this period and even spread through the entire Mediterranean region (Ferguson, 1980, p. 157). The mystery religions were created in several diverse geographical areas including India, Iran, Egypt and Greece, yet all of the mystery religions were based on myths that were very similar to each other. Although they were diverse in geographical origin, heterogeneous in historical development, and theological orientation, during the Hellenistic period the various mysteries shared a similar response to the religious needs of the day, and they resembled each other sufficiently to warrant being classified and discussed together” (Meyer, 1987, p. 4). This paper will mainly focus on the Greek mystery religions in the Hellenistic period. The mystery religions, which were often considered cults, promised their followers good things although most of these promises were never fulfilled. Examples of the mystery religions were the worship of single deities like Demeter, Kore, Orpheus, Isis and Cybele (Grant, 1962, p. 98). These figures were taken from ancient myths and legends, telling stories of Demeter, the goddess of grain, and her daughter Kore, also known by the name Persephone, Orpheus and his lute and other major figures. (Tripolitis, 2002, p. 17) They mingle stories about the world of men and the home of the gods on Mount Olympus, relating natural events like the passing of the seasons to myths about the underworld. By attaching stories to these things, people gave meaning to their lives, and through rituals and gifts, felt that they could have some influence on how their crops would turn out, or how they would get through the darkness of winter. Although literature and history do not always recognize the importance of the mystery religions in the Hellenistic era, they were a significant part of the Greek culture and without a doubt influenced many aspects of life. As a result of this they also affected history and there is plenty of evidence in the form of statues, ritual objects, paintings and other relics which show how these divine figures were part of daily life. Of further importance is the legacy the mystery religions left, and how they affected subsequent religions. It appears that the mystery religions had great similarities with early Christianity. This paper will therefore discuss what the mystery religions were during the Hellenistic era, how much we can find out about them and what they had in common with early Christianity. The background of the mystery religions In comparison to the previous Hellenic culture the Hellenistic society was multicultural, open, and tolerant (Mathews and Platt, 2008, p.87). Before, and during the Hellenistic period the Greek citizens worshiped the Olympian gods and goddesses. Greek religion was an indispensable part of private and public life and the polis and religion could not be separated (Mathews and Platt, p.43). The Hellenistic period, from the time of Alexander the Great through the Ptolemaic, Seleucid, and Antigonid Kingdoms established by his successors, witnessed the transformation of the polis (city-state). It can be argued that Alexander the Great’s conquest of 336-323 B.C.E. was a main factor that initiated the profound changes to the values of the old Greek polis and the Olympian gods and goddesses linked to the polis (Meyer, 1987, p.2). These changes most likely began because of the growing contact with other civilizations, including Egypt and the New East. During this time Macedonia overtook and philosophy, religion and every other aspect of life began to change. Although heirs of the
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