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“Mystery Cults” (mystèria, teletai, orgia, etc.) and Their Specialized Actors

in “CHRONOS : Chronologies of Religious Evolutions : Religious Forms, Cult Practices and Agents (2nd cent. B.C.-1st cent. A.D.)”


Nicole Belayche (EPHE)
Francesco Massa (Aix-Marseille ; ANHIMA associé)


Louise Bruit (Paris 7), Dan Dana (CNRS), Renée Koch Piettre (EPHE), Thomas Galoppin (EPHE doctorant), Kevin Bouillot (EPHE doctorant), Daniela Bonanno (Palerme), Anne-Françoise Jaccottet (Genève), Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge (Liège)


The question of “mysteries” (mysteria, teletai, orgia, etc.) and their specialized actors has long figured among the interpretive debates over the diffusion and generalization of peculiar religious forms. Over the last thirty years, the study of mystery cults in the Greek and Roman worlds has largely been revisited. The publication of Walter Burkert’s Ancient Mystery Cults in 1987 marked indeed a turning point in the history of the field, bringing an end to the hermeneutic model of “mystery religions” born in the 19th century and widely used in studies of the German Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Nonetheless, Burkert’s phenomenological approach has also shown its limitations. The analysis of “mysteries” requires a chronological and geographical approach, since such cults are not an absolute type.

The ritual reality that is implicit in the term mysteria (or teletai) is shadowed by its very nature as the designation of a closed ceremony that must not be revealed. Usage of the term ranges from an initiation ritual on the Eleusinian model to every way of experiencing a deity and its power. In the Imperial period, one notices a proliferation of mystery terminology, both in literary and philosophical texts and in epigraphic testimonies, and not only for honors offered to emperors as it was previously asserted. Obviously, though, the interpretation of mysteries does not start in the Roman era. Examination will determine whether the proliferation of mystery terminology precedes this era and whether evidence from the Hellenistic period can enlighten a definition of mysteries.

The investigation will proceed in two parts, one theoretical and one historical, to be carried out side by side.
1. Terminology.
Three terms at least (the most common terms) in ancient sources designate what Moderns call “mysteries” : mysteria, teletai, orgia. Even though their meanings have nuances, all the three terms are used fluidly in religious contexts. A lexical analysis of literary and epigraphic documents will help clarify their usage, while also paying attention to visible practices and unique chronological and geographic circumstances.
2. Internal Developments.
The investigation will attempt to trace the potential evolution of mystery cults. In order to do so, we will study various specific dossiers from between the second century B.C.E and the first century C.E. (from Eleusis to the mysteries of Dionysus, Samothrace, Andania, etc.) to determine whether there is a caesura in the evolution of mystery cults beginning in the Hellenistic period.


– Prospective workshop, Paris, INHA, January 24-25, 2014 : presentation of the topic.
– « Les ‘mystères’ de l’Antiquité grecque et romaine : retour sur le concept et les réalités », 24-25 novembre 2014, INHA, N. Belayche & F. Massa org.


“Comment figurer un ‘mystère’ ?Réponses antiques et éclairages comparés”, INHA, 9-10 octobre 2015, N. Belayche & F. Massa org.

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