One thing about ancient history that never fails to interest me, and (at least I hope) the people I chat about history to, is the really strange cultic rituals the ancient Greeks and Romans got up to. There are far too many to write about in this short blog post, and I’m almost certain that historians and archeologists haven’t yet discovered all of the ancient cults of the past yet, however I am going to tell you about just three of my favourite ancient cults.
The Cult of Bacchus
Bacchus, or Dionysus if you’re a Roman, was the god of wine, pleasure and sex. The Gods were publicly worshipped in Rome as an integral part of everyday culture, but in the second century BC there was a cult of around 7000 men and women who performed various rituals in secret, which was unknown to the general public. This celebration and worship of Bacchus was feared and hated by society, as they had huge feasts and orgies, as well as the occasional torture of participants, which was not seen as a proper way of living by Roman standards, especially as the women were seen to be enjoying it. When the senate found out about this cult, a senatorial decree was passed, allowing punishment which could be as severe as execution for people involved within the cult. Cultic worship of Bacchus was outlawed, as it was made illegal for more than three people to perform rituals in honour of this deity.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
A cult dedicated to Demeter and Persephone existed in Eleusis, a place which existed in Greece in ancient times. The word “mystery” as we know it today has evolved from a slightly different word, as in during this period, the word referred directly to “secret rites”, as in, acts of worship or ritual that were kept secret from the vast majority of people. The cultic activities which went on in Eleusinia were dedicated to to Demeter and Persephone. Within these rituals, members of the cult, or people undergoing their initiation, were shown secret sacred objects, performed sacrifices and processions and reenacted the mythological tale of Demeter and Persephone after consuming various plants and drinks which likely caused them to hallucinate. Evidence of these rituals generally consists of wall paintings and pottery depicting these rituals, and due to the fact that the rituals aimed to conjure visions of the afterlife, it is believed that the rituals involved taking psychedelics and hallucinogenic drugs derived from plants. ‘Potions’ made from plants and natural ingredients were often used within medicine and religious practices within the ancient world. Interestingly, anyone could join this cult, regardless of whether they were a man, woman or a slave. The only requirements were that they spoke Greek and hadn’t committed murder within their lifetime.
The Vestal Virgins
The cult of Vesta was widely known throughout Rome, as being the goddess of the hearth, home and the family, Vesta was hugely important to the every-day Romans life as she was seen to be responsible for looking after the people of Rome. Despite Rome being an extremely patriarchal society, six women, or girls, within Rome were given the responsibility of protecting the sacred fire of Vesta, ensuring that it never went out. These women, chosen when they were just young girls, served the goddess for around thirty years, dedicating themselves to a life of chastity and pure devotion to the goddess. If a woman was judged to have failed to carry out her duty, she could be punished by be whipped, or even worse, by being buried alive. However, having the role of being a vestal did have advantages; unlike other Roman women, they were given some degree of financial autonomy, as when they became a vestal they were legally unbound from the rule of their father or guardian. They were highly respected due to being priestesses, and there is even an account of a vestal using her position to support a family member in pursuit of a political office. There was, however, a lot of pressure of these priestesses- one mistake causing the sacred fire to go out, and they would suffer the most severe of punishments.
The ancient world had hundreds of examples of cults which seem strange to us in the modern day, but these religious practices were undoubtedly taken very seriously by the people who took part and believed in them, as to some extent, their lives revolved around celebrating, fearing, and thanking the Gods they believed in.