Or, at least it didn't used to be.
TW: abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, death.
Today the word "cult" has very negative connotations and for good reason. Dictionary.com provides us with a few definitions of the word cult. The definition accepted by most people today would be the following: a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing. "a cult of personality surrounding the leaders"
Another might be: a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister. They used worshipping Satan as an example here, which.... I'll probably write a blog post about why this is wrong as some point.
But, it's the third definition; the original definition that matters most: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
When we think of the word cult in modern times, we often think of organizations or leaders who cause people immense amounts of physical, mental, and emotional harm. For example, the cult Angel's Landing was run for 15 years by Daniel Perez. Perez claimed to be a 1,000 year old angel and led a traveling group of mainly women from state to state. He also told his followers that he needed to have sex with young girls in order to stay alive. Big creep energy. Not only did he abuse women and young girls, but he stole millions of dollars from members by collecting their life insurance policies when they died.
Heaven's Gate was run by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the early 70's. The leaders renamed themselves Bo and Peep (yes, Bopeep), and convinced their followers that Earth was dying so they had to leave it. In 1997, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to kill themselves. The total death toll reached 42 when other members committed suicide. It was a truly awful and senseless loss of life due to manipulation. There are many other stories, groups, people, religious and otherwise that I could name. But I think you get the point.
Modern day cults do exist and they can be literal hell for those living within them.
Cults can be as big as Heaven's Gate or as small as fans of massive pop stars and icons that attack other people who disagree with them in the comments section. Cultic behavior, like online or in-person bullying, around social media and entertainment icons can lead people to harm themselves or commit suicide. That is just as dangerous as a group living in a commune isolating themselves from the rest of the world. I do not wish to minimize those experiences for anyone who might be reading this article. I'm simply casting my mind and heart backwards towards the origins of mystery cults and religious devotion. And I hope you can have an open mind and follow me on that journey.
There has been a ton of research around the definition of the word cult and how that has changed throughout history. Ernst Peter Wilhelm Troeltsch was a "...German liberal Protestant theologian, a writer on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of history, and a classical liberal politician." He's often credited with defining the term cult (1931) as this sort of umbrella term when thinking about Western religions. But what is it?
A Mystery Cult was a group of people who centered a specific deity as their worship focus. They often served to satisfy personal and individualistic attitudes towards death and the afterlife. Many times the mystery cult was based on a specific sacred story and usually included the reenactment of a death and rebirth cycle for a particular God or Goddess. We call them mystery cults because only initiates knew what truly took place within the temple walls and celebratory rites. There was often a public component as well that townspeople and villagers could take part in, but the sacred ceremonies were kept secret.
In the forthcoming Quarterly Zine, I take the readers on a journey through the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. You can order a copy of the Zine here!
The Greek Eleusinian Mysteries honored Demeter, the Goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the Underworld. People cam from all over Greece for the nine day festival. These nine days re-enacted the amount of time Demeter searched for Persephone after she was abducted by Hades and taken into the Underworld.
Demeter, struck with grief, refuses to allow the grain to grow and starves mortals until the Gods step in to return her daughter to her. However, Persephone has already eaten the fruit of the Underworld: pomegranate seeds. A deal is struck and Persephone will split her time between the Upper world and the Underworld, thus giving us the change of the seasons. Persephone's re-birth is the culmination of the festival.
As I mentioned before, some portion of this festival was public. People would gather to celebrate. There would be feasting and music. Gifts would be left to honor the Goddess and prayers would be said for a bountiful harvest. But what the initiates did within the inner sanctum of the temple is still a mystery to us.
Writer and researcher Mary Naples tells us that, "In Greek an initiate is called mystes and the accompanying initiation ritual is called mysteria. Hence the Mysteries were a secret cult whose participation was restricted to its initiates wherein initiation ceremonies may have played a key role in the sacred rituals... Although shrouded in secrecy, archeological evidence has yielded artifacts from the cults including the Great Hall of the Initiation called the Telesterion at Eleusis, which was large enough to have contained thousands of initiates."
Because mystery cults were often centered around the retelling of the death and birth cycles, I would also argue that the devotees to Osiris participated in a mystery cult.
The first evidence of Osiris worship can be traced back to 5th Dynasty Egypt. Osiris was both a fertility God and God of the Underworld. According to Greek author, Plutarch, Osiris was slain and his body was torn into fourteen pieces. Eventually, Isis found and buried all of the pieces (save the phallus), thus allowing Osiris to be reborn as the king of the Underworld. But Osiris being in the Underworld didn't stop his fertile and regenerative powers. Everything sprouted forth from Osiris: "Osiris was not only ruler of the dead but also the power that granted all life from the underworld, from sprouting vegetation to the annual flood of the Nile River." It soon became the belief that if you followed Osiris, you too could be reborn.
In the Middle Kingdom, festivals dedicated to Osiris were celebrated by way of a public festival and nocturnal rites. This took place at Abydos and public participation was permitted. There is something known as the Abydos Passion Plays which re-enact the death and rebirth of Osiris. There are various accounts that state that there were very real ritual killings involved in this passion play to Osiris. These initiates would probably be expecting to enter the great mystery of death and the Underworld by way of their ritual sacrifice.
But Freia, if people were killing themselves as a cultic practice then weren't the original cults just as bad as cults today? Maybe. But, I don't wholly think so. You could make that argument IF every cult involved death or mutilation; which it did not. We also don't have concrete evidence of what exactly took place during these initiations and rituals. We have history texts written by "outsiders", some archeological evidence, and some religious texts. Aside from that, we have speculation and a ton of questions. I would argue (based on what we know) that the cultic practices that dealt with male gods versus female gods had vastly different practices pertaining to violence. But that's an article for another day.
What we do know is this: cults used to be centered on religious devotion to a particular deity and often involved festivals and rituals. What we don't know for sure: if ritual violence took place or if it was symbolic in nature.
Remember, that the people who often wrote about other cultures' religious and cultural practices were usually attempting to discredit them in some way.
Do I believe we can enter the mysteries and initiate ourselves in modern times? Yes. Have I done so? Yes. And I'll be starting a course for that very soon.
You tell me. Were cults a bad thing? Or are the cults of today the ones that are bad?
Sources and further reading:
The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook : Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World
Mystery Cults of the Ancient World: Bowden, Hugh