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Genesis of development of Eastern cults in times of Roman Empire

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Relief depicting Mithra
Relief depicting Mithra

Starting from the 2nd century CE Imperium Romanum began a process of intense religious changes. Oriental religions, such as Mithraism began to play an increasingly important role in the Roman state. One of the reasons for the development of these cults was the serious crises that the empire experienced in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Events such as the civil war of 193-197, or the difficult internal situation during the so-called crisis of the 3rd century, favoured the emergence of religious phenomena, the roots of which dated back to earlier epochs.

Considering the above issue, a fundamental question should be asked. Why did Eastern religions spread so quickly throughout the empire, which made them so attractive? Undoubtedly, the so-called mysteries enjoyed great popularity and were often an inseparable part of them. Of course, they had been known inEmpire before, but in a different form. Greek mysteries were primarily associated with the place, for example, the mysteries of Demeter in Eleusis. Eastern mysteries, on the other hand, spread throughout the Roman state. They could have arisen wherever people preaching a given religion reached. It should be noted that these groups very often operated in isolation, without forming larger, coherent religious organizations. Moreover, initiation into these cults was sometimes elitist in nature, so they could not have too many members. They could reach larger population groups in other ways. Public rites and cult processions in cities were also practised, and inscriptions were also dedicated. Naturally, these activities had to promote the worship of new deities.

Under the influence of these changes, in the times of the empire, the border between the old religion and the new cults from the east was blurred. An increasing role was attributed to the feeling towards the deity, and not to the cult sensu stricto. The society itself participated in many rituals, so it must have led to syncretism, i.e. the deities from the east became similar to those of Greco-Roman. It should be remembered that participation in one Eastern cult did not prevent participation in another. This was one of the main differences between the followers of Mithras, Serapis or Isis and the Christians and Jews.

Another aspect that distinguished the Eastern cults from the Greco-Roman religion was the dualistic nature of the former. They were both individualistic and universalistic. Syncretic forms of religion were created by different peoples and traditions, so they accepted followers regardless of their ethnic origin and material status. Thus, the followers of Eastern cults could be slaves, the urban poor or members of the upper classes. Old cults in the Roman state were very often associated with specific cities or communities, so these deities took care of the entire community. In this field, the gods from the east stood out strongly, because they addressed primarily to man as a private person. It is not surprising that they gained popularity in times of various types of crises. The lack of trust in the state, which was unable to meet social needs, translated into less trust in the gods promoted by that state.

Most Eastern religions also had much more developed doctrines and more colourful rituals that emphasized the worship of a particular god. Rituals were primarily associated with the already-mentioned mysteries. For these, in turn, it was necessary to preliminarily prepare, learn the basic doctrines of the sacred science, understand the symbolism, etc. Among the Eastern cults, the most successful were those that cultivated the suffering god (for example, Osiris, Adonis, Attis). These gods died a violent death, but later became immortal and resurrected (the similarity to Christianity is not accidental here). Communing with such a deity gave, in difficult times, a promise of eternal life and salvation after death.

But what had to be done to be rewarded after death? First of all, identify with a given god, his myth and his final resurrection. Mysteries were supposed to lead to a connection with god. The contact between the worshiper and the god took place through a ritual, the most important element of which was to recreate the god’s death. Of course, depending on the deity, it looked different, for example, during the mysteries of the god Attis, a kind of baptism with the blood of a bull took place. However, the purpose of these rituals was one, they were to ensure moral purity and immortality.

It seems that the aspect mentioned above was the most important factor in favour of Eastern cults. In difficult times, they gave hope for salvation after death. The religions of the Greco-Roman world never resolved this vital issue, focusing instead on other, more mundane aspects of people’s lives.

Another attractive element of the new beliefs was the colourfulness and mystery of the ritual, which had to have an extraordinary impact on the human senses. Ceremonies were very often organized at night by torchlight, or – as in the cult of Mithras – in underground temples. The service was thus not only a monotonous kind of worship but a spectacle. They usually ended with a common meal, which was supposed to create a bridge between the believers initiated into the mysteries and the god. Such an image of a deity must have aroused greater understanding in society. It seemed more “human” because it suffered and died just like people. It is hard to imagine that the Romans had similar relations with traditional deities.

Also in the field of morality, Eastern religions differed greatly from traditional cults. Individual deities had specific moral requirements, which were very different. Physical purity was required to participate in the mysteries. The purity of the body also meant the purity of the soul. The development of moral requirements was the emergence of the concept of sin and penance and even some forms of asceticism. For example, Mithraism, placed the highest priority on the moral code and the task of continuous participation in the fight between good and evil. Thanks to this, the cult of Mithras did not undergo formalism, as was the case in other, new cults. It should be noted that there were significant differences among all the Eastern religions that settled in the empire. For example, the cult of Cybele and Attis was often associated with orgiastic elements, from which Mithraism was free.

The above-mentioned views were only to suggest the general characteristics of Eastern cults, and above all those aspects that distinguished them from the traditional beliefs of the Greeks and Romans. Of course, not all gods from the East were equally popular. The most successful were Sarapis, Isis, Cybele, Attis and Mithra.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Jaczynowska M., Religie Świata Rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987
  • Beard M., Religie Rzymu, Oświęcim 2017

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