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Carlotta - the museum database

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1Along with the tympanon (tympanum in Latin), the object most associated with Meter, and the one which she is usually portrayed with, is the phiale. The phiale (also known as patera) is a shallow dish used for libations, usually with a bulbous indentation (called omphalos, “bellybutton”) in the center to make it easier to hold. The ritual act of libation was one of the simplest and most common forms of ancient religious practice, performed by priests and commoners alike, and is likely to have been an important element also within the cult of Meter. Both in Anatolia and at Rome there were priesthoods dedicated to Meter, including the famous Galli. The word “gallus” probably simply means Gaul or Celt, and was originally applied to the priests of Meter in Anatolia. In inscriptions from Rome from the second century CE we find the term Archigallus used to refer to the chief of the priesthood at Rome. The priests were characterized by their colorful robes hung with cult images. It is generally stated in ancient literature that the Galli were eunuchs, and at times the two terms are used interchangeably. However, many of the names of known priests are clearly the names of Roman citizens, for whom castration would have been forbidden at varying times throughout the Imperial period. It is therefore both unknown and unlikely that there was a requirement that priests or other formal cult officials had to be castrated. In many cases, it seems that the term Galli was used to refer to devotees of the Mother at large, thus conflating the state-organized priests with the itinerant elements of her cult, where the practice of self-castration would have been more common. This phiale dates from the sixth to fifth century BCE and likely originates from Athens. It is made from yellowish pink clay and painted black and red. It belongs to the deposition from the National Museum of Fine Arts, where it in turn was deposited in 1887 by the Technical School of Stockholm.
1Central to most interpretations of the Eleusinian mysteries is the story of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Versions of the story were told across the Greek world, but the earliest surviving literary account of it is found in a poem directly associated with Eleusis, the so-called Homeric Hymn to Demeter, written sometime between 650 and 550 BCE. The hymn details how Demeter, in her sorrow over losing her daughter to the underworld, stops the grain from growing. To avoid a catastrophe, Persephone is allowed to return to the earth, but only during a certain time of the year. At its core, the story is an explanation for the cyclical nature of agriculture: the time Persephone spends in the underworld represents the barren part of the year, while the time she spends with Demeter represents the fertile part of the year. In ancient Greece, winter was the busiest season for agriculture and might correspond to the time when Persephone and Demeter were together. The mysteries themselves were actually celebrated around the time for the autumn sowing.
1During her travels after she left Mount Olympus, Demeter came to the city of Eleusis in the guise of an old woman. While she rested near a well (called the “Kallichoron”, or “Maiden”) she was greeted by the daughters of the king, Celeus, and offered her services as a nurse to the royal household. The queen, Metaneira, then asked Demeter to nurse her newborn son, Demophon. Demeter agreed, but instead of nursing him, she secretly anointed him with ambrosia (the immortality-granting food of the gods) and put him into the fire every night. One night, Metaneira spied on Demeter and shrieked in terror. Demeter, furious with her, explained that she had been making Demophon immortal but now, because of his mother’s folly, she refused to continue. She revealed her true divine nature and demanded that the Eleusinians build her a temple, promising that she would reveal rites for them to perform in order to soften her anger. It was in this temple that Demeter remained until Persephone was returned to her, after which she continued in teaching the Eleusinians all her mysteries. This terracotta figurine is likely a representation of Demeter, wearing a peplos and a wide polos. Her curly hair and very voluminous hairdo is typical of Boeotian classical figurines. The folds of the dress, along with her jewelry, are indicated by red paint. The figurine belongs to the deposition from the National Museum of Fine Arts.
1From at least the fifth century BCE onwards, Greek writers showed an interest in Egypt. Herodotus devoted one of the nine books of his history entirely to Egypt and was particularly interested in Egyptian religion, which he considered the source of Greek religious understanding. He identified Isis with Demeter and her husband and brother Osiris with Dionysus. The earliest evidence for the cult of Isis in the Greek world comes from Athens, where sometime in the fourth century BCE some Egyptians were given permission to acquire land and build a temple of Isis on it. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Egypt was ruled by the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty. Their court was in Alexandria, and for most of the third century BCE they controlled significant territories outside Egypt, including islands in the Aegean. It was during this period that the cult of Isis spread most rapidly in the eastern Mediterranean. Isis was at this time accompanied not by Osiris but by the god Serapis. It is possible that this was when the first mystery cult of Isis began, although it is not until centuries later that we have unambiguous references to mysteries in literary texts and epigraphy.
1In antiquity, the word “thiasos” was frequently used to describe a group of worshippers of any divinity, who engaged in ecstatic activity. The word is found in inscriptions relating to cult associations in honour of Dionysus from the third century BCE until the fourth century CE, across the Mediterranean world. These inscriptions mention a number of activities, including meetings and dinner parties, as well as formal processions to the mountains. Also among the ancient writers there are mentions of thiasoi dedicated to Dionysus. These groups are often mentioned as being made up of women, as in the Bacchae, with some even going so far as to claim that only women were allowed to perform the secret rites. It was the activity “on the mountain” that was the central part of the mysteries. References in the Bacchae give detail that the women carried fawn skins, wreaths of ivy and thyrsoi. The chorus also refers to goat meat eaten raw, a ritual which is further attested in inscriptions. All these activities – going out into the city to the uncultivated mountainside, staying in the open air, wearing animal skins and not cooking meat – form a pattern that can be understood as the opposites of civilization. One way of explaining what these worshippers of Dionysus do is that they transport themselves from civilization to wilderness, both in location and in behaviour. This red-figured bell krater depicts an ecstatic scene where maenads and satyrs are dancing. They are dressed in animal skins, playing tambourines and holding thyrsoi. The krater, dated to the fourth century BCE, was purchased in 1783 by Gustav III during his stay in Naples. It belongs to the deposition from the National Museum of Fine Arts.
1In Greek literature from the first century BCE onwards there are several stories about Attis, who is presented as a devotee of the Mother. The best known of these stories, which exists in several versions, details Attis’s self-castration after he failed in remaining faithful to the Mother. The story probably developed in the Hellenistic period, as an explanation for self-castration in the cult of the Mother. The earliest representations of Attis accompanying the Mother are likewise found in Greece from the fourth century BCE. The earliest surviving account of the story of Attis is found in the Fasti, a poem written by Ovid at the very start of the first century CE. As Ovid tells the story, the Mother fell in love with Attis and he swore fidelity to her, but he then broke his oath by sleeping with a nymph. When she discovered this, the Mother killed the nymph and Attis, in a fit of madness, castrated himself, claiming that his genitals were responsible for his breaking of the oath, and bleeds to death. Attis is presented as being driven by sexual desire, but desire for the Mother alone. Following Attis’s example, or rather his motivation (since Attis’s self-castration leads to his death), the self-castrating devotees of the Mother demonstrate their commitment to her alone. This terracotta figurine from Roman Egypt is likely a representation of Attis. He is depicted in his fused form Attis-Eros, sporting the Phrygian cap along with wings, a fusion which is attested from the Hellenistic period onwards and likely stems from the connection of Cybele with Aphrodite (thus also connecting their two male companions). In his hands he is holding a torch, with a curious hole on top, possibly used for illumination. On his back is a small hole, enabling the figurine to be hung from a string. The figurine was acquired from artist Margareta Adelborg in 1985.
1In order to highlight her sovereignty over the forces of nature, Meter is often accompanied by lions, fierce creatures associated with power and strength. Sometimes, and perhaps most iconically, they are depicted sitting at the sides of her throne; sometimes a lion is carrying the goddess on its back. As a representation of the more wild aspects of Meter, the mythological lions find a curious counterpart among the goddesses wandering devotees, known as the metragyrtai (an agyrtes being an itinerant religious figure, thus metragyrtai being “of the Mother”) of whom there are various references in ancient literature. The Roman poet Lucretius describes how the image of Meter is carried through many lands accompanied by so-called “Phrygian bands”, who dance wildly to the accompaniment of cymbals, tambourines, pipes and horns, waving knives around. These groups would have travelled from place to place through the year, begging for alms for the goddess. When cities, like Rome, held their celebrations for Meter, these travelling bands would be allowed to enter the city and join the celebration, following the image of Meter through the street in the procession. The metragyrtai are commonly referred to in ancient literature as being eunuchs, with the two terms at times being used interchangeably. The sources further emphasize the practice of voluntary self-castration, the possible explanation for which can be found in the myth of Attis. This Roman terracotta lamp from the first century CE is decorated with a lion, in the process of either running or pouncing. Several representations of Meter show her sitting aside a lion that mirrors the pose of the one on this lamp. The lamp was acquired in 1961.
1One of the Mother’s commonly depicted attributes is her headpiece (or polos) shaped like city walls, symbolizing her role as a protector of cities. Especially in western Anatolia, many cities called upon her as a protector. This role also played a central part as the cult of the Mother was brought to Rome at the end of the third century BCE. According to the historian Livy, as Hannibal was ravaging Italy during the Second Punic War, the Romans consulted the Sibylline Books (a collection of prophetic utterances) and discovered a prophecy that said that if ever a foreign enemy should invade Italy, he could be defeated and driven out if the Mother was brought from Anatolia to Rome. A Roman delegation went to the kingdom of Pergamum and gathered the sacred stone that was the cult image of the Mother, whose full title in Rome would become “Magna Mater Deorum Idaea” (the Great Mother of the Gods of Mount Ida). This connected her cult to Rome’s legendary origins, since Mount Ida is close to Troy, the home of Aeneas, and the Mother of the gods thus also became a Mother of the Romans. A temple was built for her on the Palatine Hill, in the heart of the city, and dedicated in 191 BCE. At some point soon after the arrival of the cult a festival was introduced in her honour, called the Megalesia (her name in Pergamum was Meter Megale, “Great Mother”), which soon lasted a week and included chariot racing. This terracotta head probably belongs to a votive figurine depicting the Mother, with a tall polos in the shape of city walls. The head was recovered from Temple A of Soli during the Swedish Cyprus Expedition in 1930.
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1The cult of Meter was introduced to Athens either at the end of the sixth century or, more probably, in the later fifth century BCE. The temple of Meter, the Metroon, was established in the Athenian Agora and became the location of the city archive. The cult statue in Athens depicted the goddess seated with a lion and holding a tympanum, both symbols of her connections to the wild and to noisy worship. There was an Athenian festival in honour of her, called the Galaxia, named after a kind of porridge made from barley that was eaten during the festivities. It is not known how the Galaxia was celebrated, but there are scenes on Attic vases from the early fifth century BCE that appear to depict a small-scale ecstatic cult of Meter. One of the scenes seemingly depicts Meter, seated in front of worshippers dancing wildly to the sound of music. These worshippers are possibly a depiction of the Corybantes, members of an ecstatic cult associated with Meter. They are mentioned quite frequently in Athenian literature from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, suggesting that the cult was well established. Plato describes the performance of a thronesis (enthronement) around a person about to be initiated into the cult, along with dancing and music. The Corybantes are sometimes associated with madness, but more often, however, the verb korybantizo (‘acting the Corybant’), is used simply to mean wild dancing. It is unknown where Corybantic rites took place in Athens, although they appear to have been held in private rather than in public. This terracotta head probably belongs to a votive figurine depicting the Mother, with traces of a polos and a plain veil. The head was recovered from Temple A of Soli during the Swedish Cyprus Expedition in 1930.
1The earliest remains in the area of the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis date back to the Bronze Age, but whatever structures there were at that time were abandoned at the end of Mycenaean civilization, around 1200 BCE. However, the nature of these structures are highly unclear and it is unknown if they represent an early form of a sanctuary. Instead, the evidence for the existence of a sanctuary proper stretches from the eighth century BCE until the end of the fourth century CE, when Eleusis was sacked by the Goths. There was no attempt to rebuild the sanctuary after the sack and the mysteries faded into obscurity. The sanctuary was in some ways similar to that of other gods in the Greek world, but in other ways very different. It was enclosed by a wall and contained a number of buildings associated with the cult. However, the central structures found in nearly all sanctuaries, a temple housing a cult statue and an altar, were absent. Instead, the central building in the sanctuary was the so-called Telesterion, the Hall of Mysteries, where the mysteries proper took place. The Telesterion was, in its final form, a huge square building capable of holding around 3 000 people. Internally its layout was that of a hypostyle hall with a series of steps around its edges, reminiscent of a theater. In the center of the great hall stood a smaller structure, sometimes referred to as the Anaktoron, meaning “palace”. However, in antiquity the terms Anaktoron and Telesterion were both used to refer to the structure as a whole. This architectural piece supposedly originates from Eleusis, although it is unknown if it belongs to the sanctuary or to the surrounding city. It is a marble fragment of a Corinthian (or composite) column capital, with one volute and part of an acanthus leaf preserved. It was bequeathed to the museum in 1974 by H.M. King Gustaf VI Adolf.
1The earliest surviving narrative of myth about Isis comes from Plutarch’s essay On Isis and Osiris, written in the second century CE, but this is certainly largely derived from original Egyptian sources. Isis was sister and wife to Osiris, and when Osiris is killed by his brother Seth, Isis goes in search of the body and eventually revives him. This story appears to relate to aspects of the cult of Isis and Osiris and to elements within the mysteries of Isis. Its similarity to the myth behind the Eleusinian mysteries (a missing family member, a searching goddess, a rediscovery) was noted early, with some writers even claiming an Egyptian origin of those mysteries. Not all of the cult of Isis was mystery cult and there was much variation in cult practice in honour of Isis between different places. The cult reached Italy by the end of the second century BCE, with the earliest temples being set up in Puteoli and in Pompeii. Sometime between the reigns of Caligula and Nero a temple of Isis and Serapis was built in the Campus Martius. Many Roman emperors would show an interest in the cult of Isis which would have increased interest in it more generally, peaking around the second century CE (the period of most of our evidence). However, we do not know how common initiation into the mysteries of Isis was. There does not appear to have been an annual festival in the course of which all initiation took place, although regular festivals were held in honour of Isis in places where her cult was well established. This terracotta figurine from Hellenistic Egypt is a representation of Isis, sitting upon the Dog-Star, holding a cornucopia in her right hand and crowned with the sun disc. The Dog-Star is Sirius (so named because of its prominence in Canis Major) whose heliacal rising tended to precede the annual flooding of the Nile. Sopdet (Sothis in Greek) was the Egyptian personification of Sirius, who during the Ptolemaic period would become subsumed into Isis, further highlighting her combined earthly and cosmic powers. The figurine was acquired from R. G. Gayer-Anderson in 1931.
1The Eleusinian mysteries were the most revered of all ancient mystery cults. They were celebrated every autumn at Eleusis in honour of the Two Goddesses, Demeter and her daughter Persephone (known within the mysteries as Kore, the maiden). At Eleusis, the mysteries were celebrated for over a thousand years, and for most of that time men and women, including kings and emperors, came from all over the Mediterranean world to witness the sacred rites and be initiated in their secrets.
1The god most associated with ecstatic cult in the Greco-Roman world was Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility and the theatre. The frenzied state of those driven wild by Dionysus is an element in a number of myths, including those of the poet Orpheus. These myths, however, reflect a real form of ecstatic worship, well documented in ancient accounts, in which women and men would go out into the countryside at night and perform mystery rites in honour of Dionysus.
1The great festival of which the mysteries were a part lasted for a total of eight days. Two extended Eleusinian families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes, were responsible for the celebrations. On the day before the festival started, the 14 Boedromion, at the end of September or beginning of October, a procession of priests and priestesses would leave Eleusis to bring the hiera, the sacred objects of Demeter, to Athens. After a series of preparatory purifying rites, the festival moved to Eleusis itself. This time there were two processions over an equal number of days, one was led by the priests and priestesses returning the hiera and the other was made up of the aspiring initiates. After a 22-kilometre walk they reached the sanctuary and danced for Demeter and Kore outside its walls, by the Kallichoron Well, after which they finally entered the sacred grounds.
1The Homeric Hymn to Demeter begins by describing how Hades was given consent by Zeus to marry Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. According to the hymn, while Persephone was picking flowers in a meadow the ground suddenly opened and Hades, storming by in his chariot, carried her with him to the underworld. Demeter, however, did not know what had happened and spent nine days travelling the earth, searching with torches for her daughter. Finally, Helios and Hecate, who had witnessed the abduction, told her what had happened. Demeter became furious with Zeus and withdrew from Mount Olympus, wandering the earth in disguise. In her anger and sorrow, Demeter then stopped the grain from growing across the earth. This threatened not only mortals but the gods too, who would not be given sacrifices if all mortals starved. When Zeus appealed to Demeter to return to Olympus and allow the grain to grow once more, she demanded the return of Persephone as her price. Hades agreed to this, but only after giving Persephone a pomegranate seed to eat. Because of this, Persephone would have to spend a third of each year in the underworld. However, Demeter was delighted over the return of her daughter and let the grain grow again. This terracotta sculpture is likely a representation of Persephone, sporting wavy hair and being crowned with a polos. The sculpture, dated to the classical period, originates from the Grotta Caruso of Locri in Calabria, Italy. The sculpture belongs to the so-called “Italian exchange collection”, acquired from Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria in 1956.
1The only first-person account of a mystery experience we have relates to initiation into the mysteries of Isis. Interestingly enough it is contained within the only ancient Roman prose novel in Latin to survive in its entirety, namely the Metamorphoses by Apuleius, written during the late second century CE. This comic and satirical work tells the story of Lucius who is deeply interested in magic. While trying to perform a spell to transform into a bird, he accidentally transforms into a donkey and travels throughout Greece in search for a cure. Lucius ultimately winds up in Corinth where he, on the night of the full moon, tries to purify himself by bathing in the sea and then praying to the Moon. When he falls asleep that night a goddess appears, telling him that she is the queen of all gods and worshipped under many names, but that her true name is Isis. She instructs Lucius to attend the procession in her honour the next day and to eat the garland of roses carried by the priest. Upon doing so Lucius is immediately cured and follows the procession to the temple of Isis. Lucius rents a home in the temple precinct and works as a temple servant until the goddess indicates that the time has come for him to be initiated. After receiving instructions from the priest Lucius fasts for ten days. At night he is then led into the inner chamber of the temple. He claims that he will not describe what happened in there, instead offering only a highly symbolic description of how he travelled to the boundary of death, only to then be carried back to life and seeing the sun blazing in the middle of the night, as well as coming face to face with all the gods. The initiation is then followed by several days of feasting. This particular part of the Metamorphoses is quite different from the crudity and comedy of the earlier parts. Some scholars have argued that it should be taken at face value as a serious account of the mysteries of Isis; others claim that it must be satirical, pointing to how Lucius is instructed to undergo repeated initiations and spend more and more money in the process. However, it has been pointed out that it is possible to see the work as comic without it being a satire of the cult of Isis. Instead of being cheated of his money, Lucius actually finds himself becoming a wealthy and successful lawyer. It is Lucius himself who is the butt of the joke: as in the rest of the novel, he completely fails to understand what is happening to him. Further, there is evidence to suggest that the rituals described, including the sequence of initiations, give a fairly accurate account of what was involved in the mysteries of Isis, with some of these elements also being common to other mystery cults. This Roman terracotta lamp is decorated with a grazing donkey, an animal described by several ancient authors as being stubborn, servile and stupid. The lamp, dated to the first century CE, was acquired from Consul Ehrenhoff at Tangier, Morocco.
1The title “Mother of the Gods” could reasonably be given to a number of mythological figures. One possibility is Ge or Gaia, that is, Earth. Another candidate was Rhea, sister and wife of Cronus, and mother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia, as presented by Hesiod. A third Greek goddess associated with the Mother is Demeter, whose name indeed contains the word Meter, “mother”. The name most commonly associated with the Mother, however, is Cybele. The origins of the name are somewhat complex. There was a Phrygian cult of the Mother of the Mountains, Matar Kubileya, from which the Greek form Meter Kybele appears to derive. There was also a separate Neo-Hittite goddess, likewise worshipped in western Anatolia, called Kubaba, which was Hellenized as Cybebe. Both these goddesses appear to lie behind the development of the Greek figure Cybele, a name which occurs in Greek poetry from the sixth century BCE.
1The word “initiate” (mystes) is never used in inscriptions to describe anyone associated with the cult of Isis, indicating an important difference between her cult and other mysteries. Men and women who, for example, were initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries were not expected to maintain a continuing relationship with the sanctuary. In contrast, those initiated into the cult of Isis appear to have been expected to carry on serving the goddess. This indicates that initiation into the mysteries of Isis was modeled on an idea of Egyptian priesthood, who would typically live near the temples and fully commit their lives to their maintenance. At least in the second century CE, initiation appears to be a series of steps that lead to higher levels of service within the cult. Both in iconography and written sources the initiates of Isis are characterized by their shaved heads and linen robes. In the Metamorphoses, Apuleius describes how the linen robes for each level of initiation had different designs, with the robes of the first level being multicoloured and those of the second level being plain. The Metamorphoses further suggests a process whereby a series of initiations led some individuals up to higher ranks within the hierarchy of the cult. This terracotta figurine from Roman Egypt is likely a representation of either Isis or Demeter, veiled and wearing what appears to be a modius, possibly set with a star (in that case likely Sirius). The figurine highlights the similarities not only in function but also in depiction between the two goddesses. It was collected in the Fayum in 1889 by Gustaf Retzius and subsequently acquired by the Ethnographic Museum, from where it is on loan to the museum.