Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hugh Bowden's "Mystery Cults of the Ancient World"

Hugh Bowden is senior lecturer in ancient history at King's College London. He is the author of Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle and general editor of "The Times" Ancient Civilizations.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, and reported the following:
The top half of page 99 is taken up with a picture of a Roman relief depicting a man wearing a strange headdress, a torque and a loose gown. Around him hang musical instruments and other implements associated with the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods. The man is said by most scholars (but not by me), to be a eunuch: since the relief stops above the waist, there is not much to go on. Below the picture is a quotation from the antiquarian writer Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing at the end of the first century BC describing how the Romans would never engage in wild and ecstatic religious ritual. But this is a highly questionable claim, as I suggest in introducing it.

So does this reflect the quality of the whole? Certainly Mystery Cults of the Ancient World is well illustrated (189 of them, with 29 in color, according to the jacket). And I set out in it to describe some unusual aspects of ancient religion, and to challenge some of the preconceptions about them. All in all, I think the test works for the book.

There is rather more to it than this though. The book describes nocturnal rites – women dancing in the mountains in honor of Dionysus, men and women experiencing disorientation after a day of fasting and a night of initiation and revelation at Eleusis. These are part of the religion of the ancient Mediterranean world, but there are some examples of modern religious practice that come close to these experiences, and the book ends with a look at serpent-handling churches in the southern Appalachians. What participants felt in these rituals, ancient and modern, was a heightened sense of perception, which, in the ancient world at least, was understood to involve direct unmediated contact with the gods.

Academic studies of religion tend to shy away from this kind of thing, preferring to deal with doctrine and theology, or with how religion might be tied with social cohesion and political structures. I wanted in this book to get closer to the idea of what it might have felt like to meet a god. How far I succeeded you can read for yourselves, if you want to.
Read more about Mystery Cults of the Ancient World at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue