Godmen who bring salvation
The Mysteries of Isis

Getting started


The keys of hell and the guarantee of salvation were in the hands of the goddess, and the initiation ceremony itself a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace.
Apuleius, Metamorphosis. Ch 11
Describing initiation into the Mysteries of Isis.

[M]ysteries...redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us.
Plato, The Republic, Book 2.7, (4th century BC)]

We're talking about the ideas that filled the culture in which Christianity began. We've seen that the building blocks of ancient religion look familiar: invisible god-beings that can be talked to and reasoned with and asked for help; and a focus on ethics and morality.

But so far it's looked like the ancients put these building blocks together differently from Christianity [though not from temple-sacrifice Judaism]. Civic religion was largely about controlling the world by bargaining with god-beings. Philosophy was about ethics and morality (among other things), but it didn't involve divine revelation. Neither focused on personal salvation.

A third part of ancient religion, mystery religions, did focus on the afterlife. Mystery religions involved the worship of a walking, talking god-man (or god-gal) who gave His believers a better life after deathsalvation.

I'm speaking broadly. Philosophies and myths included a variety of ideas about the afterlife.

Savior Gods
I know it's hard to believe the ancient Gods were saviors, so lets start with this bit from Plato, writing in the 4th century BC. (We'll look a mystery religions in detail later.)




Plato describes the "mysteries," which he says "redeem us from the pains of hell" >>

And without the mysteries, no one knows what will happen after we die.

And they produce a host of books written by Mousaios [aka 'Moses'] and Orpheus, … according to which they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us.

Plato, The Republic, Book 2.7, (4th century BC)
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

The mysteries were religions that saved believers from Hell, and gave them eternal life, or, better said, a better deal in whatever eternity awaited—just like Jesus. Plato, in the 4th century, BC says so.

Osiris judging the dead
Papyrus of Hunefer, c 1280 BC

Plutarch, in the 2d century AD says the same. Here we go...

Salvation by Osiris
Osiris was a big-name Egyptian God. Already in the second millennium BC, Egyptians knew He judged the "maat" (goodness) of the dead. You lived your life so you had good maat, you spent eternity in Egyptian heaven with Osiris. You lived bad, you ended up dead, dead, dead.

Plutarch, the guy who wrote this next bit, was for thirty years a priest at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece. He was a priest of Apollo, but he also worshiped Osiris. You've been paying attention, so him doubling up like this won't surprise you.

Anyway, by his time Isis and Osiris had been in Greece for more than four hundred years, and it's a good bet Plutarch was initiated into their mysteries. He was a religious man; a believer. He traveled to Egypt and described the worship of Isis and Osiris there, and the theology behind it.Take a deep, cleansing breath. Your ideas about God and religion are about to change.


Look, I know you don't read most of these blue boxes. This one you ought to

Plutarch, who knew his way around a scroll with a reed pen, didn't have words to say how very very nice the worship of Isis was, so he settled for some hi-tone superlatives--"pure", "shining through the soul", like that. >>

Lucky us, Plutarch didn't stop there. He went on to explain that the theology of Isis worship was mystic union with the immaterial, eternal "Reason." The Greek word was "Logos." -- the same word, and the same idea of an eternal divine being you'll find in our Gospel of John. "In the beginning was the word [logos], ... and the word [logos] was God."

The Isis-priests' God wasn't a magical godgal (at least She wasn't only that), She was this eternal, immaterial, simple, shining, pure, spirit thing. The kind of transcendent God-thing I don't have words for, and I bet you don't either.

According to Plutarch, who knew 'cause he was there, the worship of Isis and Osiris wasn't about magic fables, it was about mystic union of the striving human soul with eternal, transcendent God.  >>


But the apperception of the conceptual, the pure, and the simple, shining through the soul like a flash of lightning, affords an opportunity to touch and see it but once. For this reason Plato and Aristotle call this part of philosophy the epoptic or mystic part, inasmuch as those who have passed beyond these conjectural and confused matters of all sorts by means of Reason [= Logos] proceed by leaps and bounds to that primary, simple, and immaterial principle ; and when they have somehow attained contact with the pure truth abiding about it, they think that they have the whole of philosophy completely, as it were, within their grasp.


While we are alive
... says Plutarch, we strive for union with God.


.... this god Osiris .... is far removed from the earth, uncontaminated and unpolluted and pure from all matter that is subject to destruction and death ; but for the souls of men here, which are compassed about by bodies and emotions, there is no association with this god except in so far as they may attain to a dim vision of his presence by means of the apperception which philosophy affords

But while we are alive, we can't appreciate the goodness of God. The best we can do is get a dim view of God's gooduosity through—Plutarch being a rich Poindexter and all—through philosophy>> 

After we die says Plutarch

our souls leave our bodies and travel to be with God,    >>



...your soul will spend eternity contemplating the unutterable, indescribable niceness of God.  >>



Sound familiar? I thought so.

But when these souls are set free and migrate into the realm of the invisible and the unseen, the dispassionate and the pure, then this god becomes their leader and king, since it is on him that they are bound to be dependent in their insatiate contemplation and yearning for that beauty which is for men unutterable and indescribable. With this beauty Isis, as the ancient story declares, is for ever enamored and pursues it and consorts with it and fills our earth here with all things fair and good that partake of generation.

  Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 382.D - 383.A (first or second century AD), -- which you can find in: Babbitt, Frank. Plutarch Moralia, volume 5 (1936/ 1999), pg. 181- 5
. Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Our souls are divine, and strive for union with God. After we die we travel to heaven to spend eternity contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God. That was ancient religion? Yup. That was ancient mystery religion. Who'd a thunk it?


Mystery Religions
Mystery religions look to us like real religion. They got ethics and morality. They got personal association with a godman/gal who had lived life on Earth. The godman offered a better deal in the eternal life after death—but not to everyone, only to believers who joined His faith in a special initiation ceremony like the one Apuleius describes as "a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace."

There wasn't one mystery religion, there were many. Isis had mysteries. So did Dionysus. So did the unnamed Gods at Samothrace. Lots of Gods who were worship out in the open in regular civic religion also had secret mysteries.

Mysteries look a lot like Christianity. In fact, early Christians said Christianity itself was a mystery. The deep similarities are part of the reasoning behind the popularity of the copycat Jesus theories of the early 1900s. But there's a problem. Let's look again at that bit from Plutarch...

Apuleius, Metamorphosis. Ch 11

The pure, simple, shining goodness of God was so very cool and special that it could only be experienced once in life   >>  
[during the initiation ceremony]             

And being that special, it could not be revealed to outsiders.

In the history of world religions, that little fact is a huge deal.

But the apperception of the conceptual, the pure, and the simple, shining through the soul like a flash of lightning, affords an opportunity to touch and see it but once.

Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 382.D - 383.A (first or second century AD), -- which you can find in: Babbitt, Frank. Plutarch Moralia, volume 5 (1936/ 1999), pg. 181- 5 

The theology of the mysteries was a sacred secret. No one could write and circulate handbooks of mystery practice and theology. No one writing a book of history or biography could describe any details of mystery practice and theology. And they meant it. Ancient writers mention the mysteries a lot, but with one exception, they always pull back from disclosing sacred secrets. As we've seen they occasionally hint, or say outright, that the mysteries bring salvation, but beyond that the basic rituals and theologies of ancient mystery religions are gone. Lost.

Which makes it impossible to line up Christian ritual and theology with ritual and theology of the other mysteries. Does Christianity look like a mystery? Yes. Did the early Christians say Christianity was a mystery? Yes. Can we prove the theologies and rituals line up? Nope, we can't. Very tantalizing.


Good Books for this section


The Ancient Mysteries : A Source book
Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World
Marvin W. Meyer (Editor)

What you'll find:

A sourcebook of extended quotations from ancients, all dealing directly with the Pagan mystery religions.

Who you gonna trust?  The ancients. Believing scholars shade the facts in favor of the myth.  Non-believers exaggerate and make up facts and connections as a way to attack the church. 

So who are you going to trust?  That's up to you.  I trust the ancients—people alive back when Christianity began, and before. That's what this book is about.

This is a sourcebook, a collection of primary documents—excerpts from ancient authors who wrote about Pagan religion and early Christianity.  It's a great collection, with the original text of most of the standard ancient references to the pagan mystery religions.

This is a powerful book. You'll discover firsthand, right from the pens of the ancients themselves,  that Dionysus came to earth "incognito, disguised as a man"; that Pagan Gods died and were reborn with the meaning that "the God is saved, and we shall have salvation."; that pagans had initiation ceremonies seen as "a voluntary death", sacred meals shared with the God, ceremonial washing, Pagan miracles, a Godman who changed water into wine, and a Pagan version of the great flood.  And much more.  

An important book that no serious student will be without. Highly recommended.



Mystery Religions in the Ancient World
by Joscelyn Godwin

What you'll find:

A fine general introduction to the ancient mystery religions, each chapter focused on a particular God.

Dozens of black and white photos of related statues, mosaics, etc.

A good introduction.


The Mysteries
Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks
edited by Joseph Campbell

What you'll find:

Twelve essays from the 1930s and 40s dealing with the ancient Mystery religions. Lots of Poindexter stuff.

Not a good introduction. Worth reading if you're an advanced student.



The Mystery-Religions
A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity
by Samuel Angus

What you'll find:

A famous and much cited account of the Mystery Religions.  Written in the 1920s, the book is still in print.

Organized by feature- of -religion, so you get an overview of the mysteries rather than a detailed look at each of them.




Hellenistic Mystery Religions
Their basic ideas and significance
by Richard Reitzenstein (1861 - 1931)
translated by John Steely

What you'll find:

as far as I can tell this is the only English translation of this highly famous, highly influential, poorly organized, scholarly analysis of the Mystery religions.

The good news: Reitzenstein supports his arguments with extended quotations from primary ancient sources.
The bad news is, get this: the quotations are not translated into English, so unless your Greek and Latin are shiny, a very frustrating book.

This English version was published in 1978 and is now out of print. You can sometimes find it used at Amazon.com


The Golden Ass
or The Metamorphosis
by Apuleius

The ancients had novels (who knew?!), and this is one of them.  And, believe it or not, it's a fun read, lighthearted, funny, and well written. The story moves.  For the boys: it even has explicit sex. Amazing.  Who knew?!

The story is about Lucius' adventures after he gets turned into a donkey.  The first ten chapters are just fun, not related to the Pagan origins.

Chapter eleven is about Lucius in Egypt, and his study and initiation into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris (he's a man again by this point).  For the ancients these mysteries were sacred secrets—believers would and did die rather than reveal them.  Apuleius' novel is the only surviving text that comes close to describing the mystery initiation ceremony.  Apuleius also says initiation brought salvation:

"The keys of hell and the guarantee of salvation were in the hands of the goddess, and the initiation ceremony itself a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace."

And the good thing is, you don't have to believe me, you can read it for yourself.


Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background
by Doctor of Divinity Arthur Darby Nock

You'll find:

the leading non-borrowing scholar- apologist admits deep similarities between the Pagan mystery religions and Christianity.

The canonical believers' reasons why each and every one of those similarities doesn't count.

First published in 1928 and reissued and updated in 1964, this is the canonical refutation of the late 19th and early 20th century scholarly claims that Christianity borrowed from Paganism.  This essay is widely cited as an authority, "Dr. Nock has refuted the German School. . .", and the arguments Nock developed here are the same ones believers use today.

Nock was a Harvard professor who read and understood the scholarship.  He did not—could not, in that generation when scholars knew better—deny the deep similarities between Christianity and the Pagan mysteries. 

For example >>

The Eucharist ... is in line with contemporary mysteries, which purported to represent the sufferings and triumph of a god, in which his worshipers sympathized and shared....The Eucharist is a mystery, as mysteries were then understood, and Christianity, the heir of Judaism, has also an essential spiritual continuity with Hellenistic religion.
[pg 72]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Nock was also a committed Christian, a Doctor of Divinity who wasn't about to admit Christianity borrowed from Paganism, so for every similarity he comes up with a reason the similarity doesn't count.

The 1964 Harper Torchbook edition is expanded with Nock's later thoughts and arguments. 

It is out of print, but often available used through Amazon


Greek Religion
by Walter Burkert

What you'll find:

Here's a surprise, a book by a world renown expert that's well organized and easy to read.

Ancient Greek religion, feature by feature

This book is organized by feature- of- religion:  ritual, the Gods, Heroes, the dead, polytheism, the mysteries, and philosophy-religions.  That gives you a compare and contrast look at, for e.g. baptism or, blood sacrifice across the culture.  So the book complements the cult by cult organization of Finegan and Turcan.