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Ancient Mystēria and Modern Mystery Cults

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The modern study of the ancient Hellenic and Hellenistic cults called mystēria has struggled over taxonomic issues related to typicality and modelling for several decades. By refocusing on the artificiality and rhetorical deployment of both the ancient word mystēria and the modern phrase mystery cults, it is possible to step back from issues of reification and focus on ancient social contexts for another view. Doing so allows one to note the numerous points of overlap (in ritual action, goals, symbols and narratives) between mystery cults and the broader cultural fields of ancient Hellenic communities. For instance, when one does not assume that mystery cults are the major origin for eschatological thinking in Greece, other (at times competing) vectors come into view and present a much more diverse field of data on the topic. Using Eleusis as an example, it is possible to see that many of the other allegedly typical features of mystery cults are at best problematic viewed against their social backgrounds and not placed in decontextualised juxtaposition with another mystery cult. This suggests that modern theories of culture-as-repertoire and of popular religious cultures are appropriate for making sense of ancient mystēria and thereby rectifying the scholarly construct of mystery cults.

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