Although the place of writing in Roman religion has often been relegated to a secondary or even negligible importance, recent scholars, like Mary Beard and John North, have shown that within the Graeco-Roman religious context “communications with the divine could be seen as embedded in, or formed by, written texts.”80 The Sibylline Books, mentioned above, were one of a number of writings used by the Romans for religious purposes.81 Likewise, the pontifices, haruspices, and augurs kept a variety of priestly records as well as prophetic writings by which they recommended remedia when called on by the Senate.82 Clearly, the Romans, as John North noted, “had a bookish religious tradition in which texts and written records played an important role.”83 These texts, however, were officially sanctioned and under the control of the Roman government. Other religious texts, as we have already seen, were beyond the general supervision of the Senate and magistrates. It is to the content and context of these writings that our discussion now turns. The Religious Fringe We have already had occasion to mention a number of types of occult religious texts in the preceding section, including the writings of itinerant diviners, experts in rituals of initiation and other ceremonies, astrologers, and prophets. We have seen, for example, that texts were used for initiations into the mysteries.

Mystery cults were a prominent example of the voluntary religious associations that came to exist in the Greek-speaking East in the Classical period and at Rome by the Hellenistic period.84 Of course, the mysteries themselves were a complex phenomenon that had a wide range of manifestations. The classic example was Eleusis.85 Other mysteries, such as those devoted to Dionysos and the Magna Mater, seem to have offered participants the opportunity to achieve intense, ecstatic communion with the god in their ceremonies, temporarily freeing them from the constraints of everyday life, while still others offered more individualized union with the divinity through mysteriosophic contemplation of secret cosmogonic, anthropological, and eschatological myths.86 According to Walter Burkert, “[b]ooks were used in mysteries from an early date.”87 As early as the fifth century B.C.E., Bacchic groups in the eastern Mediterranean appear to have expressed a specific eschatological vision promising life after death to initiates.88 The recent publications of new texts, in the form of inscribed gold leaves, or lamellae, interred with deceased members, have provided insight into these beliefs as well as further evidence of the role texts played in these groups.89 The similarities between many of these gold lamellae suggest that they were made from prototypes kept by the priests.

But these were probably not their only writings; mysteries were presumed to transmit a hieros logos, or sacred tale, which may have been kept in a book as well.90 It is in these texts, as well as their shared eschatological beliefs, that Bacchic communities are associated with other occult religious movements of the Hellenistic period, such as Orphism and Pythagoreanism.91 Like the Bacchic/Dionysian mysteries, Orphic rites were typically organized by itinerant priests (orpheiotelestai, “initiators according to Orpheios”) who presided with the assistance of a “mass of books.”92 However, the evidence for uniquely Orphic communities is very thin, while Pythagorean communities seem to have been in existence in southern Italy from the sixth century B.C.E. and following both as a distinctly scientific and philosophical community (the mathematikoi), and as a religious sect (the akousmatikoi).93 Pythagorean religious communities may have even utilized rites of initiation.94

Pythagorean writings continued to be in circulation throughout Italy and even experienced a resurgence during the Roman Empire.95 Whereas initiations into the mysteries were often conducted in the context of religious groups, the existence of independent ritual specialists, as well as diviners and astrologers, is also well known. Likewise, the incidence of investigations after such books and their destruction during the middle Republic, discussed above, indicates that they too were active in Rome by the second century B.C.E. and following. References from contemporary sources indicate that itinerant diviners and ritual experts had already been operating on the fringes of Greek society during the Archaic period.96 By the Classical period, these professionals specialized in the performance of a multitude of secret rites and ceremonies throughout much of the Mediterranean world.97

These various types of occult religious texts and practices share certain affinities with another, similar form of literature known from the Graeco-Roman world—texts of magic or sorcery.98 Like the other practitioners and texts discussed above, the practices of magicians were based on secrecy and secret writings.99 Also similar to most of the other occult practices discussed above, the purpose of magic was to achieve direct contact with the divine, which was accomplished by rituals of initiation and other ceremonies.100 Magicians began to appear in the Greek-speaking world during the Hellenistic period, and seem to have been emerging in the Roman world at this time, perhaps by the end of the second century B.C.E.101


Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate
School of The Ohio State University
Daniel Christopher Sarefield, M.A.


80 Mary Beard, “Writing and Religion: Ancient Literacy and the Function of the Written Word in Roman Religion,” in Mary Beard, et al. Literacy in the Roman World, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, no. 3. (Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991), 35–58, at 53. For a more limited view of the role of writing in Roman religious practices, see William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), particularly 218–21, 298–306.

81 See above, pp. 37–8.

82 See Jerzy Linderski, “The Libri Reconditi,” 207–34; and John North, “Diviners and Divination at Rome,” in Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in Ancient Rome, ed. Mary Beard and John North. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 49–71, at 66; and idem, “Prophet and Text in the Third Century B.C.,” in Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy: Evidence and Experience, eds. Edward Bispham and Christopher Smith. (Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000), 104.

83 John North, “Prophet and Text in the Third Century B.C.,” 92–107, 164–66.

84 See John A. North, “Religious Toleration in Republican Rome,” PCPS 205 (1979): 85– 103, at 93–97; and idem, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, eds. Judith Lieu, John North, and Tessa Rajak. (London: Routledge, 1992), 174–93.

85 On which, see George E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961).

86 It is in this regard that these mysteries share much common ground with Orphism, as well as later movements, such as Hermetism and Gnosticism. On Gnosticism, see Chapter 4 below, pp. 172–76.

87 Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 70.

88 Fritz Graf, “Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology: New Texts and Old Questions,” in Masks of Dionysus, Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faraone, eds. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 240.

89 Fritz Graf, “Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology,” 239–58. These new texts, moreover, have made clear that the scholarly distinctions between Dionysiac, Orphic, and Pythagorean doctrines, especially in regards to eschatological beliefs, are no longer tenable and, therefore, suggests that significant assimilation or admixture occurred between these presumably distinct disciplines. On the connections between Orphism and Pythagoreanism, see Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 125– 36.

90 See Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 69–70. On hieroi logoi, see Albert Henrichs, “Hieroi Logoi and Hierai Bibloi: The (Un)Written Margins of the Sacred in Ancient Greece,” 207–66.

91 Burkert, discussing the fifth-century graffiti from Olbia that contained the term Orphikoi, “life after death,” and an abbreviation for the name Dionysus, concluded that the term Orphic was connected with the Bacchic mysteries from the early fifth century B.C.E. See Walter Burkert, “Die neuen Orphischen Texte: Fragmente, Varianten, ‘Sitz im Leben,’” in Fragmentsammlungen philosophischer Texte der Antike (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1998), 395–7.

92 Plato, Republic, 2.364e.

93 Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 192–208.

94 Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 156–61.

95 In opposition to Burkert, Peter Kingsley has argued that the Pythagorean tradition continued to thrive in the period between its Classical efflorescence and first century B.C.E. revival. See Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 217–391.

96 See Walter Burkert, “Itinerant Diviners and Magicians: A Neglected Element in Cultural Contacts,” in The Greek Renaissance in the Eighth Century B.C.: Tradition and Innovation, ed. Robin Hägg. (Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen, 1983), 115–19.

97 Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 1; and see Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 2001), 60–74.

98 In the words of Fritz Graf, itinerant religious specialists were polyvalent experts who combined initiations with private mysteries and “black” magic. The link between experts in the performance of mystery cult initiations and itinerant magicians is very close. See Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, 22; and see Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, 60–74.

99 See Hans Dieter Betz, “Secrecy in the Greek Magical Papyri,” in Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Religions, eds. Hans G. Kippenberg and Guy G. Stroumsa. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 153–175.

100 On these similarities, see Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, 99; and see idem, “The Magician’s Initiation,” Helios 21 (1994): 161–78.

101 Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, 128–41, at 133.

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