196 The Cults
In addition to the official Olympian Gods (see page 182) and the ceremonies carried out in public at temples, the Greeks also had a number of cults.
A cult was the worship of one particular god within the context of a club or society, the membership of which was often kept secret. Most cults had secret rituals and beliefs.
The wine god Dionysius was the focus for a very popular cult. Dionysius was officially worshipped at the Dionysian festival in the spring, but his cult continued all year round.
Women took part in the cultic ceremony of Dionysius. They would leave their homes to gather in a nearby wood. There they drank large quantities of wine and took part in wild dances, after which they ate a meal of raw meat.
The women's cultic ceremony of Dionysius was based on a legend of semi-divine women, called Maenads who were said to follow the god in a wild dance, and tore to pieces anyone who did not fall down and worship the god.
Men who took part in the Dionysius cult attended ceremonies held in private houses. These usually involved drinking huge quantities of wine.
During the Hellenistic Period (see page 38) the Persian god Mithras became the focus for a new cult. Mithras was a sun god who helped crops to grow and was linked to fertility.
The cult ceremonies of Mithras took place in caves or underground rooms in which was placed a statue of Mithras killing a bull. Rituals included sacred meals of roasted meat.
The Egyptian goddess Isis was the centre for a cult that seems to have catered mostly for women and for travellers, though the details are obscure.
In 331bc Alexander the Great visited the Egyptian temple of Ammon. The priests declared that he was a god. Some cities set up a cult of Alexander, and other Hellenistic kings later claimed that they were gods as well.
This is an extract from 1000 Fact on Ancient Greece by Rupert Matthews