Ancient History & Civilisation

Mystery Cults:
The origin of the orgy

Ancient orgies were not merely banal gatherings of horny civilians, eager to engage in group sex. Long-ago orgies involved initiation rites, strong intoxicants, wild dancing, spiritual secrets, religious ecstacy, and at times earthy debauchery, all of it focused around a deity or two.

The rites of these orgiastic cults, often called “the mysteries,” were not free-for-alls or open to the public, either. Groups tended to be membership only. Members, called orgeone, were overseen by an adept called the orgiophant, who revealed the secrets and attempted to direct the activities.

Mention “orgy deity,” and the name that immediately comes to mind is the wine god Dionysus and his Roman counterpart, Bacchus, but there were many other orgiastic cults and mysteries in ancient times. (Bacchus and the Bacchanalians also romp through another entry in this book.)

The great mystery religion at Eleusis, for instance. From time immemorial, this pilgrimage was made by thousands of Greeks to Eleusis, a hilltop village about fourteen miles from Athens. There, amid the strictest secrecy, rites were held, new members were initiated, and the ancient story of the vegetation goddess Demeter and her search for her lost daughter Persephone was reenacted.

The mysteries at Eleusis flourished for over 1,700 years, during which time hundreds of thousands of individuals from every corner of the Greek-speaking world were initiated into its secrets. The membership included emperors and slaves, women and men. To this day, most of what went on remains unknown. What few clues we have come from modern archaeology rather than the ancient literature.

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This was the temple complex of Eleusis, most famous and mysterious of the Greek mystery cults. The rites, still largely unknown to us, were carried out for 1,700 years.

To belong, individuals lodged in Athens for six months to attend the spring rites, called the Lesser Mysteries. In September, for the Greater Mysteries, initiates walked the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis. As they walked, they called out to bring Persephone back from the Underworld into the realm of the living. After they arrived outside the sanctuary, they danced all night without sleeping, then entered the Telesterion, the initiation hall, which held as many as three thousand people. There, initiates saw visions. Anthropologists have researched extensively and spun numerous theories as to the cause of these visions. One plausible scenario builds on the known fact that celebrants drank kykeon, a special potion that contained barley grain, symbol of Demeter, and ergot, a well-known fungus. Consuming ergot-laden grain produces symptoms of vertigo, visual distortions, and intense hallucinations.

Other psychotropic plants, including opium poppies, have also been suggested as the active ingredients of kykeon. Unlike other orgiastic mysteries, the one at Eleusis produced exaltation more spiritual than carnal. Members experienced ecstasy, Greek for “the flight of the soul from the body.”

In his day, Plato wrote about another orgiastic group devoted to the moon cult of the Thracian goddess Bendi. It gained traction in Athens; originally as wild as the Bacchic rites, it became a watered-down festival for Athenians, featuring naked lads in a horserace by torchlight.

Not all orgies involved sexual congress. In fact, one of them removed sexual temptation in the most literal way. The cult of Cybele—later called Magna Mater by the Romans—had a huge following for six centuries. Its hardcore male adherents, calledgalli,paraded while high on mystical love for their goddess. In the throes of ecstasy (and possibly with a buzz on as well), the brand-new members of the galli chopped off their genitals and threw them into the crowds of parade watchers. (Veterans in the cult would have had no equipment to sacrifice but took part anyway.) Their three-day festival included one flagellation-filled day of blood, followed by Hilaria, the day of hilarity, where everyone shared a good laugh about the preceding day’s mutilations. Scarcely anyone died during these do-it-yourself activities, or so the stoic galli claimed.

Other orgiastic cults centered around the worship of Orpheus, Adonis, Eumolpus, and the Cabeiri. Certain cults, such as the mysteries held on Samothrace, made snake handling part of the festivities; so did the snake-worshipping cult of Dionysus and earlier still, the Minoan goddesses on Crete.

By the time decadence-loving imperials such as the emperors Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Commodus came and went, orgies were often secular vulgarizations, madcap parties of sexual frenzy for participants and voyeurs. Nevertheless, the mysteries great and small continued to exert a powerful attraction—one in which countless initiates found solace and spiritual ecstasy.

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