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Reviewed by:
  • Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia
  • Hugh Bowden

Greece, mystic cults, mystery cults, Ugo Bianchi, Eleusinian Mysteries, Bacchic frenzy, Isis, Mithras

Giovanni Casadio and Patricia A. Johnston, EDS. Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. 390.

In the introduction to this collection of seventeen papers, the editors discuss the distinction between their chosen term, "mystic cults," and the more widely, if loosely used "mystery cults." Following in particular the definitions of Ugo Bianchi, "mystery cults" are those that involve sanctuary-based initiation, for example, the Eleusinian Mysteries, while "mystic cults" are those that involve occasions of intense communion with the god, for example, Bacchic frenzy. There is no evidence for initiation on the Eleusinian model in Sicily and Southern Italy, but there is plenty of evidence, mainly archaeological, for other forms of cult associated with the gods usually covered by work on mystery cults. After the introduction, which offers a lively discussion of the past and present state of the debate on mystic/mystery cults, the volume is divided into three sections, on Dionysus and Orpheus, Demeter and Isis, and Mithras.

There has been no attempt to achieve consensus between the contributors, a feature particularly visible in the various approaches to "Orphism." Articles by Ana Jiménez San Cristóbal and Alberto Bernabé, on the term bakkhos and the Orphic picture of the underworld, respectively, assume that Orphism was something like a church with doctrines and beliefs that remained stable over centuries. Radcliffe G. Edmonds's persuasive discussion of narrative and identity in the so-called "Orphic" gold leaves suggests instead that the term "Orphic" was probably adopted by different groups at different times to draw attention to their difference from the common herd. Two articles on Dionysus come in the same section. In an entertainingly polemical contribution, Giovanni Casadio looks at the evidence for Bacchic cult at Cumae on the Campanian coast, where a much-studied inscription reveals that a section of the city's necropolis was reserved for Bacchic initiates. Casadio connects this inscription to scattered pieces of literary evidence to suggest that the cult of Dionysus had a very visible presence in the community over the centuries. Ranging more broadly, Cornelia Isler-Kerényi offers an illustrated survey of Dionysiac iconography on Italian vases (and Athenian vases found in Italy) in the eighth to fifth centuries BCE, which usefully emphasizes that Dionysus was recognized as a central rather than marginal figure within the cities of southern Italy. This was the area where, in the early second century, the Romans suppressed "Bacchanalian" activity: whatever lay behind that action, it was dealing with a phenomenon that had deep roots.

The last paper in this section, by R. Drew Griffith, is a discussion of the final part of Petronius's Satyricon in relation to Pythagoreanism. This, and [End Page 105] two articles in the following section, Raymond J. Clark's "The Eleusinian Mysteries and Vergil's 'Appearance-of-a-Terrifying-Female-Apparition-in-the-Underworld' Motif in Aeneid 6" and Patricia A. Johnston's more straightforwardly titled "The Mystery Cults and Vergil's Georgics," reveal something of the origins of the volume, which lie in two symposia organized by the Vergilian Society and Brandeis University at the Villa Vergiliana in Cuma(e). Johnston's is a good survey of the presence of gods associated with "mystic cults" in the Georgics, and points out that these are portrayed in a generally positive way—in contrast to Vergil's negative portrayal of all things Egyptian, in particular in the Aeneid. Clark's article is of more specialist interest, while Griffith's is brief and entertaining, and a useful contribution to the study of the Satyricon.

The other articles in the "Demeter and Isis" section each deals with a specific site. Giulia Sfameni Gasparro considers the material from a temple complex at San Nicola di Albanella, near Paestum, discussing it in the context of the festival of the Thesmophoria. The same festival features in Kathryn M. Lucchese's account of her exploration of a subterranean "megaron" that was associated with a temple of Ceres (Demeter) just south of Rome by Herodes Atticus in the second...


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