Cults and Rites in Ancient Greece Essays on Religion and Society

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Edited by Marina Benjamin. Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them. Of course, they argued vehemently that they were not a cult. Less easy, though, is identifying why. Plenty of these movements were associated with young people — especially young counter-cultural people with suspicious politics — adding a particular political tenor to the discourse surrounding them. The anti-cult networks believed that cults brainwashed their members the idea of mind control, as scholars such as Margaret Singer point out, originated in media coverage of torture techniques supposedly used by North Korea during the Korean War. The Baptist pastor Walter Ralston Martin was sufficiently disturbed by the proliferation of religious pluralism in the US to write The Kingdom of the Cults , which delineated in detail the theologies of those religious movements Martin identified as toxic, and provided Biblical avenues for the enterprising mainstream Christian minister to oppose them. With more than half a million copies sold, it was one of the top-selling spiritual books of the era.

Writing the history of cults in the US, therefore, is also writing the history of a discourse of fear: of the unknown, of the decline in mainstream institutions, of change. Particularly gruesome anecdotes often told by emotionally compromised former members worked to place the entire religious movement beyond the bounds of cultural legitimacy and to justify extreme measures — from deprogramming to robust conservatorship laws — to prevent vulnerable people falling victim to the cultic peril.

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This terror peaked when atrocity tales began outnumbering genuine horrors. This influential atrocity tale influenced the three-year case in the s against an administrator of the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles and her son, a teacher, that racked up 65 crimes. The prosecution spun a fear-stoking narrative around outlandish claims, including bloody animal mutilations. The number of convictions? But mass-media hysteria made Satanic panic a national crisis, and a pastime.

And yet it is impossible to dismiss anti-cult work as pure hysteria. There might not be Satanists lurking round every corner, lying in wait to kidnap children or sacrifice bunny rabbits to Satan, but the dangers of spiritual, emotional and sexual abuse in small-scale, unsupervised religious communities, particularly those isolated from the mainstream or dominant culture, is real enough. It is also keenly contemporary.


And some groups are, without a doubt, toxic. Does such extreme disciplinarianism make the Remnant Fellowship a cult? Or does the question of labelling distract us from wider issues at hand? Such definitions also depend on who is doing the defining. A few may be bad religion and some may be led by evil people, but they are religions. This was hardly one-sided. The presence of a charismatic leader? What was John Calvin?

Heck, what was Jesus Christ? A tradition of secrecy around specialised texts or practices divulged only to select initiates? Isolated living on a compound? Consider contemporary convents or monasteries. A financial obligation?

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Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list. Only ontological metaphysical truth can possibly justify the demands that any religion makes upon its adherents. The problem with this argument is that it, too, falls down when it comes to creating labels.

Ancient Greek religion

Besides, accusations of cultism have been levelled at secular or semi-secular organisations as well as metaphysically inclined ones. If the boundaries between cult and religion are already slippery, those between religion and culture are more porous still. Edited by Matthew A. While there were few concepts universal to all the Greek peoples, there were common beliefs shared by many.

At times certain gods would be opposed to others, and they would try to outdo each other. Some gods were specifically associated with a certain city. But other gods were also worshipped in these cities. Though the worship of the major deities spread from one locality to another, and though most larger cities boasted temples to several major gods, the identification of different gods with different places remained strong to the end.

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Asclepios, god of medicine. This belief remained strong even into the Christian era. For most people at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul.

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It consisted largely of stories of the gods and how they interacted with humans. Many species existed in Greek mythology. Different religious groups believed that the world had been created in different ways. Various religious festivals were held in ancient Greece. Many were specific only to a particular deity or city-state.

More typical festivals featured a procession, large sacrifices and a feast to eat the offerings, and many included entertainments and customs such as visiting friends, wearing fancy dress and unusual behaviour in the streets, sometimes risky for bystanders in various ways. Although pride and vanity were not considered sins themselves, the Greeks emphasized moderation. Pride only became hubris when it went to extremes, like any other vice.

The same was thought of eating and drinking. Anything done to excess was not considered proper. Ancient Greeks placed, for example, importance on athletics and intellect equally. In fact many of their competitions included both. Pride was not evil until it became all-consuming or hurtful to others. While some traditions, such as Mystery cults, did uphold certain texts as canonic within their own cult praxis, such texts were respected but not necessarily accepted as canonic outside their circle.

Even the words of the oracles never turned into a sacred text. An exception to this rule were the already named Orphic and Mystery rituals, which, in this, set themselves aside from the rest of the Greek religious system. Some priestly functions, like the care for a particular local festival, could be given by tradition to a certain family.

These were typically devoted to one or a few gods, and supported a statue of the particular deity.

Religion in Ancient Greece

It was hoped that by casting out the ritual scapegoat, the hardship would go with it. Vase, c. The altar was outside any temple building, and might not be associated with a temple at all.

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The statues of the Tyrannicides were located to the west of the Panathenaic Way and south of the newly discovered enclosure east of the Altar of the Twelve Gods. Baltimore New York: Oxford University Press. Dalby A. Neils, Madison , 27—

The animal, which should be perfect of its kind, is decorated with garlands and the like, and led in procession to the altar, a girl with a basket on her head containing the concealed knife leading the way. Its blood is collected and poured over the altar. The temple usually kept the skin, to sell to tanners. The animals used are, in order of preference, bull or ox, cow, sheep the most common , goat, pig with piglet the cheapest mammal , and poultry but rarely other birds or fish.

The Greeks liked to believe that the animal was glad to be sacrificed, and interpreted various behaviours as showing this. Generally, the Greeks put more faith in observing the behaviour of birds. Throughout the poems, the use of the ritual is apparent at banquets where meat is served, in times of danger or before some important endeavor to gain the favor of the gods.