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Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World, by Jan N. Bremmer

Reviewed by Hugh Bowden

In this short but thoroughly researched book, Jan Bremmer focuses on reconstructing the religious rituals of various mystery cults in antiquity. It is not therefore a study of ‘initiation’ as a general phenomenon, but of different initiation ceremonies. The implications of this are an issue to which I will return. The six chapters and two appendices can be read independently of each other (and have mostly been presented in separate talks in a number of locations, as the notes make clear), but they do form a more or less coherent whole.

Chapter I, ‘Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries: A “Thin” Description’, offers a new reconstruction of the whole programme of the Eleusinian Mysteries, with a particular focus on what happened in the sanctuary. There is plenty of room for scholarly debate about the details of the festival, and Bremmer makes clear on which side of the debate he comes down in each case. Thus he argues that would-be initiates were ‘introduced into the secret teachings of the Mysteries’ before the ceremony (3); there was a single procession, rather than two separate ones as favoured by some scholars (5 n. 31); the myesis and the epopteia were separate rituals that happened on different nights, rather than the latter being the same ritual experienced for the second time (11). In coming to his conclusions Bremmer pays a lot of attention to the (mostly very late) literary evidence and the arguments of modern scholars, which are given summary approval or criticism. For example Kevin Clinton’s reconstruction of the events is dismissed as ‘in my opinion unpersuasive’ (1 n. 2). But Bremmer does not shy away from making comparisons with modern times: ‘At times, the scene must have resembled that of fervent Catholic or Shi’ite processions’ (6); ‘the ancient Greeks were not yet like modern consumers who would certainly have demanded their money back if they had not seen everything. We may better compare church services in medieval cathedrals’ (16).

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