The best books on ancient mystery cults

Peter Mark Adams Author Of Mystai: Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos
By Peter Mark Adams

Who am I?

For longer than I can remember I have been fascinated by ancient civilizations, earth mysteries, cave art, magic, mythology, and shamanism. As an author, my research and writing continues to be inspired by these interests. I specialise in the ethnography of sacred landscapes and rituals; and more generally in esotericism, consciousness, and healing. My non-fiction is published by Inner Traditions and Scarlet Imprint; literary prose and poetry by Corbel Stone Press and Paralibrum. My essays on energy healing have appeared in the peer-reviewed Paranthropology Journal and the Journal of Exceptional Experiences and Psychology as well as on my page.

I wrote...

Mystai: Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos

By Peter Mark Adams,

Book cover of Mystai: Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos

What is my book about?

The two-thousand-year-old Dionysian-themed frescoes of Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries are the only surviving depiction of the secret rites of a Greco-Roman mystery cult. Mystai leads the reader, step by step, in a process of patient detective work to decode the clues embedded in the imagery and reveal the lost secrets of the initiatory process. Lavishly illustrated, Mystai includes full-colour reproductions of the recently restored frescoes and related artefacts that illuminate key aspects of the ritual process.

The books I picked & why

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Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

By Hugh Bowden,

Book cover of Mystery Cults of the Ancient World

Why this book?

This is without doubt the most accessible, enjoyable, lavishly illustrated, and informative guide to the mystery cults of antiquity that you will ever find. Its author, Hugh Bowden, is a renowned expert on the history and archaeology of mystery cults. That said, he has managed to combine a highly readable text with informative diagrams and images of the cult sites, cult objects, inscriptions, and wall paintings. This book provides the perfect introduction to the major cults, how they were organised and what they stood for.   

Ancient Mystery Cults

By Walter Burkert,

Book cover of Ancient Mystery Cults

Why this book?

Although a step up in terms of depth of scholarship, this book remains my favourite resource in my ongoing research into the mysteries. At just 100 pages this short text is nevertheless packed with important insights and observations, all of which are backed-up with relevant quotations and pointers to further resources - unsurprisingly, perhaps, since its author, Walter Burkert, is one of the world’s leading classical scholars. For all these reasons this book remains a standard reference work for those studying or wishing to deepen their understanding of the ancient mystery cults.

The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Vol 2

By Joseph Campbell,

Book cover of The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Vol 2

Why this book?

The international colloquia known as the Eranos conferences were designed to bring together scholars from diverse fields - historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and theologians - to interact, share insights and seek a higher synthesis in thought and understanding. The Mysteries is a collection of papers delivered from these varying perspectives in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the mystery cults of antiquity. This collection of essays is characterised by its outstanding quality, the variety of topics and outlooks represented, and the testimony it provides to that enduring search for a higher order of meaning.  

The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts

By Marvin W. Meyer (editor),

Book cover of The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts

Why this book?

For those wishing to dig a little deeper into the topic, Marvin Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries is a key sourcebook for both the serious researcher and the curious amateur alike. For each of the major mystery cults of antiquity - the Rites of Eleusis, those of Isis and Osiris, Dionysus, Mithras, and others - Meyer has collected every pertinent classical reference to provide ready access to contemporary sources relevant to understanding each of the cults. 

Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology of Ancient Greek Secret Cults

By Michael B. Cosmopoulos (editor),

Book cover of Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology of Ancient Greek Secret Cults

Why this book?

Greek Mysteries brings together a collection of essays on a variety of specialist topics related to the ancient mystery cults. Written by some of the world’s leading scholars, many of these essays were originally published in academic journals and are therefore appropriate for a more scholarly readership. That said, this important work provides the perfect entry into contemporary academic scholarship on the mysteries.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cults, Greece, and Ancient Greece?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cults, Greece, and Ancient Greece.

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