Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Insight: Bacchic Mysteries Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by James Wiseman

Spiritual life in antiquity

Christopher Hawkes, a prominent Oxford archaeologist of the mid-twentieth century, ranked trying to determine spiritual life from material remains "the hardest [archaeological] inference of all." Hawkes, we should note, was concerned in comment mainly with prehistory, the time before writing. The archaeology of historical periods, however, can draw not only on material culture, including art, but also on written records, even literature, for aid in interpreting ancient ritual, symbols, and ideology. Of course, the use of written texts has its own problems of interpretation, and works of art might reflect aesthetic tastes as much as ritual symbolism in decorative scenes. Still, multiple approaches to the past often allow inferences of one kind to reinforce conclusions from other paths of reasoning. A partnership of archaeology, anthropology, art history, history, and philology has been particularly successful in recent years with regard to the study of mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world, especially in honor of the god the Greeks knew as Dionysus or Bakchos, and the Romans as Bacchus. Only initiates (the word "mystery" derives from the Greek word mystes, meaning "initiate") were told the secrets--sacred tales, symbols, formulas, or promised benefactions of the god.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America