The majority of people in the Greco-Roman world, having lost their primitive family and state religions and being unable or unwilling to grasp the meaning of Greek philosophy, turned their attention to the spectacular and emotional mystery cults from Egypt and the Levant. The common people craved promises of salvation—religious consolation for today and assurances of hope for immortality after death.
The three mystery cults which became most popular were:
1. The Phrygian cult of Cybele and her son Attis.
2. The Egyptian cult of Osiris and his mother Isis.
3. The Iranian cult of the worship of Mithras as the savior and redeemer of sinful mankind.
The Phrygian and Egyptian mysteries taught that the divine son (respectively Attis and Osiris) had experienced death and had been resurrected by divine power, and further that all who were properly initiated into the mystery, and who reverently celebrated the anniversary of the god’s death and resurrection, would thereby become partakers of his divine nature and his immortality.
The Phrygian ceremonies were imposing but degrading; their bloody festivals indicate how degraded and primitive these Levantine mysteries became. The most holy day was Black Friday, the “day of blood,” commemorating the self-inflicted death of Attis. After three days of the celebration of the sacrifice and death of Attis the festival was turned to joy in honor of his resurrection.
The rituals of the worship of Isis and Osiris were more refined and impressive than were those of the Phrygian cult. This Egyptian ritual was built around the legend of the Nile god of old, a god who died and was resurrected, which concept was derived from the observation of the annually recurring stoppage of vegetation growth followed by the springtime restoration of all living plants. The frenzy of the observance of these mystery cults and the orgies of their ceremonials, which were supposed to lead up to the “enthusiasm” of the realization of divinity, were sometimes most revolting.