Study Questions on Burkert’s Ancient
Chapter 4: The Extraordinary Experience
1. In the first paragraph Burkert says that “mystery festivals should be unforgettable events, casting their shadows over the whole of one’s future life, creating experiences that transform existence.” What sort of transforming experiences in your life can this be compared to?
2. Summarize Dio of Prusa’s “elaborate simile” about mystery cult. What sort of experience does Burkert say Dio is describing? What do you think is the point of Dio’s statement?
3. What difficulties does Burkert say modern scholars face in trying to capture the experience of an ancient mystery? What does he mean by the “unbridgeable gap between pure observation and those involved in the real proceedings” (pg. 91)?
4. On pg. 91 Burkert quotes Plutarch’s description of the process of dying in terms of a mystery initiation. Is Plutarch more interested in the process of dying or in mystery initiation? Why does Plutarch make this comparison? What is your opinion of Plutarch’s statement? What might it tell you about the experience of mystery religion?
5. On pg. 92 Burkert discusses “the most influential text about the experience of the mysteries.” What is this text and how does it describe the experience? How useful does Burkert think this text and other texts are in helping us to understand the ancient experience?
6. What five sets of evidence for details of the mystery initiations at Eleusis does Burkert describe on pp. 93-95? What does each set suggest about the initiations?
7. What five sets of evidence for details of the mystery initiations of Dionysus does Burkert describe on pp. 95-97? What does each set suggest about the initiations?
8. What does Burkert mean when he says that "a phallus was not much more of a secret than an ear of grain: the mystery is not in the object" (pg. 96)? If the mystery is not in the object, where is the mystery?
9. What evidence for details of the mystery initiations of Isis does Burkert describe on pp. 97-98? What does each set suggest about the initiations?
10. In what way does Burkert suggest Mithras stand apart from the other ancient cults in regard to intiation (pp. 98-99)?
11. What evidence is there for the theory that the basic idea of an initiation ritual is death and rebirth (pp. 99-100)?
12. What connection does Burkert think there is between baptism and the ancient mysteries (pp. 101-102)?
13. What evidence is there for torture in the ancient mysteries (pp. 102-104)? Are there any parallels in modern initiation ceremonies?
14. What evidence is there for sex and orgies in the ancient mysteries (pp. 104-108)?
15. What evidence is there for the use of drugs in the ancient mysteries (pp. 108-110).
16. What does Burkert mean when he says that "the easy way to uncommon experience is through the use of drugs" (pg. 108)?
17. Was there anything corresponding to the Eucharist, some form of communion or sacrament, in the ancient mysteries (pp. 110-112)?
18. In which ancient cults was madness and ecstasy important? In which ones were these states of mind less important? (Pp. 112-114).
19. Summarize Proclus’ statement about the mysteries of Eleusis (pg. 114). What was Proclus’ relationship with these mysteries? Why does Burkert consider Proclus’ observations so important?
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