Rome's Colosseum has not always featured the most pleasant events, having originally been a venue for competitions between gladiators and the occasional unfortunate Christian and a hungry lion. But times have changed among the ruins. The Colosseum is now the host of a new exhibition on the mystery cults of antiquity in Greece and Rome. Sculptures, accompanied by a light and sound show, document many unofficial and secret religious rituals of the ancient world. Some of those traditions are still practiced today. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this report.


Homer described them in his epic poetry. Euripides celebrated their mysticism, and the Roman writer Apuleius was an enthusiastic follower. They were the mystery cults that Greeks and Romans observed in private. Official state religion honoring the greater gods of Olympus was celebrated in big temples. The mystery cults were alternative religion, Dionysian, Orphic and Mithraic rites, many imported from Egypt and Persia.

(Soundbite from exhibit's musical score)

POGGIOLI: The exhibit at the Colosseum consists of more than 70 statues, frescoes, Greek urns, bas reliefs and idols discovered in central and southern Italy.

(Soundbite from exhibit's musical score)

POGGIOLI: A musical score accompanies the visitor to the exhibit on the second tier of the Colosseum.

Mr. GIANANDREA GAZZOLA (Composer): The inspiration of the music is the ancient languages, Latin and Greek.

POGGIOLI: Composer Gianandrea Gazzola...

Mr. GAZZOLA: Mystery is the key of the art, because the art never explains something. Always speaks about mystery.

(Soundbite from exhibit's musical score)

POGGIOLI: Gazzola says he tried to recreate the sounds of antiquity; for example, by inventing a special instrument in which water drops fall at different tempo onto a moving drum.

(Soundbite from exhibit's musical score)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: The text is by the writer Apuleius, and it describes a Dionysian ritual in which women carrying sulfur torches would light them and place them in the river Tiber, creating a show of fire and water.

Mr. GAZZOLA: This was a special way to make something fantastic, something magic and to create an interest around divinity.

POGGIOLI: Gazzola then points out to a series of bas reliefs depicting the goddess, Demeter, and her daughter, Persephone, two of the key divinities of the mystery cults.

Mr. GAZZOLA: There are some tablets like prayers. This tablets was suspended through the branch of trees--of the trees. The prayers are moving on the wind.

POGGIOLI: The curator of the exhibitor, Angelo Bottino, acknowledges that little is known about the details of the mystery rituals. They were shrouded in secrecy. He says they were practiced at night and an individual's initiation into a mystery cult was an experience of such emotional intensity that not a word was allowed to be uttered about it. But he stresses that the ancient world was not rigid or exclusive when it came to religion.

Mr. ANGELO BOTTINO (Exhibit Curator): (Through Translator) You could add one cult to another without causing any traumas. There was room for official cults of the state and formal cults linked either to the individual or to a social class.

POGGIOLI: In fact, the mystery cults were open to all members of society, from patricians to slaves. And the female figure was often dominant. Many of the statues in the exhibit are of women, goddesses, priestesses and oracles. One exception was the sun god Mithras, whose rite was brought to Rome from Persia by legionnaires in the 1st century AD. This was the only mystery cult followed exclusively by men. The exhibit includes several sculptures of Mithras slaying a mythically powerful bull. Other statues depict Eastern deities that the Romans embraced, such as the Egyptian divinities Isis and Osiris. Curator Angelo Bottino.

Mr. BOTTINO: (Through Translator) In antiquity there were many divinities. The important thing was to find the one that gave you hope and certainty when you were about to marry or wanted to have children or when you were sick or when you were dying and wanted to know where you were going to go. And perhaps, that god could lead you to heaven rather than hell. It was all very simple and very universal.

POGGIOLI: Bottino says the rituals of the ancient cults remain a mystery, but the spiritual yearning that inspired them is still alive.

Mr. BOTTINO: (Through Translator) There are constants in human behavior. The ancients had needs and believed they could resolve their problems through a divinity. Today, there are TV evangelists, people who sell charms and cast spells, as well as fortune-tellers. We have different means, but our soul are asking the same questions and seeking solutions.

POGGIOLI: The exhibit The Secret Ritual will remain open until January 8th, 2006. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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