Religious Studies

Flavia Ruani

Mystery Cults and Syriac Heresiology: A Fruitful Polemical Association?

Volume 4 () / Issue 3, pp. 331-352 (22)

This paper addresses the role played by the rhetoric connected to mystery cults in Syriac heresiological discourse. It deals in particular with the Hymns against Heresies by Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373), one of the first Syriac heresiographers. It first discusses the occurrences of the word 'mystery' (râzâ) in relation to the depiction of heretics, before focusing on a range of themes and notions which are traditionally associated by Christian authors with the critique against the mystery cults and further applied to heretics (secrecy, drunkenness, madness, misconduct and depravity). The comparison of the negative representations of the emperor Julian, the so-called Apostate, in Ephrem's works and in other contemporary Greek polemicists reveal that they all rely upon a certain stereotyped depiction of the (invented) mysteries of Aphrodite, and more particularly their lascivious orgies: I argue that the same stereotype lies behind the representation of the Chaldeans as heretics in Ephrem's Hymns. By highlighting this indirect use of the mystery cults rhetoric in Syriac heresiology, this paper contributes to the history of polemical representations circulating in the Mediterranean late antique world.