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date: 17 January 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Homo sapiens are a social species, evolved to function in small, face-to-face groups, in which membership was determined by birth. Such groups persist throughout history as special-interest groups, even within the context of large-scale societies and empires and offer social alternatives to one’s birth group. These fictive kinship association, however, require some type of membership process that formally recognizes entrance into that group (e.g. adoption, rebirth, initiation). Initiatory groups proliferated and were especially characteristic of the Graeco-Roman world following the conquests of Alexander in the fourth century bce. The paradigm for initiation rites in the Graeco-Roman world were those for the so-called mystery religions, e.g. the (indigenous) mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, the (imported) mysteries of Isis, and the (invented) mysteries of Mithras. Whereas studies of religious ritual, from Arnold van Gennep (1909) to Catherine Bell (1992) have focused on various social functions of religious ritual, the Graeco-Roman initiation rites, including that of early Christian baptism, will be explained here especially from the perspective of recent cognitive theories of ritual (the ritual competence and ritual form theories of E. T. Lawson and R. McCauley and the modes of religiosity theory of H. Whitehouse).

Keywords: cognitive science of rituals, early Christian baptism, initiation rites, kinship groups, mystery religions, philosophical groups, social groups, the Mysteries of Demeter, the Mysteries of Isis, the Mysteries of Mithras

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