I love ancient religions. They are strange, sexy and chaotic – gods competed with gods, priests with priests, and prophets with prophets. Because there were so many of them, each gods, priests and prophets had to have something special to attract their followers and earn their worships. The battle of worshipers, in turn, was fierce. Each gods and goddesses had many cults of followers – each believing that their way of worship was better than the others, and they were the only ones going to heaven. Rome imported promising religions from all over the world. Persian deities were worshiped as far as Britain. In Egypt, there was a ritual which transformed pharaohs into gods. The ancient world was practically a melting pot of different religions and beliefs.
From all this, the rather fascinating topic of cults began. What are they? Why do they exist even to this day? In extreme cases, why would so many intelligent individuals give up their life, move to another state or even countries away from their families and join some random group? How does it feel to be so passionate about a person or an ideal that they would do all these things?
The idea of cults may come more naturally to us than we think. Human beings are social animals that have been banding together for hundreds of thousands of years. There are many Archeological evidences which show that when a group got too large, a smaller group would break off and establish a new social hierarchy with a new set of rules. Given enough time, the original bond between the two groups would be diminished, maybe even leading to some hostility. Therefore, a “cult” may be seen as this smaller group which has broken off from a larger group. We can’t stop it even if we tried, because choosing sides or courses is natural and one of the first steps towards socialization that a child learns. It is a function so ingrained in us that we instinctively know that every decision we make, and every opinions we have, brings us to one path and alienate another.
A lot of the differences between cults and religions are only a matter of time and size. The longer a cult exists and the more followers it attracts the more legitimate it becomes despite its beginnings. So why do people follow? Many reasons, but mostly for a very simple reason of not wanting to feel alone. Everyone feels lonely or empty at some point, and no one wants to feel alone. As social animals, isolation is a form of punishment for a person. A lonely individual quickly lose sight of their sense of purpose, meaning and belonging. We then look for the feeling that comes with being part of something bigger. Some may argue that human should “know better” and think before running off to join a cult but, let’s be honest, emotion precedes reason. When one feels that they cannot think of a solution of a decision, they will fall on the last resort: they go with their gut feelings.
What do groups offer their members? friendship, identity and security. They also offer a world-view: a way of discerning right from wrong and good from bad – powerful incentives for people whatever their background may be. Their ideologies may also offer moral explanations into how the world works and clear answers to difficult and big questions: how to be happy, life after death, the difference between right and wrong, and so on.
An interesting book called The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin actually compares the psychology of cults and corporate brands. In fact, Atkins argues that brands are the new cults as the hottest corporate brands these days have similar patterns to religious cults, which is cheeky, but may not be not as far-fetched as we think. So, I looked at a few familiar ancient cults and see how they possibly attracted their members and, using a few modern articles on personal branding, images and modern cults, made some comparisons. Here is how one would start a cult, the ancient way.
How are you different from everyone else?
Imagine this: beneath the great Temple of Apollo – on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, a priestess sat above a chasm in the earth. Vapor rose up and the priestess, called the Pythia, breathed deeply and fell into a trance. Then she spoke the words of the god. The Pythia’s prophecies were often ambiguous and probably confused people more often than it actually helped. According to Herodotus, Croesus – the rich king of Lydia, asked the Pythia whether he should make war on Persia. Pythia replied that if he did, he would destroy a mighty empire. Croesus went away confident that he would win this war – but the mighty empire he destroyed turned out to be his own. But that apparently didn’t faze the followers of Pythia, because for over twelve centuries, people still traveled far and wide to Delphi in search of counsel.
Apollo had many cults and worshipers, but the temple of Delphi was probably the biggest because of Pythia who spoke the words of Apollo himself. No other cults of Apollo dared to boast that. Directly hearing the words of Apollo himself would have been a draw. This would have made the followers feel as close as anyone could to Apollo. Suddenly, by joining the cult, Apollo became approachable, unlike the intimidating golden prince god from the skies other people took him to be. This sense of closeness, as well as the arresting and immediately recognizable image of Pythia inhaling the vapor, they found a place in the hearts of their worshipers.
2. We’re outsiders. We’re in this together.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi had “nothing in excess” carved into it. This was an idea which underpinned much of ancient Greek thought. The ancient Greeks were very image conscious. They believed themselves to be the noblest civilization, a nation of gods and heroes. So, the ideal Greek would have carried himself with dignity, filled to the brims with heroic thoughts that would never allow him to take his kits off willy-nilly and shake his money-maker.
In the middle of all these seriousness, Dionysos was all about excess. Gigantic marble phalluses were dotted around the Temple of Dionysos on the Greek island of Delos. The unmistakable sexuality of the Temple of Dionysos would have made the more “conservative” ancients squirm. Dionysos was a very different kind of god. He was at home with wine, celebration, and every kind of excess people who have spent their lives in moderation only dream of. Image-wise, he was an outsider amongst the more dignified other gods (who, by the way, also drank outrageously, and dragged one another into bed at every opportunity – they were just more quiet about it).
Dionysos is always associated with party and celebration. Party needs people. So his cult would have people celebrating, drinking and laughing together, generally letting lose and having fun. Atkins actually says “Culting is a contact sport.” Which was what Dionysos’ cult would have provided: constant, distraction-free interaction between members early on. Imagine Dionysos’ followers as Apple users these days. Honestly, they’re not much different: Apple is made up of creative rebels in hoodies (or other cooler fashion items) instead of stuffy business people in suits. Fellow Apple users stand together in line for hours, saving each other’s spots in line, sharing a box of donuts while waxing poetic about the latest features. It’s like a party – a rather boring party by Dionysos’ standards, but still a party.
3. Happy, outgoing and loud people are your friends.
Across ancient Greece, Dionysos was worshiped through phallika – processions which made their way through the countryside, bearing gigantic phalluses with them, the worshipers shouting obscenities as they went. In the festival of Dionysos held in Alexandria in 275 BC, a 180-foot-long gold-plated phallus made its way in a procession through the streets of the city, flanked by elephants, a rhinoceros, and a giraffe, and decorated with ribbons and a gold star. Loud people with big animals decorated with lots of color and glitter. Think Sydney Mardi Gras with elephants.
Studies conducted by modern sociologists found cult populations are dominated by well-educated, pleasant and socially engaging individuals. So the people who would happily sing the cult’s praises are the people who love to talk, people who have lots of friends and people who love to talk to their friends about the cult. These people are popular and admired. You want popular people talking about and representing your brand (hence the irritating spams on the comment sections on celebrities’ Instagram trying to sell you stuff). Dionysos had happy, screaming people representing his. In turn, his cult provided a space for his worshipers to be themselves as they liked to be, away from society’s pressure to be noble all the time.
4. Lingo and Icons
The Mysteries of Mithras were celebrated in windowless temples, underground, far from the sight of the world. In ancient Rome, they were whispered about in the same way that the Freemasons are today: secret handshakes, strict initiation rites, and seven levels which worshipers could rise to. Each grade, from Raven (Corax) up to Father (Pater) had its own costume – and ceremonial mask. This cult was adopted by the Roman army.
Many cults encourage behaviors, use lexicon and have symbols that separate their members from society. For example, cults in the 1960s enforced veganism and daily chanting. Apple uses the apple symbol to present their brand to the outside world. Apple users can easily spot their fellow Apple-users when they see the bright partially eaten apple on the back of someone’s new laptop. Livestrong created its own little cult with those yellow bracelets. It’s a way their people recognize each other, and it’s how they became recognized by non-members of the cults.
Tension is the management of deviance.
The cult of Cybele was one of the oldest cults imported into Rome c. 205-204 BCE. She was credited with the Romans’ victory in the second Punic War as the protectress of the besieged.
Like Dionysus, Cybele had ecstatic followers. Their activities ranged from dancing to self-mutilations. Most Romans naturally disliked their excessive behavior. However, they still respect her through her patriotic role in the Punic war. Roman religion had always relied on patriotism, and one of Cybele’s appeal was the tension she brought. Many traditional cults demonize the other. They shame external ideas, shun outsiders and categorize anything that’s not ‘us’ as the evil, or at least not-good-enough, ‘them.’ This has tremendous psychological effect of bonding community members and separating from outside forces. In this case: Romans versus their enemies.
Cybele also promised a life after death, especially for those who had little hope of finding satisfaction in this life, such as women, slaves, lower-ranking soldiers etc. These were the people who would most likely not feel very supported by the society they lived in and felt like somewhat of an outsider. It would have been easy for them to think in terms of “us vs them”.
These days, many brands are able to fight for something and against something. PETA fights against animal cruelty, JetBlue fights for humane and affordable air travel, Taylor Swift fights against boyfriends.
Furnham, A., https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201402/why-do-people-join-cults
Mason, S., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mason/start-your-own-cult_b_3999121.html
Mason, S., https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/look-it-way/200906/how-start-cult Met Museum, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/myst/hd_myst.htm
Van Edwards, V., http://www.scienceofpeople.com/2016/01/how-to-start-a-cult/