But it should not be supposed that this was done lightly. The sacred ceremonies were preceded by elaborate preparations, especially when new members were to be initiated. Such candidates were required to fast, to preserve absolute continence, to confess their sins, to undergo a ceremonial purification by water and the spirit (baptism) and to show their seriousness of mind by making sacrifices or financial contributions. In some cases they were required to undertake penitential pilgrimages: Apuleius has left us a vivid account of his wanderings from brine to shrine. In others, the celebrant was required to practise austerities and rigorous ablutions. Juvenal tells us of a devotee of Isis:
“She will break the ice and descend into the river in winter; thrice a morning she will bathe in the Tiber and lave her tumid head in its very depths. Then, with bleeding knees, she will creep, naked and shivering, over the Whole length of the Campus Martius.”
Nothing could be further from the truth than to suppose, as some Christian writers would have us do, that the mystery or theoleptic religions were simply glorious free-for-alls. In point of fact, in this later period, the use of sex and drink as psychic stimulants had in most cases been abandoned, and Christian writers, anxious to blacken the mystery religions, were forced to dig up, from the practices of many hundreds of years earlier, details which even the historians of the period, such as Varro, confessed difficulty in ascertaining.
Nor should it be supposed that the experience of divinity was attained easily or often. Plotinus had the beatific vision only four times during Porphyry’s stay with him, while Porphyry himself tells us that he attained it only once, at the age of 68. This refers, of course, not simply to enthusiasm but to ecstasy — “Men going out of themselves to be wholly established in the Divine and to be enraptured” as Proclus puts it. Ecstasy, it seems, could be of a passive or trance like character, or it could take an active, orgiastic form — the form which Plato calls “divine frenzy“. It is to this frenzy that the word orgy refers.
The world seems to have been in a strange and uneasy state during these centuries, beset by hopes and fears. A few were rationalists and stoutly denied all deity and postmortem existence but most clove to the hope that personal immortality was possible.