When you think of a “cult,” you may imagine some of the modern-day groups that believe in aliens or think that their leader is the second coming of Jesus Christ. Well, it turns out that human beings have been joining cults and heretic religions for thousands of years. Many of them have been totally forgotten by the average person, and you may have never been taught about these religions in history class. Here are 10 of the most shocking cults from ancient history.
10. The Skoptsy
Nearly every Christian-based religion has looked down upon having any kind of sex outside of marriage at some point or another, believing we should reserve the deed for having children. After all, lust is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins, and “thou shall not commit adultery” is one of the Ten Commandments. But one Russian cult from the 1800s called the Skoptsy took this rule so far they believed that you should never get it on — even if you’re married.
Believe it or not, the Skoptsy is estimated to have had up to a million followers during their heyday. They encouraged their followers to remove any body parts that may lead them to lust. Men would castrate themselves, and women would have mastectomies. The founder of the cult, Kondraty Selivanov, had the audacity to approach Tsar Paul I, saying, “I am not the father of sin: Accept my act and I will recognize you as my son.” After this incident, the Tsar had him committed to an insane asylum, and the cult fell apart soon after. Today, there are no remaining members of the Skoptsy, which shouldn’t come as a surprise at all, considering that they wouldn’t have been able to have children to pass their beliefs on to.
Mithraism was an ancient Roman cult that was the so-called “sister religion” of early Christianity. Scholars believe that the Mithras were practicing their religion at the same time that Jesus Christ was preaching that he was the son of God. The God Mithras is shown slaying a sacred bull, and… well, there’s not much known about their beliefs besides that. Unfortunately, there are no written records to help scholars unravel the deeper meaning behind the religion’s beliefs, so most of it is just theories and speculation.
According to experts who have studied the remains of Mithras, they believe that the image of the bull actually represents the zodiac sign of Taurus. Star maps were found among the remains of the temple, which is why they were studying the zodiac. The leading theory that historians have about their beliefs is that by killing Taurus, they will be able to shift the equinox in order to change the weather. Mithraism became popular among the Roman soldiers, and it became widespread in Italy. Eventually, it disappeared completely.
8. The Cult of Athena Polias
You may have heard of the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome. Over in Greece, they had a very similar all-female sect called Athena Polia. These women were considered to be like the physical incarnation of the goddess Athena, and the high priestess was one of the most powerful positions in all of Athens. She was always descended from one of the most powerful families in the city, and became a go-to advisor for all matters political and religious.
Every year, the city celebrated Athena’s birthday with a festival known as the Panathenaic Procession. The priestess and her maidens were all supposed to remain virgins throughout their lives, and dress modestly, because they were supposed to represent purity. During the festival, the maidens carried baskets filled with small animals, like rabbits, to be sacrificed to the goddess Athena on the altar. Despite its popularity, the cult took a turn for the worse when the temple was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC.
7. The Kachina
The Kachina was an ancient religion practiced by multiple Native American tribes in the Southwestern United States, including the Pueblo, Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, and Keresan people.
The Kachina is the name of a divine entity. No one is truly sure how the religion started, or why so many tribes had the same belief system. Some say that it came from Christian influences. However, there is significant evidence that the religion began much earlier than the first European settlers came to North America, because artifacts were found dating back to the 1300s. The tribes would often carve and paint Kachina dolls to represent their god.
For years, Christian scholars believed that they had found evidence of “Satanic Dances” among Native Americans, but it was really depictions of tribal people wearing Kachina masks while they danced. By the 1600s, the Spanish settlers truly hated Kachina, because they assumed that it was demonic. They set out to destroy all evidence of the religion, and began trying to convert Native Americans to Christianity instead. Today, it is incredibly rare to find original Kachina artifacts, and they can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at antiques auctions.
6. The Khlysts
If you have seen our list on Grigori Rasputin, then you may already be familiar with the religious cult that existed in the Siberian wilderness called the Khlysts. They were considered to be heretic offshoots of the Russian Orthodox Church. The cult was started by a man named Danila Filippovich in 1645. He said that God descended upon him in a fiery chariot flanked by angels on both sides, and he was given the new Commandments. Together with a man named Ivan Suslov, they began preaching and finding new followers.
They believed that Mary was not a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, and that he was a normal man until he was 30-years-old, when God decided to make him Christ. So, by that logic, any man or woman could be the son or daughter of God. The name of their cult, “The Khlysts,” translates to “The Christs.” One of the things they would do is dance themselves into a frenzy, until they were ready to collapse. Many of the members would remain single their entire lives. Instead of having one partner, they would participate in “group marriage,” which was really a massive orgy.
5. The Cult of Jupiter Dolichenus
From the second to third century AD, a cult of Jupiter Dolichenus began praising the god Jupiter. In case you don’t know, in Greek mythology, he was called Zeus. So he was basically the leader of all of the other gods that you know from legends of old. At the time, there was a push in Rome to take away all of the “foreign gods” and return to Roman traditions.
Aside from the statues and plaques that have been left over from the temple of Jupiter, there is little that is known about the beliefs and practices of this cult. In 2018, archeologists in England found a child-sized hand from a bronze statue that dated back to the Roman occupation. Historians believe that this hand was somehow related to the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, because they have discovered similar hands in the religion’s temples in Rome. This discovery tells us that the cult was much more popular than originally thought.
4. The Cult of Amun
In ancient Egypt, the gods were considered to be the creators of all forms of life, and everyone was expected to praise them. Amun was the “King of the Gods,” which is why the ancient Egyptian religion is often called “The Cult of Amun.” If crops and weather were great that year, it meant that the gods were pleased. But if there was a terrible storm or drought, people believed that the gods were angry, and that they must do something to make them happy.
The priests were considered to be the highest powers in Egypt, because they claimed to have direct access to the gods. The Pharaoh was considered “The First Priest” who had the closest connection to the gods. Instead of preaching the belief system to the people, they often kept to themselves, unless something had gone wrong. If there was a crisis, it was the priest’s responsibility to perform rituals that supposedly pleased their gods. During a particularly good year, priests were tax-exempt, and were often able to become incredibly wealthy. Women in the royal family were sometimes dubbed “God’s Wife of Amun,” and they held a significant amount of power in the decision-making over the kingdom.
3. The Goddess Fortuna
During the second century BCE, the massive Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia was built in the ancient city of Praeneste, which was 20 miles outside of Rome. They praised the goddess Fortuna, who was the ruler of luck and destiny. She was also considered to be the mother of the gods, and women often prayed to her for fertility. Followers would communicate with the goddess by throwing wooden tablets into a well. Then, they instructed a child to draw lots, so that a young and innocent soul could connect with the goddess. These fortunes would help them to make their decisions.
Eventually, a massive temple and complex was built in Fortuna’s honor, and it became a central hub of artistic expression in the community. For years, the city of Praesneste would remain undefeated, and they thanked Fortuna for their good luck… at least until the fourth century, when it was finally invaded. The temple was destroyed, and all pagan cults were banned by Emperor Theodosius in the year 381.
An occultist named Helena Blavatsky founded a group called the Theosophy Society in 1875. They taught a blend of Buddhist, Christian, and Pantheistic beliefs. Blavatsky taught her followers about karma, reincarnation, and how our souls are all apart of a larger universe. These beliefs already existed, of course, and she had a hand in introducing Eastern religious concepts to the Western world.
One of the many things Theosophy taught is that the universe contains “the Akashic Records.” This is a library that exists in a realm called the Etheric Plane, and it contains all of the knowledge that has ever existed in the universe. (So, like… Wikipedia?) This library also contains the records of the events of every living person. (Oh, like the FBI. Got it.) Instead of books, all information is recorded on “indestructible tablets of the astral light.” (Ah, we get it now: like Crazy-Pants Town. Right.) Followers of Theosophy believed that if they meditated and performed rituals, they could access the Akashic Records to obtain information from the universe.
1. The Cult of Pythagoras
You may have already heard of the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras. People were so enthralled by his intelligence that thought that he had been sent from Heaven equipped with his equations. They began to form a cult that very literally worshiped numbers. Each of the numbers represented a different virtue, and 10 was the most sacred of all.
Aside from maths, followers of Pythagoras believed in the “transmigration of the soul.” They believed that human souls could exist in the bodies of animals. (Because sure, why not.) Thanks to this belief, it was strictly forbidden to eat meat. They became some of the first known vegetarians, and he also encouraged all of his followers to abstain from sex in the summer, and save themselves until winter, when everyone needed to cuddle up to someone else to stay warm at night. New initiates to the cult had to take a vow of silence for five years. This was all too much for the ancient Greeks. Pythagoras’ home was eventually burned down, and many people tried to run him out of town for starting a dangerous cult. Or maybe they just hated math and felt like sex in the summer was a good thing. Who can be sure, really?
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