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Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity

Shifting Identities – Creating Change


Birgitte Secher Bøgh

For decades, Arthur D. Nock’s famous definition of conversion and his distinction between conversion and adhesion have greatly influenced our understanding of individual religious transformation in the ancient world. The articles in this volume – originally presented as papers at the conference Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity (Ebeltoft, Denmark, December 2012) – aim to nuance this understanding. They do so by exploring different facets of these two phenomena in a wide range of religions in their own context and from new theoretical and empirical perspectives. The result is a compilation of many new insights into ancient initiation and conversion as well as their definitions and characteristics.
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Theme 1. The choice: reasons, motivations, and results.


Birgitte Bøgh

In Life and Death: Choice and Conversion in the Cult of Dionysos

Abstract: The article explores how the choice to be initiated in the Bacchic cult is represented from different insider and outsider perspectives. Bøgh argues that Bacchic initiation was not simply a question of eschatology or drunkenness and posits that we on basis of modern conversion theories can characterise Bacchic conversion as soft, revivalist and affectional.


The ultimate aim of Dionysism was “to become a Bacchos – that is to say to become identified with the god.” These are the words of Turcan which are a relevant starting point for the question of choice in the cult of Dionysos.1 Bacchoi / Bacchai are cultic titles used for initiates of Dionysos both by outsiders and by the initiates themselves. It is related to the epithet of Dionysos, Bacchos, and to the verb bacchein which can refer both to the feeling and to the performance of Bacchic rites that caused enthusiastic mania.2 It is found everywhere in the Mediterranean region, from early to late antiquity, sometimes referring to a specific grade, sometimes as a generic term for all those who have been initiated to Dionysos. In the following, I want to expand on Turcan’s statement and ask why an individual wanted to become a Bacchant, what the consequences were, and how important the choice was, according to outsiders and insiders.3 This ← 25 | 26 → will bring forth different aspects of...

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