Unraveling Ancient Mystery Cults

Sweet Briar College Student Olivia Heffernan studies in the library.
Sweet Briar College Student Olivia Heffernan studies in the library.

Olivia Heffernan’s summer research project investigated the influence of the mystery cults of Aphrodite, Isis, and Hecate.

Posted on July 31, 2023

Olivia Heffernan, a rising junior from Penn Laird, is looking at the mystery cults of ancient Greece and Rome to better understand why they were popular in antiquity, how they evolved over time, and have, ultimately, fallen out of favor in the 21st Century. Her summer research at Sweet Briar College takes a look at the everyday role of these mystery cults, which were extremely secretive and restrictive compared with civic or state religion, and their perception in ancient society.

Olivia is blending her majors in art history and archaeology by using literary and material artifacts to learn about the cults of Aphrodite, Isis, and Hecate. She’s referencing primary ancient texts, examining artifacts, and reading scholarly works to better understand the role of these cults in ancient societies and to debunk elite and popular misconceptions about them.

“When I came to Sweet Briar, I thought I was going to be just a history major. Then I took an archaeology class for my history major and an art history class was a required course for our women’s leadership program. I ended up loving both of them, so I kept taking art history and archaeology. It just happened naturally that I began taking classes that fit my career goal of working as a museum curator and archivist.”

“Sweet Briar is already a very supportive environment,” adds Olivia. “But summer research takes it to the next level. My faculty advisors [Dr. Erin Pitt and Dr. Tracy Hamilton] are always available to me while allowing me the chance to take responsibility for my individual project.”

Olivia plans to continue her research on these mystery cults as part of her ongoing academic work.