MITHRAS, THE SECRET GOD -- EXCERPT
by M.J. Vermaseren
1) Mithras in
India and Iran
Mithras is of course worshipped no longer, but archaeologists, historians of religion, theologians and linguists alike have pondered his nature and tried to unravel the secrets of his cult for the light which these studies have to throw on the origins of Christianity.
One insurmountable difficulty confronts the student of the Mithraic mysteries. For the Eastern form of Mithraism practically nothing except documentary evidence exists, whereas the Mithras of the Roman world is known to us almost exclusively from non-literary sources. That brilliant scholar, Franz Cumont, who died in 1947, has neatly summed up the position in his Die Mysterien des Mithra: 'It is,' he writes, 'as if it were only possible to study Christianity through the Old Testament and the mediaeval cathedrals.' Because of this great gap, the story of Mithras is bound to be incomplete and distorted, and those who wish to read it must wait for and assimilate the fresh discoveries which are made year by year.
The early Hittite treaty from Boghazkoy proves that some of the first Indo-Europeans had already adopted Mithras into their religions system, and so it is no surprise to find references to him in documents from early India as well as Iran. In the Veda, the sacred writings of India, he occurs frequently as 'Mithra', literally 'treaty'; in the Avesta, the holy book of the Persians, he is called 'Mithra' and a yasht, a special hymn of praise, is dedicated to him. Both in the Veda and the Avesta, Mithra is associated with the supreme being, Varuna or Ahura-Mazda, and shares their attributes, but different concepts of his nature have to be distinguished in these writings, since they combine sources of considerable antiquity with later material. Consequently Mithra does not always appear in the same character, and interpretations of him vary from time to time. Scholars who are familiar with these Eastern texts agree that in the early period Mithra was held in such honour that he competed for the crown with the lord of heaven.
To understand the place of Mithra in Iran it is necessary to keep in mind the division of the Persian pantheon into two major groups. On the one hand are the deities associated with Ahura-Mazda, the all-wise, who rules over the sublime realm of light, while on the other are the powers associated with Ahriman, the god of darkness. The two groups are in continual opposition to each other, but there will come a day when the forces of good will conquer the forces of evil. In this struggle Mithra has the status of a yazata, that is to say, an ally. He fights in the ranks of the good and righteous. He is a god of light, who in India was already regarded as the sun. Like the Homeric Helios he is all-seeing, and so an avenger of injustice and of everything in opposition to the ordained pattern of the universe. In one sense, therefore, Mithra is a god of the element of light, and in another he has a place in the cult of Ahuramazda; he is an extension of the idea of the supreme god from whom he takes his actual being. Just as the supreme god himself is surrounded by attendant powers, Amesha Spentas, who strictly speaking constitute his being, so the Indian Mithra also has lesser divinities around him, such as Aryaman, 'the protector of the destiny of the Aryans', and Bhaga, 'providence', who dispenses fortune. In ancient Persia these two attendant figures survive as Sraosha and Ashi and are to be identified with the two followers of Mithras who appear in the much later mysteries as Cautes and Cautopates.
Belief in the great power of Mithra was called in question by Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the great prophet who worked mainly in Eastern Iran and who lived some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. (The exact date is very widely disputed, but in the present state of our knowledge the latter date is the more probable.) It is a major drawback that his character has largely to be reconstructed from the Gathas, devotional hymns attributed to the prophet and written in an archaic and abstruse Eastern Iranian dialect which is extremely difficult to translate. It is, however, an established fact that Zarathushtra was a great reformer, who attempted to transform the established polytheism into a monotheist pattern with Ahuramazda as the sole and supreme god, and so found himself obliged to relegate Mithra to the background. He also attacked the forms of worship of his time, forbidding blood sacrifice such as the bull-offering and denying to his followers the ecstatic enjoyment of the spirituous Haoma. This measure in particular dealt a heavy blow to the Mithra cult, for Mithra was (as we shall see) closely associated with the bull, whose blood, mixed with the Haoma, bestowed immortality.
Whether or not his teaching was subsequently accepted by rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty such as Darius and Xerxes, it is clear that Zarathushtra never succeeded in entirely suppressing the popular feeling for Mithra. At the vey beginning of his career the poet-prophet experienced strong opposition which was to lead to his eventual murder in a temple. Thus in subsequent writings of the Avesta, in the tenth hymn for example, Mithra is reinstated in all his glory. This yasht breathes the true spirit of the popular cult, and the prophet's influence is only to be seen dimly when the all-wise God speaks to Spitama Zarathushtra: 'When I created grass-land magnate Mithra, O Spitamid, I made such in worthiness to be worshipped and prayed to as myself, Ahura Mazdah' (Yasht x,1). Other passages from the tenth hymn speak for themselves:
You protect the countries in the same measure in which they strive to take care of grass-land Mithra; you destroy the countries to the same extent to which they are defiant.
I invoke you for assistance: may he join us for assistance, Mithra the strong, notorious splendid, master of countries, worthy to be worshipped, worthy to be prayed to! (Yasht x,78)
I will worship Mithra, who is good, strong, supernatural, foremost, merciful, incomparable, high-dwelling, a mighty strong warrior. Valiant, he is equipped with a well-fashioned weapon, he who watches in darkness, the undeceivable. He is what (is) mightiest among the very mighty, he is what (is) strongest among the very strong; he has by far the greatest insight among the gods. Fortune attends him, the valiant, who with his thousand ears and ten thousand eyes is the strong, all-knowing, undeceivable master of ten thousand spies. (Yasht x, 170-1)
Throughout the whole of this yasht there are references to Mithra's power, his greatness, and his readiness to fight, which specially endeared him to his followers and remained among his attributes for as long as he was honoured. In later centuries, too, these particular qualities inspired the votaries of Mithraic mysteries.
In Indian writings such as the Veda Mithra again appears as the attendant of the Lord of Heaven, Varuna. He is closely connected with the power of light and the sun, which is itself called 'the eye of Mitra and Varuna'. The connection between Mitra and the bull -- which later became the focal point of the Mithras cult - is perhaps even clearer in the Veda than in the Avesta. Thanks to Professor H. Lommel, a number of Vedic texts have been translated and can, so he believes, be associated with Mithras, the bull-slayer. Lommel's starting point is the god of life, Soma, who is the same as Haoma and represents the rain which springs from the moon. He gives life to plants and so nourishes human beings and animals alike. In creatures of the male sex the sap of the plant is changed into fertile seed, in the female to milk. At death the life so given returns again to the moon and during the waxing of the moon Soma recovers this life force, refilling himself as if he were a bowl and so becoming the god's monthly portion of immortality. In the myth Soma, as rain, is both the semen of the sacred bull who fertilises the earth, and the milk of the all-nourishing heavenly cow. The gods, wishing to partake of the portion because of its gift of immortality, devise a plan to murder the Soma plant which is in fact Soma himself. The Wind-god Vayu agrees and Mitra too is invited to become an accomplice in the murder. The gods speak to Mitra ('he, whose name means "friend"'): '"We wish to kill King Soma." He said: "Not I, for I am friend to all." They said to him "Still we will slay him."' In the end Mithra, having been promised a share in the sacrifice, assists in the murder after all, but as a result he runs the risk of losing his ascendancy over the cattle, for the beasts turn against him with the towards: 'Though he is friend (Mitra) he has done a terrible deed.' Even Varuna takes a hand in the killing of Soma, who is murdered by being crushed under a weight of stones as in one of the cult ceremonies when the juice is extracted from the stem of the Soma-plant.
Soma supplies the life blood and the drink which is enjoyed by gods, priests and participants in the rite. Thus man is granted immortality, though through the agency of death from which only the gods are exempt.
It is interesting to compare the evidence of the Veda with that of the Avesta and particularly with the group of texts called the Bundahishn, in which the archetypal bull is killed and then the plants are created. In the later Mithras cult the god Soma-Haoma no longer appears, but tradition preserved the killing of the bull and its resultant gift of resurrection and so the connection between the Indo-Iranian cult of Mit(h)ra and the Western myth of Mithras the bull-slayer was preserved.
2) The arrival of Mithras in Europe
The circumstances which brought the god at last to Europe after hundreds of years are indeed strange. According to the historian Plutarch, who lived in the first century A.D., the Romans became acquainted with Mithras through pirates from Cilicia, a province of Asia Minor. These were the pirates who constituted such a threat to Rome until Pompey drove them from the seas.
In his biography of this skilful general, Plutarch writes of the pirates: 'They brought to Olympus in Lycia strange offerings and performed some secret mysteries, which still in the cult of Mithras, first made known by them [the pirates]'. In the middle of the second century A.D. the historian Appian adds that the pirates came to know of the mysteries from the troops who were left behind by the defeated army of Mithridates Eupator. It is well established that all kinds of Eastern races were represented in that army.
There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates' homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as 'Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras'. The god was also worshipped in Tarsus, the capital of the province, as we know from coins of the Emperor Gordian III which bear a picture of the bull-slayer (Fig. 1.). One of the greatest campaigns against the Persians took place during the reign of Gordian III; the coin has propaganda value as Ernest Will has pointed out: ' L'hommage rendu au dieu perse adopte par Rome, au moment de la campagne contre sa patrie premiere, revet une valeur politique particuliere.'
Fig. 1. Coin with with bull-slayer from Tarsus, minted in the reign of Gordian III Fig.
2. A Shepherd, witness at the birth of Mithras
Fig. 3. Mithras on horseback hunting in a forest of Cypresses
But can this evidence from the second and third centuries A.D. be taken as a confirmation of Plutarch's remarks about the Cilician pirates of the first century B.C.? Probably it can. The fact that representation of the bull-slayer occurs on coins from Tarsus, through which Gordian III almost certainly passed on his way to battle, is evidence that Mithras was worshipped in this town in particular. Since Tarsus was situated at a road junction it is probable that its citizens became acquainted with the Mithraic cult at quite an early date. Plutarch, moreover, relates that the pirates committed outrages against the gods on Olympus where Hephaistos was worshipped. As devotees of the Eastern god they apparently felt little respect for the gods of the Greeks.
The pirates, a group of drifting adventurers and, occasionally, fallen noblemen, conducted a communal worship of Mithras, whose cult was an exclusively male one. It is quite possible that these pirates introduced the Mithraic mysteries into Italy after their defeat and subsequent transportation there by Pompey. This event then offers a terminus post quem for the spread of the Mithras mysteries. Other early evidence of the first decades B.C. refers only to the reverence paid to Mithras without mentioning the mysteries; examples which may be quoted are the tomb inscriptions of King Antiochus I of Commagene at Nemrud Dagh, and of his father Mithridates at Arsameia on the Orontes. Both kings had erected on vast terraces a number of colossal statues seated on thrones to the honour of their ancestral gods. At Nemrud we find in their midst King Antiochus (69-34 B.C.) and in the inscription Mithras is mentioned together with Zeus-Ahura-Mazda, Hermes, Apollo-Helios and Herakles-Verethraghna. Thus Persian gods were invoked as protectors of the royal house. Both Mithridates and his son were represented in reliefs clasping hands with Mithras. Yearly feasts were held in honour of the deceased kings. But the inscriptions do not say anything about a secret cult of Mithras; the god simply takes his place beside the acknowledged state gods.
Though Plutarch's information is important, it must be borne in mind that the historian wrote his life of Pompey at the end of first century A.D. and it is not until then that we actually find in Rome the characteristic representation of Mithras as bull-slayer. The poet Statius (A.D. 80) describes Mithras as one who 'twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave'. One other point worthy of note is that no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century A.D., and even the extensive investigations at Pompey, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, have not so far produced a single image of the god. There is therefore a complete gap in our knowledge between 67 B.C. and A.D. 79. The earliest datable monument is a statue from Rome, now in the British Museum; the inscription mentions a certain Alcimus, who calls himself the servant of T. Claudius Livianus, and, if the identification of this Livianus with the commander of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Trajan is correct, then the figure must date from the beginning of the second century A.D. From this period onwards, the trail blazed by Mithras is broad and clear; the god's cult becomes firmly established and traces are found even on the Capitol and the Palatine, the heart of Imperial Rome.
3) The Followers of Mithras
It has already been explained that in Iran Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assist others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition. Material evidence from the second century A.D. shows that wherever the Romans planted the standards, Mithras and his cult followed. M. Valerius Maximianus is a case in point. He was born at Poetovio (the modern Pettau or Ptuj) in the province of Dalmatia, now northwestern Yugoslavia, where there were three large Mithraic temples, and as commander of the Thirteenth Legion (Legio XIII Gemina) he consecrated an altar in a Mithraeum at Apulum (Alba Julia in Dacia, modern Rumania). Subsequently as commander of the Third Legion (Legio III Augusta) between the years A.D. 183 and 185 he consecrated altars at Lambaesis in Numidia. There is throughout a strong connection between the Danubian provinces, where the Mithras cult is widespread in the outposts, and Africa. Evidence of Mithraism can be found at Troesmis in Moesia and also in Sitifs (Setif) in Africa, both places where the Second Legion (Legio II Herculia) was stationed at different times. M. Aurelius Sabinus, who came from Carnuntum (Deutsch-Altenburg) east of Vindobona (Vienna), where Mithras enjoyed profound reverence, consecrated as commander an altar at Lambaesis, and L. Sextius Castus, a centurion of the sixth Legion, who was in all probability of African origin, erected a Mithraic altar at Rudchester.
The pattern of the soldiers following the legions, the legions following the orders of their commanders and the Mithras cult following the army is continually repeated. An inscription from Palaepolis on the island of Andros shows how military service led to initiation. During the occupation of this island, when troops were being transported to the East for Septimius Serverus' expedition about A.D. 200, M. Aurelius Rufinus dedicated a cave to Mithras. Rufinus was a select member (evocatus) of the Praetorian Guard and as such he is also mentioned on an inscription found at Siscia in Bulgaria, in which it is recorded that he was a native of Bizye in Thrace. From examination of the extant evidence we know that in these Balkan regions Mithraism did not extend south of Bessapara and Philippolis. Rufinus therefore received his Mithraic initiation in his native district, but only while on military service, most probably in those regions where he served before joining the Praetorian cohorts. In Rome itself there was a Mithraeum close to the castra praetoria, paid for in all likelihood by public subscription, but erected for the benefit of the Praetorian cohorts.
There were also followers of the Eastern god to be found among the cavalry (equites) and bowmen (sagittarii) of the Roman army. Mithras the invicible was in a special degree the protector and patron of archers since he was himself the divine archer, who had power to shoot water from barren rocks with his arrows; a Roman relief shows that he possessed a bow from birth. Again, he was conceived as the Rider-god whose aim was so unfailing that his arrows never missed the gazelle or the wild boar. Palmyrene archers at Dura-Europos represented him on two paintings in their sanctuary as a mounted huntsman armed with bow and arrow (Fig. 4.). In Germany (for example at Dieburg and Ruckingen) there are other representations of the god hunting, attended by a pack of Molossian hounds. On a relief from Neuenheim he is shown as a powerful ruler riding a horse and holding the globus in his right hand (Fig. 3).
Although Mithras enjoyed considerable respect amongst the inhabitants of coastal towns, it was not by sailors that his teachings were spread to these places, nor are there many inscriptions set up by followers serving with the Roman fleets, in spite of the fact that he is known to have gained the gratitude of those engaged in commerce and navigation. The importance of the main land routes, ports and rivers was to facilitate the transport of troops and merchandise, but at the same time the great rivers formed a natural defence line and castra or castella, bigger or smaller fortresses, were often established along them before civilian settlements. The remains of these defence lines (limes) are to be found along the Euphrates, in Africa, in Dacia and Moesia along the Danube, in Germany along the sinuous course of the Rhine and in Britain between the Solway and Tyne, where Hadrian constructed a vallum or wall against the hostile Picts -- and in all these places evidence of the Mithras cult is to be found, in the most distant outposts and in the furthest corners of the empire. In the Crimea on the Black Sea, at an important crossroads, it is recorded that beneficiarii (soldiers with special privileges) erected a Mithraeum, although the exact site is as yet unknown. In the last ten years Mithraea have been discovered at Rudchester and Carrawburgh, while the Walbrook Mithraeum in London shows a certain general similarity to the sanctuary at Merida in Spain and to another in Rome, on the Aventine below the present church of Santa Prisca. A follower of Mithras living in the Jewish quarter of Rome on the far side of the Tiber owned property in Ostia, where he had his name engraved on an altar dedicated to the god. At Dieburg and Stockstadt in Germany there are Mithraea containing statues of Mercury with his purse, a form less unusual in the East (e.g. at Commagene) where Mithras was occasionally invoked in the same breath with Hermes-Mercury.
However much human beings differ in character, rank and position, in a religious community all become united. In many Mithraea we come across expressions of simple popular faith side by side with the expansive dedications of the high and mighty. Some votaries are known to us by name, such as Jahribol, commander of the archers who had himself portrayed at Dura-Europos on the great bull-slaying relief making a sacrifice in the company of two distinguished acquaintances. Mareinos or Mareos, who executed the paintings in this sanctuary, scratched his name on one of the columns. It is a matter for speculation whether this talented artist was paid for his work or whether he gave his services for nothing. In the Aventine Mithraeum the followers of the god were shown in procession offering their gifts. They were mainly people of Eastern origin, as is evident from their names; their hair is short and their beards are cut close around the jaw. The painter has endowed each individual with a lively personality and the work shows considerable stylistic originality.
4) The Figures round the Bull-Slayer
In the vaulted border of the cave behind Mithras there is often a raven, sometimes perched but more usually flying towards the god. He brings a message to which the god listens; in some representations Mithras is clearly looking back towards the raven. In classical literature the raven is the messenger of Apollo, and in the Mithraic ritual he is evidently associated with the Apollo-like Sun-god seen in the top left-hand corner of the relief. During the course of the actual mysteries the duties of those with the grade of Raven vividly recall the bull-slaying scene; they wear raven's masks (Fig. 5) and perform as heralds the same role as the raven performs for Mithras. The bird conveys Sol's orders to Mithras to kill the bull, and the god carries out the order, although with an expression of anguish on his face. It grieves him to slay the magnificent beast, but like a true soldier he obeys in the knowledge that in the end life will be renewed. On several representations one ray of the seven-rayed halo round the head of Sol shines out towards Mithras and so establishes contact with the god.
Nevertheless the scene is strange because there is no doubt from the evidence that the Sun-god was considered to be inferior to Mithras. Moreover, Mithras himself was also regarded as Sol invictus. One theory has it that Sol was the mediator who, through the raven, conveyed knowledge from Ahura-Mazda or Zeus-Jupiter. A second view is that Sol was originally the superior of Mithras and both were later incorporated into one mighty sun-figure, as when Mithras and Sol ascended to heaven in their chariot. This is a difficult problem to interpret and is still by no means finally resolved.
Fig. 4. Mithras hunting; a wall painting at Dura-Europos
The Moon-goddess, as well as Sol, took part in creation. She is sometimes portrayed disappearing in her ox-drawn car at the moment when the sun's fiery chariot is rising. Usually only the upper part of the goddess is visible; she wears a diadem, and the sickle of the moon is displayed behind her head. According to Mithraic teaching the moon had the power to purify the semen of the bull and nurtured the growth of plants and herbs during the dew-laden night.
Two other figures are rarely absent from the bull-slaying. Dressed in Persian clothes similar to those of Mithras, they are placed on either side of the bull and stand perfectly still with one leg in front of the other as if taking no part in the action. In some cases, however, one of them holds the bull's tail, apparently in order to share its magic power or to stimulate the growth of the corn ears sprouting from it. Sometimes these figures are represented as shepherds who were present at the birth of Mithras, (Fig 2) but they differ in character from Attis, for each carries a torch pointing either upward or downward, (Fig. 27) by which they illustrate the ascending or descending path of Sol and Luna, the rising and setting sources of light, life and death. Generally the bearer with the uplifted torch is placed under Luna and his companion under Sol. Their names -- Cautes, symbol of the rising morning sun, and Cautopates, the setting evening sun -- have not yet been linguistically explained, but their symbolism has been deduced from the various representations. At the feet of Cautes there is sometimes a crowing cock (which the Greek called the Persian bird), whose crowing puts evil spirits to flight. Sometimes Cautopates is shown sitting in a highly expressive attitude with his head resting on one hand, the very soul of sadness, contrasting with the joyful (hilaris) Cautes. In the Santa Prisca Mithraeum this symbolism is also expressed in the colour of the niches in which their images were placed. Cautes stand in an orange-coloured niche while Cautopates' niche is painted dark blue. Some inscriptions even describe them as 'God' (deus) and rightly so, since we know from the writings of pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite (fourth century A.D.) that the two torch-bearers form a trinity with Mithras. Consequently Cautes represents the position of the sun in the morning (oriens), Mithras its course at midday and Cautopates its setting (occidens). Mithras may have been worshipped regularly at noon and we know that the sixteenth or middle day of the month was specially dedicated to him. The figure of Mithras symbolises not only the rising sun and the sun at its zenith but also the sinking orb; in this way Mithras's influence and power were made manifest each day.
Fig. 7. Mithras in a tree
The teachings of Mithras, which are steeped in astrological theories, paid much attention to the position of the sun in the zodiac. When the sun stood in the sign of the bull -- which indicates the beginning of spring -- Cautes was portrayed holding the bull's head in his hand, but when Cautopates is seen with the scorpion we know that the sun has passed into that sign and autumn has begun. In a few instances, as at Santa Prisca, the two torch-bearers are placed beside an evergreen pine tree, while at Pettau a row of three cypresses, trees sacred to the Sun-god, indicate the Mithraic trinity. At Dieburg we see a tree with three branches and three heads wearing Phrygian caps (Fig 6). These representations are to be connected with others in which Mithras is found alone and hiding in a tree, a scene which occurs both at Dieburg and Heddernheim (Fig. 7.). Another clear allusion to the same trinity is a large marble triangle in Santa Prisca containing a globe at its centre. In short, the torch-bearers were so important that their images were to be found in almost every sanctuary.
5) The Legend of Mithras
1. The miraculous birth of Mithras
December 25th was Mithras's particular festival, when the advent of the new light and the god's birth were celebrated. This birth was in the nature of a miracle, the young Mithras being forced out of a rock as if by some hidden magic power. He is shown naked save for the Phrygian cap, holding dagger and torch in his uplifted hands. He is the new begetter of light (genitor luminis), born from the rock (deus genitor rupe natus), from a rock which gives birth (petra genetrix). Even at this stage he is equipped for his nature feats with bow and arrow, ready to perform the miracle of the striking of the rock or the miracle of the hunt. Just as the crypt of the Mithraeum is the symbol of the celestial vault, so the rock is the firmament from which light descends to earth. Sometimes, as at Dura-Europos, flames are shown shooting out from the rock's surface and even from the cap, which is often studded with stars and, like the vault of the Mithraic grotto, was regarded as a symbol of the celestial vault.
In the tenth yasht of the Avesta, the hymn for Mithras, the Persian god is described appearing in a golden glow on top of Hara Berezaiti, a mythological mountain later localised in the present-day Elburz, whence he looks out over the lands of the aryans. The theory that Mithras was descended from the union of Mother Earth and Ahuramazda does not bear examination; Mithras is saxigenus and sometimes he is shown stepping proudly out of the rock, as on a relief at St Aubin in France. The rock of Mithras's birth contains both light and fire; he who is born from the rock is thus a fiery god of light. This conception is almost certainly based on a very ancient tradition dating from the time when man first discovered that both light and fire could be produced by striking a flint. Mithras's birth is a cosmic event; he holds the globe in one hand from the moment of his birth (Fig. 8) and touches with the other the circle of the zodiac; the gods of the four winds and the four elements are all present to honour Mithras, ruler of the cosmos.
Fig. 8. Mithras at birth with globe in hand
Fig. 9. Saturn sitting on a rock, a knife in his right hand
Fig.10. Fragment of relief with Mithras
Fig. 11. Mithras catching the bull
On some representations shepherds attend Mithras's birth, (Fig. 2) but in most cases only the two torch-bearers are present, watching the event with expressions of profound amazement. On a relief at pettau (Poetovio) they appear as servants; Cautes and Cautopates carefully lift mithras by his arms in much the same way as Venus on the Ludovisi throne is raised from the waves by two female attendants. Above this scene Saturn reclines, crowned by a winged Victory, while by his side lies a dagger which he will in due course hand to Mithras. On the Dura-Europos paintings the same god reclines on what may be intended to be clouds or a wooded mountain top and holds in his right hand a harpe, or short sword with hooked point. The palm branch of victory rests above his head and corresponds to the wreath presented to him at Pettau. On a relief at Dieburg Saturn, deep in thought, is sitting on a rock holding a dagger in his right hand, (Fig. 9) and on a relief at Nersae in central Italy the harpe is clearly visible. Saturn gives Mithras the dagger to kill the bull or, in his role as the divine reaper, presents him with a harpe. Sometimes Saturn's place at Mithras's birth is taken by the Water-god Oceanus or Neptune, and on a relied at Virunum Saturn has horns on his forehead, like Neptune, while by his side stands Amphitrite. Moreover, is some representations the birth is set close to a source of water; one such relief, now in Florence, bears the form of Oceanus. Why is it that a heavenly deity or water-god is always represented? An even more remarkable relief is to be found in the second Mithraeum at Heddernheim, where the front of the relief shows Mithras's birth while the sides are decorated with the figures of Oceanus and Caeulus, accompanied by Cautes and Cautopates, and expressly described in the adjoining inscription as the gods of the waters and the heavens. Both gods are powers of creation who are present at the birth of the creative god Mithras (Demiurge) and will later give their support to his actions. Saturn himself is called fruitful; Mithras too will give fruitfulness through the killing of the bull, but he will also strike water from a rock, which will then become an eternal spring. Consequently Saturn is sometimes shown as a witness of the bull-slaying, as in the vast Santa Prisca cult-niche.
The Mithraic priests gave even more weight to Saturn than Neptunus-Oceanus, since Saturn was equated with the Titan Kronos, who was in turn identified with Chronos, the god of Eternal Time, the Persian Zervan, and the Greek Aion. Mithras too was represented as the youthful God of Time while as Sun-god he directed the course of the sun through the zodiac. In other words, Mithras is Saturn and Oceanus as well and thus the creator of both fertility and water. That is why the leader of each Mithraic community, the Father, Mithras's representative on earth, was placed under the special protection of Saturn, as can be seen at Santa Prisca; one of the attributes of the Father is a sickle. Saturn received the wreath from the hands of Victory and this same wreath adorns many inscriptions relating to the Pater.
2. The adventures with the bull
Mithras's adventures with the bull appear almost exclusively in monuments from the regions of the Danube and the Rhine, while elsewhere interest in these episodes seems to have been relatively insignificant, or they were considered of minor importance. The actual slaying of the bull is always, of course, the principal theme and incorporates the adventures leading up to it. Only in the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca do we find, on the right-hand wall of the cult-niche, a stucco image of Mithras with his mighty arm clasped round the neck of the bull. In a relief found in a Mithraeum in the Forum Boarium Mithras is carrying the bull on his shoulders towards the cave. This representation is, as it were, a gloss on a mid-third century poem by Commodianus in which Mithras is compared with the wily Cacus who stole the cattle of Geryon from Herakles as the hero lay in a drunken slumber on the banks of the Tiber close to what later became known as the Forum Boarium. Commodianus wrote his poem in the form of an acrostic on the theme of invictus, invicible, and included it in a collection of Instructiones which, in the words of W. Teuffel, is 'full of sentiments which, if not dogmatically correct, are truly Christian in their ardour'. His text gives some idea of how these two great opposing faiths of Mithraism and Christianity attacked each other:
If you hold him to
be a god, born of stone and invincible,
Fig. 12. Mithras dragging away the bull
Fig. 13. Mithras riding on a bull
Fig. 14. Mithras with bow and arrow
Despite what has been said above the reliefs from the Danube and the Rhine are so packed with all the exploits of Mithras that they often look like an open picture-book of his greatness; sometimes they even take the form of a triumphal arch. With his right hand he is lifting up a stone which he is about to throw at the roof in order to chase the animal out. On several relief from the Danube region a small boat (Fig. 15) with a second bull appears above the building. This scene may indicate the bull in the moon, since the moon is often represented as a ship. According to Porphyry the bull was identified with the moon, 'the female helpmate of creation'. This theory corresponds with the explanation of the bull-slaying given by Lommel, who bases his argument on evidence from the Indian Veda, in which Mithras definitely carries the exhausted animal away with its muzzle dragging along the ground. This gave the opponents of Mithraism an opportunity to interpret the scene as a cattle-theft and Mithras as a thief, and so to agree, probably unconsciously, with Porphyry who developes in De Antro Nympharum, 18, another complete theory about the 'cattle-stealing god'. Because the bull is identified with the moon and the moon assists in creation, Porphyry calls the souls which are created 'born of cattle' and the cattle-thieving god is 'he who secretly hearts about the creation'. So Mithras appears once more as taking an active part in the process of creation and even in the creation of souls. Porphyry's reasoning, however, seems to be an over scholarly explanation of the carrying off of the bull, which is described on a group of inscriptions (in particular one on a relief from Pettau) as transitus dei, the passage of the god. A line of verse (dated A.D. 200 and found in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum) hints at the god's heavy load, who carried the young bull on his shoulders, for if Mithras was to perform the great miracle he could not just find the bull and then kill it; the hero could only fulfill his mission after a mighty struggle. Mithras therefore carried the heavy bull towards the cave like Herakles bidden by Eurystheus to shoulder the Erymanthian boar, and his votaries, who wished as soldiers to achieve their particular life's mission, had to accomplish their personal transitus with the same determination reinforced by the god's inspiring example. Thus, on a large relief at Neuenheim, the story of Mithras and the bull is unfolded stage by stage. First we see the bull grazing peacefully in the field, but presently he is captured by Mithras and borne away on the god's shoulders, as a sheep is carried by a shepherd (Fig. 10.). In this particular case Mithras's capture of the animal is not shown, but it was probably accomplished with a lasso, taurobolium, of which the original meaning is 'the catching of the bull'. But the wild and powerful beast is able to break away and drags Mithras with him at great speed (Fig. 11). The god, however, does not relax his grasp; he clutches the animal round the neck until in the end and with a great effort he succeeds in forcing it to the ground; the powerful bull's resistance is broken, but not so Mithras's strength. He lifts the beast up, pulls its two hind legs over his shoulders and drags it towards the cave (Fig 12). Some representations show him proudly riding on the bull, holding and directing it by the sickle-shaped horns (Fig. 13.). This is an echo of Porphyry's De Antro Nympharum, 24: 'Mithras rides the bull of Aphrodite, since the bull is creator and Mithras the master of creation.' The Greek text uses the word dhmiourgoV, creator, which elsewhere is used to indicate Mithras himself who, as explained above, created life anew, through the act of the bull-slaying. According to astrological theories the bull moves in the sphere of the planet Venus-Aphrodite -- but how far these views are consistent with the image of Mithras as rider of the bull, and whether they were originally connected with it, it is impossible to say.
A large relief at Dieburg adds a further representation of this exhausting struggle. As on several other Danubian reliefs the bull is lying inside a building. In this particular case the building is a temple with a pediment decorated with the heads of three gods whose characters it is impossible to detect. Mithras is standing on a rock and is holding in his left hand a dagger and a cloth tinged with red.
Perhaps the symbolic meaning of the sign of Taurus within the courts of the sun is fundamentally the same as that of the image of the bull in a house, since the moment which heralds spring is the moment when the bull-slaying was supposed to take place. Spring is, of course, the season in which countless other cults both past and present also commemorate the miracle of the renewal of life.
3. The miracle of the striking of the rock
A relief, illustrating Mithras's miraculous birth, found in Rome and now in the possession of Trinity College, Dublin, has already been mentioned in connection with the Sarmizegetusa Mithraeum. The inscription on this relief reads as if it were written in Mithras's own words: 'Lucius Flavius Hermadion gladly made me a present of this'. The artist commissioned by Hermadion portrayed the young god in a highly original manner. In his right hand he holds aloft a burning torch and looks excitedly towards this light, of which he himself is the personification. On the rock from which he has been born, lie a dagger, a bow and a quiver, and a single arrow is also shown separately. Bow and arrow served Mithras in two major exploits in which his unerring aim was all-important -- the striking of the rock and the hunt.
Fig. 15. Relief of the bull in a boat above the bull in a house
Fig. 16. Mithras on horseback holding a lasso in his left hand Fig.
17. Relief, possibly portraying the young Mithras before Saturn
Fig. 18. Oceanus surrounded by nymphs
The scene of the striking of the rock has only been recorded once in Rome on a painted side-panel of the Mithraeum at the Palazzo Barberini. Otherwise representations of this scene are confined to the Danube and Rhine regions, where other illustrations of the Mithras cycle are also common. As a rule Mithras is shown seated and aiming his arrow at the rock face, before which a figure kneels. Occasionally a second figure clasps Mithras's knee beseechingly, or stands behind the god with one hand on his right shoulder. There is a particularly fine representation of this scene on the side of an altar at Pettau where Mithras, standing at the ready, is aiming his arrow at the rock, in front of which a man is waiting to drink the water which will gush forth. On the other side of the altar are a bow, quiver and dagger, as in the Dublin relief. It is noticeable that not only Mithras himself but also the two subsidiary figures are dressed in oriental costume, and it seems that in this type of scene they must be intended to represent Cautes and Cautopates, the attendants at Mithras's birth. A relief from Besigheim in Germany devotes two successive scenes to this miracle. In the first a man stands catching in both hands water which flows from the rock, while Mithras is still busily engaged in taking an arrow from his quiver; immediately next to this scene there is a repetition of it in greater detail (Fig. 14) with Mithras standing prepared with bow and arrow, one figure kneeling in front of him and another trying to catch the stream of water in his cupped hands. On both reliefs the rock is shaped like a cloud which, as has already been established, represents the celestial vault. Thus Mithras is begetting, as it were, water from heaven with his arrow, while the beseeching figures indicate that this miracle was performed during a drought from which the god delivered thirsting mankind -- an interpretation reminiscent of Exodus: 'And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.'
A sandstone relief from Dieburg stands entirely apart. Mithras, in oriental attire, is standing by an altar, holding an arrow in his right hand in his left a bow, most of which has now been broken away from the relief; a vessel is on the ground by his right foot. This particular representation is the only one devoted exclusively to the miracle of the striking of the rock. In every other case the incident is secondary, sometimes appearing, for example, in the background of the representation of Mithras's birth, while at Pettau it is combined with a representation of the pact between Sol and Mithras (Fig. 23). The altar shown beside Mithras on the Dieburg relief is particularly suggestive in this connection because it may have been introduced as a reminder to worshippers of the necessity for Mithras's pact with Sol in order to put an end to withering drought and refresh men and cattle alike with rain. The niche containing the representation of Mithras's birth was sometimes connected with a spring, which thus became the fons perennis, the eternal spring. One of the texts recently uncovered in Santa Prisca throws further light on this subject: 'A spring within the rocks, which feeds both brothers with nectar.' 'Both brothers' can only be the figures we have encountered on the representations of the striking of the rock. By working this miracle Mithras has fed them with nectar, procured the draught of the gods for them and endowed them with immortality. The stream which springs from the rock has become therefore a source of life-giving water in which the two brothers have found immortal refreshment, an ever-present reminder of the joys in store for those who participate in the mysteries. Unfortunately this is as far as our information takes us, but in any case here again we reach a point where Mithraism and Christianity overlap, for the portrayal of Moses on early Christian sarcophagi is likewise associated with the concept of divine refreshment.
4. Mithras the hunter
On the relief at Osterburken, which plays an important part in presenting the events of the Mithras legend, there is a remarkable scene (Fig. 19) about the depiction of Mithras's meal with Sol. Mithras, accompanied by a lion and followed by a page in oriental dress bearing the god's quiver on his right shoulder, looses an arrow as he rides his horse at full gallop; the quarry, however, is not shown. Among recent discoveries is a similar relief found near the Mithraeum at Neuenheim -- again in Germany -- (Fig. 16) in which the Persian god is riding at great speed through a forest of cypresses, his cloak flying in the wind; in his right hand he holds the celestial orb and with his left he tugs vigorously at his horse's reins. A lion and a snake are also in attendance and these figures are encountered again on the lower register of a Rumanian bull-slaying relief. Thus, although the lion and snake symbolise fire and earth, they are nevertheless here included in the retinue of Mithras, the Rider and Sun-god. A great number of similar representations of Mithras as a mounted horseman come from the East and in particular from Syria (as R. Dussaud has pointed out); the widely represented Thracian horseman of the Balkans was often identified with the Sun-god Apollo.
Thus the daily course of the sun is reflected not only in the image of Sol in his chariot but equally in Sol as an equestrian figure. These representations of the Rider-god Helios are described particularly in inscriptions from Asia Minor, and from the texts it is evident that this tradition continued until well into the Byzantine period. It seems most probable that the sculptor of the Neuenheim relief intended to portray Mithras as the Sun-god who is at the same time ruler of the cosmos, a function indicated by the celestial orb.
There is, however, a difference between these two representations at Neuenheim and osterburken. At the latter site the god is shown as archer as well as rider (just as, on the front of the large relief at Dieburg in the Rhin-land, the god is again shown as a mounted rider). In the background of this Dieburg relief there is a tree, either cypress or pine, and Mithras, astride a galloping horse, is shooting at a hare whose long ears are just available; three large and ferocious looking hounds are bounding forward, and on either side of Mithras, each standing upon a vessel, is a torch-bearer. Although the lion is missing from this scene, the presence of the torch-bearers lays particular stress on the elements of light and fire; for the element of earth in the form of a snake we have here instead the two vessels which are symbols of water. Behn, the first authority to offer an explanation of this relief, saw a connection with the German Wotan. Because such hunting scenes had at that time been found only in Germany, the Persian and Teutonic deities were assumed to have become fused. But this conclusion has been invalidated by two paintings which came to light during the excavation of the Dura-Europos Mithraeum. Both give an identical version of Mithras as Hunter, so proving that this particular imagery gained currency in the eastern part of the Roman Empire as well as in the west. But at Dura-Europos the portrayal has been adapted to oriental taste and artistic tradition (Fig. 4). The landscape is composed of trees with fan-shaped tops, and plants are schematically suggested by a mere three branches. The artist, who clearly came from neighbouring Palmyra, has executed his paintings in a range of pastel tones. Mithras, shown frontally, is turning in the saddle to loose his arrows. His elegantly accoutred horse is galloping at full speed, with the god's quiver hanging by a strap. The god himself is wearing the richly embroidered garments of a Palmyrene officer of the archers, and he is accompanied by the snake and the lion as at Neuenheim. Two deer with sickle-shaped horns, two gazelles and a boar have all been hit, and in spite of the fact that blood is streaming from their wounds they continue their flight in a last desperate attempt to escape. In the second painting the artist has produced a variation on this theme by replacing snake and boar by one small and one large lion. At Dura-Europos, a military outpost where Palmyrene archers were stationed, the followers of Mithras would wish to look up to their god as an example and also as a protector of their own weapons. There was moreover a belief to the effect that the god sought to strike at his enemies while hunting, an idea already expressed in the Avesta. At Dura-Europos he is hunting a boar, an animal commonly offered to Ahriman, the power of evil.
Hunting scenes are often to be found on tomb reliefs. It has been pointed out that among the ancients the hunt was considered to be a perfect practice ground for hardiness and endurance; philosophers regarded the struggle against the animal world 'as a victory of daring and judgment over brute force and violence'. The hunt had a religious significance as well, for dangerous beasts could only be overcome with the help of the gods and at the conclusion of the hunt a sacrifice was offered to the gods and the hunters would then partake of a repast, often of a religious nature.
Now at Osterburken, it has been noted, the hunt preceded the sacred meal. A relief at Serdica (Sofia) shows Mithras and sol taking part in the meal with a vessel on the ground beside them. On the right of the cave is a lion and on the left a hound and a boar. The meal and the hunt are again linked at Heddernheim and Rueckingen in Germany on the reverse sides of two large reliefs, in both of which the sacred meal of Soal and Mithras is portrayed below an elaborate hunting scene. In the centre of the Heddernheim relief stands a figure, whose outline is only dimly visible, surrounded by four large hounds. Above the hounds, on the left, part of a horse's leg can still be distinguished, indicating the presence of the rider; the central figure must have been an attendant. A bull and a boar are lying peacefully in a field with a grazing sheep. The hounds take no notice of these animals and it is therefore an open question whether the bull and the boar have been struck by arrows. The bull, boar and sheep, represented as the suovetaurilia sacrifices on the right-hand wall of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum, here adorn the vaulted entrance of the cave where the sacred meal took place.
On a relief discovered in 1950 at Rueckingen, Mithras is sitting on horseback holding a lasso in his left hand, (Fig. 16) and round him in a circle are various animals -- a dog, a boar, a reclining horse, a foal, another boar, a deer and an ox. Alfoeldi has tried to attach a special significance to the grouping of the animals, citing the circular course of the quadriga of the cosmic charioteer. However, there is insufficient evidence to associate these hunting scenes with the myth of the universal conflagration, and it seems preferable to explain the hunt as symbolic of Mithras's struggle against the powers of darkness (represented at Rueckingen by the boar). The more harmless animals like the hare (at Dieburg), gazelle and deer (at Dura-Europos) are all indigenous animals; the bull and ox have been added in these scenes with the object of portraying an alternative method of catching the boar. At Rueckingen the bull is caught with a lasso, a point which brings us back to the significance of the taurobolium.
Herodotus relates how the Persians instructed their children between the ages of five and twenty in three subjects only: horse-riding, archery and speaking the truth. Young Persians could follow Mithras's example as champion of truth and justice. In his role as rider and archer he goes to hunt against the powers of evil and his arrows never miss their target. Mithras is always successful in his adventures, ever triumphant in the struggle between good and evil. On a small panel at Dura-Europos we see that after the hunt the bull is carried on a pole by two servants -- as if it were a trophy -- and after the victory over evil comes the meal where Mithras's followers may recline in company with the god.
5. Sol and Mithras
In his book on the gods of the Greeks Professor Guthrie draws particular attention to the fact that in the classical world men did not feel themselves bound to strict dogma and to those doctrines which were in fundamental agreement with one another. The association of Sol with Mithras illustrates this point admirably. With the facts at our disposal, it is not possible to build up a strictly logical theory about their relationship, or rather, if such a theory did in fact exist, it is not now readily discernible.
Fig. 20. Mithras approaching Sol
Fig. 21. Mithras confers the accolade
Fig. 22. Sol kneeling in front of Mithras
In many inscriptions Mithras is invoked as deus Sol invictus, the invincible Sun-god. Together with Cautes and Cautopates he represents the sun at the three main divisions of the day, morning, afternoon and evening. But in spite of this a Sun-god with nimbus and halo also often appears beside Mithras and, whip in hand, spurs his four fiery horses through the firmament. This Apollonian Sun, this light-bringing charioteer, is clearly to be distinguished from Mithras.
In some representations of the bull-slaying a single ray from the nimbus of Sol can be seen flashing out in the direction of Mithras. Again Sol apparently uses his messenger the raven to issue instructions for the fatal stabbing of the bull, implying that the sun was regarded as a mediator between the supreme power of good (Ahura Mazda) and Mithras who, as bull-slayer, stood in turn as mediator between man and Ahura Mazda. Thus Sol-Helios-Apollo indirectly governs Mithras's actions and participates in the bull-slaying, and so it would seem that the Sun-god is superior to Mithras and wields greater power, but other representations, particularly from sites outside Rome, show the Sun-god kneeling or squatting before Mithras. Balkan reliefs portray Sol in this submissive attitude while the Persian god puts his left hand on Sol's head and holds in his uplifted right hand an object which cannot in most cases be discerned. Sometimes it looks like a pointed cap or a drinking horn, but frequently it looks like a piece of meat, either a shoulder or a leg. The texts provide no explanation of this scene. As a rule the bull-slayer seems to be bestowing some kind of honour on Sol (Fig. 21) and in a small relief found at Bucharest Mithras is definitely placing the Phrygian cap on Sol's head.
Other scenes give the impression that the two gods are concluding an agreement. On a relief from Nersae in Italy (Fig. 22) Sol, naked, is kneeling on one knee before Mithras; in between them is a small altar. In his right hand Sol is holding a dagger, point down, and with his left he grasps Mithras's right wrist. Mithras too holds a knife in his right hand, point upwards, and the two gods are presumably making a blood pact. On a relief from Rome we again see the two deities on either side of an altar, Mithras quite clearly gripping the wrist of the person in front of him with his left hand in order to make a small incision with a knife, thus sealing the pact with the letting of blood. On a relief from Virunum Mithras's right hand clasps Sol's in a paternal handshake, while his left hand Mithras pats him on the shoulder in a friendly manner (Fig. 20). As a final example, a large relief at Heddernheim shows Mithras walking towards Sol as if to place the nimbus on his head.
A second version of this scene is illustrated both in a painting in the Palazzo Barberini Mithraeum, Rome, and in a relief from Poetovio where in each case Mithras and Sol are shown standing on either side of an altar. In the example from Rome both are holding a small spit on the altar; at Poetovio (Fig. 23) both gods are holding out their hands to one another, and a spit can again be made out with small pieces of meat skewered on to it, as is still customary in Yugoslavia. The spit is being held over the altar while the raven comes to nibble at the meat, but on a painting at Dura-Europos the raven himself offers this spit for the sacred meal. It is clear, however, that the scene at Pettau is not to be regarded merely as a variant on the meal in which Sol and Mithras ultimately partake as fraternal allies, because in the Palazzo Barberini Mithraeum these two acts are portrayed on separate panels. The scene probably illustrates the formal confirmation of the pact of Sol and Mithras, an action which preceded the divine meal which itself took place before their ascent to heaven in the chariot of the sun.
which is supposed to have existed originally between the two Sun-gods
has thus been reconciled into eternal friendship. As Mithras ascends in
his chariot after the conclusion of his worldly deeds, so the initiate
himself can devoutly hope for his own return to the eternal sunlight.
After the arduous bull-hunt and the miracle of the bull-slaying, Mithras completes his stay on earth by banqueting with Sol off the flesh of the bull. As already remarked, the paintings at Dura-Europos include two attendants dressed as torch-bearers who carry the dead bull on a pole slung between their shoulders.
Fig. 24. Mithras and Sol at the sacred meal
Fig. 25. Mithras and Sol
Fig. 26. Mithras in a chariot ascending into heaven
The meal takes place in a cave where Mithras, in his Persian robes, reclines or sits with Sol behind a table; the relationship between the two gods is clearly a friendly one, as Mithras is sometimes seen with his arm round his companion's shoulder. The most usual expression discernible in these pictures, however, is one of profound religious feeling, which can be seen in all the representations of highly exalted events as, for example, in the painting at Dura-Europos (Fig. 25). The divine meal is more frequently portrayed than any other scene except the bull-slaying and sometimes the latter appears on the front of a relief which portrays the meal on its reverse. In such cases the relief was mounted on a pivot so that during the ceremonies the worshippers' attention could be drawn to one scene or the other by rotating the slab.
The meal can even be regarded as an event which takes place solely on a divine level between the two gods, Sol and Mithras. But the believers, according to certain texts, imitated the example of their deity during the ritual. Therefore certain representations are of a mixed nature, with the initiates themselves taking part in the meal as attendants on the gods; the example and imitation of the divine meal are woven into a single whole. A third variant of the scene represents initiates partaking of the meal alone.
In order to understand the ritual of this repast we must first consider the magnificent painting on the side wall behind the left-hand bench in the Aventine Mithraeum. This painting dates from A.D. 220. In a dark vaulted grotto, lit only by the golden glow of candlelight, Sol and Mithras are reclining on a couch; before them is a small table. Sol, clad in a long red garment with a yellow belt, holds a globe in his left hand and raises his right hand in a gesture of ardent enthusiasm; his long golden locks are surrounded by a rayed nimbus and he is gazing ecstatically upwards into the heavens. Mithras, in his red cloak and Phrygian cap, is sitting beside him and has put his right hand on Sol's shoulder. On each side stands an attendant; one of them keeps the gods provided with drink, the other, wearing a raven-mask, offers an oval plate with food; he is an initiate of the raven grade. Eight other young men, all Lions according to the inscriptions, bring gifts. They carry bread and a mixing-bowl, a cock and a bundle of tapers. Nowhere else is the Mithraic meal portrayed in such detail. The two gods have for a moment joined their earthly followers, who in their turn pay homage to their distinguished guests. In this way the divine presence is manifested while the initiates celebrate the mysteries and follow their example. The place once occupied by Mithras and Sol is now taken by their representatives, the Father of the Community and the Courier of the Sun, who during the solemnities would be wearing the same clothes as Mithras and Sol wore before them and are furnished with the same attributes. In the Santa Prisca Mithraeum a separate bench is made for these two persons to recline upon during the celebration of the meal. The lower grades, particularly the Ravens, are in attendance to supply them with food and drink.
On the reverse of the Mithraic relief from Heddernheim, Sol and Mithras are lying together behind the slain bull (Fig. 24). Elsewhere both gods or their followers are sometimes seen lying on the bull's skin, emphasizing once again the magic power which they seek to extract from it. On the Konjic relief, the Raven and Lion, both wearing the masks of their grade, serve food and drink, (Fig. 5) which in these scenes consists of bread, fruit and sometimes fish. On the Heddernheim relief the attendants, dressed as torch-bearers, are offering baskets containing bread or fruit and Sol is handing his companion a bunch of grapes, a gift which Mithras regards with awe. A terra sigillata bowl found at Trier and probably used at the sacred meal shows how the attendant served the bread; at Dura-Europos we have already seen the gods receiving small pieces of meat skewered on a spit; in the representation of the repast in the Aventine Mithraeum a Lion is carrying a cake in a class dish. From the refuse-pits which are often discovered close to Mithraic sites the bones of bulls, boars, sheep, and birds have been found, and the natural deduction is that normally the bull's flesh was consumed and its blood drunk. However, if no bull was available or if the animal was too costly, one either had to be content with the flesh of other animals, generally smaller domesticated breeds, or else with bread and fish as substitutes for meat, and wine for blood. 'That bread and water were used in the mysteries by initiates of Mithras, that we know, or we can get to know,' writes Justin, one of the early Church Fathers. He is careful to use the word 'water' and not 'wine', although there is certain evidence for the use of wine. In the Mithraeum at Dura-Europos the expenses of the community are scratched on the walls, and at the head of the list come the charges for meat and wine. The bunch of grapes held in Sol's hand at Heddernheim points in the same direction (Fig. 24.). One of the attendants on a relief from Caetobriga in Portugal is emptying a jug into a large mixing-bowl, while the other has dropped his torch on the ground and is offering Sol a dish with what appear to be loaves of bread on it.
All this information is once more borne out by the painting in the Aventine Mithraeum, and it is precisely this scene of the sacred meal which suffered most at the hands of the Christian iconoclasts at the end of the fourth century; the other wall was left untouched. The reason for such vehement hatred is not hard to find. According to Tertullian the meal in the Mithras cult was a 'devilish imitation of the Eucharist', and the apologist adds that the initiates of Mithras enacted the resurrection as well. They firmly believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again just as life itself had once been created anew from the bull's blood. This food and drink were supposed not only to give physical strength but also to bring salvation to the soul which would in time achieve rebirth and eternal light.
Authors like Kristensen and Loisy have concluded from this belief that the bull was Mithras who had offered himself as sacrifice, and that the believers then consumed the divine body and drank his blood as in the Dionysiac mysteries, but neither the temples nor the inscriptions give any definite evidence to support this view and only future finds can confirm it.
Justin records that on the occasion of the meal the participants used certain formulae comparable with the ritual of the Eucharist, and in this connection mention may be made of a medieval text, published by Cumont, in which of Christ is set beside the sayings of Zarathushtra. The Zardusht speaks to his pupils in these words: 'He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation....' Compare this with Christ's words to his disciples: 'He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life.' In this important Persian text lies the source of the conflict between the Christians and their opponents, and though of later date it seems to confirm Justin's assertion.
After Mithras had accomplished his miraculous deeds he was said to have been carried up into the heavens in a chariot. Some reliefs show him running behind the Sun-god's chariot which is drawn by two or four horses, (Fig. 17) whom Helios-Sol controls by pulling on the reins or spurring them on with his whip. As a rule Sol is shown with a halo round his head and virtually naked except for a short cloak round his shoulders which flutters in the wind. Sometimes the sculptor shows the chariot's passage heavenwards, as for example on the relief at Virunum (Fig. 26) where Hermes-Mercury, recognisable by two small wings on his head and his magic wand, points the way. Reliefs from the Danube region, however, show Mithras stepping quietly into a chariot bound not heavenwards but towards the Ocean, which is represented by the figure of a reclining and bearded god, the lower part of whose body is draped in a cloak, and whose left arm rests on a water jar. Occasionally the Ocean is represented schematically by undulating lines. In the Dieburg relief of the scene the artist has surrounded Oceanus with a group of nymphs (Fig. 18.) and placed him beneath a representation of the myth of Phaethon, who had come to ask Helios for his chariot Above this figure's head a billowing cloth can be made out, a feature linking it with the reclining figure in the cult-niche of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum where a velum is draped over the god's head. On the Danube reliefs the body of Oceanus is encircled by a snake, its head pointing menacingly in the direction of the horses. The Water-god seems to combine in himself attributes of the Time-god as well as the God of Heaven, and it seems likely that this combination is a reflection of the time when the God of Heaven and the Water-god were regarded as one.
When Christian artists needed to portray on their sarcophagi the soul's ascent to heaven in 'a chariot of fire, and horses of fire'. The inspiration for this theme was the extant representations of Mithras's ascent to heaven in a sun-chariot. Oceanus is, however, replaced by a personification of the River Jordan.
6) The God of Infinite Time
In various Mithraic temples there have been found representations of a monstrous figure (according to Hieronymus a monstruosum portentum), generally with a lion's head and a human body entwined by a snake. On none of these, however, is there an inscription to tell us precisely which deity is portrayed. Several attempts have been made, particularly in more recent years, to equate this figure with Ahriman, the god of evil, a suggestion made by Prof. R. Zaehner of Oxford and accepted, with reservation, by the Belgian scholar of Persian, Duchesne-Guillemin. There are, it is true, some dedicatory inscriptions to Ahriman, but they are carved on altars and only three of them are recorded, one each in Rome, England and Austria. They were obviously intended to placate the god of evil and to implore him to avert his magic force, and they must have been inscribed by sorely troubled followers of Mithras who preferred to invoke Ahriman himself rather than place complete trust in their own god who, ultimately and inevitably, was to conquer evil. To us it would seem odd to find an altar dedicated to the devil in a Christian church, but to the ancient way of thinking this was not unusual and even sacrifices of wild boars were made to pacify the malicious Ahriman.
For various reasons the present writer cannot agree with this not altogether new interpretation. To quote one particular objection: it seems remarkable that a similar deity, referred to as Aion and hence a god of time, is depicted in the gnostic and hermetic world, in magical papyri and on gems. The more one studies this mysterious character, the more one becomes convinced that Cumont's earlier explanation is right. The lion-headed figure is the Time-god called Aion by the Greeks and Zervan in Persian literature.
As far as the Persian texts are concerned, three different aspects of the Time-god must be distinguished. According to the orthodox teaching of Zarathushtra, Zervan is a creature of Ahura-Mazda, the God of Good. According to a second theory, however, there were originally two archetypes, that of Good and that of Evil. A separate Sassanid sect regarded Zervan Akarana, Infinite Time, as the cause and the source of all things. Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman both sprang from Zervan and were subject to him, and the followers of this cult called themselves Zervanists. It seems plausible that the same Zervan, after having undergone all kinds of foreign influences, was admitted into the Mithraic pantheon and that the figure with the lion's head is none other than Zervan who, by means of a put on Chronos (Time), was identified in the Greek texts with Kronos and, in the Roman world, with Saturn. This god is mostly portrayed in a stiff hieratic pose, with legs close together. Sometimes he is shown nude, though often his sex is disguised by a loin-cloth or by an enveloping snake, as if it were intended either to leave the deity's sex vague or to convey that both sexes were united in him, and that he was capable of self procreation (Fig. 28). In between the coils of the snake, which often winds itself, significantly, seven times round the god, are sometimes seen the signs of the zodiac. The horrifying figure usually has a lion's head with flowing mane and wide-open mouth showing threatening protruding teeth. For even greater effect the mouth is sometimes painted red and the gullet is hollowed out. A statue from Saida in Africa has an opening made in its head, and it is highly likely that this was intended to take a burning torch. The statue would thus appear to breathe fire and so inspire even more respect for the god than his dread visage alone could evoke. In one example he is holding two torches, while a long-pointed flame shoots out of his mouth and fuses with the flames of the burning altar beside him. An unknown author records in an essay on Saturn that he 'is sometimes represented with the appearance of a snake because of excessive cold, and at other times with a wide open lion's mouth on account of scorching heat'. Sometimes this strange creature is carrying a key in both hands, a pointer to a connection with Janus, the ruler of the ianus, the gateway to the underworld of which he possessed the keys. Finally, parallels have been drawn between Saturn and Sarapis, the Egyptian deity of the realm of the dead, and he is in some way related to certain Syrian figures who are found entwined by snakes.
Fig. 28. Zervan, encircled by a snake
Fig. 29. Statue of the Time-god at Castel Gandolfo
To sum up: the equation of Kronos with Saturn is a Greco-Roman conjunction, the addition of the key-carrying Janus is a Roman contribution, there are Egyptian influences involving Sarapis and other deities from the Nile, similarities with Atargatis represent Syrian elements. If we wish to draw any final conclusions or try to find the ultimate significance of this God of Infinite Time, we must first of all be clear in our minds that Mithraism, like the classical world in general, was not based on hard and fast dogmas, but would shift its focus from period to period and under changing circumstances. It is as though we were listening to a performance of a concerto in which the soloist interprets a particular passage in accordance with his own personal artistic taste and understanding. Therefore we must beware of trying to relate, or reduce to a common denominator, all the different characteristics which we shall now proceed to discuss.
This god always has a snake wound round his body and sometimes the signs of the zodiac are seen in the spaces between its coils. He often has four wings, one pair pointing upward and the other downward (Fig. 28). On the paintings in the Barberini Mithraeum Saturn is shown, as is often the case, standing on a globe, and it is specially interesting to note that the Time-god is here surrounded by the signs of the zodiac which decorate the vault of the cave where the bull-slaying is set.
The sevenfold windings of the snake are definitely connected with the planets and the coils themselves indicate the course of the sun through the zodiac. The sun has thus become part of the god; he is the sun determining time in its course. He dominates the zodiac and as such is Chronos, Time. But he is also the ruler over the four winds, represented by his four wings. He is known to order the seasons too, and again he does this both in his role as Sol and in his role as Time. We are reminded of the figure of Caelus, the god of heaven, who is depicted on an altar at Carnuntum surrounded by the Wind-gods and the seasons. Arnobius, writing about A.D. 295, makes an apparent allusion to the lion's devouring mouth: 'We observe amidst your gods one with the terrifying wild head of a lion, besmeared with pure minium (red-lead)'. A statue from Castel Gandolfo (Fig. 29) even has lions' heads on its stomach and knees. The lion is undoubtedly an allusion to the all-devouring fire, while the three lions perhaps indicate the threefold character of the sun figure. Arnobius calls the god fruitful, probably thinking of the identification of Chronos-Kronos with the Roman Saturn.
The lion's head on the stomach of the statue from Castel Gandolfo recalls a second statue from Merida where the god again has a lion's head on his chest. He is shown, however, not as an awesome figure but as a youth and we may unhesitatingly detect an identification with Mithras himself who, in another representation originally at Merida, is shown standing with a lion crouching at his feet. The fire-symbolism of the Lion grade in the cult, the Lion with the fire-shovel as attribute, is definitely related to this figure. It is interesting that a statue from Strasbourg shows the Time-god holding a fire-shovel in his hand, a reminder that at the end of time all will be consumed in an overwhelming conflagration. Thus the god with the lion's head is the symbol of devouring time.
2. The Syrian element
The goddess Atargatis was worshipped at Hierapolis in Syria. She was portrayed in the same stiff attitude as the Time-god and her body was always encircled by a snake. A mummy-like figure found at Rome in a Syrian sanctuary on the Janiculum is also connected with the statues we have been discussing. It is a bronze of a youth, entwined by a serpent whose head rests upon the head of the god. This statue was discovered by Gauckler in an octagonal hall, which must have some symbolic significance, and he identified it as Atargatis. In this context he referred to a text of Macrobius (fifth century A.D.), who described in his Saturnalia two statues erected on either side of the bearded Sun-god. These statues, two female deities again entwined by snakes, had originally stood at Hierapolis. Macrobius writes that 'the portrayal of the snake indicates the rounded course of the star'. Evidently this star is none other than the sun. But Gaukler was mistaken in one point for the statue from the Roman sanctuary is male. According to the most recent interpretation it represents the Syrian Dionysus-Adonis who, like his father Hadad, has connections with the sun.
3. The Orphic element
Representations of the birth of Mithras where the god, entwined by a serpent, is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac and the four Wind-gods (as at Trier) provide a link between Kronos-Saturn and Mithras. Mithras's legs are usually pressed together and still fixed in the rock. On a relief at Modena there is a representation of Mithras's birth as Time-god which differs considerably from the iconography we have so far examined. With his customary insight Franz Cumont has drawn certain conclusions from this scene. Originally the relief was dedicated by Felix and his wife Euphrosyne. As will be noted presently, Felix was a member of an Orphic sect, but he later became pater of a group of Mithraic initiates and when he dedicated this relief to his new god, he erased the name of his wife since women could not be admitted to the cult. But her name, though not clear, is still legible.
It is strange that Felix should have used the same relief first as an Orphic and later as a follower of Mithras. The relief shows a naked youth standing upright with two long wings attached to his shoulders and a half-moon visible behind him. In his right hand he holds the thunderbolts and in his left a long staff. His hoof-shaped feet are resting on one half of a burning cone, and the other half is above his head. The figure is entwined by a snake with its head on top of the upper part of the cone. A lion's head is drawn on the youth's chest and on either side of it the heads of a ram and a goat. This imposing figure is surrounded by an elliptical band in which are portrayed the twelve signs of the zodiac, while in the corners of the relief are the heads of the four Wind-gods.
The similarities between this relief and a statue from Merida in Spain are striking: the youthful figure, the serpent and the lion's head on the chest are all here. But there are also important points of difference such as the hoof-shaped feet and the blazing cones. The hooves are reminiscent of the rustic god pan whose name means 'all' and was assimilated to Phanes, meaning 'rays'. This Phanes has been compared and identified with Mithras. According to the Orphic doctrine Phanes is a youthful god of light and was born from an egg, the two half-cones constituting the egg from which he springs. This egg was laid by Time; hence the son resembles his father Chronos and is portrayed as the Time-god. Occasionally Phanes wears golden wings and, as Zeus, he carries thunderbolts and a staff. The zodiac and the coils of the serpent refer again to the yearly course of the sun, and the three heads of lion, ram and goat indicate the astrological influence.
This fusion between Orphism and Mithraism is not confined solely to Rome. In a Mithraeum of the third century A.D. at Housesteads (Borcovicium) on Hadrian's Wall a stone relief was found showing Mithras's birth from an egg, and the scene is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. Mithras, like the youthful Phanes, shows characteristics of Chronos on representations from the north of England. He who at Sarmizegetusa was called 'the begetter of light', was given at Housesteads the title saecularis, eternal, a word related to saeculum, Aion, Aevum, the stem of such words as 'coeval'. In other words, Mithras is the successor of Saturn whose celebrations ended in Rome on December 24th, the day before the young Mithras, the new Saturn, was born from the rock as god of light. Therefore the Father of the Mithraists, representative on earth of Mithras, was placed under the protection of the planet Saturn.
4. Egyptian influence
From Alexandria we know an Egyptian Time-god called by the Greek name of Aion (Aevum). He was closely related to the goddess Kore, as is clear from an account by Epiphanius who says that, on the night of the fifth of January, approximately at cock-crow, a statue of Aion was brought by torchlight out into the open from a subterranean sanctuary dedicated to Kore. To the accompaniment of pipes and tambourines the statue was carried seven times round the temple and then returned to its place. According to Epiphanius this ceremony signifies that on that night Aion was brought into the world by Kore. The Time-god was born, and this conception is closely related to the Modena scene which we have just discussed. But in Alexandria the Egyptian Aion was very differently portrayed; the god was shown seated and naked, his head, hands and knees decorated with gold 'seals'. We can see a connection between the Egyptian Aion and a statue from the Via Zanardelli in Rome, found at the foot of the Aventine. A god, standing on a marble base and wearing only a short loin-cloth, is encircled by a snake, whose head rests on the god's; in both hands, which are pressed close to his body, he holds the Egyptian ankh, the sign of life. The head is missing, but two lappets indicate that it was originally covered by a headcloth. Beside him stands a goddess, a smaller figure wrapped in a garment over which a fringed cloak is draped. In her right hand she probably held a rattle, which recalls Isis. These examples are of purely Egyptian inspiration, but this influence is translated into Mithraic terms in a statue found in the Pope's country residence at Castel Gandolfo, where once was a villa belonging to the Emperor Domitian (Fig. 29). This statue represents a standing figure of Chronos with lion's head and four wings attached to his shoulders. He wears a short loin-cloth like the Alexandrian Aion from the Via Zanardelli. A very remarkable feature is the fact that he has four arms, an eye on his chest and grim-looking lions' heads on his knees and stomach. This time there is no snake about his body, but two serpents are to be seen creeping upwards on either side of him, one along a tree-trunk and the other along the arms of a seat behind him. A three-headed Cerberus sites by his left foot and a water-snake or hydra and a lion's head are visible on the tree-trunk.
In this statue we find various characteristics of the Mithraic Aion, such as the lion's head and the eye on the chest. The lion and hydra probably symbolise the antithesis between fire and water, the four wings and four arms the directions of the four winds. Prof. R. Pettazoni has shown that there is a connection between Cerberus and the Egyptian Sarapis, the god of fertility and the realm of the dead. Macrobius, whose Saturnalia, a work tinged with syncretistic theories, dates from the end of the fourth century A.D., explains the three heads of Cerberus as an allusion to Time: the lion's head pointing to the present, the wolf's to the past and the dog's to the future. Although Cerberus is generally given three dog's heads, the Castel Gandolfo statue has the heads described by Macrobius.
In the Castel Gandolfo statue we find features recalling the Egyptian god Anubis (who has a dog's head and was identified with Chronos), the so-called 'Pantheistic Bes' (who also has lions' heads on his knees), Sarapis and the Alexandrian Aion. The sculptor who created the Italian peace must have been deeply influenced by Egyptian conventions and his creation was accepted by the Mithraists.
5. Further reflections on Aion
A statue of Aion from Ostia, now in the Vatican, shows a gradual attempts to establish a universal and all-embracing divinity by ascribing a variety of attributes to the god. On his chest are Jupiter's thunderbolts flanked by two keys, and beside his feet are the hammer and tongs of Vulcan, the magic wand of Mercury, the cock of Aesculapius and the pine-cone of Attis. The keys indicate Janus, the Roman god who, as gate-keeper of heaven, opens the gates at sunrise and closes them again at sunset. According to Marcus Messala, a consul of 53 B.C., Janus was the same as Aion. Macrobius goes further and says that Janus created and ruled the Universe and that his four heads symbolize his power over the four winds of the cosmos. In his important work on Hermeticism, Festugiere has recently pointed out that Messala's views correspond with Aristotle's.
This brings us to the question of the place of Aion in Greek philosophy. Here the essential significance is life-force, the vital spirit. On the one hand he is identified with the heavens or the cosmos, on the other he is creator of the absolute, eternal and divine nature. It is with this concept in mind that we must read the inscription on a statue of Aion found at Eleusis and dedicated in the time of Augustus: 'to the might of Rome and the perpetuation of the mysteries'. This Aion is a divine character who 'by his holy nature remains ever the same, who has no beginning or end, undergoes no change and who is the begetter of the divine nature'. The character of Aion, who is invested with such power that he has united in himself the might of all the other gods, explains the many invocations to him in occult writings and the magic significance of his portrayal on intaglios. He is sometimes represented as a god with a lion's head, a globe and a whip in his left hand, encircled by a snake its own tail; plainly the globe and whip indicate the sun, and the snake eternity. In a papyrus now in Paris, Aion appears as the god of fire and light; this god of light is none other than Helios; and Helios is identified with Mithras.
According to Festugiere the different aspects of Aion were linked. From the second century A.D. it was equally possible for 'the Great God of the pagan world to be the God of the world below or of the world above or to be the Sun or an All-God or finally to be a subservient power of the Higher God'. Festugiere's theory gains further support when we consider the place of Aion in the Mithraic community.
7) Initiation into the Mysteries
Several features of the Mithraic initiation ceremonies, by which the novice was integrated into the community, are to be found among the primitive peoples of Australia, Africa and America today. Among these tribes initiation generally takes place at puberty. After severe trials to test youth's courage and stamina, he is admitted into a secret society, religious or otherwise. He is separated from the fond attentions of his mother and must thenceforward stand on his own. In short, from an adolescent he becomes a man and acquired not only certain rights but also an equivalent set of duties. After this ordeal he belongs to the 'club' and has to safeguard its secrets carefully, for they must never be divulged to outsiders, least of all to women. As members of one large family, the initiates will assist each other and will in their turn be helped by their guardian deity both in this life and in the life to come -- if they believe that there is such a life.
It is practically certain that those who were going to be initiated into the Mithras cult were first instructed for a certain period as novices of some kind as preparation for the solemn ceremony to come. For this purpose they had to address themselves to the leader of the Mithraic community. Unfortunately the nature of this training is unknown. It may be that the myths of the origin of the universe and of the creation of the world and of man were explained, or that the novices were taught the sacred hymns and chants or even the liturgical language. The secrecy which is characteristic of the cult makes it improbable that so much would have been revealed to a layman, although it is quite possible that a more or less official explanation was given to the initiate concerning the elementary principles, which would have been in the nature of an open secret by contrast with the jealously guarded secrets of the actual proceedings at the ceremonies.
Fig.30. Representation of the initiation into the mysteries
Fig. 31. A second representation of the initiation into the mysteries
Fig. 32. A third representation of the initiation into the mysteries
Father Nolan, to whom we owe the thorough investigation of the Mithraic sanctuary under San Clemente in Rome, thought it even possible to speak of a Mithraic 'school'. Next to the entrance hall of this Mithraeum, which is found deep under the ground in a room attached to a distinguished Roman house, lies a small hall with seven niches in the wall. These were also some paintings and, what was of the greatest interest to the excavator, a brick platform along three sides. The niches would seem to indicate the worship of the seven planets and the platforms could have served as a short of school desk, where the pupils sat listening to their teacher. Nevertheless, the paintings in this room do not seem to point to the Mithraic cult, and it is still very doubtful if this small hall, which was connected by a door to the entrance hall of the sanctuary, was used for the service. It is just as likely that it was a simple meeting-place.
Neither written nor archaeological evidence has been found to tell us more about the form of preparation for initiation, but about the initiation proper we have fortunately some scraps of information. A Florence papyrus gives these details:
In the name of the god, who has divided the earth from the heavens, light from darkness, the day from night, the world from chaos, life from death and creation from destruction, beyond all doubt and in sincere good faith I swear to observe the secrecy of the Father Serapion and by the most venerable hallowed Herald Ka (merion?), to whom this task falls, and by my fellow initiates and most beloved Brethren. For which cause being true to my oath, I hope for all prosperity, but I commit myself also to all things contrary should I disclose any of this.
Thus before his initiation the initiate had to take a solemn oath, a sacramentum, that he would reveal nothing of what was to be imparted to him. We learn, moreover, that the initiation was performed by two dignitaries, who possessed the title of Father and Herald. After the ceremony he would be considered the brother of the other initiates and the son of the Father. The text goes on to tell us that in order to be recognised by the Father, he has to be tattooed, in other words branded on both hands. On several portraits, even on portraits of emperors, these tattoo marks are clearly visible, but on the forehead, in place of the hands.
The initiates had first to undergo severe trials, and a number of fragmentary scenes, preserved in the grotto at Capua, convey to us something of the fears they experienced. In one of the scenes a mystagogus in charge of the initiates, dressed in a white tunic with red borders, is pushing a naked initiate by the shoulders (Fig. 30). The novice has his eyes bound; he is still blind and cannot yet see the secrets of the mysteries. Very unsteadily and slowly he advances with his hands outstretched, not knowing where his guide is going to take him. Next we see him still blindfolded, with hands clasped, kneeling in front of the mystagogus while behind him a priest is approaching with a sword or stick. In another representation the novice is kneeling on one knee with a sword on the ground beside him, and this time the mystagogus is standing behind him and placing both hands on his head (Fig. 31). There are other people present at this ritual, but their function is obscure. Elsewhere the novice is lying on the ground as if dead, presently to be given symbolic new life. Then there is yet another ceremony: the mystagogus presses with full force on the shoulders of the kneeling novice who is almost pushed over forward, but a third figure with outstretched hands is walking towards him. Another scene shows the same priest, recognisable by his red tunic, performing some rite which is very difficult to interpret; he is holding a stick or a sword close to a round object, possibly a loaf of bread or a garland, which is lying on the ground just in front of the novice, who is kneeling with his hands folded together under his chin. The mystagogus is standing behind him with one foot on his claves (Fig. 32).
A text of the fourth century A.D. explains clearly the function of the sword in these representations. The author observes that the followers of Mithras 'are not even ashamed to be blindfolded', and continues indignantly: 'with some their hands are tied together with chicken guts and then they are thrown across pits full of water. Someone approaches with a sword, cuts through the guts and as a result of this act calls himself liberator.
Besides the representations at Capua, there is further evidence regarding the trials of initiation. Suidas, who composed a lexicon in the ninth century A.D., writes under the word 'Mithras', nobody could be initiated into them [the Mithraic mysteries], if, after having undergone a certain number of ordeals, he did not show himself to be sanctified and so impervious'. There are dreadful tales about the emperors Commodus and Julian, and in oration against Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus reproaches that emperor for admiring 'the ordeals in Mithraic ritual and the branding of the initiates'.
A monk by the name of Nonnus, who lived in the sixth or seventh century A.D., writes in great detail about the ordeals mentioned by Gregory, but here we enter the realm of fantasy:
They who are going to be received into the Mithraic cult, are initiated by undergoing a series of trials, first they are subjected to light tests and then to the more severe ones. For example they first of all leave the initiate to fast for fifty days, and when after this they are given harsher treatment, they are 'chafed' for two days and then left in snow (or cold water) for twenty days. After thus having intensified the ordeal from small to great, only they are initiated in the deeper mysteries, the novice having given proof of his ability to withstand these ordeals.
In the eighth century A.D. Bishop Cosmas of Jerusalem improved even on these exaggerations. According to him there were eighty tests, which included 'submerging themselves in water for many days, throwing themselves into fires, living in solitude and abstaining from all food'.
After reading all these texts one has the impression that the authors had no very profound knowledge of the true nature of these proceedings. The Swede Edsman has pointed out that in all probability certain followers of Mithras underwent a baptism of fire, but all things considered, one cannot escape the conclusion that the evidence at our disposal must be interpreted with caution. It has been suggested that the layout of a small stone feature which was noted in the Mithraeum of Carrawburgh may be connected with this baptism. In 1949 the excavators found an oblong trench strongly resembling a tomb close to a hearth on the south side of the sanctuary. If this trench were covered with stone slabs a man, laid inside it, could be subjected to alternating ordeals by heat and sudden cold. Beside this trench there was a small seat. This arrangement recalls the first side chapel of the Santa Prisca sanctuary, but there the explanation depends entirely on the graffito on the rim of the vessel buried near a wider but similar trench in which a person could be laid outstretched. At Carrawburgh a fire-shovel was found in the same room, and it is therefore not impossible that this room was used for the ceremony of the branding. The fire-shovel is incidentally an attribute of the Lion, itself the symbol of fire. An alternative reading is that this room was used to enact death and resurrection and in this connection we are reminded of the figure lying face downwards in the painting at Capus and the suspect text of Lampridius concerning the Emperor Commodus: 'he defiled the mysteries of Mithras with murder since it was customary there for something to be spoken or imitated to produce a kind of fear.
In the pit at Carrawburgh several bones of sheep or goats were found, which remind us of the somewhat doubtful Mithraeum 'delle tre navate' at Ostia, where a tomb-like construction was found in the central passage, while near by a pig was portrayed in the floor mosaic. These discoveries do not furnish sufficiently conclusive evidence, nor are the texts particularly reliable, with the result that we can do no more than peruse the material at our disposal for hints and suggestions.
At a given moment, after the novice had been submitted to certain purification rites and had gone through a time of fasting and abstinence, he reached the end of his ordeals. He had sworn the oath, been branded on hands or forehead and had pressed the Father's right hand. The joining of the right hands promoted the initiates to sundesioi with the Father; the oath (sacramentum) made them sacrati or consacranei. An important inscription, discovered in Rome on the Campus Martius near the Cancelleria, the Papal Chancery, is here relevant. This sanctuary, its walls painted with stars and crescent moons, was in use in the middle of the third century A.D. It was founded by the pater sacrorum, Proficentius, who commemorates this fact in his own verses:
This place is
fortunate, sacred, devout and propitious
The two palm-fronds on the inscription may be compared with the sun-wheel and palm-frond, symbols of Sol invictus, the invincible Sun-god, on the dedication by a Father in the San Clemente Mithraeum. It would be interesting to know if Proficentius is the subject of the sentence reddit munera grata, in which case, having been instructed by Mithras in a dream to build this cave, he has proceeded to acquit himself of this pleasant task; or if the subject is Mithras himself, in which case the god is rewarding Proficentius out of gratitude.
Most important, however, is the seventh line of the verse. The syndexi are the fellow initiates. The word is frequently encountered in the Mithraeum at Dura-Europos, and was thus used in the East as well as in the West. We come across it again in a formula handed down by the apologist Firmicus Maternus in the middle of the fourth century A.D.: 'Novice of the bull-theft, initiate of the proud Father.' The bull was, of course, stolen by Mithras. As a sign of his pact with the Sun-god, Mithras gives his right hand to his companion, and the initiate of Mithras who, by giving his right hand in accordance with Persian custom, concludes the pact and confirms the oath. The Cancelleria inscription mentions that the 'initiates with the right hand' joyfully celebrate their vows. These vows are not only valid for the period of life on earth, but also for all eternity.
8) The Seven Grades of Initiation
We come now to the question of the initiate's chances of promotion within the seven grades; we do not know whether he remained simply a member of the fraternity throughout his life or whether he could in time rise to higher office. The average follower of Mithras almost certainly did not advance to a higher grade, either because he did not manifest a sufficient sense of dedication to his god, or because he lacked the necessary education, or sometimes perhaps because he lacked the necessary funds, to be able to climb the symbolic seven steps of the ladder which led ultimately to the select of Father of Fathers. But he who accumulated sufficient theological knowledge and acquired an insight into the astronomical and astrological theories of the Mithraic cult -- in short he who fulfilled certain requirements -- could gain successively the titles of Raven (Corax), Bride (Nymphus), Soldier (Miles), Lion (Leo), Persian (Perses), Courier of the Sun (Heliodromus) and Father (Pater). Numerous inscriptions and discoveries in both East and West confirm this information as recorded by the Church Father Hieronymus (fourth and fifth centuries A.D.), and show that the sequence of the seven grades was the same throughout the whole extent of the Roman Empire.
The Greek language plays a dominant part in the names of the seven grades as well as in the ritual language, and the name Persian is a reminder of the cult's foreign origin. The names Raven and Lion go back to customs of a much earlier period; parallels are found throughout antiquity and also among present-day primitive tribes. The possessors of these grades dressed the part and were often portrayed as such, though not in the lively manner described by Pseudo-Augustine who says that 'some flap their wings like birds and imitate the crowing of a raven, whilst others roar like lions'. Two inscriptions from Rome, the first dated A.D. 358 the second A.D. 362, record one additional title, that of Cryfius or Chryfius. Both these inscriptions mention that 'as Patres' Nonius Victor Olympius and Aurelius Victor Augentius initiated several members of the community into special grades. These Fathers ostenderunt cryfios and tradiderunt chryfios. These two texts from Rome are so far unique and have given rise to considerable speculation about the Cryfii; many interpretations have been offered varying from the suggestion that they refer to a grade called 'Vulture' to a supposed origin in the word 'hidden'. The first explanation is grammatically impossible, but the second has in its favour the evidence of a painting at Santa Prisca where the Nymphus is seen wearing a bridal veil during the mystical marriage with Mithras.
Fig. 34. Mithras cutting corn
In a recent article Prof. C.W. Vollgraff has thrown new light on this question by making a firm distinction between the Nymphi and the Chryfii. The Nymphi are the Brides of Mithras, the Chryfii are the Hidden Ones, not 'secret members' of the community, but youths who, like the Spartan, have not yet been received as official members into the clan or cult; the 'hidden ones' who have not appeared in the full light of the public eye. They are the elpides who embody the future aspirations of the community (as noted at Dura-Europos). In a solemn ceremony the Fathers of the community introduce the 'hope of the future' to Mithras. Inscriptions from the same period prove that these Chryfii were sometimes of extreme youth, even small children being initiated in the mysteries.
Porphyry (third century A.D.) tells us that the three lowest grades were 'attendants' while the higher grades were the true 'participants', and that clearly these 'participants' were meant to take a full part in the sacred meal, while the lower grades acted merely as servants. But the archaeological evidence does not bear this out. On an altar from Pettau in Yugoslavia (Fig. 23) Mithras and Sol are seen standing on either side of an altar. They are holding up a spit with small pieces of meat skewered on to it, at which the raven is about to peck. Since the raven is imitated by the Corax in the mysteries, he must as such participate in the meal. On a painting at Dura-Europos the raven offers a spit with small pieces of meat to Sol and Mithras, who are in this case both present at the meal; here the Raven is the true attendant as portrayed on the Konjica relief (Fig. 5.) and on the paintings of the sacred meal on the left wall of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum. Thus we may conclude that the Raven is pre-eminently the attendant but that he can also be a 'participant'. The reverse holds for true 'participants'. In the paintings at Santa Prisca on the under as well as the upper layer Lions are almost exclusively depicted, walking in procession, bearing gifts to Mithras and therefore acting as 'attendants'. This concept is borne out by an inscription from a sanctuary at the foot of the Aventine dedicated ('by the priest and Father Venustus together with the attendants of the god'); the attendants include Lions, as is proved by a second inscription from the same sanctuary. This procedure is paralleled in the Roman Catholic church where a priest sometimes performs the function of deacon or subdeacon, just as everyone baptised from the age of seven onwards is termed metexon.
We have been able to gain a deeper insight into the Mithraic cult from recent discoveries, particularly at Ostia and Santa Prisca, which have yielded most valuable material. At Ostia the heraldic emblems of all the grades are picked out in mosaic and at Santa Prisca the grade-bearers are portrayed with their attributes. We have to consider this documentation together with the scanty literary evidence at our disposal.
1. Corax, the Raven
In the legend of the bull-slayer the Raven has the role of the messenger who comes to entrust Mithras with his mission. He takes the place, as it were, of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and bears as his emblem the caduceus, the magic staff of Hermes-Mercury. On the Ostia a cup has been added, and although in the Santa Prisca version the Raven in the procession of the seven grades has unfortunately been lost, beside its place can still be read the words: Nama Coracibus tutela Mercurii, 'Hail to the Ravens under the protection of Mercury'. The Raven symbolises the air and at the initiation he must have undergone certain rituals relating to this element, rituals which are called corvina or coracina sacra and which qualify the initiate as a ieros koras or 'divine Raven'. We sometimes find this adjective sanctus used in connection with other grades too, but particularly with the Pater, the Father or head of the community. When attending a service, the Raven wears a raven mask (Fig. 5.).
2. Nymphus, the Bride
Symbols of the Bride
On the Santa Prisca mural the Nymphus is shown wearing a bridal veil and, according to the dipinto (painted inscription) above the figure, he is placed under the protection of the planet Venus. It is therefore somewhat difficult to know whether in the Mithraeum 'delle pareti dipinte' at Ostia the painted figure holding a mirror represents Aphrodite or the Nymphus himself. In one Mithraeum at Dura-Europos there are as many as sixteen Nymphi. This male bride (women, we know, were rigorously excluded from the cult) is joined to Mithras in a mystical marriage by the Father, but evidently such a symbolic marriage with the god does not necessarily preclude a civil marriage.
At the initiation the desiosis or iunctio dextrarum, the clasping of the right hand as a pledge of fidelity and alliance, plays an important part. This gesture was used by the Persians as well as the Romans and is often portrayed on Roman sarcophagi.
A text of Firmicus Maternus is worth nothing.
Unfortunately the first word is disputed. If we read it as aide, then the text would mean 'Sing, Nymphus', but if we decipher it, as some editors have done, as ide then it would be 'Behold, Nymphus, hail Nymphus, hail new light'. The second explanation fits in with the velum, the veil or the flammeum of the Roman marriage ceremony as worn by the bride, for the veil was probably pulled away at a given moment in the Mithraic ritual and the Bride shown to the community. According to Apuleius a similar rite was performed in the cult of Isis. But the first explanation of aide, 'Sing', may be correct, and the Nymphus may have been required to sing a special marriage hymn.
The damaged mosaic at Ostia shows as emblems of the Nymphus a torch, a diadem and a lamp. The torch is the wedding torch, and the diadem is a clear allusion to Venus. The lamp is a symbol of the neon phos, the new light which flows from a new and closer relationship with the Sun-god Mithras. It is probable that immediately after the initiation of the Nymphus, the Mithraeum was flooded with a powerful light. I presume (though proof is impossible) that because of the special purification rites which must have preceded the ceremony, the Nymphus represented the element of water.
3. Miles, the Soldier
The god Mithras is always regarded as deus invictus, an invincible god, who as the Avesta records secures victory for his followers on the battlefield. In the struggle for the ultimate triumph of good over evil, Mithras is the associate of the god of good. Strictly speaking, every follower of the god was enrolled in his service, but the special initiation and the taking of the military oath set the seal on entrance into his ranks. The initiate took a very literal view of this; in Santa Prisca the Soldier is represented dressed in brown with a soldier's kitbag slung over his left shoulder and on the mosaic at Ostia this bag is his emblem together with lance and helmet, as he is under the particular patronage of Mars, the god of war. Some inscriptions call him pius or eusebes or even integer, that is to say god-fearing, devout or pure. Just as Corax and Nymphus represent the elements of light and water, so the Soldier could be regarded as symbolising the earth, and the Lion the element of fire. But there is no definite justification for this theory, since there is no evidence that the Soldier underwent baptism through the element of earth. For a description of his initiations Tertullian's vague account in De praescar.: must suffice, 'Mithras makes a sign on his soldiers' forehead'. The branding of the initiate applied therefore particularly to the attainment of the grade of Soldier unless Tertullian used milites to cover all initiate of whatever grade. Elsewhere Tertullian describes the initiation of the Soldier:
When he is being initiated in the cave, truly a camp of darkness, a wreath offered to him on the point of his sword and then placed on his head must be pushed off the head with the flat of his hand, and then laid on his shoulder with the words that Mithras alone is his wreath. And after that he is never garlanded again and this he possesses as evidence when he is tested with the military oath, and immediately, he is recognised as a soldier of Mithras when he has thrown off the wreath and said that it rests in his god.
Just as an ordinary soldier might be awarded a wreath for saving the life of an ordinary citizen or for being the first to storm an enemy fortress, so the Soldier of Mithras gained this distinction at his initiation. The offering of the wreath on the point of a sword was a final test of the initiate's courage. Tertullian calls this 'a mimicry of martyrdom'. One wonders if the object, lying at the feet of the initiate in a painting from Capua, (Fig. 31.) could be the sword mentioned by Tertullian. In any case, the Soldier of Mithras rejects the wreath with great humility saying 'Mithras alone is my wreath; my wreath rests in my god'. Like Mithras before him, he has taken the burden on his shoulders and in future he will fight against enemy forces under strict disciple. On a painting in Santa Prisca the Soldier is bearing the train of the initiate who precedes him.
4. Leo, The Lion
The Lion wore a long scarlet cloak and was always 'of an arid and fiery nature'. His symbol was a fire-shovel, and I am therefore inclined to regard the figure with the shovel on the floor mosaic of the Mithraeum 'degli animali' near the sanctuary of Cybele at Ostia as a Lion. During the excavation of the Mithras at Heddernheim and Carrawburgh actual fire-shovels were found, and in the Mithraeum Felicissimus at Ostia a fire-shovel is portrayed in mosaic as the Lion's emblem, together with a sistrum (the sacred rattle, adopted from the Isis cult) and the thunderbolts of Jupiter (since the Lion is placed under the special protection of the planet Jupiter).
There are some specific references to the fire symbol at initiation. Porphyry, records:
When those who are being initiated as Lions have honey instead of water poured over their hands to cleanse them, then are the hands kept pure of all evil, all crime and contamination, as becomes an initiate. Since fire is purifying, the fitting ablution is administered to them, rejecting water as being hostile to fire. And they also cleanse his tongue of sin with honey.
In connection with this particular piece of symbolism we often find the Lion portrayed on Mithraic reliefs in a threatening attitude beside or over a mixing-vessel, as on the relief from Sarmizegetusa, (Fig. 33) while in an inscription from Steklen in Bulgaria a Lion even bears the name Melichrisus, the 'honey-anointed'. The Lion has entered into such a special relation with Mithras that he accompanies the god on the hunt like the snake and the dog. In the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca we know of two processions of Lions, all bearing offerings, and on the relief from Konjic in Yugoslavia (Fig. 5.) one such initiate is wearing the lion mask.
The Lion occupies a special place in the Mithraic mysteries, and in the procession of the seven grades at Santa Prisca the Miles pays him special homage. This particular Lion, with his scarlet train, coal-black eyes and proud dignified bearing, has been immortalised in a truly unforgettable manner by the painter of Santa Prisca. The Lion probably underwent a baptism of fire in connection with the symbolism attached to his role. An inscription at Dura-Europos records the same word niptron that occurs in a text of Porphyry: 'fiery breath which for the Magi must also be a bath of those sanctified'. It is notable that the term asthma is used again by Dio Chrysostom in his account of the setting on fire of the three horses by the fiery breath of the outside horse in the quadriga of Phaethon. Can we discern in the rite of the baptism of fire an allusion to this future conflagration? The stream of fire which will spread over the earth at the end of time will strike down evil-doers only; the righteous will be spared and for them this experience will be only a niptron or bath. Two lines of verse from the bottom layer of paintings at Santa Prisca indicate this relation between the Lion, Mithras and the cosmic conflagration. Here the faithful ask that the 'incense-burning Lions' should be received by the Father, in this case meaning Mithras. 'The Lions, through whom we ourselves offer the incense, through whom we ourselves are consumed'. The purifying force of fire used in the mysteries of the cult transforms the Lion into a new man, into one who is sanctified, who like Jupiter himself strikes down the Titans with lightning and who with Mithras joins in hunting down the powers of evil. The Lions are united with Mithras and the Sun through fire, and thus also with the chariot of the sun. Purified by fire, they will ultimately become immune from its consuming power. A relief from Rome showing the fiery breath issuing from the Time-god's lion mouth is clearly connected with this belief, and on a statue of Aion at Sidon (Africa) the lion's head has been hollowed out at the back in order that fire could be placed there at certain ceremonies. In some Mithraea statues of Lions were erected which remind us vividly of statues placed as grave guardians.
The Lion stands in a particular relation not only to the god, but possibly also to the moon. This second connection is, however, more the province of the grade Perses.
5. Perses, the Persian
Symbols of the Persian
In the paintings at Santa Prisca the Persian is dressed in a grey tunic and placed under the particular protection of the moon. Like the Lion his hands are cleansed with honey during the ceremony when the grade of Persica is conferred upon him, but according to Porphyry there is a difference between the two; 'when they administer honey to the Persian they do this in his capacity as keeper of the fruits, in this symbol they express the preserving element'. Honey is the sugar of antiquity and Herodotus stresses its preservative qualify. According to the ideas of the ancient Persians honey comes from the moon, where the semen of the bull slain by Mithras was also taken and purified, henceforth to produce new fruits and plants. Thus the moon is the temporary guardian of the fruits, and the Persian personifies the moon. On the other hand he also has a particular position in relation to Mithras. His symbols are the falx (sickle) and the scythe and on the paintings at Santa Prisca he carries some long twigs (possibly ears of corn), but the sickle is also Saturn's emblem and on a relief at Dieburg Mithras is portrayed as the divine reaper; (Fig. 34) he gathers the harvest, which springs from the spinal fluid and blood of the bull. In this respect the Persian is a faithful follower of his god.
6. Heliodromus, the Courier of the Sun
Symbols of the Courier of the Sun
The name Courier of the Sun indicates at once that this grade is the deputy on earth of Helios-Sol under whose care he is placed. At Ostia his emblems are a whip, a radiate halo and a torch, at Santa Prisca a globe, a nimbus and a radiate halo. The figure in oriental costume with a globe in his left hand, portrayed in a niche of the Mithraic sanctuary in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, is probably also intended to represent a Heliodromus. He is sun, daily traversing the heavens in his chariot and urging on the horses with his whip. Once, through the agency of the Raven, he communicated to Mithras the order for the bull-slaying; once he concluded a pact with Mithras; from Mithras he received the accolade; with Mithras he enjoyed the sacred meal before ascending into heaven. It is probable that all these events were imitated during certain ceremonies in the Mithraeum. In this connection we are completely certain of only one event, the clearest proof of which is given in the Santa Prisca sanctuary. On the right-hand wall the Heliodromus is portrayed as a member of the mystic community. He wears a red garment with a yellow belt and with his left hand he clasps to himself a blue globe, while his right hand is raised in greeting towards the Father of the community, who is seated on his throne and wears a red robe and a red pointed cap. On the left-hand wall the two gods Sol and Mithras are seen partaking of the sacred meal, at which the divine Sun-god wears the same garments and has the same attributes as his earthly representative, the Heliodromus. A perhaps less imposing representation of the Heliodromus is to be found on the right hand side wall of the Mithraeum 'delle pareti dipinte' at Ostia. He holds in his left hand a long, thin stick and a blue nimbus is painted round his head. he is approaching a tree with leafy branches near which stands a nude figure with a small cape hanging loosely about his shoulders. He is probably beating the fruit down from the tree with the stick -- in which case he might also be interpreted as a Persian.
7. Pater, The Father
Symbols of the Father
This, the highest of the grades in the Mithraic cult, is the deputy on earth of the god himself and is therefore portrayed clothed like Mithras. He is Father to his initiates, who call themselves fraters, brothers, and guards over the interests of his community (defensor). He is also the magister sacrorum, the teacher whose wisdom is symbolised by a ring and a staff. He is the Magus, the sophistes, the high-priest who has been chosen by his fellow-initiates as the lawful Father at the mysteries and as such he carries the responsibility for dispensing initiation to the different grades and for accepting new members. At Dura-Europos we encounter an antipatos, possibly a preliminary grade to that of Father, while in Rome there are the pater sacrorum, the Father of the mysteries, and the pater patrum. This Father of Fathers is the great shepherd, for an inscription records a 'Father of the Fathers from amongst the ten superiors'. He is the representative of the pietas, and hence pius, pientissimus or sanctus, and he is supremely worthy. He has also studied astrology and no wonder, for the whole of the Mithraic mysteries is steeped in astrological concepts from which stem the doctrine of the seven grades, which as we have seen were placed under the protection of the seven planets, the Pater standing under the guardianship of Saturn. Above him at Santa Prisca are these words: 'Hail all Fathers from East to West, under the protection of Saturn'. At Ostia his symbols are the sickle of Saturn, the Phrygian cap of Mithras and the staff and ring which represent his wisdom.
9) Women and the Mithraic Cult
One of the problems that arises out of our study of Mithraism is the place of women in the cult. It may seem strange to our modern Western minds, accustomed as we are to the idea of equal rights for men and women, that we should need to raise the question whether women could be initiated into this Persian cult. We are inclined to consider it iniquitous that a deity should bestow all his favours upon his male followers and ignore women completely. But this exclusiveness is not unique. Although the mysteries of Eleusis, Isis, Cybele and Dionysus were open to both sexes and sometimes even allotted a main part to women, cults such as those of the Bona Dea excluded men altogether.
Porphyry, in an obscure passage of his De Abstinentia, says that the initiates who took part in the Mithraic mysteries were called lions and the women hyenas. But with this text we are on dangerous ground, because it is apparently corrupt and much altered, and we do not come across any mention of the grade of hyena anywhere else in spite of the fact that the various discoveries have on the whole told us a great deal about grades.
Even if the word 'hyaina' is changed into 'leaina' (lioness) the difficulty is by no means removed. This grade is not mentioned in any regular list of the grades, and only one single instance occurs, and that in very special circumstances. In a small town called Guigariche, five mile west of Tripoli, two sepulchral chambers were found side by side, carved out of the rock. The rooms contain fine paintings and are furnished with a niche which housed the burial itself. The inscriptions tell us that a man and his wife named Aelius Magnus and Aelia Arisuth were buried here, and the cover of the sarcophagus records that the one lies here as leo, the other as lea (lioness), a point which is emphasised by a painting of a lion and lioness. Is this the grave of a follower of Mithras of the Lion grade?
No further traces have survived of the cult at Guigariche (ancient Oea) and the graves themselves offer no definite answer. The only indication we have is the presence of a striding figure holding a candle, painted beside the niche containing the tomb of the man. This same figure also appears in the procession of the Lions in santa Prisca. If we assume that Aelius Magnus represented a Lion of Mithras, then we can safely conclude that his wife occupied the grade of Lioness. If such were the case, then we must consider this a unique example, and the possible Mithraic community of Oea would be the only one in the West where women were admitted in the various grades; all our other sources speak only of men, and where a woman's name is mentioned in an inscription she never bears a title. We get the impression that the Mithraic cult's preference for men reflected the old conception of a kind of 'clan', where secrets were divulged exclusively to the male who, as head of the household, represented his family. Such were the viri sacrati, the initiates whose high priests were, according to Tertullian, only allowed to marry once. All this is reminiscent of the strictly prescribed castes of the Magi and the advice specially given in the Avesta to the 'master of the house':
If the head of the house who presides over the house, or the head of the clan who presides over the clan, or the head of the tribe who presides over the tribe, or the head of the country who presides over the country, are false to him, Mithra enraged and provoked comes forth to smash the house, the clan, the tribe, the country, the heads of the houses who preside over the houses....(Yasht x,18).
Tertullian is again relevant, for this passage suggests that the Mithraic cult also had 'virgines et continentes', men and women who habitually denied themselves the act of love in honour of the god. Thus the woman could also dedicate herself to the god even though she could not be accepted into the mysteries. However, we have only the testimony of Tertullian (end of the second century) on this particular point.
Here Prof. Vollgraff raises the further question whether some other grades, such as the Nymphi who were joined to the god in a mystical marriage, were still free to contract a worldly marriage as well. If they were not, then a few of them, who were not going to proceed to a higher grade, could be continentes. I myself believe that we can reach a solution to this question. At Dura-Europos the largest number of initiates are Nymphi, but in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum at Rome the majority are Lions, and it would seem unlikely that all the Nymphi at Dura were also continentes. Moreover, the initiate who proceeds to a higher rank does not necessarily lose his previous distinctions. Documents relating to a married couple named Kamenius are very illuminating on this very point. Two inscriptions from Rome, both found in the grounds of the Temple of Cybele in the Vatican and one of them dated July 19th, A.D. 374, record dedications by or for Alfenius Ceionious Julianus Kamenius, who occupied among other positions those of pater, magister and hieroceryx in the Mithraic cult. Significantly, although he has achieved the highest grade, he still alludes to his role as kerus (herald) which is specially associated with the lowest grade of all, the Raven. We learn that in A.D. 385 Kamenius was appointed Father of Fathers and that when he died at Antium he still held this office. His wife had a poem carved on his tomb which reads:
Your dear wife
weeps for you both day and night.
One wonders why Kamenius should have remained unmarried during the period of 'brotherhood' when he was passing through the grades from Raven to Father. Certainly continentes remained single of their own free will, though Tertullian says of the summus pontifex, the Father, the Mithras commanded him to enter into marriage once only.
10) Offerings and Artists: Mithras in Art
The great diversity of the followers of the Mithras cult is clearly revealed in the variation in the temples themselves and in the numerous gifts which were offered to the tutelary deity. Hidden in the mountains of the Italian Alps, Southern France and Yugoslavia are a few simple sanctuaries where the standard cult scenes were carved in the living rock. High up in the mountains twenty-five miles north-west of the Rumanian Black Sea town of Constanza, a natural grotto was fitted out as a Mithraeum with, next to primitive altars, a magnificent relief executed by the artist Nicomedeus, and presented by a senior tax official. At Ostia the Athenian sculptor Kriton created a wonderful group with Mithras as bull-slayer, portrayed in the full grandeur of the Greek style. At Leptis Magna in Tripolitania the torch-bearers were executed in marble by one Aristius Antiochus, while at Merida in Spain a certain Demetrius created a most original sculptor of Mithras standing with a dolphin at his feet. In the second century B.C. a whole group of artists established a workshop in Koenigshoffen near Stasbourg, lured there by the hope of benefiting from the presence of the legions and the cult of their patron Mithras. This scholl did not confine its products to the mithraea of Koenigshoffen and Mackwiller, for its distinctive statuary is encountered throughout the surrounding districts.
The painted Mithraea in Rome and Ostia are the most renowned, but temple paintings have been found in Capua and even at Dura on the Euphrates. The Ostia Mithraea are even better known for their mosaics in black and white marble, set in the floor and on the reclining benches, which illustrate symbolically the teachings of Mithras. At Poetovio and Stockstadt silversmiths were employed to depict the motif of the bull-slaying on small silver plates, and gems engraved with representations of Mithras (Fig. 35) are also known. Santa Prisca had a head of the Sun-god in lead with a cut-out halo, and in this same Mithraeum various artists were employed at different times to adorn the cult niche with stucco work. Germany and Austria are particularly well known for their large snake-vases and only recently a pot from the Central Gaulish terra sigillata factories at Lezoux came to light, bearing a representation of the bull-slaying (Fig. 36). Finally, a small terra sigillata vessel was found at Trier decorated with a portrayal of the sacred meal.
Fig.36. Terra sigillata pot with a representation of Mithras
A closer examination of these objects shows that the artist did not always grasp the spirit of the commission, and indeed -- as is the case of Kriton at Ostia -- he sometimes allowed his own personal whim to take complete control. Whether a monument was infused with a deep symbolism or not depended on the degree of education of the members of the community or of the artist employed. In most cases the Father of the Community seems to have exercised a decisive influence on the general furnishing of the sanctuary, but the actual execution of the plans was in some regions governed by very unfavourably conditions, and limited finances often had the last word. But if circumstances permitted the temple would be ornamented in certain ways. Sometimes the dominant motif was surrounded by dozens of votive images of the bull-slaying, as at Sarmizegetusa, or by lamps and candelabra, or alternatively a painted or embroidered veil might be hung in front of the cult niche, deum in velo formatum, as we learn from an inscription at Ostia. But the Mithraeum was never luxurious; even in Rome, where some statues were decorated with gold leaf, the temple of Mithras preserved its austere and simple character, as befitted the god who was worshipped there.
In comparing the hundreds of Mithraic representations spread over the empire, we can distinguish certain underlying traditions. As we have seen, the commonest type of representation, the bull-slaying in a vaulted cave, occurs on a relief from Yugoslavia, (Fig. 37.) as well as in Rome and other parts of the Empire. This type, which was sometimes highly stylised, originated with an artist who may have lived under the Empire and was certainly influenced by a Hellenistic school. There is an exceptionally interesting relief showing the victorious Mithras with Phrygian cap and crown standing on the bull, his right foot triumphantly planted on the animal's head while in his left hand he holds a globe or pine-cone and in his right hand a dagger pointing upwards. At his side are a scorpion, the raven, a lion, a crowing cock, an ant and an eagle on a thunderbolt. This image of the god trampling an animal underfoot was so widespread in Asia Minor that it also came to be associated with Mithras. It did not, however, become generally popular since normally the bull-slayer, symbolic of the moment of the rebirth of nature, remained the focal point.
Rome was by no means the sole source of artistic inspiration, though certain representations were found there which are not encountered elsewhere. The procession of Lions on the side walls of Santa Prisca is a singular phenomenon and adds a touch of local colour to the normal iconography. A relief from Konjic, (Fig. 5) which gives a vivid portrayal of the most sacred moments in the ritual, is again quite unique in its conception. Representations of hunting scenes are mainly confined to the Rhineland, although they appear at Dura on Euphrates, but there are none in Rome. This type probably spread directly from Asia Minor to the Rhineland, which also produced various regional schools of art of its own. The larger reliefs enriched with various additional scenes came from these regions and are shaped like triumphal arches. They are not found in the Danube countries and only one instance occurs in Rome, on a painting in the Barberini Mithraeum, which was probably therefore executed under the influence of Rhenish art.
Other types again are encountered in Rumania and Bulgaria and are confined to these countries. If an example of this type turns up elsewhere one many reasonably assume that it originated in Dacia, particularly if it is a small arched relief depicting a number of scenes from the Mithras legend on its upper and lower borders. The scenes on the lower edge are usually divided from each other by arches. The Danube region is characterised by trapeziform reliefs with miscellaneous scenes grouped around the bull-slayer and on the narrow bands above and below. No examples of circular reliefs have been found in Rome, but they are known in Tugoslavia (at Salona) and in Hungary (Brigetio), and in one isolated case in Bulgaria.
There was therefore considerable diversity in the type and style of the monument. The artist was given full liberty to work as he wished, on occasion following a completely local tradition, and it is often possible to see that he did not attend too closely to the instructions of his commission and consequently understood little of the symbolism which his products were intended to portray.
11) The Fall of Mithras
In the third century A.D. the worship of Mithras had spread so widely within the Roman Empire that its position was able to survive the emergence of Persia as a competitor of Rome in the political and military field. Interest in the Eastern deities was encouraged by the kinship between the Roman emperors and the Syrian dynasty.
The attraction of the mystery cults was that through their initiation ceremonies one established a personal relationship with the god of one's own choice. The oriental cults laid great stress on personal salvation during life and after death. For anyone who feels the attraction of this oriental way of thought, but dislikes its more exotic manifestations, the teachings of Mithras have considerable appeal. The search for a monotheistic cult stimulated by the philosophical doctrines of the time led inevitably to the all-embracing cult of the unvanquished Sun-god. The extent of this sun-worship can be seen in the hostility which met the attempt of the young Syrian Emperor Heliogabalus in the year A.D. 210 to import a representation of the god Baal from Emesa to Rome; the Romans were still too much attracted to the traditional conception of the sun to be able to accept Baal in the shape of a black stone.
Aurelian built a large temple to the Sun in the Campus Martius, part of which is now the Piazza San Silvestro. There he worshipped the Sun-god as the only heavenly, almighty and divine power. It was decreed that every four years celebrations were to be held in honour of this new state god and the cult acquired a priestly college of its own. The anniversary of the Sun-god's birth was on December 25th.
Understandably the Mithraic cult took advantage of this favour. We have seen how in A.D. 307 or 308 Diocletian, together with the other imperial rulers, dedicated an altar to Mithras, 'the benefactor of the Empire', during a conference at Carnuntum on the borders of the Roman Empire. The fact that Mithras is mentioned by name distinguishes this dedication from the more general sun-cult of Aurelian.
The influence of the Mithraic cult was at its height during this period and for a short time indeed it looked as if it might reign supreme. An attempt was made to accord Mithras the place of honour on the Capitol. Naturally, it is impossible to tell whether, if its advances had not been stemmed by Christianity, Mithraism could ever have achieved complete dominance. The often quoted opinion of Renan in his book on Marcus Aurelius is too sweeping: 'Si le christianisme eut ete arrete dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eut ete mithraiste.'
The battle at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber (A.D. 312) was decisive not only for Constantine but also for the Mithraic cult. The vision of the symbol of Christ brought victory to Constantine, as on a previous occasion when the Sun-god appeared to Aurelian to pledge his support for the Emperor against Zenobia. It was due to Aurelian that the sun-cult was proclaimed the official state religion of Rome; now, similarly convinced, Constantine firmly planted the Cross on Roman soil.
The religion of the Romans, as Bayet so rightly remarks, always developed within the framework of their politics: 'therein lies the most surprising originality of its development'. H. Doerries, the biographer of Constantine, considers it anachronistic even to pose the question favour of the adoption of Christianity corresponded with his own personal thoughts and sentiments. According to him, 'politics were for him determined by religion, and religion was the consequence of politics'.
The second half of the fourth century was decisive for the outcome of the struggle between Christianity and paganism. The unwillingness of the Emperor Julian to conform to his rigid Christian upbringing led to his being named the Apostate. Strongly under the influence of the neo-platonic school, with an inclination towards the mystical, Julian declared himself a convinced Mithraist -- and we should stress the word convinced, for the fourth century produced many sympathisers, but few true followers of Mithras. J. Bidez, who has written a fine biography of Julian, describes him in glowing terms as the last emperor who professed the Mithraic faith. Julian recognised that if Mithraism were to become the world religion, it had to discard many of its more primitive aspects and be prepared to assimilate more philosophical elements, a consideration which must have contributed to those signs of the mysticism of Iamblichus which appear in the Emperor's own 'Hymn to the Sun'. Mithras is the Sun and is one and the same with Apollo, phaethon, Hyperion and Prometheus. The other gods merely express different aspects of the power of the sun. Julian saw himself in the role of a good shepherd, whose moral code was laid down by Mithras: 'Goodness towards the people he had to rule, piety towards the gods and moderation'. From the moment that he was initiated in a Mithraeum at Constantinople and entered into the highest grade of the cult he did everything in his power to encourage the triumph of the Mithraic cult, but his life was cut short by an arrow during his expedition against the Persian King Shapur. After his death in A.D. 363 a period of comparative tolerance set in, but this was cut short by an edict of the Emperor Gratian in A.D. 382. The altar of Victory was removed from the Senate, and state support for the upkeep of the Roman cult was withdrawn. Gratian was in A.D. 379 the first emperor to refuse the high dignity and title of pontifex maximus. Shortly before this (A.D. 377) the city prefect Gracchus had, according to Hieronymus, overturned, broken and destroyed a cave of Mithras filled with monstrous images. We do not know exactly which Mithraic temple this was; de Rossi though it might be the sanctuary at San Silvestro. Be that as it may, the traces of such an iconoclastic act are clearly visible in the temple of Santa Prisca.
Gratian found himself in opposition to a group of prominent intellectuals. These can be divided into two groups, one of which wished to follow the example of Julian and the other to support the gods whose existence, according to Altheim, was founded 'not in their being gods, but in their being gods of Rome'. Both groups, however, worked closely together against Gratian. Their leaders included Vettius Agorius Praetextatus who restored the Porticus Deorum Consentium with the statues of the twelve gods at the Forum. He occupied various priestly offices and was Father of Fathers in the cult of Mithras. Praetextatus was a faithful follower of Julian's ideas, while his successor and friend Q. Aurelius Symmachus was a staunch conservative. Verius Nicomachus Flavianus, a cousin of Symmachus, who was later to carry on the final struggle, was punished by the emperor in A.D. 377 because of his support of the Donatists in Africa. Various important inscriptions by Alfenius Ceionius Julianus Kamenius, a cousin of the Emperor Julian, show his faith in Mithras. Included in this circle of aristocrats and scholars was the author Macrobius who referred to the doctrine of the pagan world in his Saturnalia. Symmachus, an able diplomatist, took upon himself the thankless task of remonstrating with Gratian about his decision. Whereupon Ambrose, bishop of Milan, threatened the young Emperor with excommunication. The protagonists, however, were not Gratian and Symmachus but their respective associates Ambrose and Praetextatus, and when the latter died in A.D. 385 he left his party without a leader.
The struggle moved slowly to its close after the accession of Theodosius. When Christians in Syria looted and burned a synagogue, and monks set fire to a temple of the gnostic Valentinians, Theodosius demanded restitution and punishment. But again Ambrose intervened and Theodosius yielded. However much he struggled for independence, he ultimately became, in the words of Herbert Bloch, the 'spiritual subject of Ambrose'. He was excommunicated after another incident, but at Christmas in the year A.D. 390 the bishop allowed him to attend communion once more.
An edict of February 37th, A.D. 391 forbade all pagan worship in Rome and all visits to pagan temples, and shortly after this a beautiful Serapeum in Alexandria was destroyed. The final edict was issued on November 8th of the following year (392); all practice of pagan religions, private devotions included, was to be severely punished. But even now the supporters of the opposition refused to admit defeat. Flavianus, who had became the leader of the resistance, declared for Eugenius, who was in the north of Italy preparing for battle against Theodosius. The contest became a question of 'to be or not to be' for the old religion. At first it looked as though the battle by the Frigidus would bring victory to Jupiter. Then the next morning Theodosius knelt down and prayed. A storm swept up from the Adriatic and the arrows of the pagan enemy were turned back upon them. Yet again a miracle determined the outcome. Eugenius was murdered and Flavianus committed suicide.
For many years the spiritual struggle continued, causing Augustine to write his City of God in order to refute the imputation that the scorn shown to the Roman gods was to blame for the sack of Rome by the Goths.
It is possible that the worship of Mithras survived here and there in more isolated regions, but the power of the unvanquished god was shattered. He was conquered by the spirit of the new age and his cult perished. It is left to present-day scholarship to solve the mysteries and to seek out those secrets which the god took with him in his eclipse.