NOUGHT FOR YOUR COMFORT
REFLECTIONS ON MITHRAISM
By Fr. Elliott W. James V (originally presented to Cryptos College S.R.I.A,1991e.v)
Over the years the approach of the historian has changed. Prior to the late 1960's, historians tended to carry out research to confirm earlier findings. There were a few brave spirits of the earlier generation who challenged the accepted orthodoxy, Sir Steven Runciman springing immediately to mind. From the 1970's it has been a tendency to challenge the research of previous academics. This paper has been inspired by the works of Franz Cumont, the Belgian historian who wrote on Mithraism at the end of the 19th century. His views are still the most widely quoted on Mithraism. It is my belief that he was wrong in his conclusion and deliberately ignored evidence that was available to him.
The commonly held views of Mithraism can be summarized as follows:
i. Mithraism was a religion of Persia.
Let us start by considering the structure of the religions of the Greco-Roman world. In essence there were two types of relgion, there were the tribal city-state religions and the mystery religions. The cult of the Emperor was introduced as a kind of super-tribal god to unify the state. The tribal regions can be expressed as fairly primitive, Judaism is, in its essence, a religion of nomadic herders. The city-state religions were no great improvement, Athena was, after all, the Goddess of Athens. These religions were concerned with the survival of the group, the city or the tribe, they did not necessarily offer much in the way of individual survival after death. The Gods of the ancient world, were close enough to be called upon by humanity, yet remote enough to require acts to please them to attract their attention. The religious practices were therefore aimed at pleasing the Gods and to attracting their favours. The mystery religions grew out of the changes in the philosophical outlook which occurred with the growth of the larger empires of Alexander and his successors. In say, the fifth century B.C.E. we have philosophers like Plato arguing about how the philosphers could create the ideal state. By the third century B.C.E. the philosphy had changed, now the question was not 'How can we create a perfect state', but now 'How can we live perfect lives in an imperfect world'. The reason is not hard to find; it is because the unit of organisation was far larger, dominated by a military aristocracy, conservative and hostile to changing the power structures. In Greece, the state of Athens, whilst wealthy, was small in its land area. The Empire of Alexander stretched from the western shores of Greece to the Indus. Such movements are not easily deflected by the posing of intellectuals.
The mystery religions were concerned with raising the individual to a state of perfection to make them worthy for eternity. With the exception of the Judeao-Chistian ancient religions were not exclusive. One could be an initiate of Mithras and worship Sulis-Minerva and the Emperor. This privilege was denied only to the Jews and Christians.
Mithraism was thus one of the Mystery religions. The aim was, as in all similar cults to raise the individual after death from the physical realm, through the regions of the otherworld relating to the planets and the fixed stars back to the super-celestial world. This was a long and difficult journey, and the initiate was given the keys that would unlock the gates for him, or her, and gain access to those realms. Christianity, in effect did the same, but with the added idea that if you did not have their particular keys you were excluded. The pagan mystery religion did not presume that an initiate of Isis was any more worthy than one of Attis, or that a member of the former cult was safe in the afterworld, whereas the latter were damned. This narrow view came from the Jewish worldview or "weltensuung".
Now to consider Mithraism specifically, rather than generally. Firstly, what was the origin of Mithraism? In Plutarch's "Life of Pompey", 24.1-8, we learn that the cult was introduced into the Roman Republic in the first century B.C.E. following the defeat of the pirates of Cilicia, who had preyed upon Mediterranean shipping in much the same way as the Barbary pirates of the 16/18th C.E.. Cilicia was an area of south eastern coast of Turkey, the chief city was Tarsus, which was an intellectual centre, whose main philosphical school was Stoic. Despite the claim that this area was the home of the cult, there are a number of Mithraic sites in this province, but far less than in Britian.
Was this cult of Persian origin? The name Mithra was not unknown in the that area of the world. When he commenced his researches Cumon found many references to a Persian god of fire and light. From this fact he argued that Mithra, the Persian God, became Mithras, of the Romans, on nothing stronger than linguistic ground, because Mithra translates from Persian to Greek as Mithras. To support this theory he pointed out that Mithras was depicted in iconography as wearing a cap, tunic and trousers. These he argued were Persian dress, not Roman. There is no doubt that the Persians had a god called Mithra. Persian costume at this period did include tunic and trousers. The style of Persian cap was, however, different. Mithras is represended as wherein a style of cap termed 'Phrygian', known to us as being popular amongst the lower classes of France at the time of the revolution. Phrygia was another area of Turkey, the area to the west of Cilicia. These matters are explored in greater depth when we examine the iconography and a modern explanation of the cults origin.
On these shallow foundations Cumon built his structure. Let us undermine them. If Mithraism was a Persian religion we would expect to find archeological evidence of cult structures in that country. Yet we do not. The Persian structures are associated with hill tops, the Roman with caves and underground rooms. There is no evidence of similar practices within the two cults. Further, there are less than a dozen sites in all of Persia associated with Mithra. Cumon had this information in the 1890's, and over the last hundred years the number of sites has not noticeably increased. So the worship of Mithra was hardly widespread in Persia.
Cumon's researches on the Roman Empire are even more interesting. The Roman Empire had two cultures, the Eastern half was predominantly Hellenic, the West Latin. These overlaid less civilized cultures such as the Celts. The mystery relgions, having their origins in Hellenic philosophy, were prominent in the Eastern half of the Empire, they then spread westward by a process of what could best be termed 'Backward Conquest' where the victors adopt the practices of the vanquished. The worship of Isis was widespead throughout the Empire, so were those of Serapis, Dionysus, Demeter and Orpheus. We would therfore expect to find the cult of Mithras with a similar distribution. This is not the case. The mass of Mithraic sites are associated with the Western half of the Empire. They fall particularly with the Rhine-Danube Frontier, the British Isles. The Rhone valley, the North African frontier, westward of Libya, and the Italian peninsula. Most of the Mithraic sites are normally directly associated with military settlements or areas to which veterans would have retired.
The are very few sites in the eastern half of the Empire. The major defensive structures extending from Syria through Palestine to Arabia, "The Syrian Lines", have virtually no Mithraic sites. From the distribution of Roman Military strength this is hard to understand. Persia was Rome's main civilised enemy from the period of the late Rebublic in about 60 B.C.E down to about the 640's C.E. Cumon had this information on Mithraic sites and chose to ignore it, because the evidence tended to challenge his preconceptions. Now, maybe Mithraism was unpopular with the troops of the eastern empire because their main opponents were the Persians. After all, why worship the God of your enemy? Alternatively, and in my opinion more likely, the Hellenic culture of this area had more to offer in the way of established cults. In the west Mithraism followed the army into areas which had been within the Republic and then the Empire for less than a century. Into the new frontier the troops could take something new and profoundly important. This would be supported by the fact that in areas safe from the Persian threat there was little evidence of the cult. Egypt had a garrison of two/three legions, with supporting troops probably totalling 30,000 men. It has three Mithraic sites. As a cult Mithraism was predominantly one of the West and its fate linked to that of the Western Empire.
Why did the cult grow so quickly? Again we do not know. Though there may be reasons which relate to the nature of the iconography which we will explore in due course. We could ask why did Spectulative Freemasonry grow in seventeenth century England? Speculative Freemasonry is first recorded in 1646, in 1717 the Grand Lodge of England was established. Somehow the cult caught the imagination of a similar section of Roman society, the same basic strata that was to be drawn to Freemasonry in England. Although there may be an explanation when we examine the iconography and its probable explanation.
Was Mithraism a threat to Christanity? To quote from Robert Lane Fox's "Pagan and Christian", 'There was, if anything, less chance of the Roman Empire turning Mithraic than seventeenth century England turning Quaker. To say this is not to under-estimate Mithraism or Quakerism'. This is not the time or place to explain the triumph of Christianity. The chances of Mithraism's victory was obviously limited by both it's geographical concentration and it's exclusivity to men. All the mystery religions attempted to answer the question of the individual, they did not concern themselves with cults of city and state. Mystery cults were thus in essence personal rather than public affairs.
The Christian church was interested in temporal as well as
spiritual power, it used the Roman laws on inheritance to increase
its wealth, for a full study of this I refer you back to "Pagan and
Christian". Christianity was also an exclusive religion, the mystery
religions were not. Add to this economic decline there was evidence
of failing to 'pay out' to the worshippers of the Pagan Gods,
whereas Christianity made no promises about the mundane world,
rewards came after death. In these circumstances Mithraism was at a
definite disadvantage. Christianity became the official religion of
the Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. Christianity was
a religion of quantity rather than quality, the mystery relgions
neither sought nor could not cope with mass membership. Christanity
from the days of the sainted Paul had been interested in a mass
The Western Empire, using their modern names, basically consisted
of: England/Wales, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia,
Bulgaria, Rumania and North Africa as far as Tunisia. The Eastern
Empire was Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Libya. The
enemies each faced were different. The Southern flank of the empire
was defended more by the Sahara Desert than military strength.
Military forces here faced desert nomads who were an irritation
rather than a threat.
Was Mithraism a form of proto-freemasonry? Here we are on safer ground. Few documents survive, amongst them are some commentaries on the cult practices, a liturgy, one possible ritual, written in Greek, which may or may not be genuine. In addition we have the usual impartial and unbiased writing of the early church fathers. The initiates were certainly true to vows of secrecy. All temples are of smiliar design and dimensions, they could not have held more than forty people. We do know that amongst the teachings of cult: Mithras was born of a virgin, in a cave on 25th December, and after the miraculous birth he was visited by various distingished visitors who paid homage to the divine child. The iconography usually has Mithras in the act of slaying a bull, or surrounded by a zodiac. Beyond that we know that the initiates were always male, divided into grades, seven in number. This may have been related to the ancient belief, still held down to the sixteenth century on the structure of the universe, which held that beyond the earth was the realm of the solar, lunar, and five planetary realms, the realm of the fixed stars which were contained within the super celestial realms. Thus after death the initiate would have the keys to pass through the gates in these realms. This is reflected in the cult inconography where the temples had seven stations each with appropriate symbolism. The ruin of the western empire has left us bereft of all but the vaguest of information. Much more evidence of the pagan cults survived in the Byzantine Empire, but as we have seen Mithraism was not a cult of the east so there was less material to be preserved.
Research and speculation as to the origins of the cult do continue. It has been suggested by by David Ulansay, assistant professor in the Department of Religion in Boston University, that the cults origins concern an astrological phenomena rather than a terrestial one. The case advanced by Ulansay is that the symbols of the cult that have survived, which include the bull, a dog, a snake, a raven, a scorpion, a lion and the cup. These he relates to the constellations of Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus, Scorpio, Leo, Crater, and, of course Taurus. These constellations, with the exception of Leo, lie along a path defined by the celestial equator. The celestial equator is a projection of the earths equator onto the celestial sphere. It is a imaginary cicle tilted at an angle of 23 degrees to the plane of the earths orbit (the ecliptic, or the plane that defines the cicle of the zodiac). The celestial equator crosses the zodiac at the equinoxes - the points on the celestial sphere where the sun appears to be on the first day of spring and the first day of autumn.
In antiquity the celestial equator was far more than merely an imaginary circle. Ancient astronomers believed that the earth was located in the centre of the universe and was absolutely immovable; the fixed stars were attached to a great sphere that rotated around the earth once a day on an axis running between the sphere's north and south poles. Features of this sphere, such as its poles and equator, played a critical role in ancient understanding of the structure of the cosmos. As a result, the celestial equator was much better known in antiquity than it is today; for example, Plato, in his dialogue "Timaeus", writes that the creator of the universe began the formation of the cosmos by shaping its substance into the letter X representing the crossing of the celestial equator and the ecliptic.
For most of antiquity it was believed that the axis of the celestial sphere was, like the earth, immovable. In fact, the Earth's rotation axis (the modern equivalent of the ancient cosmic axis) is not fixed; it has a wobbling movement. As it wobbles the celestial equator wobbles with it, changing the relative positions of the equator and the ecliptic. This so-called progression of the equinoxes means that the position of the sun in the sky at the equinox moves backwards along the ecliptic, and so the equinox occurs slightly earlier ever year. The complete progression takes approximately 25,920 years; the sun moves through one constellation every 2160 years. Today the spring equinox is in the constellation of Pisces; in about 2200 it will enter Aquarius.
During Greco-Roman times the spring equinox was in Aries which it had entered in approximatel 2000 B.C.E., before that it was in Taurus. Now with the exception of Leo, all the constellations within Mithraic iconography lie on the celestial equator, where it would have been seen when the spring equinox was in Taurus. Leo marks the sun's location at the summer solstice during the same period.
Thus the iconography of the cult, particularly the bull slaying or tauroctony, matches the astronomical situation that prevailed 2000 years before the origins of Mithraism. The progression of the equinoxes was not unknown in ancient times, it was discovered in 125 B.C.E. by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, only a few decades before the initial rise of Mithraism. Hipparchus not only showed the progression of the equinoxes, he also calculated the constellations that that would have lain along the celestial equator when the equinox was in Taurus, the most recent position before the Greco-Roman period. It is interesting that during the period 4000 - 2000 B.C.E. bull cults were popular in the Mediterranean basis and the Near East. From a geocentric perspective, the progression (a movement of the earth) appears to be the movement of the entire cosmic sphere. For people with a geocentric worldview and a belief that the movements of the stars influenced human fates, the discovery of the progression would have been literally world-shaking; the stable sphere of the fixed stars being unseated by some some force apparently larger than the cosmos itself. Ancient intellectuals, accustomed as they were to seeing the works of nature, could easily have taken the great movement as evidence for the existence of a powerful, hitherto unsuspected deity.
Ulansay's speculation continues that by the act of the tauroctony becomes clear; the death of the bull aptly symbolised the end of Taurus as the constellation of the spring equinox and the beginning of the most recent era. The other figures in the tauroctomy all represent constellations whose special position in the sky was also ended by the force of the progression.
By killing the bull - causing the progression of the equinoxes - Mithras was in effect causing the entire universe. A God capable of performing such a tremendous deed would be eminently deserving of worship. Furthermore, the ability to move the cosmos would be seen as endowing Mithras with other powers as well, such as the ability to overcome the forces of fate residing in the stars and to guarantee the soul passage through the planetary spheres after death. Mithras was thus the God of the "New Age", we who live two thousand years after the cult of Mithras was born see the progression of the equinoxes continuing from the constellation of Pisces to that of Aquarius.
Other Mithraic images indicate that Mithras was in fact believed to to embody cosmic power; there are scenes showing Mithras bearing on his shoulder the sphere of the universe, or in which the young Mithras holds the the cosmic sphere in one hand and in the other rotates the zodiac. In several of the tauroctonies, the starry sky is shown contained beneath Mithras's cloak.
The status of Mithras as the motive force behind the progression of the equinox could also explain the secretive nature of the Mysteries themselves. Initiates could well have believed that their knowledge constituted a powerful secret best kept that way. For the Initiates, an understanding of the complex astronomical and astrological structures underlying the nature of the god would have required lengthy periods of explanation. This would, of course, be ideally suited to a degree structure, a proper understanding of the whole structure only having been achieved when the final degree was taken.
An important question remains: If all the figures in the tauroctony represent constellations, then what constellation represents Mithras? In the tauroctony, Mithras is located directly above the bull and is always depicted as a young man carrying a dagger and wearing a distinctive conical hat known as a Phrygian cap. Phrygia was a province in southern Turkey, located next to Cilicia. The sky directly above Taurus, in fact, contains a constellation representing a young man carrying a dagger and wearing a Phrygian cap; the Greek hero Perseus. Now Perseus was worshipped as a god in Cilicia - precisely the region to which Plutarch traces the origins of Mithraism. Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, was the home of one of the most important intellectual communities in the Mediterranean. The community was dominated by Stoic philosophers, who were famous for their fatalism, hence the modern usage of the term. The Stoic philosophy also encouraged belief in astrology, but also had a tradition of personifying natural forces in the form of Gods or Heroes. Most likely, Mithraism arose as intellectuals in Tarsus, speculating about the forces responsible for the progression of the equinoxes. This they personified as Perseus, the local God in Cilicia. Perseus was, after all, already identified by a constellation, and the message of his position in the heaven was clear for all to read.
If Mithras was originally in some sense Perseus, how did his name become Mithras? Firstly, and in the light of Freemasonry, it could constitute one of the genuine secrets of the cult. The initiate learns that the true name of God is not Mithras but Perseus. Secondly, because it was believed in antiquity that Perseus was the founder of Persia, this could easily have led to an identification with the God of Light and truth, Mithra. Thirdly around the time of the of the origins of the Mithraism, most of Asia Minor came under the control of King Mithridates of Pontus, who formed a stong alliance with the the Cilician pirates. Mithridates belonged to a dynasty named after Mithra; in addition he and his ancestors claimed descent fom Perseus. It was probable that in the circle that formed around King Mithridates, who took an intellectual interest in philosophy and Greek religious beliefs, that the links between Mithra, or in its Greek form Mithras, and Perseus was formed.
Granted that Christianity was always willing to adopt practices from classical paganism if expedient, we will not be surprised to learn that there are references to Jehovah/Christ exerting similar influences over the heavens. In Mark 1:10/11 there is reference to the heavens opening at the time of Christ's baptism. This may be an attempt to convey the idea that the birth of Christ was a rupturing of the cosmic order. Luke 21:25 contains prophetic utterances regarding the end of the world which have the heavens rent asunder. The sainted Paul, who originated in Tarsus, is particularly interesting when he writes his tirades to the Galatians (Gal 4:9/10) when he complains of their being hostage to the elements and heavens. This is particularly interesting since Galatia was another province of Asia Minor adjoining Phrygia and Cilicia. The Revelations of St. John are suitable apocalyptic an the matters of new heavens and earth, (8:12), I'm sure that those with Cruden's "Complete Concordance" could find some more.
In conclusion, we appear to have a Hellenic origin for the
Mithraic cult, which was based upon the latest findings of science
and philosophy. The cult found less favour within its area of origin
than it did in the Latin west, probably because it was a cult and
the area of the new empire had fewer mystery religions which met the
needs of the imperial intelligencia on the frontier. The cults fate
was thus linked to the fate of the Latin empire and fell with it.
Christianity, as a mass movement, able to exploit imperial law and
offering "jam tomorrow" was more successful at meeting the needs of
the people. It is a strange twist of fate that about the year 1 C.E.,(+/-
200 years) the progression of the equinoxes had that that spring
moved into Pisces, or the Fishes, and in the early years of its
development Christianity used the symbol of the fish.
"The Mysteries of Mithra", by Franz Cumont.
The last two sources are so idiosyncratic as to be useless for academic scholarship.