Thursday, May 13, 2010

Exploring Connections Between Roman & Persian Mithraism

References in Classical Literature:
(There is very little written material connecting Persian and Roman Mithraism. Some of the references are in texts opposed to Mithraism.)

Source: Greek Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry (c.234–c.305 CE).
"... Zoroaster was the first to dedicate a natural cave in honour of Mithras, the creator and father of all; it was located in the mountains near Persia and had flowers and springs. This cave bore for him the image of the cosmos which Mithras had created and the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos. After Zoroaster, others adopted the custom of performing their rites of initiation in caves and grottoes which were either natural or artificial” (De antro nympharum 6, trans. Arethusa edition)."

(Here, Porphyry describes an archetypal Mithraeum and mistakenly ascribes the institution of Mithraism to Zoroaster. Though this account is fictitious, it is representative to the Latin/Greek texts that connect European Mithraism to 'Persia' i.e. ancient Iran.)

Source: Greek author Plutarch (c. 46-119 CE).
One of our references is Pultarch's 75 CE biography Pompey, about the Roman general Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus 106 - 48 BCE) who was given command of a naval task force to deal with piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. According to Plutarch  the pirates were at one point employed by the Anatolian Pontus king Mithradat(a) / Mithridates (not to be mistaken for Arsacid / Parthian king of the same name) presumably to harass the Romans and their trade supply lines. The biography is part of Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch's Lives.

The Pirates of Cilicia Employed by Pontus king Mithradat(a)/Mithridates (Modern Meherdad)
"The power of the pirates first commenced in Cilicia (see below*), having in truth but a precarious and obscure beginning, but gained life and boldness afterwards in the wars of Mithridates (VI), where they hired themselves out and took employment in the king's service. Afterwards, whilst the Romans were embroiled in their civil wars, being engaged against one another even before the very gates of Rome, the seas lay waste and unguarded, and by degrees enticed and drew them on not only to seize upon and spoil the merchants and ships upon the seas, but also to lay waste the islands and seaport towns. So that now there embarked with these pirates men of wealth and noble birth and superior abilities, as if it had been a natural occupation to gain distinction in. They had divers arsenals, or piratic harbours, as likewise watch-towers and beacons, all along the sea-coast; and fleets were here received that were well manned with the finest mariners, and well served with the expertest pilots, and composed of swift-sailing and light-built vessels adapted for their special purpose. Nor was it merely their being thus formidable that excited indignation; they were even more odious for their ostentation than they were feared for their force. Their ships had gilded masts at their stems; the sails woven of purple, and the oars plated with silver, as if their delight were to glory in their iniquity. There was nothing but music and dancing, banqueting and revels, all along the shore. Officers in command were taken prisoners, and cities put under contribution, to the reproach and dishonour of the Roman supremacy."

[* Note: Cilicia is today part of Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast at its eastern-most extent and where the coast wraps around the Mediterranean and extends south towards Turkey's border with Syria.]

"There were of these corsairs (pirate ships) above one thousand sail, and they had taken no less than four hundred cities, committing sacrilege upon the temples of the gods, and enriching themselves with the spoils of many never violated before... . They themselves offered strange sacrifices upon Mount Olympus, and performed certain secret rites or religious mysteries, among which those of Mithras have been preserved to our own time having received their previous institution from them. "

Source: Lactantius Placidus, a fifth century CE grammarian in his commentary on the Thebaid of Statius (c. 45-c. 96 CE) 1.719-20, 84.

How the Greeks Understood Persian Mithraism
"a) He [Statius] declares that different nations give to Apollo (Greek god of light and the sun; truth and prophecy) different names. The Egyptian call him Osiris, The Persian Achaemenians call him Mithra, a Titan, and worship him in a cave. The expression "resist his control" refers to the figure of Mithra holding back the horns of a recalcitrant bull, whereby is indicated the Sun's illumination of the Moon, when the latter receives its rays."

The tauroctony scene of Mithras slaying the bull.
[Our note: Lactantius Placidus elaborates on this prelude below. An implication of Lactantius' statement is that Mithra is the sun and the bull is the moon [also see d) below]. It is unclear from the passage whether the image of Mithra subjugating the bull is a representation of him successfully overcoming the bull's desire to control him or his desire to control a recalcitrant bull. The question that arises is: does the moon as bull in turn represent either a deity, a temporal power such as a king or kingdom, or even a planetary body, whose desire to control must be resisted? See our page on Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan Religions, and the section on  Mahish-Asura (depicted as a bull) who had sought to assert control over the other gods being subjugated by the goddess Durga in a scene that closely parallels the tauroctony shown above. Mythology ascribed to gods and goddess may be a reflection of a temporal event and if so, mythology may reflect history.]

The Persian first to Observe the Rites of the Sun - Before the Egyptians
"b) The Egyptians regard Osiris as the Sun, by whom they think success may be assured to the crops... . These rites were first observed by the Persians. (contd. below)"

How Mithraism Spread from the Persians to the Romans
"...from whom the Phrygians received them, and from the Phrygians the Romans. The Persians give to the Sun the native name of Mithra, as Hostanes [Ostanes] relates."

How the Greeks See a Mythical Connection to the Persians
"c) The Persians are known as Achaemenians from Achaemenes, son of Perseus and Andromeda, who ruled there. They call the Sun Apollo, and are said to have initiated the rites in his honour." [Our note: Despite the antagonism in some Greek circles towards the Persians, they still sought to claim a connection to the Persians through their mythology. See our page on Alcibiades, Plato and Some Amazing Insights. Part 2, Selections from Plato, and scroll down to the section on Perseus, Perses & Persians.]

The Bull as an Errant & Inferior Brother - the Moon - a Representation & not the Animal
"d) The Persians are said to have been the first to worship the Sun in caverns. For he is represented in a cavern in Persian dress with a turban [Our note: we do not know if the word 'turban' is an arbitrary word used by the translator or an accurate translation. It is repeated again in the paragraph below. The description does not refer to a Phrygian cap or anything similar. A turban does not describe a Phrygian cap], grasping the horns of a bull with both hands. The figure is an interpretation of the Moon; who reluctant to follow his brother, meets him full and his light is obscured [Our note: a reference to an eclipse, See e) below]. In these verses the mysteries of the rites of the Sun are set forth. For in proof that the Moon is inferior and of less power the Sun is seated on the bull and grasps its horns. By which words Statius intended the two-horned moon to be understood, not the animal on which he rides."

[Our note: The above account make the bull, the moon, appear as an inferior and errant brother of the sun,  and one who is two horned and must be resisted.]

Why Mithra is Worshipped in a Cave - a representation of the Sun Eclipsed by the Moon
The Bull / Ox as an Interpretation of the Moon
"e) The meaning is as follows: The Persians worship the Sun in caverns, and this Sun is in their own language known as Mithra, who as suffering eclipse is worshipped within a cave. The Sun himself moreover is represented with the face of a lion with turban and in Persian dress, with both hands grasping the horns of an ox. And this figure is interpreted of the Moon, which reluctant to follow its brother meets him full and obscures his light. He has revealed further a part of the mysteries. The Sun therefore presses down the bull as though to show that the Moon is inferior. He has laid especial stress moreover on the horns, in order that attention may be more clearly called to the Moon, and not to the animal on which he is represented as riding."

The Mithraic Symbols
"Since however this is not the place to discuss the mysteries of those gods on the lines of an abstract philosophy, I will add a few words with regard to the symbols employed.

"The Sun is supreme, and because he treads down and controls the chief constellation, that is to say the Lion, he is himself represented with this face; or the reason may be that he surpasses the rest of the gods in power and energy, as the lion does other wild beasts - or because of its impetuosity.

"The Moon however being nearer to the bull controls and leads it, and is represented as a cow. [Our note: we find this statement difficult to understand and perhaps some of the intended meaning has been lost in translation.]

The Mithraic Symbols not Man or Beast but Mere Symbols of Uncreated Entities Without End
"But these gods of divine and royal estate as they appear in the world are without mortal form either of a man or beast, having neither beginning nor end nor an intermediate part as other and lesser deities, as he himself declares above: "next comes the crowd of the wandering demigods." For that is necessitated by the attribute of eternity."

[Our note: Herodotus (c. 430 BCE) says: "They (the Persians) have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. The above reference by Lactantius Placidus quoting Statius also appears to indicate that human and animal imagery was not used in the original Persian (i.e. Iranian) Mithraism. If this is true, then it is either the Phygrians or the Romans who introduced the imagery.]

Source: Celus as quoted by Origen in Contra (Against) Celsum Book 6, Chapters 21-23.

Origen Adamantius (c.184–c.253 CE) also known as Origen of Alexandria, was an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, and as a distinguished writers of the early Church, was regarded as a Church Father. The following is a passage from his work Against Celsus, (Contra Celsum), at 6.22.

Celsus, was a 2nd century Greek philosopher as quoted by Origen.

The passages below (edited for clarity) are seen to link Mithraism to Alchemy, Metallurgy and related sciences. The Mithraic Mysteries would have included knowledge of these sciences. Once again, we also find a link made between European and Persian Mithraism:

On the Seven Heavens & the Journey of the Soul
"21. The Scriptures which are current in the Churches of God do not speak of "seven" heavens, or of any definite number at all, but they do appear to teach the existence of "heavens," whether that means the "spheres" of those bodies which the Greeks call "planets," or something more mysterious.

"Celsus, too, agreeing with the opinion of Plato, asserts that souls can make their way to and from the earth through the planets. Moses, our most ancient prophet, by saying that a divine vision was presented to our prophet Jacob - (the vision of) a ladder stretching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, and the Lord supported upon its top - obscurely pointed (by this vision of the ladder), either to the same truths which Plato had in view, or to something greater than these. On this subject Philo has composed a treatise which deserves the thoughtful and intelligent investigation of all lovers of truth.
"22. After this, Celsus, quotes certain Persian mysteries, where he says: 'These things are obscurely hinted at in the accounts of the Persians, and especially in the mysteries of Mithras, which are celebrated amongst them. For in the latter there is a representation of the two heavenly revolutions: of the movement, viz., of the fixed stars, and of that which take place among the planets, and of the passage of the soul through these.
" 'The representation is of the following nature: There is a ladder with lofty gates, and on the top of it an eighth gate. The first gate consists of lead, the second of tin, the third of copper, the fourth of iron, the fifth of a mixture of metals, the sixth of silver, and the seventh of gold.
" 'The first gate they assign to Saturn, indicating by the 'lead' the slowness of this star; the second to Venus, comparing her to the splendour and softness of tin; the third to Jupiter, being firm and solid; the fourth to Mercury, for both Mercury and iron are fit to endure all things, and are money-making and laborious; the fifth to Mars, because, being composed of a mixture of metals, it is varied and unequal; the sixth, of silver, to the Moon; the seventh, of gold, to the Sun.'
"He next proceeds to examine the reason of the stars being arranged in this order, which is symbolized by the names of the rest of matter. Musical reasons, moreover, are added or quoted by the Persian theology; and to these, again, he strives to add a second explanation, connected also with musical considerations. But it seems to me, ...he quoted, most inappropriately, not only the words of Plato; but, dissatisfied even with these, he adduced in addition the mysteries of the Persian Mithras and the explanation of them. Now, whatever be the case with regard to these - whether the Persians and those who conduct the mysteries of Mithras give false or true accounts regarding them - why did he select these for quotation, rather than some of the other mysteries, with the explanation of them? For the mysteries of Mithras do not appear to be more famous among the Greeks than those of Eleusis, or than those in Aegina, where individuals are initiated in the rites of Hecate.
"23. If one wished to obtain means for a profounder contemplation of the entrance of souls into divine things, not from the statements of that very insignificant sect from which he quoted, but from books - partly those of the Jews, which are read in their synagogues, and adopted by Christians, and partly from those of Christians alone. Let Celsus know that in no part of the genuine and divinely accredited (Christian) Scriptures are 'seven' heavens mentioned; neither do our prophets, nor the apostles of Jesus, nor the Son of God Himself, repeat anything which they borrowed from the Persians or the Cabiri.
"24. After the instance borrowed from the Mithraic mysteries, Celsus declares that he who would investigate the Christian mysteries, along with the aforesaid Persian, will, on comparing the two together, and on unveiling the rites of the Christians, see in this way the difference between them.

"Now, wherever he was able to give the names of the various sects, he was nothing loth to quote those with which he thought himself acquainted; but when he ought most of all to have done this, if they were really known to him, and to have informed us which was the sect that makes use of the diagram he has drawn, he has not done so. It seems to me, however, that it is from some statements of a very insignificant sect called Ophites, which he has misunderstood, that, in my opinion, he has partly borrowed what he says about the diagram. Now, as we have always been animated by a love of learning, we have fallen in with this diagram, and we have found in it the representations of men who, as Paul says, 'creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts; ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.' The diagram was, however, so destitute of all credibility, that neither these easily deceived women, nor the most rustic class of men, nor those who were ready to be led away by any plausible pretender whatever, ever gave their assent to the diagram. Nor, indeed, have we ever met any individual, although we have visited many parts of the earth, and have sought out all those who anywhere made profession of knowledge, that placed any faith in this diagram.

"25. In this diagram were described ten circles, distinct from each other, but united by one circle, which was said to be the soul of all things, and was called 'Leviathan.' ...The inventor of this accursed diagram had inscribed this leviathan at its circumference and centre, thus placing its name in two separate places. Moreover, Celsus says that the diagram was 'divided by a thick black line, and this line he asserted was called Gehenna, which is Tartarus.' "

Source: Julius Firmicus Maternus, a Christian Latin writer and notable astrologer of the fourth century CE, in his book De errore profanarum religionum (On the error of profane religions) demeans the religious beliefs and practices of 'pagans' and implores the Emperor to stamp out the old religions as a sacred duty which will be rewarded by God:

Persian. Magi, Fire & Mithra
"The Persians and all the Magi who inhabit the borderlands of Persia reverence the fire, and give to it the primary place among all the elements. These then regard the fire as possessed of a double energy, assigning its character, to each sex, and expounding the essential substance of the fire under the figure of a man and woman. The woman they represent with three faces and girded with huge snakes... while in the worship of the hero who drove off the bulls they transfer his rites to the cult of the fire, as his poet has recorded for us when he wrote: Mystic priest of the captured bulls, skilful son of a noble sire.

Worship of Mithra in Caves
"To him they give the name Mithras, and celebrate his rites in secret caves, that shrouded in the dim obscurity of the darkness they may shun the touch of the pure and glorious light. Truly an ill-omened exaltation of a deity! A hateful recognition of a barbarian rite! To deify one whose criminal acts you confess. When you affirm therefore that in the temples the Magian rites are duly performed after the Persian ceremonial, why do you confine your approval to these Persian rites alone? If you think it not derogatory to the Roman name to adopt Persian cults and Persian laws.

"The pass-word of a second mystery cult of foreign origin is the "god from the rock." Why do you shame your profession by transferring this sacred and revered name to the heathen rites? Different indeed is the Stone which God in confirmation of his pledged word promissed to send to Jerusalem. Under the figure of the sacred stone the Christ is represented to us. Why this deceitful and dishonourable transference of a revered name to unclean superstitions?... As for the stone of their idolatrous worship of which they use the title "God from the rock" what prophetic utterance has told thereof? To whom has that stone brought healing and mercy?" (4.2)

"They say (this god) is Mithras, but they perform his initiations in caves that are hidden away, so that, plunged perpetually into the pitchy murk of night, they may shun the grace of the bright and glorious light." (5.2)

[Mithraists are] "initiates of the theft of the bull, united by the handshake of the illustrious father." (5.2)

(Their ritual greeting is:) "Hail Nymphus, hail New Light" (19.1)

List of Mithraea / Mithraeums worldwide
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