Mithraism

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The Great Magical Papyrus of Paris claims to write down the mysteries which the great god Helios (Sun) Mithras ordered to be revealed through his archangel.65 Though it is clearly not a liturgy of the cult, it now seems likely that it does incorporate some ideas from Mithraic cult into the usual magical amalgam. It does offer some clues as to the cosmology of the cult, which was one of several cults centred on the Sun in antiquity. We have already seen the links between astrology and some religious sects. In this final section, I will be examining cults actually centred on the Sun, and, to a lesser degree, on the Moon. As will become obvious, Mithraism was much more complicated than the various state cults of the Sun, and seems to share some cosmological features with Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Recent scholarship has suggested that astrology and astronomy offer keys to the Mithraic mystery.

It is because Mithraism was a mystery-cult that we have no direct explication of its theology or liturgy. There are a few literary sources which give hints, usually from non-initiates, but the main sources of evidence are the archaeological remains of the temples, or Mithraea, which were subterranean buildings, and have therefore often preserved the sculptures, mosaics and paintings presenting the iconography of the cult (see Plate 14). There are also inscriptions which reveal the membership. The social milieux to which Mithraism appealed particularly included petty bureaucrats, slaves and exslaves, and especially the ranks of the army, centurions and others ranking just below them.66 Women were excluded. Mithraea are clustered at the fringes of the Empire, but also in the centre.

The cult was seen as coming from the East originally, and the god Mithras takes his name from the Iranian god Mithra, but the current consensus is that the Western cult which became so popular under the Roman Empire is not to be explained by Eastern antecedents.

In the archaeological remains, astral symbolism is prominent, with the zodiac signs in a circle or in niches, the planets in the form of seven busts or as seven stars on Mithras' cloak, and the Sun and the Moon often personified. The winds and the seasons are also represented, and thus the most dismissive account of the role of the astral symbolism was that the zodiac and planets simply represented the calendar, as seems to be the case with non-Mithraic monuments representing the planets, such as the Pantheon, the various Septizonia, and the Athenian Tower of the Winds. However, there are literary sources which hint at more. The third-century Neoplatonist Porphyry commented that the Mithraea were made to look like caves because the cave 'conveys an image of the cosmos'. A dedication of one initiate draws attention to the expertise of his grandfather, the founder of the Mithraeum of San Silvestro in Capite, 'in the stars and the heavens'.67 A further comment of Porphyry's suggests that astrology proper is involved: 'The equinoctial region they assigned to Mithras as an appropriate seat. And for this reason he bears the sword of Aries, the sign of Mars; he also rides on a bull, Taurus being assigned to Venus.'68

Aries is the house of Mars and Venus the house of Taurus in astrological theory. But we have to remember that Porphyry could be importing his own explanations here.

Let us first consider the evidence for a role of astrological theory in the cult ideology, as revealed in the visual evidence. St Jerome revealed the seven grades of initiation in Mithraism: from the bottom, Crow, Gryphon, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-runner and Father.69 From the evidence of the mosaic pavement of a Mithraeum in Ostia and grafitti from another Mithraeum at Santa Prisca, we can see that these grades each had a planet in association: respectively, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Moon, Sun and Saturn.70 This Mithraic order was probably generated by conflating the order of the days of the week with the standard 'Chaldaean' order of the planets by distance.71 Origen, the third-century church father, refers to the ladder with seven gates, with an eighth gate at the top, in the Mithraic mysteries. It seems likely that he refers to the grade-structure.72 Unlike the seven gates or spheres of the Gnostics, what we have in Mithraism is not the ascent of the soul after death, but in life, as a result of the stages of initiation. The particular order selected in Mithraism represented a map for the initiates which drew on familiar categories but offered a new synthesis.73

Technical aspects of astrology were some of the elements in the new synthesis: according to one scholar there is evidence that decans, planetary houses and exaltations were involved.74 In the relief from a Mithraeum of Danubian provenance, until recently in Bologna, we find the planets in the order of the days of the week.75 They are set in an arc above the depiction of Mithras killing a bull (the tauroctony), a scene found in all Mithraea. The Sun and Moon are always set in the upper left- and right-hand corners of the tauroctony scene, and here the planets are ranged between them:

Sun Saturn Venus Jupiter Mercury Mars Moon

Thus, as days of the week, they must be read from left to right. Now if we consider the signs to which the central decan of each planet are allocated, we find that the signs from Scorpio to Taurus are represented:

Scorpio Libra Virgo Leo Cancer Gemini Taurus

This relief is not unique in placing a bull's head by one of the twin torchbearers always on either side of the tauroctony scene, and a scorpion by the other. Here are Taurus and Scorpio again, and we shall return to the role of the half of the zodiac defined by them. At any rate here it seems that it is the decans which offer the means of deciphering the zodiac signs hidden behind the planets. Furthermore, it is only in the central planet that the Bologna relief corresponds to the grade order, with Jupiter. Now the central decan of Jupiter belongs to Leo, and the corresponding grade is the Lion. A further possibility of the Mithraic use of the decans concerns the lion-headed god, an important figure in Mithraic scenes. It has been interpreted as representing the first decan of Leo.76

While the planets reveal the signs to the astrological decoder in the Bologna relief, the signs can be shown to reveal the planets in the depiction of Mithras' birth from Housesteads, a site on Hadrian's Wall (see Plate 15). The signs are arranged in a horseshoe shape, and the top two are separated off by Mithras' sword and torch (Figure 24). Thus, schematically:

This is precisely the arrangement of the planetary houses, with the houses of the Moon and Sun at the top, and the nocturnal and diurnal houses arranged underneath accordingly. Here are the decoded planets:

As in the tauroctony scene, Sun and Moon are opposite each other at the top. Moreover, the placing of the planets in their houses recalls the thema mundi, the birthday of the universe, at least in a common version.

Neoplatonism Cosmology
Figure 24 Housesteads: schema of Mithraic birth-scene. After Beck 1988.

There may also be allusions to the exaltations of the planets in the monuments. For instance, in a tauroctony from Sidon77 the zodiac circle is placed so that Aries, the exaltation of the Sun, is shown jumping up at the bust of Sol, and Taurus, the exaltation of the Moon, jumping up at the bust of Luna. This pairing recurs in another relief, where the busts of the luminaries are put next to the animals, which are not part of a zodiac.78 It is possible that there is a reference both to planetary exaltations and houses in two other reliefs, from Siscia and London.79 In these, Taurus is next to Luna, and Leo, the Sun's house, next to Sol.

Several scholars have pointed to the astronomical interpretation of the figures visible in the tauroctony scene.80 Apart from Mithras and the bull, a snake, a dog, a raven and a scorpion, and sometimes a lion and a cup, are featured. These have been explained as constellations, Hydra, Canis Minor, Corvus, Scorpio, Leo major and Krater. Wheat ears have also been interpreted as Spica. Explanations for the choice of constellations vary, but the most comprehensive solution, albeit a controversial one, has been provided in a recent publication by David Ulansey, who alters the correspondences slightly.81 He argues that the constellations are those which lie on the celestial equator at a time when the spring equinox is in Taurus, that is a time between roughly 4000 and 2000 years BCE, when precession brought the spring equinox to Aries (see Chapter 4). The torchbearers he interprets as representations of the spring equinox in Taurus and the autumn equinox in Scorpio. He suggests that the significance of this is that Mithras is seen as cosmocrator, ruler of the cosmos, whose dramatic power was exhibited when he shifted the entire cosmos round the poles so that the equinoxes moved. The god is represented killing the Bull because he brings the age of Taurus to an end. Ulansey attributes the origins of Western Mithraism to the Stoic philosophers of the region of Tarsus. The Stoics' interest in astronomy and astrology and in the theories of the Magi on the World-Ages, each ending with a conflagration, has been mentioned above. Mithraism is therefore seen to be based on the latest scientific discoveries and on the most contemporary philosophy in its origins.

Ulansey has certainly not exhausted the various meanings detectable in Mithraic iconography, where multivalence seems a key value. This survey has barely scratched the surface, in order to bring out some of the aspects relevant to astrology. Here we come finally to consider solar cult specifically, and before moving on to state cults of the Sun, we need to explicate briefly the solar aspect of Mithras. Greeks knew that Iranian Mithra had been identified with the Sun by the late first century BCE.82 Mithras was titled Helios, as we have seen in the case of the magical papyrus, as well as Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. In the iconography Mithras both represents the Sun and is set against it. He appears banqueting with the Sun, shaking hands with him or crowning him, for instance. One plausible explanation of this is that he represents Saturn, the Star of the Sun to many ancient astrologers. In fact, Ptolemy mentions in the very passage discussed above that the Persians worship Saturn as Mithras Helios. Babylonian astrology seems to have seen Saturn as the Sun of the Night, as opposed to the Sun of the Day. This is why Mithras and the Sun can be seen as equivalent; however, since the top Mithraic initiation-grade corresponds to Saturn, while the Sun comes second, it is clear that Mithras can be portrayed as superior to the Sun.

Solar cult

But the cult of the Sun in the guise of Sol Invictus Elagabal, which became the state religion of Rome in 218 CE when Elagabalus became emperor, also claimed the title of the Unconquered Sun. Mithraism reached its zenith of popularity in the third century, and the two cults undoubtedly fed off each other's success. They were quite different forms of cult, however, Mithraism being an unofficial cult, taking place in secret, underground, with small communities, while the cult of Sol was the state cult for the whole Empire, with its officials part of the imperial administration. Before Elagabalus, however, the cult was firmly locally-based, and it seems likely that the popularity of the cult of the Sun-god at Emesa among the soldiers stationed there was connected with the high standing of Mithraism in the army. Had it not been for the soldiers' support for the cult, the young high priest Elagabalus might never have become emperor. But even after the soldiers had won him victory over the man who had proclaimed himself Caracalla's successor, this distant relative of the imperial house would not have succeeded in keeping power if the solar cult had had no roots in Rome.

There had been local cults of the Sun and the Moon at Rome, almost always mentioned together, going back to at least the fourth century BCE, but they were minor figures in the Roman pantheon, like Helios in Greece.83 There is little concrete evidence of these cults of Sol and Luna before coins of the late republic. One cult centre was on the Quirinal, maintained by the Aurelian family, and another in the Circus Maximus.84 It may be no coincidence that the Sun-god comes to greater prominence at the same time as individual rule. Mark Antony had the god on his coins, and Augustus was to trump him with his dedication to Sol of two obelisks from Egypt. One obelisk, in the Campus Martius, was the shadow-caster of a meridianinstrument which measured the Sun's progress through the zodiac during the year, and this was the monument which celebrated Augustus' defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. Augustus also exploited links with Apollo, the Greco-Roman god associated with the Sun.85 As for the Moon, we hear from Horace, in connection with Augustus' official celebration of the Saeculum, in 17 BCE, about Luna Noctiluca (night-light).86 She had a precinct on the Palatine hill which was kept alight at night, and was closely associated with the goddess Diana, patron of the Moon. There was another temple to Luna on the Aventine.

Scattered inscriptions record worship of Sol, often in conjunction with Luna, in Rome under the Early Empire, some referring to priests.87 One Anicetus proclaims that he paid for the renovation of the gallery in the Sun's temple in 102 CE.88 A freedman of Nero and his daughter dedicated an altar to Sol and Luna. Nero could have given him cause to dedicate to Sol, at least, for according to Tacitus he ordered thanks to be given to the Sun for uncovering a conspiracy against him.89 It is in this passage that we learn that the Sun had an ancient temple in the Circus Maximus, which may have been connected with the notion of the Sun-god as controlling a chariot, a role commonly depicted in myth and also in Mithraic iconography. In fact, Nero himself was compared to the Sun-god as a charioteer.90 The association of the Sun with the Circus encouraged the equation of the Circus with the cosmos which was already common in the second century, and became the basis for astrological techniques of predicting the winner, and magical techniques for destroying a rival charioteer.91 Nero may have encouraged comparison of himself to the Sun with his commissioning of a Colossus, a statue 120 feet high with his own features surrounded by rays recalling the Sun, as a centrepiece of his Golden Palace. After Nero's death, Vespasian dedicated the Colossus to the Sun.

Records referring to the cult of Sol are mainly confined to Rome and Italy, but are also found in the province of Hispania Lusitania. But in the second century, the Eastern versions of solar cult became more widespread, both Mithraism and the cult of the Baal, known as Elagabal, the Syrian Sun-god. He was worshipped in the form of a black stone at Emesa. There was another cult of the Sun based in neighbouring Palmyra (see Plate 16). Solar cult was also widespread in neighbouring Dacia. The popularisation of these Eastern cults of the Sun at Rome probably began with the emperors Trajan and Hadrian.92 In 158 we find a dedication of an altar to Sol Invictus from a member of the Emperor's elite equestrian corps.93 Furthermore, the representation of the Sun on emperors' coins became increasingly common, culminating with Commodus, last of the Antonines. An inscription from his reign, in 189, suggests that a festival of the Sun took place.94 Now that there were more Easterners represented in the Roman Senate the cult was also known at Rome. With the dynasty of Septimius Severus there were close connections with the imperial family, as he married Julia Domna, a member of the family of the high priest at Emesa. On coins Severus called himself Invictus. A series of inscriptions from between 201 and 217 CE show the spread of the cult at Rome in the period. Severus built the most famous of the buildings known as Septizonia, which displayed the seven planets prominently. It has been suggested that the place of his statue in the middle of the building assimilated him to the Sun, since the Greek version of the term in Vettius Valens referred to an order of planets in which the Sun was in the middle.95 But this is little more than speculation. Despite his family's solar focus, Caracalla, the son of Septimius and Julia Domna, seems to have cultivated the Moon in particular, as his birthday deity.96

Elagabalus brought his black stone to Rome. He seems to have made little attempt to adapt the cult to new circumstances, and to have insisted that it was to be the only state religion. However, when, after only four years he was deposed and suffered damnatio memoriae (official vilification), the cult did not die out as it would have done if it had been forced on Rome. At any rate the temples Elagabalus had built did stay, although his name was chiselled off inscriptions, and the stone was sent back to Emesa. Inscriptions suggest that worship continued at Rome.

It would not seem an auspicious beginning for an imperialsponsored solar cult, but the emperor Aurelian (270-5), a most dynamic and reforming emperor, promoted a different version of the cult of the Sun-god, now known as Deus Sol Invictus. Aurelian had won a decisive victory near Emesa, and in good imperial tradition recalled the occasion with due appreciation of the nearest god. In 274 he proclaimed the god the supreme god of the Roman state, built a new temple, instituted four-yearly Games of the Sun and organised a new college of priests. It was at the same time that he installed the goddess Dea Caelestis, from Carthage. The solar cult was more adapted to traditional Roman religion this time. Whether because of the cult's success, or simply because his successors followed his policies in toto, Aurelian's reformed cult held sway for the next half-century; coins, images and texts bear witness to the emperors' efforts to present themselves in association with Sol Invictus, as his divine representatives on Earth. This culminated with Constantine, but his sons abandoned the Sun in favour of the god of their father's victory. The population was not so quick to shift allegiance however, and there is testimony for centuries afterwards to Christians who pray to the Sun and Moon. It was doubtless with such people in mind that the Church took over the festival of the Unconquered Sun on 25 December for their own god.

Some modern scholars have suggested that it was solar monotheism which prepared the way for Christianity's triumph. Even if this was the case, once the Church had secured state support it was hostile to its predecessor. Worship of the Sun, Moon or stars was heresy, and associated with the heresy of astrology. And the Church succeeded in driving both underground.

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