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The Figures round the Bull-Slayer


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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 messanger 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

Fig. 5. Meal of the Mithras

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 monn 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.6. Three heads with Phrygian caps set in a pine tree

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.




Continue: The Legend of Mithras




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