The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
MITHRA & MITHRAISM
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 straking 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.
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 bu 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.
Mithras's adventures with the bull appear almost exclusively 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:
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 fulfil 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 shephered (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. A 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.
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 orintal 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 clock 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 Rhine-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.
In many inscriptions Mithras is invoked as deus Sol invictus, the invicible 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 which 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.
The antagonism 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.
6. The sacred meal and the ascent to heaven
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.
The meal takes place in a cave where Mithras, in his Persian robes, reclines or sites 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, emphasising 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.
Continue: The God of Infinite Time
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