The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
MITHRA & MITHRAISM
The God of Infinite Time
In various Mithraic temples there have been found representations of a monstrous figure (according to Hieronymus a monstruosum portentum), generally with a lion's head and a human body entwined by a snake. On none of these, however, is there an inscription to tell us precisely which deity is portrayed. Several attempts have been made, particularly in more recent years, to equate this figure with Ahriman, the god of evil, a suggestion made by Prof. R. Zaehner of Oxford and accepted, with reservation, by the Belgian scholar of Persian, Duchesne-Guillemin. There are, it is true, some dedicatory inscriptions to Ahriman, but they are carved on altars and only three of them are recorded, one each in Rome, England and Austria. They were obviously intended to placate the god of evil and to implore him to avert his magic force, and they must have been inscribed by sorely troubled followers of Mithras who preferred to invoke Ahriman himself rather than place complete trust in their own god who, ultimately and inevitably, was to conquer evil. To us it would seem odd to find an altar dedicated to the devil in a Christian church, but to the ancient way of thinking this was not unusual and even sacrifices of wild boars were made to pacify the malicious Ahriman.
For various reasons the present writer cannot agree with this not altogether new interpretation. To quote one particular objection: it seems remarkable that a similar deity, referred to as Aion and hence a god of time, is depicted in the gnostic and hermetic world, in magical papyri and on gems. The more one studies this mysterious character, the more one becomes convinced that Cumont's earlier explanation is right. The lion-headed figure is the Time-god called Aion by the Greeks and Zervan in Persian literature.
As far as the Persian texts are concerned, three different aspects of the Time-god must be distinguished. According to the orthodox teaching of Zarathushtra, Zervan is a creature of Ahura-Mazda, the God of Good. According to a second theory, however, there were originally two archetypes, that of Good and that of Evil. A separate Sassanid sect regarded Zervan Akarana, Infinite Time, as the cause and the source of all things. Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman both sprang from Zervan and were subject to him, and the followers of this cult called themselves Zervanists. It seems plausible that the same Zervan, after having undergone all kinds of foreign influences, was admitted into the Mithraic pantheon and that the figure with the lion's head is none other than Zervan who, by means of a put on Chronos (Time), was identified in the Greek texts with Kronos and, in the Roman world, with Saturn. This god is mostly portrayed in a stiff hieratic pose, with legs close together. Sometimes he is shown nude, though often his sex is disguised by a loin-cloth or by an enveloping snake, as if it were intended either to leave the deity's sex vague or to convey that both sexes were united in him, and that he was capable of self procreation (Fig. 28). In between the coils of the snake, which often winds itself, significantly, seven times round the god, are sometimes seen the signs of the zodiac. The horrifying figure usually has a lion's head with flowing mane and wide-open mouth showing threatening protruding teeth. For even greater effect the mouth is sometimes painted red and the gullet is hollowed out. A statue from Saida in Africa has an opening made in its head, and it is highly likely that this was intended to take a burning torch. The statue would thus appear to breathe fire and so inspire even more respect for the god than his dread visage alone could evoke. In one example he is holding two torches, while a long-pointed flame shoots out of his mouth and fuses with the flames of the burning altar beside him. An unknown author records in an essay on Saturn that he 'is sometimes represented with the appearance of a snake because of excessive cold, and at other times with a wide open lion's mouth on account of scorching heat'. Sometimes this strange creature is carrying a key in both hands, a pointer to a connection with Janus, the ruler of the ianus, the gateway to the underworld of which he possessed the keys. Finally, parallels have been drawn between Saturn and Sarapis, the Egyptian deity of the realm of the dead, and he is in some way related to certain Syrian figures who are found entwined by snakes.
To sum up: the equation of Kronos with Saturn is a Greco-Roman conjunction, the addition of the key-carrying Janus is a Roman contribution, there are Egyptian influences involving Sarapis and other deities from the Nile, similarities with Atargatis represent Syrian elements. If we wish to draw any final conclusions or try to find the ultimate significance of this God of Infinite Time, we must first of all be clear in our minds that Mithraism, like the classical world in general, was not based on hard and fast dogmas, but would shift its focus from period to period and under changing circumstances. It is as though we were listening to a performance of concerto in which the soloist interprets a particular passage in accordance with his own personal artistic taste and understanding. Therefore we must beware of trying to relate, or reduce to a common denominator, all the different characteristics which we shall now proceed to discuss.
This god always has a snake wound round his body and sometimes the signs of the zodiac are seen in the spaces between its coils. He often has four wings, one pair pointing upward and the other downward (Fig. 28). On the paintings in the Barberini Mithraeum Saturn is shown, as is often the case, standing on a globe, and it is specially interesting to note that the Time-god is here surrounded by the signs of the zodiac which decorate the vault of the cave where the bull-slaying is set.
The sevenfold windings of the snake are definitely connected with the planets and the coils themselves indicate the course of the sun through the zodiac. The sun has thus become part of the god; he is the sun determining time in its course. He dominates the zodiac and as such is Chronos, Time. But he is also the ruler over the four winds, represented by his four wings. He is known to order the seasons too, and again he does this both in his role as Sol and in his role as Time. We are reminded of the figure of Caelus, the god of heaven, who is depicted on an altar at Carnuntum surrounded by the Wind-gods and the seasons. Arnobius, writing about A.D. 295, makes an apparent allusion to the lion's devouring mouth: 'We observe amidst your gods one with the terrifying wild head of a lion, besmeared with pure minium (red-lead)'. A statue from Castel Gandolfo (Fig. 29) even has lions' heads on its stomach and knees. The lion is undoubtedly an allusion to the all-devouring fire, while the three lions perhaps indicate the threefold character of the sun figure. Arnobius calls the god fruitful, probably thinking of the identification of Chronos-Kronos with the Roman Saturn.
The lion's head on the stomach of the statue from Castel Gandolfo recalls a second statue from Merida where the god again has a lion's head on his chest. He is shown, however, not as an awesome figure but as a youth and we may unhesitatingly detect an identification with Mithras himself who, in another representation originally at Merida, is shown standing with a lion crouching at his feet. The fire-symbolism of the Lion grade in the cult, the Lion with the fire-shovel as attribute, is definitely related to this figure. It is interesting that a statue from Strasbourg shows the Time-god holding a fire-shovel in his hand, a reminder that at the end of time all will be consumed in an overwhelming conflagration. Thus the god with the lion's head is the symbol of devouring time.
2. The Syrian element
The goddess Atargatis was worshipped at Hierapolis in Syria. She was portrayed in the same stiff attitude as the Time-god and her body was always encircled by a snake. A mummy-like figure found at Rome in a Syrian sanctuary on the Janiculum is also connected with the statues we have been discussing. It is a bronze of a youth, entwined by a serpent whose head rests upon the head of the god. This statue was discovered by Gauckler in an octagonal hall, which must have some symbolic significance, and he identified it as Atargatis. In this context he referred to a text of Macrobius (fifth century A.D.), who described in his Saturnalia two statues erected on either side of the bearded Sun-god. These statues, two female deities again entwined by snakes, had originally stood at Hierapolis. Macrobius writes that 'the portrayal of the snake indicates the rounded course of the star'. Evidently this star is none other than the sun. But Gaukler was mistaken in one point for the statue from the Roman sanctuary is male. According to the most recent interpretation it represents the Syrian Dionysus-Adonis who, like his father Hadad, has connections with the sun.
3. The Orphic element
Representations of the birth of Mithras where the god, entwined by a serpent, is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac and the four Wind-gods (as at Trier) provide a link between Kronos-Saturn and Mithras. Mithras's legs are usually pressed together and still fixed in the rock. On a relief at Modena there is a representation of Mithras's birth as Time-god which differs considerably from the iconography we have so far examined. With his customary insight Franz Cumont has drawn certain conclusions from this scene. Originally the relief was dedicated by Felix and his wife Euphrosyne. As will be noted presently, Felix was a member of an Orphic sect, but he later became pater of a group of Mithraic initiates and when he dedicated this relief to his new god, he erased the name of his wife since women could not be admitted to the cult. But her name, though not clear, is still legible.
It is strange that Felix should have used the same relief first as an Orphic and later as a follower of Mithras. The relief shows a naked youth standing upright with two long wings attached to his shoulders and a half-moon visible behind him. In his right hand he holds the thunderbolts and in his left a long staff. His hoof-shaped feet are resting on one half of a burning cone, and the other half is above his head. The figure is entwined by a snake with its head on top of the upper part of the cone. A lion's head is drawn on the youth's chest and on either side of it the heads of a ram and a goat. This imposing figure is surrounded by an elliptical band in which are portrayed the twelve signs of the zodiac, while in the corners of the relief are the heads of the four Wind-gods.
The similarities between this relief and a statue from Merida in Spain are striking: the youthful figure, the serpent and the lion's head on the chest are all here. But there are also important points of difference such as the hoof-shaped feet and the blazing cones. The hooves are reminiscent of the rustic god pan whose name means 'all' and was assimilated to Phanes, meaning 'rays'. This Phanes has been compared and identified with Mithras. According to the Orphic doctrine Phanes is a youthful god of light and was born from an egg, the two half-cones constituting the egg from which he springs. This egg was laid by Time; hence the son resembles his father Chronos and is portrayed as the Time-god. Occasionally Phanes wears golden wings and, as Zeus, he carries thunderbolts and a staff. The zodiac and the coils of the serpent refer again to the yearly course of the sun, and the three heads of lion, ram and goat indicate the astrological influence.
This fusion between Orphism and Mithraism is not confined solely to Rome. In a Mithraeum of the third century A.D. at Housesteads (Borcovicium) on Hadrian's Wall a stone relief was found showing Mithras's birth from an egg, and the scene is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. Mithras, like the youthful Phanes, shows characteristics of Chronos on representations from the north of England. He who at Sarmizegetusa was called 'the begetter of light', was given at Housesteads the title saecularis, eternal, a word related to saeculum, Aion, Aevum, the stem of such words as 'coeval'. In other words, Mithras is the successor of Saturn whose celebrations ended in Rome on December 24th, the day before the young Mithras, the new Saturn, was born from the rock as god of light. Therefore the Father of the Mithraists, representative on earth of Mithras, was placed under the protection of the planet Saturn.
4. Egyptian influence
From Alexandria we know an Egyptian Time-god called by the Greek name of Aion (Aevum). He was closely related to the goddess Kore, as is clear from an account by Epiphanius who says that, on the night of the fifth of January, approximately at cock-crow, a statue of Aion was brought by torchlight out into the open from a subterranean sanctuary dedicated to Kore. To the accompaniment of pipes and tambourines the statue was carried seven times round the temple and then returned to its place. According to Epiphanius this ceremony signifies that on that night Aion was brought into the world by Kore. The Time-god was born, and this conception is closely related to the Modena scene which we have just discussed. But in Alexandria the Egyptian Aion was very differently portrayed; the god was shown seated and naked, his head, hands and knees decorated with gold 'seals'. We can see a connection between the Egyptian Aion and a statue from the Via Zanardelli in Rome, found at the foot of the Aventine. A god, standing on a marble base and wearing only a short loin-cloth, is encircled by a snake, whose head rests on the god's; in both hands, which are pressed close to his body, he holds the Egyptian ankh, the sign of life. The head is missing, but two lappets indicate that it was originally covered by a headcloth. Beside him stands a goddess, a smaller figure wrapped in a garment over which a fringed cloak is draped. In her right hand she probably held a rattle, which recalls Isis. These examples are of purely Egyptian inspiration, but this influence is translated into Mithraic terms in a statue found in the Pope's country residence at Castel Gandolfo, where once was a villa belonging to the Emperor Domitian (Fig. 29). This statue represents a standing figure of Chronos with lion's head and four wings attached to his shoulders. He wears a short loin-cloth like the Alexandrian Aion from the Via Zanardelli. A very remarkable feature is the fact that he has four arms, an eye on his chest and grim-looking lions' heads on his knees and stomach. This time there is no snake about his body, but two serpents are to be seen creeping upwards on either side of him, one along a tree-trunk and the other along the arms of a seat behind him. A three-headed Cerberus sites by his left foot and a water-snake or hydra and a lion's head are visible on the tree-trunk.
In this statue we find various characteristics of the Mithraic Aion, such as the lion's head and the eye on the chest. The lion and hydra probably symbolise the antithesis between fire and water, the four wings and four arms the directions of the four winds. Prof. R. Pettazoni has shown that there is a connection between Cerberus and the Egyptian Sarapis, the god of fertility and the realm of the dead. Macrobius, whose Saturnalia, a work tinged with syncretistic theories, dates from the end of the fourth century A.D., explains the three heads of Cerberus as an allusion to Time: the lion's head pointing to the present, the wolf's to the past and the dog's to the future. Although Cerberus is generally given three dog's heads, the Castel Gandolfo statue has the heads described by Macrobius.
In the Castel Gandolfo statue we find features recalling the Egyptian god Anubis (who has a dog's head and was identified with Chronos), the so-called 'Pantheistic Bes' (who also has lions' heads on his knees), Sarapis and the Alexandrian Aion. The sculptor who created the Italian peace must have been deeply influenced by Egyptian conventions and his creation was accepted by the Mithraists.
5. Further reflections on Aion
A statue of Aion from Ostia, now in the Vatican, shows a gradual attempts to establish a universal and all-embracing divinity by ascribing a variety of attributes to the god. On his chest are Jupiter's thunderbolts flanked by two keys, and beside his feet are the hammer and tongs of Vulcan, the magic wand of Mercury, the cock of Aesculapius and the pine-cone of Attis. The keys indicate Janus, the Roman god who, as gate-keeper of heaven, opens the gates at sunrise and closes them again at sunset. According to Marcus Messala, a consul of 53 B.C., Janus was the same as Aion. Macrobius goes further and says that Janus created and ruled the Universe and that his four heads symbolize his power over the four winds of the cosmos. In his important work on Hermeticism, Festugiere has recently pointed out that Messala's views correspond with Aristotle's.
This brings us to the question of the place of Aion in Greek philosophy. Here the essential significance is life-force, the vital spirit. On the one hand he is identified with the heavens or the cosmos, on the other he is creator of the absolute, eternal and divine nature. It is with this concept in mind that we must read the inscription on a statue of Aion found at Eleusis and dedicated in the time of Augustus: 'to the might of Rome and the perpetuation of the mysteries'. This Aion is a divine character who 'by his holy nature remains ever the same, who has no beginning or end, undergoes no change and who is the begetter of the divine nature'. The character of Aion, who is invested with such power that he has united in himself the might of all the other gods, explains the many invocations to him in occult writings and the magic significance of his portrayal on intaglios. He is sometimes represented as a god with a lion's head, a globe and a whip in his left hand, encircled by a snake its own tail; plainly the globe and whip indicate the sun, and the snake eternity. In a papyrus now in Paris, Aion appears as the god of fire and light; this god of light is none other than Helios; and Helios is identified with Mithras.
According to Festugiere the different aspects of Aion were linked. From the second century A.D. it was equally possible for 'the Great God of the pagan world to be the God of the world below or of the world above or to be the Sun or an All-God or finally to be a subservient power of the Higher God'. Festugiere's theory gains further support when we consider the place of Aion in the Mithraic community.
Continue: Initiation into the Mysteries
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