The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
MITHRA & MITHRAISM
Initiation into the Mysteries
Several features of the Mithraic initiation ceremonies, by which the novice was integrated into the community, are to be found among the primitive peoples of Australia, Africa and America today. Among these tribes initiation generally takes place at puberty. After severe trials to test youth's courage and stamina, he is admitted into a secret society, religious or otherwise. He is separated from the fond attentions of his mother and must thenceforward stand on his own. In short, from an adolescent he becomes a man and acquired not only certain rights but also an equivalent set of duties. After this ordeal he belongs to the 'club' and has to safeguard its secrets carefully, for they must never be divulged to outsiders, least of all to women. As members of one large familly, the initiates will assist each other and will in their turn be helped by their guardian deity both in this life and in the life to come-if they believe that there is such a life.
It is practically certain that those who were going to be initiated into the Mithras cult were first instructed for a certain period as novices of some kind as preparation for the solemn ceremony to come. For this purpose they had to address themselves to the leader of the Mithraic community. Unfortunately the nature of this training is unknown. It may be that the myths of the origin of the universe and of the creation of the world and of man were explained, or that the novices were taught the sacred hymns and chants or even the liturgical language. The secrecy which is characteristic of the cult makes it improbable that so much would have been revealed to a layman, although it is quite possible that a more or less official explanation was given to the initiate concerning the elementary principles, which would have been in the nature of an open secret by contrast with the jealously guarded secrets of the actual proceedings at the ceremonies.
Father Nolan, to whom we owe the thorough investigation of the Mithraic sanctuary under San Clemente in Rome, though it even possible to speak of a Mithraic 'school'. Next to the entrance hall of this Mithraeum, which is found deep under the ground in a room attached to a distinguished Roman house, lies a small hall with seven niches in the wall. These were also some paintings and, what was of the greatest interest to the excavator, a brick platform along three sides. The niches would seem to indicate the worship of the seven planets and the platforms could have served as a short of school desk, where the pupils sat listening to their teacher. Nevertheless, the paintings in this room do not seem to point to the Mithraic cult, and it is still very doubtful if this small hall, which was connected by a door to the entrance hall of the sanctuary, was used for the service. It is just as likely that it was a simple meeting-place.
Neither written nor archaeological evidence has been found to tell us more about the form of preparation for initiation, but about the initiation proper we have fortunately some scraps of information. A Florence papyrus gives these details:
In the name of the god, who has divided the earth from the heavens, light from darkness, the day from night, the world from chaos, life from death and creation from destruction, beyond all doubt and in sincere good faith I swear to observe the secrecy of the Father Serapion and by the most venerable hallowed Herald Ka (merion?), to whom this task falls, and by my fellow initiates and most beloved Brethren. For which cause being true to my oath, I hope for all prosperity, but I commit myself also to all things contrary should I disclose any of this.
Thus before his initiation the initiate had to take a solemn oath, a sacramentum, that he would reveal nothing of what was to be imparted to him. We learn, moreover, that the initiation was performed by two dignitaries, who possessed the title of Father and Herald. After the ceremony he would be considered the brother of the other initiates and the son of the Father. The text goes on to tell us that in order to be recognised by the Father, he has to be tattooed, in other words branded on both hands. On several portraits, even on portraits of emperors, these tattoo marks are clearly visible, but on the forehead, in place of the hands.
The initiates had first to undergo severe trials, and a number of fragmentary scenes, preserved in the grotto at Capua, convey to us something of the fears they experienced. In one of the scenes a mystagogus in charge of the initiates, dressed in a white tunic with red borders, is pushing a naked initiate by the shoulders (Fig. 30). The novice has his eyes bound; he is still blind and cannot yet see the secrets of the mysteries. Very unsteadily and slowly he advances with his hands outstretched, not knowing where his guide is going to take him. Next we see him still blindfolded, with hands clasped, kneeling in front of the mystagogus while behind him a priest is approaching with a sword or stick. In another representation the novice is kneeling on one knee with a sword on the ground beside him, and this time the mystagogus is standing behind him and placing both hands on his head (Fig. 31). There are other people present at this ritual, but their function is obscure. Elsewhere the novice is lying on the ground as if dead, presently to be given symbolic new life. Then there is yet another ceremony: the mystagogus presses with full force on the shoulders of the kneeling novice who is almost pushed over forward, but a third figure with outstretched hands is walking towards him. Another scene shows the same priest, recognisable by his red tunic, performing some rite which is very difficult to interpret; he is holding a stick or a sword close to a round object, possibly a loaf of bread or a garland, which is lying on the ground just in front of the novice, who is kneeling with his hands folded together under his chin. The mystagogus is standing behind him with one foot on his claves (Fig. 32).
A text of the fourth century A.D. explains clearly the function of the sword in these representations. The author observes that the followers of Mithras 'are not even ashamed to be blindfolded', and continues indignantly: 'with some their hands are tied together with chicken guts and then they are thrown across pits full of water. Someone approaches with a sword, cuts through the guts and as a result of this act calls himself liberator.
Besides the representations at Capua, there is further evidence regarding the trials of initiation. Suidas, who composed a lexicon in the ninth century A.D., writes under the word 'Mithras', nobody could be initiated into them [the Mithraic mysteries], if, after having undergone a certain number of ordeals, he did not show himself to be sanctified and so impervious'. There are dreadful tales about the emperors Commodus and Julian, and in oration against Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus reproaches that emperor for admiring 'the ordeals in Mithraic ritual and the branding of the initiates'.
A monk by the name of Nonnus, who lived in the sixth or seventh century A.D., writes in great detail about the ordeals mentioned by Gregory, but here we enter the realm of fantasy:
They who are going to be received into the Mithraic cult, are initiated by undergoing a series of trials, first they are subjected to light tests and then to the more severe ones. For example they first of all leave the initiate to fast for fifty days, and when after this they are given harsher treatment, they are 'chafed' for two days and then left is snow (or cold water) for twenty days. After thus having intensified the ordeal from small to great, only they are initiated in the deeper mysteries, the novice having given proof of his ability to withstand these ordeals.
In the eighth century A.D. Bishop Cosmas of Jerusalem improved even on these exaggerations. According to him there were eighty tests, which included 'submerging themselves in water for many days, throwing themselves into fires, living in solitude and abstaining from all food'.
After reading all these texts one has the impression that the authors had no very profound knowledge of the true nature of these proceedings. The Swede Edsman has pointed out that in all probability certain followers of Mithras underwent a baptism of fire, but all things considered, one cannot escape the conclusion that the evidence at our disposal must be interpreted with caution. It has been suggested that the layout of a small stone feature which was noted in the Mithraeum of Carrawburgh may be connected with this baptism. In 1949 the excavators found an oblong trench strongly resembling a tomb close to a hearth on the south side of the sanctuary. If this trench were covered with stone slabs a man, laid inside it, could be subjected to alternating ordeals by heat and sudden cold. Beside this trench there was a small seat. This arrangement recalls the first side chapel of the Santa Prisca sanctuary, but there the explanation depends entirely on the graffito on the rim of the vessel buried near a wider but similar trench in which a person could be laid outstretched. At Carrawburgh a fire-shovel was found in the same room, and it is therefore not impossible that this room was used for the ceremony of the branding. The fire-shovel is incidently an attribute of the Lion, itself the symbol of fire. An alternative reading is that this room was used to enact death and resurrection and in this connection we are reminded of the figure lying face downwards in the painting at Capus and the suspect text of Lampridius concerning the Emperor Commodus: 'he defiled the mysteries of Mithras with murder since it was customary there for something to be spoken or imitated to produce a kind of fear.
In the pit at Carrawburgh several bones of sheep or goats were found, which remind us of the somewhat doubtful Mithraeum 'delle tre navate' at Ostia, where a tomb-like construction was found in the central passage, while near by a pig was portrayed in the floor mosaic. These discoveries do no furnish sufficiently conclusive evidence, nor are the texts particularly reliable, with the result that we can do no more than peruse the material at our disposal for hints and suggestions.
At a given moment, after the novice had been submitted to certain purification rites and had gone through a time of fasting and abstinence, he reached the end of his ordeals. He had sworn the oath, been branded on hands or forehead and had pressed the Father's right hand. The joining of the right hands promoted the initiates to sundesioi with the Father; the oath (sacramentum) made them sacrati or consacranei. An important inscription, discovered in Rome on the Campus Martius near the Cancelleria, the Papal Chancery, is here relevant. This sanctuary, its walls painted with stars and crescent moons, was in use in the middle of the third century A.D. It was founded by the pater sacrorum, Proficentius, who commemorates this fact in his own verses:
This place is fortunate, sacred, devout and propitious
The two palm-fronds on the inscription may be compared with the sun-wheel and palm-frond, symbols of Sol invictus, the invicible Sun-god, on the dedication by a Father in the San Clemente Mithraeum. It would be interesting to know if Proficentius is the subject of the sentence reddit munera grata, in which case, having been instructed by Mithras in a dream to build this cave, he has proceeded to acquit himself of this pleasant task; or if the subject is Mithras himself, in which case the god is rewarding Proficentius out of gratitude.
Most important, however, is the seventh line of the verse. The syndexi are the fellow initiates. The word is frequently encountered in the Mithraeum at Dura-Europos, and was thus used in the East as well as in the West. We come across it again in a formula handed down by the apologist Firmicus Maternus in the middle of the fourth century A.D.: 'Novice of the bull-theft, initiate of the proud Father.' The bull was, of course, stolen by Mithras. As a sign of his pact with the Sun-god, Mithras gives his right hand to his companion, and the initiate of Mithras who, by giving his right hand in accordance with Persian custom, concludes the pact and confirms the oath. The Cancelleria inscription mentions that the 'initiates with the right hand' joyfully celebrate their vows. These vows are not only valid for the period of life on earth, but also for all eternity.
Continue: The Seven Grades of Initiation
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