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MITHRA & MITHRAISM

The Seven Grades of Initiation


 

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We come now to the question of the initiate's chances of promotion within the seven grades; we do not know whether he remained simply a member of the fraternity throughout his life or whether he could in time rise to higher office. The average follower of Mithras almost certainly did not advance to a higher grade, either because he did not manifest a sufficient sense of dedication to his god, or because he lacked the necessary education, or sometimes perhaps because he lacked the necessary funds, to be able to climb the symbolic seven steps of the ladder which led ultimately to the select of Father of Fathers. But he who accumulated sufficient theological knowledge and acquired an insight into the astronomical and astrological theories of the Mithraic cult-in short he who fulfilled certain requirements-could gain successively the titles of Raven (Corax), Bride (Nymphus), Soldier (Miles), Lion (Leo), Persian (Perses), Courier of the Sun (Heliodromus) and Father (Pater). Numerous inscriptions and discoveries in both East and West confirm this information as recorded by the Church Father Hieronymus (fourth and fifth centuries A.D.), and show that the sequence of the seven grades was the same throughout the whole extent of the Roman Empire.

 

The Greek language plays a dominant part in the names of the seven grades as well as in the ritual language, and the name Persian is a reminder of the cult's foreign origin. The names Raven and Lion go back to customs of a much earlier period; parallels are found throughout antiquity and also among present-day primitive tribes. The possessors of these grades dressed the part and were often portrayed as such, though not in the lively manner described by Pseudo-Augustine who says that 'some flap their wings like birds and imitate the crowing of a raven, whilst others roar like lions'. Two inscriptions from Rome, the first dated A.D. 358 the second A.D. 362, record one additional title, that of Cryfius or Chryfius. Both these inscriptions mention that 'as Patres' Nonius Victor Olympius and Aurelius Victor Augentius initiated several members of the community into special grades. These Fathers ostenderunt cryfios and tradiderunt chryfios. These two texts from Rome are so far unique and have given rise to considerable speculation about the Cryfii; many interpretations have been offered varying from the suggestion that they refer to a grade called 'Vulture' to a supposed origin in the word 'hidden'. The first explanation is gramatically impossible, but the second has in its favour the evidence of a painting at Santa Prisca where the Nymphus is seen wearing a bridal veil during the mystical marriage with Mithras.

 

 

Fig.33. Lion above a mixing vessel; Cautes

Fig. 34. Mithras cutting corn

In a recent article Prof. C.W. Vollgraff has thrown new light on this question by making a firm distinction between the Nymphi and the Chryfii. The Nymphi are the Brides of Mithras, the Chryfii are the Hidden Ones, not 'secret members' of the community, but youths who, like the Spartan, have not yet been received as official members into the clan or cult; the 'hidden ones' who have not appeared in the full light of the public eye. They are the elpides who embody the future aspirations of the community (as noted at Dura-Europos). In a solemn ceremony the Fathers of the community introduce the 'hope of the future' to Mithras. Inscriptions from the same period prove that these Chryfii were sometimes of extreme youth, even small children being initiated in the mysteries.

Porphyry (third century A.D.) tells us that the three lowest grades were 'attendants' while the higher grades were the true 'participants', and that clearly these 'participants' were meant to take a full part in the sacred meal, while the lower grades acted merely as servants. But the archaeological evidence does not bear this out. On an altar from Pettau in Yugoslavia (Fig. 23) Mithras and Sol are seen standing on either side of an altar. They are holding up a spit with small pieces of meat skewered on to it, at which the raven is about to peck. Since the raven is imitated by the Corax in the mysteries, he must as such participate in the meal. On a painting at Dura-Europos the raven offers a spit with small pieces of meat to Sol and Mithras, who are in this case both present at the meal; here the Raven is the true attendant as portrayed on the Konjica relief (Fig. 5.) and on the paintings of the sacred meal on the left wall of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum. Thus we may conclude that the Raven is pre-eminently the attendant but that he can also be a 'participant'. The reverse holds for true 'participants'. In the paintings at Santa Prisca on the under as well as the upper layer Lions are almost exclusively depicted, walking in procession, bearing gifts to Mithras and therefore acting as 'attendants'. This concept is borne out by an inscription from a sanctuary at the foot of the Aventine dedicated ('by the priest and Father Venustus together with the attendants of the god'); the attendants include Lions, as is proved by a second inscription from the same sanctuary. This procedure is paralleled in the Roman Catholic church where a priest sometimes performs the function of deacon or subdeacon, just as everyone baptised from the age of seven onwards is termed metexon.

We have been able to gain a deeper insight into the Mithraic cult from recent discoveries, particularly at Ostia and Santa Prisca, which have yielded most valuable material. At Ostia the heraldic emblems of all the grades are picked out in mosaic and at Santa Prisca the grade-bearers are portrayed with their attributes. We have to consider this documentation together with the scanty literary evidence at our disposal.

1. Corax, the Raven

Symbols of the Raven

In the legend of the bull-slayer the Raven has the role of the messenger who comes to entrust Mithras with his mission. He takes the place, as it were, of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and bears as his emblem the caduceus, the magic staff of Hermes-Mercury. On the Ostia a cup has been added, and although in the Santa Prisca version the Raven in the procession of the seven grades has unfortunately been lost, beside its place can still be read the words: Nama Coracibus tutela Mercurii, 'Hail to the Ravens under the protection of Mercury'. The Raven symbolises the air and at the initiation he must have undergone certain rituals relating to this element, rituals which are called corvina or coracina sacra and which qualify the initiate as a ieros koras or 'divine Raven'. We sometimes find this adjective sanctus used in connection with other grades too, but particularly with the Pater, the Father or head of the community. When attending a service, the Raven wears a raven mask (Fig. 5.).

 

2. Nymphus, the Bride

Symbols of the Bride

On the Santa Prisca mural the Nymphus is shown wearing a bridal veil and, according to the dipinto (painted inscription) above the figure, he is placed under the protection of the planet Venus. It is therefore somewhat difficult to know whether in the Mithraeum 'delle pareti dipinte' at Ostia the painted figure holding a mirror represents Aphrodite or the Nymphus himself. In one Mithraeum at Dura-Europos there are as many as sixteen Nymphi. This male bride (women, we know, were rigorously excluded from the cult) is joined to Mithras in a mystical marriage by the Father, but evidently such a symbolic marriage with the god does not necessarily preclude a civil marriage.

At the initiation the desiosis or iunctio dextrarum, the clasping of the right hand as a pledge of fidelity and alliance, plays an important part. This gesture was used by the Persians as well as the Romans and is often portrayed on Roman sarcophagi.

A text of Firmicus Maternus is worth nothing.
Unfortunately the first word is disputed. If we read it as aide, then the text would mean 'Sing, Nymphus', but if we decipher it, as some editors have done, as ide then it would be 'Behold, Nymphus, hail Nymphus, hail new light'. The second explanation fits in with the velum, the veil or the flammeum of the Roman marriage ceremony as worn by the bride, for the veil was probably pulled away at a given moment in the Mithraic ritual and the Bride shown to the community. According to Apuleius a similar rite was performed in the cult of Isis. But the first explanation of aide, 'Sing', may be correct, and the Nymphus may have been required to sing a special marriage hymn.

The damaged mosaic at Ostia shows as emblems of the Nymphus a torch, a diadem and a lamp. The torch is the wedding torch, and the diadem is a clear allusion to Venus. The lamp is a symbol of the neon phos, the new light which flows from a new and closer relationship with the Sun-god Mithras. It is probable that immediately after the initiation of the Nymphus, the Mithraeum was flooded with a powerful light. I presume (though proof is impossible) that because of the special purification rites which must have preceded the ceremony, the Nymphus represented the element of water.

 

3. Miles, the Soldier

Symbols of the Soldier

The god Mithras is always regarded as deus invictus, an invicible god, who as the Avesta records secures victory for his followers on the battlefield. In the struggle for the ultimate triumph of good over evil, Mithras is the associate of the god of good. Strictly speaking, every follower of the god was enrolled in his service, but the special initiation and the taking of the military oath set the seal on entrance into his ranks. The initiate took a very literal view of this; in Santa Prisca the Soldier is represented dressed in brown with a soldier's kitbag slung over his left shoulder and on the mosaic at Ostia this bag is his emblem together with lance and helmet, as he is under the particular patronage of Mars, the god of war. Some inscriptions call him pius or eusebes or even integer, that is to say god-fearing, devout or pure. Just as Corax and Nymphus represent the elements of light and water, so the Soldier could be regarded as symbolising the earth, and the Lion the element of fire. But there is no definite justification for this theory, since there is no evidence that the Soldier underwent baptism through the element of earth. For a description of his initiations Tertullian's vague account in De praescar.: must suffice, 'Mithras makes a sign on his soldiers' forehead'. The branding of the initiate applied therefore particularly to the attainment of the grade of Soldier unless Tertullian used milites to cover all initiate of whatever grade. Elsewhere Tertullian describes the initiation of the Soldier:

              When he is being initiated in the cave, truly a camp of darkness, a wreath offered to him on the point of his sword and then placed on his head must be pushed off the head with the flat of his hand, and then laid on his shoulder with the words that Mithras alone is his wreath. And after that he is never garlanded again and this he possesses as evidence when he is tested with the military oath, and immediately, he is recognised as a soldier of Mithras when he has thrown off the wreath and said that it rests in his god.

Just as an ordinary soldier might be awarded a wreath for saving the life of an ordinary citizen or for being the first to storm an enemy fortress, so the Soldier of Mithras gained this distinction at his initiation. The offering of the wreath on the point of a sword was a final test of the initiate's courage. Tertullian calls this 'a mimicry of martyrdom'. One wonders if the object, lying at the feet of the initiate in a painting from Capua, (Fig. 31.) could be the sword mentioned by Tertullian. In any case, the Soldier of Mithras rejects the wreath with great humility saying 'Mithras alone is my wreath; my wreath rests in my god'. Like Mithras before him, he has taken the burden on his shoulders and in future he will fight against enemy forces under strict disciple. On a painting in Santa Prisca the Soldier is bearing the train of the initiate who precedes him.

 

4. Leo, The Lion

Symbols of the Lion

The Lion wore a long scarlet cloak and was always 'of an arid and fiery nature'. His symbol was a fire-shovel, and I am therefore inclined to regard the figure with the shovel on the floor mosaic of the Mithraeum 'degli animali' near the sanctuary of Cybele at Ostia as a Lion. During the excavation of the Mithras at Heddernheim and Carrawburgh actual fire-shovels were found, and in the Mithraeum Felicissimus at Ostia a fire-shovel is portrayed in mosaic as the Lion's emblem, together with a sistrum (the sacred rattle, adopted from the Isis cult) and the thunderbolts of Jupiter (since the Lion is placed under the special protection of the planet Jupiter).

There are some specific references to the fire symbol at initiation. Porphyry, records:
When those who are being initiated as Lions have honey instead of water poured over their hands to cleanse them, then are the hands kept pure of all evil, all crime and contamination, as becomes an initiate. Since fire is purifying, the fitting ablution is administered to them, rejecting water as being hostile to fire. And they also cleanse his tongue of sin with honey.

In connection with this particular piece of symbolism we often find the Lion portrayed on Mithraic reliefs in a threatening attitude beside or over a mixing-vessel, as on the relief from Sarmizegetusa, (Fig. 33) while in an inscription from Steklen in Bulgaria a Lion even bears the name Melichrisus, the 'honey-anointed'. The Lion has entered into such a special relation with Mithras that he accompanies the god on the hunt like the snake and the dog. In the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca we know of two processions of Lions, all bearing offerings, and on the relief from Konjic in Yugoslavia (Fig. 5.) one such initiate is wearing the lion mask.

The Lion occupies a special place in the Mithraic mysteries, and in the procession of the seven grades at Santa Prisca the Miles pays him special homage. This particular Lion, with his scarlet train, coal-black eyes and proud dignified bearing, has been immortalised in a truly unforgettable manner by the painter of Santa Prisca. The Lion probably underwent a baptism of fire in connection with the symbolism attached to his role. An inscription at Dura-Europos records the same word niptron that occurs in a text of Porphyry: 'fiery breath which for the Magi must also be a bath of those sanctified'. It is notable that the term asthma is used again by Dio Chrysostom in his account of the setting on fire of the three horses by the fiery breath of the outside horse in the quadriga of Phaethon. Can we discern in the rite of the baptism of fire an allusion to this future conflagration? The stream of fire which will spread over the earth at the end of time will strike down evil-doers only; the righteous will be spared and for them this experience will be only a niptron or bath. Two lines of verse from the bottom layer of paintings at Santa Prisca indicate this relation between the Lion, Mithras and the cosmic conflagration. Here the faithful ask that the 'incense-burning Lions' should be received by the Father, in this case meaning Mithras. 'The Lions, through whom we ourselves offer the incense, through whom we ourselves are consumed'. The purifying force of fire used in the mysteries of the cult transforms the Lion into a new man, into one who is sanctified, who like Jupiter himself strikes down the Titans with lightning and who with Mithras joins in hunting down the powers of evil. The Lions are united with Mithras and the Sun through fire, and thus also with the chariot of the sun. Purified by fire, they will ultimately become immune from its consuming power. A relief from Rome showing the fiery breath issuing from the Time-god's lion mouth is clearly connected with this belief, and on a statue of Aion at Sidon (Africa) the lion's head has been hollowed out at the back in order that fire could be placed there at certain ceremonies. In some Mithraea statues of Lions were erected which remind us vividly of statues placed as grave guardians.

The Lion stands in a particular relation not only to the god, but possibly also to the moon. This second connection is, however, more the province of the grade Perses.

 

5. Perses, the Persian

Symbols of the Persian

In the paintings at Santa Prisca the Persian is dressed in a grey tunic and placed under the particular protection of the moon. Like the Lion his hands are cleansed with honey during the ceremony when the grade of Persica is confered upon him, but according to Porphyry there is a difference between the two; 'when they administer honey to the Persian they do this in his capacity as keeper of the fruits, in this symbol they express the preserving element'. Honey is the sugar of antiquity and Herodotus stresses its preservative qualify. According to the ideas of the ancient Persians honey comes from the moon, where the semen of the bull slain by Mithras was also taken and purified, henceforth to produce new fruits and plants. Thus the moon is the temporary guardian of the fruits, and the Persian personifies the moon. On the other hand he also has a particular position in relation to Mithras. His symbols are the falx (sickle) and the scythe and on the paintings at Santa Prisca he carries some long twigs (possibly ears of corn), but the sickle is also Saturn's emblem and on a relief at Dieburg Mithras is portrayed as the divine reaper; (Fig. 34) he gathers the harvest, which springs from the spinal fluid and blood of the bull. In this respect the Persian is a faithful follower of his god.

 

6. Heliodromus, the Courier of the Sun

Symbols of the Courier of the Sun

The name Courier of the Sun indicates at once that this grade is the deputy on earth of Helios-Sol under whose care he is placed. At Ostia his emblems are a whip, a radiate halo and a torch, at Santa Prisca a globe, a nimbus and a radiate halo. The figure in oriental costume with a globe in his left hand, portrayed in a niche of the Mithraic sanctuary in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, is probably also intended to represent a Heliodromus. He is sun, daily traversing the heavens in his chariot and urging on the horses with his whip. Once, through the agency of the Raven, he communicated to Mithras the order for the bull-slaying; once he concluded a pact with Mithras; from Mithras he received the accolade; with Mithras he enjoyed the sacred meal before ascending into heaven. It is probable that all these events were imitated during certain ceremonies in the Mithraeum. In this connection we are completely certain of only one event, the clearest proof of which is given in the Santa Prisca sanctuary. On the right-hand wall the Heliodromus is portrayed as a member of the mystic community. He wears a red garment with a yellow belt and with his left hand he clasps to himself a blue globe, while his right hand is raised in greeting towards the Father of the community, who is seated on his throne and wears a red robe and a red pointed cap. On the left-hand wall the two gods Sol and Mithras are seen partaking of the sacred meal, at which the divine Sun-god wears the same garments and has the same attributes as his earthly representative, the Heliodromus. A perhaps less imposing representation of the Heliodromus is to be found on the right hand side wall of the Mithraeum 'delle pareti dipinte' at Ostia. He holds in his left hand a long, thin stick and a blue nimbus is painted round his head. he is approaching a tree with leafy branches near which stands a nude figure with a small cape hanging loosely about his shoulders. He is probably beating the fruit down from the tree with the stick-in which case he might also be interpreted as a Persian.

 

7. Pater, The Father

Symbols of the Father

 

This, the highest of the grades in the Mithraic cult, is the deputy on earth of the god himself and is therefore portrayed clothed like Mithras. He is Father to his initiates, who call themselves fraters, brothers, and guards over the interests of his community (defensor). He is also the magister sacrorum, the teacher whose wisdom is symbolised by a ring and a staff. He is the Magus, the sophistes , the high-priest who has been chosen by his fellow-initiates as the lawful Father at the mysteries and as such he carries the responsibility for dispensing initiation to the different grades and for accepting new members. At Dura-Europos we encounter an antipatos, possibly a preliminary grade to that of Father, while in Rome there are the pater sacrorum, the Father of the mysteries, and the pater patrum. This Father of Fathers is the great shephered, for an inscription records a 'Father of the Fathers from amongst the ten superiors'. He is the representative of the pietas, and hence pius, pientissimus or sanctus, and he is supremely worthy. He has also studied astrology and no wonder, for the whole of the Mithraic mysteries is steeped in astrological concepts from which stem the doctrine of the seven grades, which as we have seen were placed under the protection of the seven planets, the Pater standing under the guardianship of Saturn. Above him at Santa Prisca are these words: 'Hail all Fathers from East to West, under the protection of Saturn'. At Ostia his symbols are the sickle of Saturn, the Phrygian cap of Mithras and the staff and ring which represent his wisdom.

 

Continue: Women and the Mithraic Cult

 

 

 

 

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