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Women and the Mithraic Cult


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One of the problems that arises out of our study of Mithraism is the place of women in the cult. It may seem strange to our modern Western minds, accustomed as we are to the idea of equal rights for men and women, that we should need to raise the question whether women could be initiated into this Persian cult. We are inclined to consider it iniquitous that a deity should bestow all his favours upon his male followers and ignore women completely. But this exclusiveness is not unique. Although the mysteries of Eleusis, Isis, Cybele and Dionysus were open to both sexes and sometimes even allotted a main part to women, cults such as those of the Bona Dea excluded men altogether.

Porphyry, in an obscure passage of his De Abstinentia, says that the initiates who took part in the Mithraic mysteries were called lions and the women hyenas. But with this text we are on dangerous ground, because it is apparently corrupt and much altered, and we do not come across any mention of the grade of hyena anywhere else in spite of the fact that the various discoveries have on the whole told us a great deal about grades.

Even if the word 'hyaina' is changed into 'leaina' (lioness) the difficulty is by no means removed. This grade is not mentioned in any regular list of the grades, and only one single instance occurs, and that in very special circumstances. In a small town called Guigariche, five mile west of Tripoli, two sepulchral chambers were found side by side, carved out of the rock. The rooms contain fine paintings and are furnished with a niche which housed the burial itself. The inscriptions tell us that a man and his wife named Aelius Magnus and Aelia Arisuth were buried here, and the cover of the sarcophagus records that the one lies here as leo, the other as lea (lioness), a point which is emphasised by a painting of a lion and lioness. Is this the grave of a follower of Mithras of the Lion grade?

No further traces have survived of the cult at Guigariche (ancient Oea) and the graves themselves offer no definite answer. The only indication we have is the presence of a striding figure holding a candle, painted beside the niche containing the tomb of the man. This same figure also appears in the procession of the Lions in santa Prisca. If we assume that Aelius Magnus represented a Lion of Mithras, then we can safely conclude that his wife occupied the grade of Lioness. If such were the case, then we must consider this a unique example, and the possible Mithraic community of Oea would be the only one in the West where women were admitted in the various grades; all our other sources speak only of men, and where a woman's name is mentioned in an inscription the never bears a title. We get the impression that the Mithraic cult's preference for men reflected the old conception of a kind of 'clan', where secrets were divulged exclusively to the male who, as head of the household, represented his family. Such were the viri sacrati, the initiates whose high priests were, according to Tertullian, only allowed to marry once. All this is reminiscent of the strictly prescribed castes of the Magi and the advice specially given in the Avesta to the 'master of the house':

If the head of the house who presides over the house, or the head of the clan who presides over the clan, or the head of the tribe who presides over the tribe, or the head of the country who presides over the country, are false to him, Mithra enraged and provoked comes forth to smash the house, the clan, the tribe, the country, the heads of the houses who preside over the houses....(Yasht x,18).

Tertullian is again relevant, for this passage suggests that the Mithraic cult also had 'virgines et continentes', men and women who habitually denied themselves the act of love in honour of the god. Thus the woman could also dedicate herself to the god even though she could not be accepted into the mysteries. However, we have only the testimony of Tertullian (end of the second century) on this particular point.

Here Prof. Vollgraff raises the further question whether some other grades, such as the Nymphi who were joined to the god in a mystical marriage, were still free to contract a worldly marriage as well. If they were not, then a few of them, who were not going to proceed to a higher grade, could be continentes. I myself believe that we can reach a solution to this question. At Dura-Europos the largest number of initiates are Nymphi, but in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum at Rome the majority are Lions, and it would seem unlikely that all the Nymphi at Dura were also continentes. Moreover, the initiate who proceeds to a higher rank does not necessarily lose his previous distinctions. Documents relating to a married couple named Kamenius are very illuminating on this very point. Two inscriptions from Rome, both found in the grounds of the Temple of Cybele in the Vatican and one of them dated July 19th, A.D. 374, record dedications by or for Alfenius Ceionious Julianus Kamenius, who occupied among other positions those of pater, magister and hieroceryx in the Mithraic cult. Significantly, although he has achieved the highes grade, he still alludes to his role as kerus (herald) which is specially associated with the lowest grade of all, the Raven. We learn that in A.D. 385 Kamenius was appointed Father of Fathers and that when he died at Antium he still held this office. His wife had a poem carved on his tomb which reads:

Your dear wife weeps for you both day and night.
Together with the little children; grieved that she has lost comfort of her life,
Sorrowing for the loss from the chaste marriage-bed.

One wonders why Kamenius should have remained unmarried during the period of 'brotherhood' when he was passing through he grades from Raven to Father. Certainly continentes remained single of their own free will, though Tertullian says of the summus pontifex, the Father, the Mithras commanded him to enter into marriage once only.



Continue: Offerings and Artists: Mithras in Art





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