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From The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies:
The cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its origin with Mithraism in Iran
By Roger Beck
For most of the twentieth century the major problem addressed by scholarship on both Roman Mithraism and the Iranian god Mithra was the question of continuity. Did Mithra-worship migrate from Iran to the Roman Empire in some institutional form or was Mithraism invented in the West (with a few Iranian trappings) as a new institution altogether?
At the start of the twenty first century, this issue appears to be less central to the concerns of scholarship on Western Mithraism, but it remains important nevertheless, and obviously it must be the lens through which Mithraism is examined in this article. The first task, though, is to describe the Mithras cult as it did in fact develop in the West, and in so far as we can reconstruct it objectively from its material remains. Reconstruction is not easy, since no ancient literary works about Mithraism and no substantial sacred texts from Mithraism have survived.
Western Mithraism described:
The term "Mithraism" is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as "the mysteries of Mithras"; alternatively, as "the mysteries of the Persians." The latter designation is significant. The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic "Persians." Moreover, whatever moderns might think, the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who "dedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia," an idyllic setting "abounding in flowers and springs of water" (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).
Persia (or Parthia) in those times was Rome's great rival and frequently at war with her. Nonetheless, there is no indication that this antagonism was ever problematic for the Mithraists socially or politically. Clearly, their cultic "Persian" identity, which they made no attempt to hide, was acceptable to the authorities and their fellow citizens.
The socio-political acceptability of the Mithraists, despite their Perserie, can be explained largely by their social profile. They were the most conformist of men — and men indeed they were in the limited gender sense of the word, a factor which itself would add to their respectability or at least not detract from it (compare the charge against Christianity that it subverted the family by proselytizing the womenfolk). Mithraism drew its initiates disproportionately from the military, from the Empire's petty bureaucracy, and from moderately successful freedmen (i.e. ex-slaves), in fact from the retainer classes, the very people who had a stake in the current sociopolitical dispensation. (On Mithraism's social profile see Clauss 1992, Gordon 1972, Liebeschuetz 1994; Merkelbach 1984: pp. 153-88)
We noticed above that Mithraism's original, archetypal sacred space was thought to be a cave. This perception, reported by an external source (the third-century CE philosopher Porphyry), is corroborated by internal data and the archaeological evidence. The Mithraists did indeed call their meeting places "caves," whether they actually were or not. Natural caves were used where available; and where not, especially in urban settings (Rome, Ostia), a room or suite of rooms within some larger structure was used and sometimes decorated so as to resemble a natural cave. Mithraea (our modern term), like natural caves and unlike most constructed temples, had no elaborate or even recognizable exteriors. (On the structure of the mithraeum see White 1990: pp. 47-59.)
That Mithraists met in "caves" which were distinctively designed and furnished has had important consequences for the archaeological record and thus for our ability to reconstruct the cult. In addition to their cave-like appearance, mithraea were designed with raised platforms on either side of a central aisle to serve as banqueting couches for the cult meal (on which see below). They were also filled with much sacred art - sculptures (mostly in relief), altars, ritual pottery vessels, frescos, etc. - often with their dedications extant in whole or in part. There is no mistaking a mithraeum when archaeology brings it to light, and the chances are good that it will also divulge something about its membership. (On the furnishings and equipment of the mithraeum see Clauss 2000: 42-59, 114-30.)
The scattering of mithraea, thus identified across the Roman Empire, is perhaps more informative about the cult's spread and social composition than are the material remains of any of its peers, early Christianity included. We have already looked at Mithraism's social catchment. As for its spread, though represented virtually everywhere in the Roman empire, it was much stronger in the Latin speaking West than in the (predominantly) Greek-speaking East. It flourished in particular in the city of Rome and its port, Ostia, and along the Rhine-Danube frontier — exactly where one would expect from its social profile. (For maps, see Clauss 1992, province by province).
Without doubt, an intentional concomitant of the "cave" was the small size of Mithraic groups or cells. The upper limit to the number of persons who can feast intimately on side platforms in a cave or a cave-like inner room is soon reached. Mithraism, then, was a religion of small communities. These communities, moreover, were self-sufficient. There is not a shred of evidence for any co-ordinating, let alone regulating, higher authority. There were no Mithraic bishops; the contrast with contemporaneous Christianity, or for that matter with the contemporaneous state Zoroastrianism of Kerdir, could not be more extreme.
As social institutions the Mithraic communities are classed among those groups termed (by moderns) "voluntary associations." Not all voluntary associations served religious ends. Some were analogous to trade guilds; perhaps the most common form was the burial society, clubs which could assure their members funerals in a more ample and sociable style than they could individually command. In the religious sphere, it is the voluntary nature of membership that distinguishes these associations from other religious enterprises. One chose to be initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras, whereas one belonged (normally in an entirely passive way) to the public cults of city and empire simply by virtue of belonging at one level or another, from emperor to slave, to those socio-political units: to the public cults you could no more opt in than you could opt out. It follows that ancient mystery cults, Mithraism included, were non-exclusive: as a Mithraist, you would expect, and be expected, to continue your participation in the public cults (On Mithraism as a voluntary association, see Beck 1996.)
The "Mysteries of Mithras," to return to their ancient name, were one of a number of ancient religious "mysteries." A "mystery," in Greek, is something into which one is initiated. Modern connotations of the "mysterious" or the "mystical" are irrelevant, and although most ancient mysteries were in fact secret, secrecy was not always a requirement. Not all mysteries were transmitted in and by voluntary associations, and not all voluntary religious associations transmitted rites of initiation as their sole or even principal business. Indeed, Mithraism appears to be the only substantial pagan cult of which it can be said that initiation into its mysteries was both the necessary and the sufficient condition of membership. (On ancient mystery cults, see Burkert 1987.)
Organizationally, the Mithraic groups functioned much as other voluntary associations, but in addition there was an esoteric hierarchy of seven grades. Scholars disagree about the extent of this hierarchy. Was it universal, or normative, or a refinement limited to the relatively few mithraea where it is directly attested? Was it a priesthood? Most scholars would agree that it was not ubiquitous in the sense of being a requirement for all mithraea; also that the initiate of the highest grade, the Father, excercised leadership in all aspects of the mithraeum's sacred business, and that virtually all mithraea would have had at least one Father (two are attested in some mithraea), regardless of the presence or absence of other grades. (On the grades see Clauss 2000: pp. 131-40; contra: Gordon 1994: pp. 465-7; on their esoteric significance, see Gordon 1980a: pp. 19-99.)
Into what was a Mithraist initiated? What, in other words, constituted the sacred business of a mithraeum? Scholarship is in broad agreement that the principal act was the cult meal, celebrated both as an actual feast by the initiates reclining opposite each other on the platforms which served as banqueting couches and as a ritual re-enactment of the feast of Mithras and the Sun god celebrated on the hide of a bull freshly slain by Mithras. (On the cult meal, see Kane 1975.)
That there was another purpose to the Mithraic mysteries and a corresponding ritual is attested in the same passage from Porphyry (On the Cave of the Nymphs 6), already cited above, which tells us that the Mithraists called their sacred places "caves" — and why. The intent of the Mithraists was to "induct the initiate into a mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again." It was for this ritual purpose (which has been generally misconstrued as a didactic purpose) that the Mithraists made their sacred space cave-like, for the cave is "the symbol of the universe," into which the soul enters for mortal existence and quits for immortality. Accordingly, Porphyry continues, the mithraeum is designed and furnished with "cosmic symbols appropriately arranged" so as to be an authentic microcosm. (On this ritual and the corresponding design function of the mithraeum, see Beck 2000: pp. 154-65; this article also describes and explicates the two previously unknown rituals depicted on opposite sides of the cult vessel discussed.)
For other initiatory rites we depend primarily on the fresco scenes in the mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere. These depict usually a triad of figures: the initiates, small, naked, humiliated; and two initiators, one behind and the other in front of the initiates, manipulating the instruments of initiations. (For illustrations, see Vermaseren 1971: Plates 21-8.)
Mithraism was an astral religion. The perceivable heavens and the celestial bodies (sun, moon, the other five planets, stars) all played a part in the mysteries — the sun necessarily a very large part, since Mithras himself was the Sun god (see below). Astral symbolism (e.g. representations of the zodiac) was liberally deployed on the sculpted and painted monuments and in the design of the mithraeum in order to render it a true likeness of the cosmos "for induction into the mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again" (see above). Furthermore, each of the seven grades of the hierarchy was "under the tutelage of" one of the seven planets. Finally, in the principal cult icon, the representation of Mithras as bull-killer (see below), there is a remarkable correspondence between several of the standard elements of the composition and the constellations of a particular tract of the heavens (e.g. the raven and the constellation Corvus).
The astral symbolism incorporated into the mysteries stems of course from the ancient Graeco-Roman construction of the heavens and their denizens in the astronomy/astrology of the times. On the intent of the symbolism there is no scholarly consensus. Indeed, several influential scholars have treated it as superficial decoration without any profound intent at all. That is mistaken. Granted, it is difficult to prove a negative. Nevertheless, the arguments against deep intent have so far merely re-asserted their premise as conclusion: astral symbolism is without deep intent because it is superficial. Only Franz Cumont, the founder of modern Mithraic studies, avoided this petitio principii. He did so by postulating the imposition of an astrological layer by the Chaldeans and by "Hellenized Magi" during the transmission of Iranian Mithra-worship from Iran to the West (Cumont 1903: pp. 119-30). (For arguments for deep intent in the astral symbolism, see Merkelbach 1984: pp. 75-133, 193-244; Beck 1988; Beck 1994; Beck 2000: pp. 154-65; Ulansey 1989; Jacobs 1999. As superficial imagery, (e.g.) Clauss 2000: pp. 87, 89, 97.)
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