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Mithraism

The scene of the striking of the rock has only been recorded once in Rome on a painted side-panel of the Mithraeum at the Palazzo Barberini. Otherwise representations of this scene are confined to the Danube and Rhine regions, where other illustrations of the Mithras cycle are also common. As a rule Mithras is shown seated and aiming his arrow at the rock face, before which a figure kneels. Occasionally a second figure clasps Mithras's knee beseechingly, or stands behind the god with one hand on his right shoulder. There is a particularly fine representation of this scene on the side of an altar at Pettau where Mithras, standing at the ready, is aiming his arrow at the rock, in front of which a man is waiting to drink the water which will gush forth. On the other side of the altar are a bow, quiver and dagger, as in the Dublin relief. It is noticeable that not only Mithras himself but also the two subsidiary figures are dressed in oriental costume, and it seems that in this type of scene they must be intended to represent Cautes and Cautopates, the attendants at Mithras's birth. A relief from Besigheim in Germany devotes two successive scenes to this miracle. In the first a man stands catching in both hands water which flows from the rock, while Mithras is still busily engaged in taking an arrow from his quiver; immediately next to this scene there is a repetition of it in greater detail (Fig. 14) with Mithras standing prepared with bow and arrow, one figure kneeling in front of him and another trying to catch the stream of water in his cupped hands. On both reliefs the rock is shaped like a cloud which, as has already been established, represents the celestial vault. Thus Mithras is begetting, as it were, water from heaven with his arrow, while the beseeching figures indicate that this miracle was performed during a drought from which the god delivered thirsting mankind-an interpretation reminiscent of Exodus: 'And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.'

A sandstone relief from Dieburg stands entirely apart. Mithras, in oriental attire, is standing by an altar, holding an arrow in his right hand in his left a bow, most of which has now been broken away from the relief; a vessel is on the ground by his right foot. This particular representation is the only one devoted exclusively to the miracle of the striking of the rock. In every other case the incident is secondary, sometimes appearing, for example, in the background of the representation of Mithras's birth, while at Pettau it is combined with a representation of the pact between Sol and Mithras (Fig. 23). The altar shown beside Mithras on the Dieburg relief is particularly suggestive in this connection because it may have been introduced as a reminder to worshippers of the necessity for Mithras's pact with Sol in order to put an end to withering drought and refresh men and cattle alike with rain. The niche containing the representation of Mithras's birth was sometimes connected with a spring, which thus became the fons perennis, the eternal spring. One of the texts recently uncovered in Santa Prisca throws further light on this subject: 'A spring within the rocks, which feeds both brothers with nectar.' 'Both brothers' can only be the figures we have encountered on the representations of the striking of the rock. By working this miracle Mithras has fed them with nectar, procured the draught of the gods for them and endowed them with immortality. The stream which springs from the rock has become therefore a source of life-giving water in which the two brothers have found immortal refreshment, an ever-present reminder of the joys in store for those who participate in the mysteries. Unfortunately this is as far as our information takes us, but in any case here again we reach a point where Mithraism and Christianity overlap, for the portrayal of Moses on early Christian sarcophagi is likewise associated with the concept of divine refreshment.

4
Mithras the hunter

On the relief at Osterburken, which plays an important part in presenting the events of the Mithras legend, there is a remarkable scene (Fig. 19) about the depiction of Mithras's meal with Sol. Mithras, accompanied by a lion and followed by a page in orintal dress bearing the god's quiver on his right shoulder, looses an arrow as he rides his horse at full gallop; the quarry, however, is not shown. Among recent discoveries is a similar relief found near the Mithraeum at Neuenheim -again in Germany-, (Fig. 16) in which the Persian god is riding at great speed through a forest of cypresses, his clock flying in the wind; in his right hand he holds the celestial orb and with his left he tugs vigorously at his horse's reins. A lion and a snake are also in attendance and these figures are encountered again on the lower register of a Rumanian bull-slaying relief. Thus, although the lion and snake symbolise fire and earth, they are nevertheless here included in the retinue of Mithras, the Rider -and Sun- god. A great number of similar representations of Mithras as a mounted horseman come from the East and in particular from Syria (as R. Dussaud has pointed out); the widely represented Thracian horseman of the Balkans was often identified with the Sun-god Apollo.

Thus the daily course of the sun is reflected not only in the image of Sol in his chariot but equally in Sol as an equestrian figure. These representations of the Rider-god Helios are described particularly in inscriptions from Asia Minor, and from the texts it is evident that this tradition continued until well into the Byzantine period. It seems most probable that the sculptor of the Neuenheim relief intended to portray Mithras as the Sun-god who is at the same time ruler of the cosmos, a function indicated by the celestial orb.

There is, however, a difference between these two representations at Neuenheim and osterburken. At the latter site the god is shown as archer as well as rider (just as, on the front of the large relief at Dieburg in the Rhine-land, the god is again shown as a mounted rider). In the background of this Dieburg relief there is a tree, either cypress or pine, and Mithras, astride a galloping horse, is shooting at a hare whose long ears are just available; three large and ferocious looking hounds are bounding forward, and on either side of Mithras, each standing upon a vessel, is a torch-bearer. Although the lion is missing from this scene, the presence of the torch-bearers lays particular stress on the elements of light and fire; for the element of earth in the form of a snake we have here instead the two vessels which are symbols of water. Behn, the first authority to offer an explanation of this relief, saw a connection with the German Wotan. Because such hunting scenes had at that time been found only in Germany, the Persian and Teutonic deities were assumed to have become fused. But this conclusion has been invalidated by two paintings which came to light during the excavation of the Dura-Europos Mithraeum. Both give an identical version of Mithras as Hunter, so proving that this particular imagery gained currency in the eastern part of the Roman Empire as well as in the west. But at Dura-Europos the portrayal has been adapted to oriental taste and artistic tradition (Fig. 4). The landscape is composed of trees with fan-shaped tops, and plants are schematically suggested by a mere three branches. The artist, who clearly came from neighbouring Palmyra, has executed his paintings in a range of pastel tones. Mithras, shown frontally, is turning in the saddle to loose his arrows. His elegantly accoutred horse is galloping at full speed, with the god's quiver hanging by a strap. The god himself is wearing the richly embroidered garments of a Palmyrene officer of the archers, and he is accompanied by the snake and the lion as at Neuenheim. Two deer with sickle-shaped horns, two gazelles and a boar have all been hit, and in spite of the fact that blood is streaming from their wounds they continue their flight in a last desperate attempt to escape. In the second painting the artist has produced a variation on this theme by replacing snake and boar by one small and one large lion. At Dura-Europos, a military outpost where Palmyrene archers were stationed, the followers of Mithras would wish to look up to their god as an example and also as a protector of their own weapons. There was moreover a belief to the effect that the god sought to strike at his enemies while hunting, an idea already expressed in the Avesta. At Dura-Europos he is hunting a boar, an animal commonly offered to Ahriman, the power of evil.

Hunting scenes are often to be found on tomb reliefs. It has been pointed out that among the ancients the hunt was considered to be a perfect practice ground for hardiness and endurance; philosophers regarded the struggle against the animal world 'as a victory of daring and judgment over brute force and violence'. The hunt had a religious significance as well, for dangerous beasts could only be overcome with the help of the gods and at the conclusion of the hunt a sacrifice was offered to the gods and the hunters would then partake of a repast, often of a religious nature.

Now at Osterburken, it has been noted, the hunt preceded the sacred meal. A relief at Serdica (Sofia) shows Mithras and sol taking part in the meal with a vessel on the ground beside them. On the right of the cave is a lion and on the left a hound and a boar. The meal and the hunt are again linked at Heddernheim and Rueckingen in Germany on the reverse sides of two large reliefs, in both of which the sacred meal of Soal and Mithras is portrayed below an elaborate hunting scene. In the centre of the Heddernheim relief stands a figure, whose outline is only dimly visible, surrounded by four large hounds. Above the hounds, on the left, part of a horse's leg can still be distinguished, indicating the presence of the rider; the central figure must have been an attendant. A bull and a boar are lying peacefully in a field with a grazing sheep. The hounds take no notice of these animals and it is therefore an open question whether the bull and the boar have been struck by arrows. The bull, boar and sheep, represented as the suovetaurilia sacrifices on the right-hand wall of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum, here adorn the vaulted entrance of the cave where the sacred meal took place.

On a relief discovered in 1950 at Rueckingen, Mithras is sitting on horseback holding a lasso in his left hand, (Fig. 16) and round him in a circle are various animals- a dog, a boar, a reclining horse, a foal, another boar, a deer and an ox. Alfoeldi has tried to attach a special significance to the grouping of the animals, citing the circular course of the quadriga of the cosmic charioteer. However, there is insufficient evidence to associate these hunting scenes with the myth of the universal conflagration, and it seems preferable to explain the hunt as symbolic of Mithras's struggle against the powers of darkness (represented at Rueckingen by the boar). The more harmless animals like the hare (at Dieburg), gazelle and deer (at Dura-Europos) are all indigenous animals; the bull and ox have been added in these scenes with the object of portraying an alternative method of catching the boar. At Rueckingen the bull is caught with a lasso, a point which brings us back to the significance of the taurobolium.

Herodotus relates how the Persians instructed their children between the ages of five and twenty in three subjects only: horse-riding, archery and speaking the truth. Young Persians could follow Mithras's example as champion of truth and justice. In his role as rider and archer he goes to hunt against the powers of evil and his arrows never miss their target. Mithras is always successful in his adventures, ever triumphant in the struggle between good and evil. On a small panel at Dura-Europos we see that after the hunt the bull is carried on a pole by two servants-as if it were a trophy-and after the victory over evil comes the meal where Mithras's followers may recline in company with the god.

5
Sol and Mithras

In his book on the gods of the Greeks Professor Guthrie draws particular attention to the fact that in the classical world men did not feel themselves bound to strict dogma and to those doctrines which were in fundamental agreement with one another. The association of Sol with Mithras illustrates this point admirably. With the facts at our disposal, it is not possible to build up a strictly logical theory about their relationship, or rather, if such a theory did in fact exist, it is not now readily discernible.

Mithras with bow and arrow on horseback Mithras approaching Sol Mithras confers the accolade Sol kneeling in front of Mithras
Fig. 19. Mithras with bow and arrow on horseback Fig. 20. Mithras approaching Sol Fig. 21. Mithras confers the accolade Fig. 22. Sol kneeling in front of Mithras

In many inscriptions Mithras is invoked as deus Sol invictus, the invicible Sun-god. Together with Cautes and Cautopates he represents the sun at the three main divisions of the day, morning, afternoon and evening. But in spite of this a Sun-god with nimbus and halo also often appears beside Mithras and, whip in hand, spurs his four fiery horses through the firmament. This Apollonian Sun, this light-bringing charioteer, is clearly to be distinguished from Mithras.

In some representations of the bull-slaying a single ray from the nimbus of Sol can be seen flashing out in the direction of Mithras. Again Sol apparently uses his messenger the raven to issue instructions for the fatal stabbing of the bull, implying that the sun was regarded as a mediator between the supreme power of good (Ahura Mazda) and Mithras who, as bull-slayer, stood in turn as mediator between man and Ahura Mazda. Thus Sol-Helios-Apollo indirectly governs Mithras's actions and participates in the bull-slaying, and so it would seem that the Sun-god is superior to Mithras and wields greater power, but other representations, particularly from sites outside Rome, show the Sun-god kneeling or squatting before Mithras. Balkan reliefs portray Sol in this submissive attitude while the Persian god puts his left hand on Sol's head and holds in his uplifted right hand an object which cannot in most cases be discerned. Sometimes it looks like a pointed cap or a drinking horn, but frequently it looks like a piece of meat, either a shoulder or a leg. The texts provide no explanation of this scene. As a rule the bull-slayer seems to be bestowing some kind of honour on Sol (Fig. 21) and in a small relief found at Bucharest Mithras is definitely placing the Phrygian cap on Sol's head.

Other scenes give the impression that the two gods are concluding an agreement. On a relief from Nersae in Italy (Fig. 22) Sol, naked, is kneeling on one knee before Mithras; in between them is a small altar. In his right hand Sol is holding a dagger, point down, and which his left he grasps Mithras's right wrist. Mithras too holds a knife in his right hand, point upwards, and the two gods are presumably making a blood pact. On a relief from Rome we again see the two deities on either side of an altar, Mithras quite clearly gripping the wrist of the person in front of him with his left hand in order to make a small incision with a knife, thus sealing the pact with the letting of blood. On a relief from Virunum Mithras's right hand clasps Sol's in a paternal handshake, while his left hand Mithras pats him on the shoulder in a friendly manner (Fig. 20). As a final example, a large relief at Heddernheim shows Mithras walking towards Sol as if to place the nimbus on his head.

A second version of this scene is illustrated both in a painting in the Palazzo Barberini Mithraeum, Rome, and in a relief from Poetovio where in each case Mithras and Sol are shown standing on either side of an altar. In the example from Rome both are holding a small spit on the altar; at Poetovio (Fig. 23) both gods are holding out their hands to one another, and a spit can again be made out with small pieces of meat skewered on to it, as is still customary in Yugoslavia. The spit is being held over the altar while the raven comes to nibble at the meat, but on a painting at Dura-Europos the raven himself offers this spit for the sacred meal. It is clear, however, that the scene at Pettau is not to be regarded merely as a variant on the meal in which Sol and Mithras ultimately partake as fraternal allies, because in the Palazzo Barberini Mithraeum these two acts are portrayed on separate panels. The scene probably illustrates the formal confirmation of the pact of Sol and Mithras, an action which preceded the divine meal which itself took place before their ascent to heaven in the chariot of the sun.

The antagonism which is supposed to have existed originally between the two Sun-gods has thus been reconciled into eternal friendship. As Mithras ascends in his chariot after the conclusion of his worldly deeds, so the initiate himself can devoutly hope for his own return to the eternal sunlight.

Abstracted from : Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963

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