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Mithraism

9) Women and the Mithraic Cult

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.

10) Offerings and Artists: Mithras in Art

The great diversity of the followers of the Mithras cult is clearly revealed in the variation in the temples themselves and in the numerous gifts which were offered to the tutelary deity. Hidden in the mountains of the Italian Alps, Southern France and Yugoslavia are a few simple sanctuaries where the standard cult scenes were carved in the living rock. High up in the mountains twenty-five miles north-west of the Rumanian Black Sea town of Constanza, a natural grotto was fitted out as a Mithraeum with, next to primitive altars, a magnificent relief executed by the artist Nicomedeus, and presented by a senior tax official. At Ostia the Athenian sculptor Kriton created a wonderful group with Mithras as bull-slayer, portrayed in the full grandeur of the Greek style. At Leptis Magna in Tripolitania the torch-bearers were executed in marble by one Aristius Antiochus, while at Merida in Spain a certain Demetrius created a most original sculptor of Mithras standing with a dolphin at his feet. In the second century B.C. a whole group of artists established a workshop in Koenigshoffen near Stasbourg, lured there by the hope of benefiting from the presence of the legions and the cult of their patron Mithras. This scholl did not confine its products to the mithraea of Koenigshoffen and Mackwiller, for its distinctive statuary is encountered throughout the surrounding districts.

The painted Mithraea in Rome and Ostia are the most renowned, but temple paintings have been found in Capua and even at Dura on the Euphrates. The Ostia Mithraea are even better known for their mosaics in black and white marble, set in the floor and on the reclining benches, which illustrate symbolically the teachings of Mithras. At Poetovio and Stockstadt silversmiths were employed to depict the motif of the bull-slaying on small silver plates, and gems engraved with representations of Mithras (Fig. 35) are also known. Santa Prisca had a head of the Sun-god in lead with a cut-out halo, and in this same Mithraeum various artists were employed at different times to adorn the cult niche with stucco work. Germany and Austria are particularly well known for their large snake-vases and only recently a pot from the Central Gaulish terra sigillata factories at Lezoux came to light, bearing a representation of the bull-slaying (Fig. 36). Finally, a small terra sigillata vessel was found at Trier decorated with a portrayal of the sacred meal.

Gem showing a Mithraic scene Terra sigillata pot with a representation of Mithras
Fig.35. Gem showing a Mithraic scene Fig.36. Terra sigillata pot with a representation of Mithras

A closer examination of these objects shows that the artist did not always grasp the spirit of the commission, and indeed-as is the case of Kriton at Ostia-he sometimes allowed his own personal whim to take complete control. Whether a monument was infused with a deep symbolism or not depended on the degree of education of the members of the community or of the artist employed. In most cases the Father of the Community seems to have exercised a decisive influence on the general furnishing of the sanctuary, but the actual execution of the plans was in some regions governed by very unfavourably conditions, and limited finances often had the last word. But if circumstances permitted the temple would be ornamented in certain ways. Sometimes the dominant motif was surrounded by dozens of votive images of the bull-slaying, as at Sarmizegetusa, or by lamps and candelabra, or alternatively a painted or embroidered veil might be hung in front of the cult niche, deum in velo formatum, as we learn from an inscription at Ostia. But the Mithraeum was never luxurious; even in Rome, where some statues were decorated with gold leaf, the temple of Mithras preserved its austere and simple character, as befitted the god who was worshipped there.

In comparing the hundreds of Mithraic representations spread over the empire, we can distinguish certain underlying traditions. As we have seen, the commonest type of representation, the bull-slaying in a vaulted cave, occurs on a relief from Yugoslavia, (Fig. 37.) as well as in Rome and other parts of the Empire. This type, which was sometimes highly stylised, originated with an artist who may have lived under the Empire and was certainly influenced by a Hellenistic school. There is an exceptionally interesting relief showing the victorious Mithras with Phrygian cap and crown standing on the bull, his right foot triumphantly planted on the animal's head while in his left hand he holds a globe or pine-cone and in his right hand a dagger pointing upwards. At his side are a scorpion, the raven, a lion, a crowing cock, an ant and an eagle on a thunderbolt. This image of the god trampling an animal underfoot was so widespread in Asia Minor that it also came to be associated with Mithras. It did not, however, become generally popular since normally the bull-slayer, symbolic of the moment of the rebirth of nature, remained the focal point.

Rome was by no means the sole source of artistic inspiration, though certain representations were found there which are not encountered elsewhere. The procession of Lions on the side walls of Santa Prisca is a singular phenomenon and adds a touch of local colour to the normal iconography. A relief from Konjic, (Fig. 5) which gives a vivid portrayal of the most sacred moments in the ritual, is again quite unique in its conception. Representations of hunting scenes are mainly confined to the Rhineland, although they appear at Dura on Euphrates, but there are none in Rome. This type probably spread directly from Asia Minor to the Rhineland, which also produced various regional schools of art of its own. The larger reliefs enriched with various additional scenes came from these regions and are shaped like triumphal arches. They are not found in the Danube countries and only one instance occurs in Rome, on a painting in the Barberini Mithraeum, which was probably therefore executed under the influence of Rhenish art.

Other types again are encountered in Rumania and Bulgaria and are confined to these countries. If an example of this type turns up elsewhere one many reasonably assume that it originated in Dacia, particularly if it is a small arched relief depicting a number of scenes from the Mithras legend on its upper and lower borders. The scenes on the lower edge are usually divided from each other by arches. The Danube region is characterised by trapeziform reliefs with miscellaneous scenes grouped around the bull-slayer and on the narrow bands above and below. No examples of circular reliefs have been found in Rome, but they are known in Tugoslavia (at Salona) and in Hungary (Brigetio), and in one isolated case in Bulgaria.

There was therefore considerable diversity in the type and style of the monument. The artist was given full liberty to work as he wished, on occasion following a completely local tradition, and it is often possible to see that he did not attend too closely to the instructions of his commission and consequently understood little of the symbolism which his products were intended to portray.

11) The Fall of Mithras

In the third century A.D. the worship of Mithras had spread so widely within the Roman Empire that its position was able to survive the emergence of Persia as a competitor of Rome in the political and military field. Interest in the Eastern deities was encouraged by the kindship between the Roman emperors and the Syrian dynasty.

Mithras as bull slayer
Fig. 37. Mithras as bull slayer

The attraction of the mystery cults was that through their initiation ceremonies one established a personal relationship with the god of one's own choice. The oriental cults laid great stress on personal salvation during life and after death. For anyone who feels the attraction of this oriental way of thought, but dislikes its more exotic manifestations, the teachings of Mithras have considerable appeal. The search for a monotheistic cult stimulated by the philosophical doctrines of the time led inevitably to the all-embracing cult of the unvanquished Sun-god. The extent of this sun-worship can be seen in the hostility which met the attempt of the young Syrian Emperor Heliogabalus in the year A.D. 210 to import a representation of the god Baal from Emesa to Rome; the Romans were still too much attracted to the traditional conception of the sun to be able to accept Baal in the shape of a black stone.

Aurelian built a large temple to the Sun in the Campus Martius, part of which is now the Piazza San Silvestro. There he worshipped the Sun-god as the only heavenly, almighty and divine power. It was decreed that every four years celebrations were to be held in honour of this new state god and the cult acquired a priestly college of its own. The anniversary of the Sun-god's birth was on December 25th.

Understandably the Mithraic cult took advantage of this favour. We have seen how in A.D. 307 or 308 Diocletian, together with the other imperial rulers, dedicated an altar to Mithras, 'the benefactor of the Empire', during a conference at Carnuntum on the borders of the Roman Empire. The fact that Mithras is mentioned by name distinguishes this dedication from the more general sun-cult of Aurelian.

The influence of the Mithraic cult was at its height during this period and for a short time indeed it looked as if it might reign supreme. An attempt was made to accord Mithras the place of honour on the Capitol. Naturally, it is impossible to tell whether, if its advances had not been stemmed by Christianity, Mithraism could ever have achieved complete dominance. The often quoted opinion of Renan in his book on Marcus Aurelius is too sweeping: 'Si le christianisme eut ete arrete dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eut ete mithraiste.'

The battle at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber (A.D. 312) was decisive not only for Constantine but also for the Mithraic cult. The vision of the symbol of Christ brought victory to Constantine, as on a previous occasion when the Sun-god appeared to Aurelian to pledge his support for the Emperor against Zenobia. It was due to Aurelian that the sun-cult was proclaimed the official state religion of Rome; now, similarly convinced, Convinced firmly planted the Cross on Roman soil.

The religion of the Romans, as Bayet so rightly remarks, always developed within the framework of their politics: 'therein lies the most surprising originality of its development'. H. Doerries, the biographer of Constantine, considers it anachronistic even to pose the question favour of the adoption of Christianity corresponded with his own personal thoughts and sentiments. According to him, 'politics were for him determined by religion, and religion was the consequence of politics'.

The second half of the fourth century was decisive for the outcome of the struggle between Christianity and paganism. The unwillingness of the Emperor Julian to conform to his rigid Christian upbringing led to his being named the Apostate. Strongly under the influence of the neo-platonic school, with an inclination towards the mystical, Julian declared himself a convinced Mithraist-and we should stress the word convinced, for the fourth century produced many sympathisers, but few true followers of Mithras. J. Bidez, who has written a fine biography of Julian, describes him in glowing terms as the last emperor who professed the Mithraic faith. Julian recognised that if Mithraism were to become the world religion, it had to discard many of its more primitive aspects and be prepared to assimilate more philosophical elements, a consideration which must have contributed to those signs of the mysticism of Iamblichus which appear in the Emperor's own 'Hymn to the Sun'. Mithras is the Sun and is one and the same with Apollo, phaethon, Hyperion and Prometheus. The other gods merely express different aspects of the power of the sun. Julian saw himself in the role of a good shephered, whose moral code was laid down by Mithras: 'Goodness towards the people he had to rule, piety towards the gods and moderation'. From the moment that he was initiated in a Mithraeum at Constantinople and entered into the highest grade of the cult he did everything in his power to encourage the triumph of the Mithraic cult, but his life was cut short by an arrow during his expedition against the Persian King Shapur. After his death in A.D. 363 a period of comparative tolerance set in, but this was cut short by an edict of the Emperor Gratian in A.D. 382. The altar of Victory was removed from the Senate, and state support for the upkeep of the Roman cult was withdrawn. Gratian was in A.D. 379 the first emperor to refuse the high dignity and title of pontifex maximus. Shortly before this (A.D. 377) the city perfect Gracchus had, according to Hieronymus, overturned, broken and destroyed a cave of Mithras filled with monstrous images. We do not know exactly which Mithraic temple this was; de Rossi though it might be the sanctuary at San Silvestro. Be that as it may, the traces of such an iconoclastic act are clearly visible in the temple of Santa Prisca.

Gratian found himself in opposition to a group of prominent intellectuals. These can be divided into two groups, one of which wished to follow the example of Julian and the other to support the gods whose existence, according to Altheim, was founded 'not in their being gods, but in their being gods of Rome'. Both groups, however, worked closely together against Gratian. Their leaders included Vettius Agorius Praetextatus who restored the Porticus Deorum Consentium with the statues of the twelve gods at the Forum. He occupied various priestly offices and was Father of Fathers in the cult of Mithras. Praetextatus was a faithful follower of Julian's ideas, while his successor and friend Q. Aurelius Symmachus was a staunch conservative. Verius Nicomachus Flavianus, a cousin of Symmachus, who was later to carry on the final struggle, was punished by the emperor in A.D. 377 because of his support of the Donatists in Africa. Various important inscriptions by Alfenius Ceionius Julianus Kamenius, a cousin of the Emperor Julian, show his faith in Mithras. Included in this circle of aristocrats and scholars was the author Macrobius who referred to the doctrine of the pagan world in his Saturnalia. Symmachus, an able diplomatist, took upon himself the thankless task of remonstrating with Gratian about his decision. Whereupon Ambrose, bishop of Milan, threatened the young Emperor with excommunication. The protagonists, however, were not Gratian and Symmachus but their respective associates Ambrose and Praetextatus, and when the latter died in A.D. 385 he left his party without a leader.

The struggle moved slowly to its close after the accession of Theodosius. When Christians in Syria looted and burned a synagogue, and monks set fire to a temple of the gnostic Valentinians, Theodosius demanded restitution and punishment. But again Ambrose intervened and Theodosius yielded. However much he struggled for independence, he ultimately became, in the words of Herbert Bloch, the 'spiritual subject of Ambrose'. He was excommunicated after another incident, but at Christmas in the year A.D. 390 the bishop allowed him to attend communion once more.

An edict of February 37th, A.D. 391 forbade all pagan worship in Rome and all visits to pagan temples, and shortly after this a beautiful Serapeum in Alexandria was destroyed. The final edict was issued on November 8th of the following year (392); all practice of pagan religions, private devotions included, was to be severely punished. But even now the supporters of the opposition refused to admit defeat. Flavianus, who had became the leader of the resistance, declared for Eugenius, who was in the north of Italy preparing for battle against Theodosius. The contest became a question of 'to be or not to be' for the old religion. At first it looked as though the battle by the Frigidus would bring victory to Jupiter. Then the next morning Theodosius knelt down and prayed. A storm swept up from the Adriatic and the arrows of the pagan enemy were turned back upon them. Yet again a miracle determined the outcome. Eugenius was murdered and Flavianus committed suicide.

For many years the spiritual struggle continued, causing Augustine to write his City of God in order to refute the imputation that the scorn shown to the Roman gods was to blame for the sack of Rome by the Goths.

It is possible that the worship of Mithras survived here and there in more isolated regions, but the power of the unvanquished god was shattered. He was conquered by the spirit of the new age and his cult perished. It is left to present-day scholarship to solve the mysteries and to seek out those secrets which the god took with him in his eclipse.

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

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