Friday, September 17, 2010

The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World

Book Review: The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology & Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey (Oxford University Press 1989)
The author does a wonderful and convincing job of uncovering the astronomical nature of the Mysteries of Mithras. His conclusions include the opinion that the Mithraic Mysteries have little to do with the Iranian (and Vedic) god Mithra and much more to do with Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.

Roman Temples of Mithras were found from England to the Black Sea to North Africa to all the way to India. This book concerns the origins of this secret cult later adopted by the Roman military. The author rejects the eminent orientalist Franz Cumont’s assertion that the cult of Mithras was the Roman adaptation of a previous Persian cult. The author uses several roads of evidence to support his theory that the cult was developed around 100 BC in Anatolia, more specifically around the city of Tarsus, a stronghold of Hellenic Greek culture. There was a bull-slaying in Zoroastrian myth where all plants and animals and earthly beings derived from this sacrifice. This myth is not related in literature until the Bundihishn of 900 AD. Cumont argued that this was the meaning of the Mithraic sacrifice. The author notes that it was Ahriman, the principle of cosmic evil, that slays the bull in Zoroastrian myth. Cumont suggested it was a variant on the myth where the Ahura Mazda, the principle of cosmic good, slays the bull. Cumont identified the Mithraic lion as Zurvan, the Persian god of infinite time. The author and many other scholars now reject Cumont’s rather natural assumptions that the symbology of Mithraism derive from Persian/Iranian religious cults, although it does seem rather prudent to assume that some of the cult’s elements (perhaps more on the outer) combined with the Persian cult of Mithra, which certainly existed in the area previously when the Persians ruled the Anatolian areas. I think the author does not give this rather natural assumption enough credibility, although perhaps he thought it would detract from his theory – which I think is very acceptable without denying a more syncretistic combination with Iranian Mithraism.

It is very evident that the Cult of Mithras was deeply involved with the stars and constellations and this association the author asserts was based on the acknowledged discovery of the precession of the equinoxes – presumably by the Greek Hipparchus around 125 BC. The caves and cave shaped temples of Mithras portray the Greek and other Near Eastern views of the heavens. There is mentioned the lion-bull combat as a prominent astrological symbol in Near Eastern mythology where a lion slays a bull. This may reach back to Sumerian times as Taurus the Bull disappears below the horizon as Leo the Lion is in the apex of the sky – thus the Lion slays the Bull. The author contends that this was easy symbolism to draw upon for support for the Mysteries of Mithras – but not the main interpretation. (In fact – in Sumerian times the Queen of Heaven – Inanna –descends to the underworld in order to attend the funeral of ‘the Bull of Heaven” – the slain husband of Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld). Apparently in Michael Speidel’s book “Mithras-Orion” it is noted that the animals/constellations depicted in Mithraic art all appear along the Celestial Equator – which is the earth’s equator projected out into space and occurs skewed from the apparent path of the sun – the ecliptic which is a plane along the tilt of the earth’s axis at ~23.5 deg. These 2 planes cross one another at the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Conspicuously absent are Libra and Aries which occured at the equinoxes – during the time of the Roman Mysteries. Instead there is a bull and a scorpion – Taurus and Scorpio. Speidel identified Mithras as Orion who also appears along the celestial equator. The author disagrees with this assessment and notes with glee that it is the constellation Perseus that resides just above Taurus the Bull. It so happens that Perseus carries a curved sword (harpe) and wears a Phrygian cap as does Mithras. Perseus also looks away from Medusa the Gorgon as he slays her as does Mithras from the bull. In myth it is the cap of Hades, the cap of invisibility that allows him to slay the gorgon. In Greek and Roman context a Phrygian cap represents someone from Persia or Anatolia – where Phrygia was. It was said by Herodotus that Perses, the son of Perseus, gave his name to Persia and the Persians. The author suggests that Perseus, the father, though, has nothing to do with Persia. I am not sure I follow that. He does note some legendary evidence for the connection of Perseus to Persia. It should be noted that when Nike, the Goddess of Victory, slays the bull she always looks directly at it – as is common – rather than away. Much much later in Byzantine times the historian Gregorius Cedrenus suggests that: “Perseus, they say, brought to Persia initiation and magic, which by his secrets made the fire of the sky descend; and with the aid of this art, he brought the celestial fire to the earth, and he had it preserved in a temple under the name of the sacred immortal fire; he chose virtuous men as ministers of a new cult, and established the Magi as the depositors and guardians of this fire they were charged to protect.”

The Mithraic lion-headed god does have several similarities to the gorgon. Both have wings and serpents and can be construed as leonine. They have been found together in Mithriac contexts and the gorgon has also been depicted with zodiacal symbolism. Mithras was born from a rock and Perseus was born in an underground chamber to get back to those parallels.

Next the author delves into the Perseus cult of the Anatolian city of Tarsus in the region of Cilicia. Perseus was said to be the founder and patron of the city. The earlier god of the region was the Hittite Sandan. When the Greeks came they identified Sandan with Perseus. Perseus and Apollo were closely associated as were Mithras and Helios. During the 100s BC the Mediterranean was controlled by Cilician pirates who launched from northeast Anatolia. They were well organized like a small nation and had ties to the intelligentsia and nobles among the Greek Anatolians. When the Persian noble Mithridates conquered Asia Minor in 88 BC he allied with the Cilician pirates and he also stated that his noble line extended to Perseus and had coins made of himself in the form of Perseus. The name Mithridates means “given by Mithra.” The author thinks this is the reason the name Mithras holds instead of Perseus but also because it connects to an earlier tradition among Persians. Incidentally, the pirates, being seafarers were also quite keen on stars and so could accept astrological symbolism quite well.

Getting back to the celestial equator the author comes up with a novel idea for Aries and Libra being replaced by Taurus and Scorpio. It is that about 2000 years previously that the spring equinox would have occurred in Taurus and the autumnal equinox in Scorpio. So at this time in the past Taurus and Scorpio would have been on the celestial equator and not Aries and Libra. Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes, or the movement through time of the pole star so that the equinoxes occur around the zodiac in about 26,000 years. This is now said to be due to the earth wobbling on its axis. The torch bearers in Mithraic iconography are associated with the equinoxes. One occurs holding the torch up, the other down – up represents spring equinox when the sun rises up from the equator and growth begins and down represents autumn equinox when the reverse occurs.

Next we come to the predominance of the Stoic philosophers of Tarsus. The Tarsians were said to be a highly educated lot. The Stoics in particular were associated both with astronomy/astrology and astral religion. The idea of celestial descent and ascent at birth and death through the path of the Milky Way may have been featured in this area stretching back to the earliest Neolithic times. The Mythraic idea of a mystical ladder to the heavens with seven gates (related to the planets) may be a form of ascent. Anyway there is a strong link between Tarsus, astro knowledge/lore and Stoic philosophers – who were also known as myth-makers. The Stoic philosopher Posidonius had a doctrine of “Cosmic Sympathy” where all things in the universe were linked together. This linking force he used to explain the mechanism behind things like divination. The Stoics were also very interested in World Ages and long cycles of time. They seemed to have an idea of a cyclic universe not unlike that of the Vedas. Particularly they noted that when the planets return to there original positions at the beginning of the universe then it will end. When Hipparchus discovered the precession – the apparent very small movement of the whole star field over long periods of time and the corresponding apparent movement of the celestial equator and the pole star position – the Stoics had a new astral phenomena to mythify according to their astral religion motif. This is what the author believes. It is likely that Hipparchus’ discovery became known to the Anatolian Stoics through Posidonius. Ideas of rulers of fate and of astral immortality were common in Greek thought, the latter from Plato’s Timaeus and the former from prevailing ideas of the power of gods being their ability to control fate. Finally Mithras, or rather, Perseus comes in as the ruler of the cosmos in that he slays the Bull Taurus so that after that the spring equinox occurs in Aries. Thus Mithras becomes the cosmic ruler, with a power stronger than the Sun, Helios, himself. The symbolism of Helios and Mithras shaking hands – or of Helios submitting to Mithras is to demonstrate that Mithras is the superior Cosmic Ruler, or Kosmocrator. He is now the Invincible Sun that conquers the planetary sun.

The author addresses the question as to why they chose the Bull sacrifice as a symbol of the Mystery Cult. He says that since the Age of Taurus was the last Great Age (at the time) of a society really into Great Ages – that it was an appropriate symbol. Another factor would be, of course, the position of Perseus constellation just above the Bull. Another reason may have to do with the Lion-Bull combat motif mentioned earlier. From 4000 – 3000 BC in Sumeria the heliacal setting of Taurus in February was associated with spring sowing time in mid-February. Later in 1000 to 500 BC this heliacal setting of Taurus occurred in March around the spring equinox. This is the reason, he says, that this symbolism was adopted by the Assyrians and the Achaemenid Persians since they both had calendars that began on the spring equinox. However, by the first century BC this did not occur until after the equinox around April 5th so perhaps the Mithraic situation provided a new meaning for the lion-bull combat – and rather ironically the long-term motion of the heavens ruled by Mithras would be the actual reason for the changing of the heliacal setting time and so the changing of the symbolism anyway!

The final chapter is of pictures and more discussions of the cosmic symbolism of these Mysteries. Previous to that the author makes a summary of his brilliant conclusions:

“... a group of Stoic intellectuals in the Cilician capital of Tarsus interested in the traditional Stoic concerns of astrology, astral religion, and astronomical cycles learned of Hipparchus’ discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. They hypothesized the existence of a new divinity responsible for this new cosmic phenomenon, a divinity capable of moving the structure of the entire cosmos and thus a divinity of immense power. In typical Stoic fashion, they then personified this new cosmic being in the form of their own native god, Perseus, the hero both of Tarsus and the heavens (owing to his being a constellation). The fact that a highly appropriate symbol for the precession would be the death of a bull (because the last constellation the spring equinox had been in, according to Hipparchus’ discovery, was Taurus the Bull) was then combined with the fact that the constellation Perseus lay directly above Taurus, producing the image of the bull being killed by the hero directly above him. His image signified the god’s tremendous power, which enabled him to end the Age of the Bull by moving the entire universe in such a way that the spring equinox moved out of the constellation Taurus. The choice of the symbol of the death of a bull to represent the precession was facilitated by the fact that the traditional emblem of the city of Tarsus depicted a bull-slaying. Once the central image of the bull-slaying had coalesced, the other constellations lying in the celestial equator when the spring equinox is in Taurus were then added to show that the god had power not only over the position of the equinoxes but over the position of the entire equator as well. The cult then spread to the Cilician pirates who had close ties to the wealthy and to intellectuals, and who, like all sailors, must have had a keen interest in the stars owing to their dependence on the heavens for navigation. Finally, the intimate alliance between the pirates and Mithridates Eupator, named after Mithra and mythically descended from Perseus, led to the pirates adopting the name Mithras to the new god.”

Wow – what a brilliant piece of detective work. While he likely hits on the central mystery of the cult it should be noted that there may have been more, perhaps other astronomical mysteries. I also think there is more to the connection with Iranian Mithra as strongly suggested in the book by Payam Nabarz and by Cumont and others. It should also maybe be noted that only decades from this time period another “myth-maker” from Tarsus was instrumental in devising a religious system that was to be endorsed by the Roman Empire and became a major world religion – see the book: “The Myth Maker Paul and the Invention of Christianity” – Paul, aka Saul of Tarsus, formulated some of the tenets of early Christianity based on prevailing ideas of the time.

If all this is correct – it must have been a wondrous mystery to learn about – as if the secrets of the cosmos were revealed. Nowadays – we know that scientifically, all this motion is just mere appearance and the heavens are not situated as the ancient Greeks thought. So one should be aware that the amazing mystical knowledge of today though brilliant may become the incorrect assumptions of tomorrow. Although one could also say that the apparent motions still occur so the symbolism is still valid and can be incorporated into a more modern interpretation of a Cosmic/Astral Ritualism.

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