Mithras, The Secret God (Excerpt)
by M.J. Vermaseren
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1) Mithras in India and Iran
In 1907 a large number of clay tablets was found in the palace archives of Boghazkoy, the capital of the ancient Hittites in the north of the Anatolian plateau. These tablets contain the first recorded mention of the name 'Mithra', who, together with the Lord of Heaven, is invoked as the protector of a treaty between the Hatti (the Hittites) and their neighbours, the Mitanni. The date of the treaty is somewhere in the fourteenth century B.C., and since the latest known reference to the Western Mithras occurs in the fifth century A.D. these tablets show that the god was revered for nearly two thousand years.
Mithras is of course worshipped no longer, but archaeologists, historians of religion, theologians and linguists alike have pondered his nature and tried to unravel the secrets of his cult for the light which these studies have to throw on the origins of Christianity.
One insurmountable difficulty confronts the student of the Mithraic mysteries. For the Eastern form of Mithraism practically nothing except documentary evidence exists, whereas the Mithras of the Roman world is known to us almost exclusively from non-literary sources. That brilliant scholar, Franz Cumont, who died in 1947, has neatly summed up the position in his Die Mysterien des Mithra: 'It is,' he writes, 'as if it were only possible to study Christianity through the Old Testament and the mediaeval cathedrals.' Because of this great gap, the story of Mithras is bound to be incomplete and distorted, and those who wish to read it must wait for and assimilate the fresh discoveries which are made year by year.
The early Hittite treaty from Boghazkoy proves that some of the first Indo-Europeans had already adopted Mithras into their religions system, and so it is no surprise to find references to him in documents from early India as well as Iran. In the Veda, the sacred writings of India, he occurs frequently as 'Mithra', literally 'treaty'; in the Avesta, the holy book of the Persians, he is called 'Mithra' and a yasht, a special hymn of praise, is dedicated to him. Both in the Veda and the Avesta, Mithra is associated with the supreme being, Varuna or Ahura-Mazda, and shares their attributes, but different concepts of his nature have to be distinguished in these writings, since they combine sources of considerable antiquity with later material. Consequently Mithra does not always appear in the same character, and interpretations of him vary from time to time. Scholars who are familiar with these Eastern texts agree that in the early period Mithra was held in such honour that he competed for the crown with the lord of heaven.
To understand the place of Mithra in Iran it is necessary to keep in mind the division of the Persian pantheon into two major groups. On the one hand are the deities associated with Ahura-Mazda, the all-wise, who rules over the sublime realm of light, while on the other are the powers associated with Ahriman, the god of darkness. The two groups are in continual opposition to each other, but there will come a day when the forces of good will conquer the forces of evil. In this struggle Mithra has the status of a yazata, that is to say, an ally. He fights in the ranks of the good and righteous. He is a god of light, who in India was already regarded as the sun. Like the Homeric Helios he is all-seeing, and so an avenger of injustice and of everything in opposition to the ordained pattern of the universe. In one sense, therefore, Mithra is a god of the element of light, and in another he has a place in the cult of Ahuramazda; he is an extension of the idea of the supreme god from whom he takes his actual being. Just as the supreme god himself is surrounded by attendant powers, Amesha Spentas, who strictly speaking constitute his being, so the Indian Mithra also has lesser divinities around him, such as Aryaman, 'the protector of the destiny of the Aryans', and Bhaga, 'providence', who dispenses fortune. In ancient Persia these two attendant figures survive as Sraosha and Ashi and are to be identified with the two followers of Mithras who appear in the much later mysteries as Cautes and Cautopates.
Belief in the great power of Mithra was called in question by Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the great prophet who worked mainly in Eastern Iran and who lived some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. (The exact date is very widely disputed, but in the present state of our knowledge the latter date is the more probable.) It is a major drawback that his character has largely to be reconstructed from the Gathas, devotional hymns attributed to the prophet and written in an archaic and abstruse Eastern Iranian dialect which is extremely difficult to translate. It is, however, an established fact that Zarathushtra was a great reformer, who attempted to transform the established polytheism into a monotheist pattern with Ahuramazda as the sole and supreme god, and so found himself obliged to relegate Mithra to the background. He also attacked the forms of worship of his time, forbidding blood sacrifice such as the bull-offering and denying to his followers the ecstatic enjoyment of the spirituous Haoma. This measure in particular dealt a heavy blow to the Mithra cult, for Mithra was (as we shall see) closely associated with the bull, whose blood, mixed with the Haoma, bestowed immortality.
Whether or not his teaching was subsequently accepted by rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty such as Darius and Xerxes, it is clear that Zarathushtra never succeeded in entirely suppressing the popular feeling for Mithra. At the vey beginning of his career the poet-prophet experienced strong opposition which was to lead to his eventual murder in a temple. Thus in subsequent writings of the Avesta, in the tenth hymn for example, Mithra is reinstated in all his glory. This yasht breathes the true spirit of the popular cult, and the prophet's influence is only to be seen dimly when the all-wise God speaks to Spitama Zarathushtra: 'When I created grass-land magnate Mithra, O Spitamid, I made such in worthiness to be worshipped and prayed to as myself, Ahura Mazdah' (Yasht x,1). Other passages from the tenth hymn speak for themselves:
You protect the countries in the same measure in which they strive to take care of grass-land Mithra; you destroy the countries to the same extent to which they are defiant.
I invoke you for assistance: may he join us for assistance, Mithra the strong, notorious splendid, master of countries, worthy to be worshipped, worthy to be prayed to! (Yasht x,78)
I will worship Mithra, who is good, strong, supernatural, foremost, merciful, incomparable, high-dwelling, a mighty strong warrior. Valiant, he is equipped with a well-fashioned weapon, he who watches in darkness, the undeceivable. He is what (is) mightiest among the very mighty, he is what (is) strongest among the very strong; he has by far the greatest insight among the gods. Fortune attends him, the valiant, who with his thousand ears and ten thousand eyes is the strong, all-knowing, undeceivable master of ten thousand spies. (Yasht x, 170-1)
Throughout the whole of this yasht there are references to Mithra's power, his greatness, and his readiness to fight, which specially endeared him to his followers and remained among his attributes for as long as he was honoured. In later centuries, too, these particular qualities inspired the votaries of Mithraic mysteries.
In Indian writings such as the Veda Mithra again appears as the attendant of the Lord of Heaven, Varuna. He is closely connected with the power of light and the sun, which is itself called 'the eye of Mitra and Varuna'. The connection between Mitra and the bull -- which later became the focal point of the Mithras cult - is perhaps even clearer in the Veda than in the Avesta. Thanks to Professor H. Lommel, a number of Vedic texts have been translated and can, so he believes, be associated with Mithras, the bull-slayer. Lommel's starting point is the god of life, Soma, who is the same as Haoma and represents the rain which springs from the moon. He gives life to plants and so nourishes human beings and animals alike. In creatures of the male sex the sap of the plant is changed into fertile seed, in the female to milk. At death the life so given returns again to the moon and during the waxing of the moon Soma recovers this life force, refilling himself as if he were a bowl and so becoming the god's monthly portion of immortality. In the myth Soma, as rain, is both the semen of the sacred bull who fertilises the earth, and the milk of the all-nourishing heavenly cow. The gods, wishing to partake of the portion because of its gift of immortality, devise a plan to murder the Soma plant which is in fact Soma himself. The Wind-god Vayu agrees and Mitra too is invited to become an accomplice in the murder. The gods speak to Mitra ('he, whose name means "friend"'): '"We wish to kill King Soma." He said: "Not I, for I am friend to all." They said to him "Still we will slay him."' In the end Mithra, having been promised a share in the sacrifice, assists in the murder after all, but as a result he runs the risk of losing his ascendancy over the cattle, for the beasts turn against him with the towards: 'Though he is friend (Mitra) he has done a terrible deed.' Even Varuna takes a hand in the killing of Soma, who is murdered by being crushed under a weight of stones as in one of the cult ceremonies when the juice is extracted from the stem of the Soma-plant.
Soma supplies the life blood and the drink which is enjoyed by gods, priests and participants in the rite. Thus man is granted immortality, though through the agency of death from which only the gods are exempt.
It is interesting to compare the evidence of the Veda with that of the Avesta and particularly with the group of texts called the Bundahishn, in which the archetypal bull is killed and then the plants are created. In the later Mithras cult the god Soma-Haoma no longer appears, but tradition preserved the killing of the bull and its resultant gift of resurrection and so the connection between the Indo-Iranian cult of Mit(h)ra and the Western myth of Mithras the bull-slayer was preserved.
2) The arrival of Mithras in Europe
The circumstances which brought the god at last to Europe after hundreds of years are indeed strange. According to the historian Plutarch, who lived in the first century A.D., the Romans became acquainted with Mithras through pirates from Cilicia, a province of Asia Minor. These were the pirates who constituted such a threat to Rome until Pompey drove them from the seas.
In his biography of this skilful general, Plutarch writes of the pirates: 'They brought to Olympus in Lycia strange offerings and performed some secret mysteries, which still in the cult of Mithras, first made known by them [the pirates]'. In the middle of the second century A.D. the historian Appian adds that the pirates came to know of the mysteries from the troops who were left behind by the defeated army of Mithridates Eupator. It is well established that all kinds of Eastern races were represented in that army.
There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates' homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as 'Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras'. The god was also worshipped in Tarsus, the capital of the province, as we know from coins of the Emperor Gordian III which bear a picture of the bull-slayer (Fig. 1.). One of the greatest campaigns against the Persians took place during the reign of Gordian III; the coin has propaganda value as Ernest Will has pointed out: ' L'hommage rendu au dieu perse adopte par Rome, au moment de la campagne contre sa patrie premiere, revet une valeur politique particuliere.'
Fig. 1. Coin with with bull-slayer from Tarsus, minted in the reign of Gordian III Fig.
2. A Shepherd, witness at the birth of Mithras
Fig. 3. Mithras on horseback hunting in a forest of Cypresses
But can this evidence from the second and third centuries A.D. be taken as a confirmation of Plutarch's remarks about the Cilician pirates of the first century B.C.? Probably it can. The fact that representation of the bull-slayer occurs on coins from Tarsus, through which Gordian III almost certainly passed on his way to battle, is evidence that Mithras was worshipped in this town in particular. Since Tarsus was situated at a road junction it is probable that its citizens became acquainted with the Mithraic cult at quite an early date. Plutarch, moreover, relates that the pirates committed outrages against the gods on Olympus where Hephaistos was worshipped. As devotees of the Eastern god they apparently felt little respect for the gods of the Greeks.
The pirates, a group of drifting adventurers and, occasionally, fallen noblemen, conducted a communal worship of Mithras, whose cult was an exclusively male one. It is quite possible that these pirates introduced the Mithraic mysteries into Italy after their defeat and subsequent transportation there by Pompey. This event then offers a terminus post quem for the spread of the Mithras mysteries. Other early evidence of the first decades B.C. refers only to the reverence paid to Mithras without mentioning the mysteries; examples which may be quoted are the tomb inscriptions of King Antiochus I of Commagene at Nemrud Dagh, and of his father Mithridates at Arsameia on the Orontes. Both kings had erected on vast terraces a number of colossal statues seated on thrones to the honour of their ancestral gods. At Nemrud we find in their midst King Antiochus (69-34 B.C.) and in the inscription Mithras is mentioned together with Zeus-Ahura-Mazda, Hermes, Apollo-Helios and Herakles-Verethraghna. Thus Persian gods were invoked as protectors of the royal house. Both Mithridates and his son were represented in reliefs clasping hands with Mithras. Yearly feasts were held in honour of the deceased kings. But the inscriptions do not say anything about a secret cult of Mithras; the god simply takes his place beside the acknowledged state gods.
Though Plutarch's information is important, it must be borne in mind that the historian wrote his life of Pompey at the end of first century A.D. and it is not until then that we actually find in Rome the characteristic representation of Mithras as bull-slayer. The poet Statius (A.D. 80) describes Mithras as one who 'twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave'. One other point worthy of note is that no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century A.D., and even the extensive investigations at Pompey, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, have not so far produced a single image of the god. There is therefore a complete gap in our knowledge between 67 B.C. and A.D. 79. The earliest datable monument is a statue from Rome, now in the British Museum; the inscription mentions a certain Alcimus, who calls himself the servant of T. Claudius Livianus, and, if the identification of this Livianus with the commander of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Trajan is correct, then the figure must date from the beginning of the second century A.D. From this period onwards, the trail blazed by Mithras is broad and clear; the god's cult becomes firmly established and traces are found even on the Capitol and the Palatine, the heart of Imperial Rome.
3) The Followers of Mithras
It has already been explained that in Iran Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assist others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition. Material evidence from the second century A.D. shows that wherever the Romans planted the standards, Mithras and his cult followed. M. Valerius Maximianus is a case in point. He was born at Poetovio (the modern Pettau or Ptuj) in the province of Dalmatia, now northwestern Yugoslavia, where there were three large Mithraic temples, and as commander of the Thirteenth Legion (Legio XIII Gemina) he consecrated an altar in a Mithraeum at Apulum (Alba Julia in Dacia, modern Rumania). Subsequently as commander of the Third Legion (Legio III Augusta) between the years A.D. 183 and 185 he consecrated altars at Lambaesis in Numidia. There is throughout a strong connection between the Danubian provinces, where the Mithras cult is widespread in the outposts, and Africa. Evidence of Mithraism can be found at Troesmis in Moesia and also in Sitifs (Setif) in Africa, both places where the Second Legion (Legio II Herculia) was stationed at different times. M. Aurelius Sabinus, who came from Carnuntum (Deutsch-Altenburg) east of Vindobona (Vienna), where Mithras enjoyed profound reverence, consecrated as commander an altar at Lambaesis, and L. Sextius Castus, a centurion of the sixth Legion, who was in all probability of African origin, erected a Mithraic altar at Rudchester.
The pattern of the soldiers following the legions, the legions following the orders of their commanders and the Mithras cult following the army is continually repeated. An inscription from Palaepolis on the island of Andros shows how military service led to initiation. During the occupation of this island, when troops were being transported to the East for Septimius Serverus' expedition about A.D. 200, M. Aurelius Rufinus dedicated a cave to Mithras. Rufinus was a select member (evocatus) of the Praetorian Guard and as such he is also mentioned on an inscription found at Siscia in Bulgaria, in which it is recorded that he was a native of Bizye in Thrace. From examination of the extant evidence we know that in these Balkan regions Mithraism did not extend south of Bessapara and Philippolis. Rufinus therefore received his Mithraic initiation in his native district, but only while on military service, most probably in those regions where he served before joining the Praetorian cohorts. In Rome itself there was a Mithraeum close to the castra praetoria, paid for in all likelihood by public subscription, but erected for the benefit of the Praetorian cohorts.
There were also followers of the Eastern god to be found among the cavalry (equites) and bowmen (sagittarii) of the Roman army. Mithras the invicible was in a special degree the protector and patron of archers since he was himself the divine archer, who had power to shoot water from barren rocks with his arrows; a Roman relief shows that he possessed a bow from birth. Again, he was conceived as the Rider-god whose aim was so unfailing that his arrows never missed the gazelle or the wild boar. Palmyrene archers at Dura-Europos represented him on two paintings in their sanctuary as a mounted huntsman armed with bow and arrow (Fig. 4.). In Germany (for example at Dieburg and Ruckingen) there are other representations of the god hunting, attended by a pack of Molossian hounds. On a relief from Neuenheim he is shown as a powerful ruler riding a horse and holding the globus in his right hand (Fig. 3).
Although Mithras enjoyed considerable respect amongst the inhabitants of coastal towns, it was not by sailors that his teachings were spread to these places, nor are there many inscriptions set up by followers serving with the Roman fleets, in spite of the fact that he is known to have gained the gratitude of those engaged in commerce and navigation. The importance of the main land routes, ports and rivers was to facilitate the transport of troops and merchandise, but at the same time the great rivers formed a natural defence line and castra or castella, bigger or smaller fortresses, were often established along them before civilian settlements. The remains of these defence lines (limes) are to be found along the Euphrates, in Africa, in Dacia and Moesia along the Danube, in Germany along the sinuous course of the Rhine and in Britain between the Solway and Tyne, where Hadrian constructed a vallum or wall against the hostile Picts -- and in all these places evidence of the Mithras cult is to be found, in the most distant outposts and in the furthest corners of the empire. In the Crimea on the Black Sea, at an important crossroads, it is recorded that beneficiarii (soldiers with special privileges) erected a Mithraeum, although the exact site is as yet unknown. In the last ten years Mithraea have been discovered at Rudchester and Carrawburgh, while the Walbrook Mithraeum in London shows a certain general similarity to the sanctuary at Merida in Spain and to another in Rome, on the Aventine below the present church of Santa Prisca. A follower of Mithras living in the Jewish quarter of Rome on the far side of the Tiber owned property in Ostia, where he had his name engraved on an altar dedicated to the god. At Dieburg and Stockstadt in Germany there are Mithraea containing statues of Mercury with his purse, a form less unusual in the East (e.g. at Commagene) where Mithras was occasionally invoked in the same breath with Hermes-Mercury.
However much human beings differ in character, rank and position, in a religious community all become united. In many Mithraea we come across expressions of simple popular faith side by side with the expansive dedications of the high and mighty. Some votaries are known to us by name, such as Jahribol, commander of the archers who had himself portrayed at Dura-Europos on the great bull-slaying relief making a sacrifice in the company of two distinguished acquaintances. Mareinos or Mareos, who executed the paintings in this sanctuary, scratched his name on one of the columns. It is a matter for speculation whether this talented artist was paid for his work or whether he gave his services for nothing. In the Aventine Mithraeum the followers of the god were shown in procession offering their gifts. They were mainly people of Eastern origin, as is evident from their names; their hair is short and their beards are cut close around the jaw. The painter has endowed each individual with a lively personality and the work shows considerable stylistic originality.
4) The Figures round the Bull-Slayer
In the vaulted border of the cave behind Mithras there is often a raven, sometimes perched but more usually flying towards the god. He brings a message to which the god listens; in some representations Mithras is clearly looking back towards the raven. In classical literature the raven is the messenger of Apollo, and in the Mithraic ritual he is evidently associated with the Apollo-like Sun-god seen in the top left-hand corner of the relief. During the course of the actual mysteries the duties of those with the grade of Raven vividly recall the bull-slaying scene; they wear raven's masks (Fig. 5) and perform as heralds the same role as the raven performs for Mithras. The bird conveys Sol's orders to Mithras to kill the bull, and the god carries out the order, although with an expression of anguish on his face. It grieves him to slay the magnificent beast, but like a true soldier he obeys in the knowledge that in the end life will be renewed. On several representations one ray of the seven-rayed halo round the head of Sol shines out towards Mithras and so establishes contact with the god.
Nevertheless the scene is strange because there is no doubt from the evidence that the Sun-god was considered to be inferior to Mithras. Moreover, Mithras himself was also regarded as Sol invictus. One theory has it that Sol was the mediator who, through the raven, conveyed knowledge from Ahura-Mazda or Zeus-Jupiter. A second view is that Sol was originally the superior of Mithras and both were later incorporated into one mighty sun-figure, as when Mithras and Sol ascended to heaven in their chariot. This is a difficult problem to interpret and is still by no means finally resolved.
Fig. 4. Mithras hunting; a wall painting at Dura-Europos
Fig. 5. Meal of the Mithras
The Moon-goddess, as well as Sol, took part in creation. She is sometimes portrayed disappearing in her ox-drawn car at the moment when the sun's fiery chariot is rising. Usually only the upper part of the goddess is visible; she wears a diadem, and the sickle of the moon is displayed behind her head. According to Mithraic teaching the moon had the power to purify the semen of the bull and nurtured the growth of plants and herbs during the dew-laden night.
Two other figures are rarely absent from the bull-slaying. Dressed in Persian clothes similar to those of Mithras, they are placed on either side of the bull and stand perfectly still with one leg in front of the other as if taking no part in the action. In some cases, however, one of them holds the bull's tail, apparently in order to share its magic power or to stimulate the growth of the corn ears sprouting from it. Sometimes these figures are represented as shepherds who were present at the birth of Mithras, (Fig 2) but they differ in character from Attis, for each carries a torch pointing either upward or downward, (Fig. 27) by which they illustrate the ascending or descending path of Sol and Luna, the rising and setting sources of light, life and death. Generally the bearer with the uplifted torch is placed under Luna and his companion under Sol. Their names -- Cautes, symbol of the rising morning sun, and Cautopates, the setting evening sun -- have not yet been linguistically explained, but their symbolism has been deduced from the various representations. At the feet of Cautes there is sometimes a crowing cock (which the Greek called the Persian bird), whose crowing puts evil spirits to flight. Sometimes Cautopates is shown sitting in a highly expressive attitude with his head resting on one hand, the very soul of sadness, contrasting with the joyful (hilaris) Cautes. In the Santa Prisca Mithraeum this symbolism is also expressed in the colour of the niches in which their images were placed. Cautes stand in an orange-coloured niche while Cautopates' niche is painted dark blue. Some inscriptions even describe them as 'God' (deus) and rightly so, since we know from the writings of pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite (fourth century A.D.) that the two torch-bearers form a trinity with Mithras. Consequently Cautes represents the position of the sun in the morning (oriens), Mithras its course at midday and Cautopates its setting (occidens). Mithras may have been worshipped regularly at noon and we know that the sixteenth or middle day of the month was specially dedicated to him. The figure of Mithras symbolises not only the rising sun and the sun at its zenith but also the sinking orb; in this way Mithras's influence and power were made manifest each day.
Fig.6. Three heads with Phrygian caps set in a pine tree
Fig. 7. Mithras in a tree
The teachings of Mithras, which are steeped in astrological theories, paid much attention to the position of the sun in the zodiac. When the sun stood in the sign of the bull -- which indicates the beginning of spring -- Cautes was portrayed holding the bull's head in his hand, but when Cautopates is seen with the scorpion we know that the sun has passed into that sign and autumn has begun. In a few instances, as at Santa Prisca, the two torch-bearers are placed beside an evergreen pine tree, while at Pettau a row of three cypresses, trees sacred to the Sun-god, indicate the Mithraic trinity. At Dieburg we see a tree with three branches and three heads wearing Phrygian caps (Fig 6). These representations are to be connected with others in which Mithras is found alone and hiding in a tree, a scene which occurs both at Dieburg and Heddernheim (Fig. 7.). Another clear allusion to the same trinity is a large marble triangle in Santa Prisca containing a globe at its centre. In short, the torch-bearers were so important that their images were to be found in almost every sanctuary.
5) The Legend of Mithras
1. The miraculous birth of Mithras
December 25th was Mithras's particular festival, when the advent of the new light and the god's birth were celebrated. This birth was in the nature of a miracle, the young Mithras being forced out of a rock as if by some hidden magic power. He is shown naked save for the Phrygian cap, holding dagger and torch in his uplifted hands. He is the new begetter of light (genitor luminis), born from the rock (deus genitor rupe natus), from a rock which gives birth (petra genetrix). Even at this stage he is equipped for his nature feats with bow and arrow, ready to perform the miracle of the striking of the rock or the miracle of the hunt. Just as the crypt of the Mithraeum is the symbol of the celestial vault, so the rock is the firmament from which light descends to earth. Sometimes, as at Dura-Europos, flames are shown shooting out from the rock's surface and even from the cap, which is often studded with stars and, like the vault of the Mithraic grotto, was regarded as a symbol of the celestial vault.
In the tenth yasht of the Avesta, the hymn for Mithras, the Persian god is described appearing in a golden glow on top of Hara Berezaiti, a mythological mountain later localised in the present-day Elburz, whence he looks out over the lands of the aryans. The theory that Mithras was descended from the union of Mother Earth and Ahuramazda does not bear examination; Mithras is saxigenus and sometimes he is shown stepping proudly out of the rock, as on a relief at St Aubin in France. The rock of Mithras's birth contains both light and fire; he who is born from the rock is thus a fiery god of light. This conception is almost certainly based on a very ancient tradition dating from the time when man first discovered that both light and fire could be produced by striking a flint. Mithras's birth is a cosmic event; he holds the globe in one hand from the moment of his birth (Fig. 8) and touches with the other the circle of the zodiac; the gods of the four winds and the four elements are all present to honour Mithras, ruler of the cosmos.
Fig. 8. Mithras at birth with globe in hand
Fig. 9. Saturn sitting on a rock, a knife in his right hand
Fig.10. Fragment of relief with Mithras
Fig. 11. Mithras catching the bull
On some representations shepherds attend Mithras's birth, (Fig. 2) but in most cases only the two torch-bearers are present, watching the event with expressions of profound amazement. On a relief at pettau (Poetovio) they appear as servants; Cautes and Cautopates carefully lift mithras by his arms in much the same way as Venus on the Ludovisi throne is raised from the waves by two female attendants. Above this scene Saturn reclines, crowned by a winged Victory, while by his side lies a dagger which he will in due course hand to Mithras. On the Dura-Europos paintings the same god reclines on what may be intended to be clouds or a wooded mountain top and holds in his right hand a harpe, or short sword with hooked point. The palm branch of victory rests above his head and corresponds to the wreath presented to him at Pettau. On a relief at Dieburg Saturn, deep in thought, is sitting on a rock holding a dagger in his right hand, (Fig. 9) and on a relief at Nersae in central Italy the harpe is clearly visible. Saturn gives Mithras the dagger to kill the bull or, in his role as the divine reaper, presents him with a harpe. Sometimes Saturn's place at Mithras's birth is taken by the Water-god Oceanus or Neptune, and on a relied at Virunum Saturn has horns on his forehead, like Neptune, while by his side stands Amphitrite. Moreover, is some representations the birth is set close to a source of water; one such relief, now in Florence, bears the form of Oceanus. Why is it that a heavenly deity or water-god is always represented? An even more remarkable relief is to be found in the second Mithraeum at Heddernheim, where the front of the relief shows Mithras's birth while the sides are decorated with the figures of Oceanus and Caeulus, accompanied by Cautes and Cautopates, and expressly described in the adjoining inscription as the gods of the waters and the heavens. Both gods are powers of creation who are present at the birth of the creative god Mithras (Demiurge) and will later give their support to his actions. Saturn himself is called fruitful; Mithras too will give fruitfulness through the killing of the bull, but he will also strike water from a rock, which will then become an eternal spring. Consequently Saturn is sometimes shown as a witness of the bull-slaying, as in the vast Santa Prisca cult-niche.
The Mithraic priests gave even more weight to Saturn than Neptunus-Oceanus, since Saturn was equated with the Titan Kronos, who was in turn identified with Chronos, the god of Eternal Time, the Persian Zervan, and the Greek Aion. Mithras too was represented as the youthful God of Time while as Sun-god he directed the course of the sun through the zodiac. In other words, Mithras is Saturn and Oceanus as well and thus the creator of both fertility and water. That is why the leader of each Mithraic community, the Father, Mithras's representative on earth, was placed under the special protection of Saturn, as can be seen at Santa Prisca; one of the attributes of the Father is a sickle. Saturn received the wreath from the hands of Victory and this same wreath adorns many inscriptions relating to the Pater.
2. The adventures with the bull
Mithras's adventures with the bull appear almost exclusively in monuments from the regions of the Danube and the Rhine, while elsewhere interest in these episodes seems to have been relatively insignificant, or they were considered of minor importance. The actual slaying of the bull is always, of course, the principal theme and incorporates the adventures leading up to it. Only in the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca do we find, on the right-hand wall of the cult-niche, a stucco image of Mithras with his mighty arm clasped round the neck of the bull. In a relief found in a Mithraeum in the Forum Boarium Mithras is carrying the bull on his shoulders towards the cave. This representation is, as it were, a gloss on a mid-third century poem by Commodianus in which Mithras is compared with the wily Cacus who stole the cattle of Geryon from Herakles as the hero lay in a drunken slumber on the banks of the Tiber close to what later became known as the Forum Boarium. Commodianus wrote his poem in the form of an acrostic on the theme of invictus, invicible, and included it in a collection of Instructiones which, in the words of W. Teuffel, is 'full of sentiments which, if not dogmatically correct, are truly Christian in their ardour'. His text gives some idea of how these two great opposing faiths of Mithraism and Christianity attacked each other:
If you hold him to be a god, born of stone and invincible,
Now, tell me which, then, of these two stands first.
Vanquished is the god by the stone; still to be found is the stone's creator.
In addition more yet must be added: you have also pictured him as a thief,
Laughable, because if he was a god, he would not make a living from thieving!
Terrestrial was he and strange indeed his habits,
Veering their cattle from others away into the caves-
So once did Vulcan's son Casus.
Fig. 12. Mithras dragging away the bull
Fig. 13. Mithras riding on a bull
Fig. 14. Mithras with bow and arrow
Despite what has been said above the reliefs from the Danube and the Rhine are so packed with all the exploits of Mithras that they often look like an open picture-book of his greatness; sometimes they even take the form of a triumphal arch. With his right hand he is lifting up a stone which he is about to throw at the roof in order to chase the animal out. On several relief from the Danube region a small boat (Fig. 15) with a second bull appears above the building. This scene may indicate the bull in the moon, since the moon is often represented as a ship. According to Porphyry the bull was identified with the moon, 'the female helpmate of creation'. This theory corresponds with the explanation of the bull-slaying given by Lommel, who bases his argument on evidence from the Indian Veda, in which Mithras definitely carries the exhausted animal away with its muzzle dragging along the ground. This gave the opponents of Mithraism an opportunity to interpret the scene as a cattle-theft and Mithras as a thief, and so to agree, probably unconsciously, with Porphyry who developes in De Antro Nympharum, 18, another complete theory about the 'cattle-stealing god'. Because the bull is identified with the moon and the moon assists in creation, Porphyry calls the souls which are created 'born of cattle' and the cattle-thieving god is 'he who secretly hearts about the creation'. So Mithras appears once more as taking an active part in the process of creation and even in the creation of souls. Porphyry's reasoning, however, seems to be an over scholarly explanation of the carrying off of the bull, which is described on a group of inscriptions (in particular one on a relief from Pettau) as transitus dei, the passage of the god. A line of verse (dated A.D. 200 and found in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum) hints at the god's heavy load, who carried the young bull on his shoulders, for if Mithras was to perform the great miracle he could not just find the bull and then kill it; the hero could only fulfill his mission after a mighty struggle. Mithras therefore carried the heavy bull towards the cave like Herakles bidden by Eurystheus to shoulder the Erymanthian boar, and his votaries, who wished as soldiers to achieve their particular life's mission, had to accomplish their personal transitus with the same determination reinforced by the god's inspiring example. Thus, on a large relief at Neuenheim, the story of Mithras and the bull is unfolded stage by stage. First we see the bull grazing peacefully in the field, but presently he is captured by Mithras and borne away on the god's shoulders, as a sheep is carried by a shepherd (Fig. 10.). In this particular case Mithras's capture of the animal is not shown, but it was probably accomplished with a lasso, taurobolium, of which the original meaning is 'the catching of the bull'. But the wild and powerful beast is able to break away and drags Mithras with him at great speed (Fig. 11). The god, however, does not relax his grasp; he clutches the animal round the neck until in the end and with a great effort he succeeds in forcing it to the ground; the powerful bull's resistance is broken, but not so Mithras's strength. He lifts the beast up, pulls its two hind legs over his shoulders and drags it towards the cave (Fig 12). Some representations show him proudly riding on the bull, holding and directing it by the sickle-shaped horns (Fig. 13.). This is an echo of Porphyry's De Antro Nympharum, 24: 'Mithras rides the bull of Aphrodite, since the bull is creator and Mithras the master of creation.' The Greek text uses the word dhmiourgoV, creator, which elsewhere is used to indicate Mithras himself who, as explained above, created life anew, through the act of the bull-slaying. According to astrological theories the bull moves in the sphere of the planet Venus-Aphrodite -- but how far these views are consistent with the image of Mithras as rider of the bull, and whether they were originally connected with it, it is impossible to say.
A large relief at Dieburg adds a further representation of this exhausting struggle. As on several other Danubian reliefs the bull is lying inside a building. In this particular case the building is a temple with a pediment decorated with the heads of three gods whose characters it is impossible to detect. Mithras is standing on a rock and is holding in his left hand a dagger and a cloth tinged with red.
Perhaps the symbolic meaning of the sign of Taurus within the courts of the sun is fundamentally the same as that of the image of the bull in a house, since the moment which heralds spring is the moment when the bull-slaying was supposed to take place. Spring is, of course, the season in which countless other cults both past and present also commemorate the miracle of the renewal of life.
3. The miracle of the striking of the rock
A relief, illustrating Mithras's miraculous birth, found in Rome and now in the possession of Trinity College, Dublin, has already been mentioned in connection with the Sarmizegetusa Mithraeum. The inscription on this relief reads as if it were written in Mithras's own words: 'Lucius Flavius Hermadion gladly made me a present of this'. The artist commissioned by Hermadion portrayed the young god in a highly original manner. In his right hand he holds aloft a burning torch and looks excitedly towards this light, of which he himself is the personification. On the rock from which he has been born, lie a dagger, a bow and a quiver, and a single arrow is also shown separately. Bow and arrow served Mithras in two major exploits in which his unerring aim was all-important -- the striking of the rock and the hunt.
Fig. 15. Relief of the bull in a boat above the bull in a house
Fig. 16. Mithras on horseback holding a lasso in his left hand Fig.
17. Relief, possibly portraying the young Mithras before Saturn
Fig. 18. Oceanus surrounded by nymphs
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.