Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.10


Hinnells, John R., Studies in Mithraism: Papers associated with the Mithraic Panel organized on the occasion of the XVIth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1994. Pp. 299. ISBN 88-7062-834-5.


Reviewed by Helen F. North, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

In Mithras' house there are many mansions, whose diversity is evident in this collection of papers from the fourth international Mithraic congress held in Rome in 1990 (earlier meetings were held in Manchester, 1971, Tehran, 1975, and Rome, 1978). Twenty papers in four languages (English 15, French 3, Italian and German 1 each) range in length from 4 to 34 pages and in subject from archaeological descriptions of sites (Imperial Rome, Bulgaria, Thessalonica) through epigraphical evidence (for Dacia), iconography (the tauroctony, the lion-headed deity, the rock-birth, Aion with zodiacal hoop), and exegesis of familiar texts (Tertullian, Celsus, Porphyry), to discussions of such time-worn, still unsettled issues as the travels of Mithras from Iran through Syria and Anatolia to Rome, speculations about cult practices, and the source and meaning of his innumerable astrological connections.

The Foreword by Ugo Bianchi offers a brief statement about the principal concerns dealt with at the conference: the place of Mithraism in the context of ancient mystery cults and the impact of astrological speculations. The Introduction by John R. Hinnells, who organized the conference and edited the Proceedings, sketches in greater detail major trends, popular and unpopular topics, and changing fashions in the interpretation of archaeological and literary sources. He also calls attention to topics needing further investigation, perhaps at a Toronto conference in 1996, which would mark the centenary of Cumont's ground-breaking Textes et Monuments.

This review will confine itself for the most part to a selection of papers that offer the most substantive (if sometimes controversial) contributions to the understanding of current Mithraic scholarship, and will keep in mind particularly what they have to offer to the non-specialist, since interest in Mithras is widespread among classicists in general.

A reader seeking one paper that would provide a sober assessment of what can be known about "our Mithraism" -- Roman Mithraism -- and what can reasonably be inferred from the known facts would make no mistake in turning first to "The expansion of Mithraism among the religious cults of the second century" by Wolf Liebeschuetz (195-216), which takes up point by point the major issues: the scarcity of Mithraic sites in the East and in Greece, the possibility of a single founder in the West, the existence of four scattered areas in which sites are concentrated, with Ostia/Rome as probably the earliest, the role of the legions and the customs service in spreading the cult (and the non-role of merchants and traders), possible reasons for the absence of persecution (high regard for fides on the part of Mithraists and Roman society in general?), the importance of households and guilds in establishing Mithraea, regional variations in technical vocabulary, the sporadic evidence for all seven grades of initiation, and the irrelevance for this cult of the survival of the soul after death. "The conclusion is unavoidable: the benefits of Mithraic initiation were expected in this life" (214). The reader will turn from this paper to the others with a firm basis on which to judge the degree of probability of various hypotheses.

Several writers represented here were deeply impressed by the 1989 monograph by David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, and accept, though not without qualifications, his theory that Mithras personified the force responsible for the precession of the equinoxes (discovered by Hipparchus in the second century B.C.). None had as yet had an opportunity to consider the review of Ulansey's book by N.M. Swerdlow in Classical Philology 86 (1991) 48-63, which is likely to engender second thoughts, especially about the identification of the torchbearers in the tauroctony with the equinoxes. (This alone requires the precession to be invoked, in order to place the equinoxes in Taurus and Scorpio, as was the case c. 4,000-2,000 B.C., and justify the identification of Mithras with the constellation Perseus, located just above Taurus in the sky.) Criticism of Ulansey's principal thesis is expressed at some length in this collection, by Beck (29-50) and Waldman (265-77).

An entirely different approach to the dadaphoroi, and much else, is taken by Howard M. Jackson, who traces them to such torchbearing erotes as flank Dido in the Dido mosaic from Low Ham (Plate XVIII) and finds a precedent for the zodiacal hoop familiar in the Modena Pantheus (Plate I) and the Housesteads Rock-Birth (Plate II) in the hoops bowled by Greek youths, such as Ganymede or Eros himself on red-figured vases of the fifth century B.C. (Plates XIX-XXI). Whether or not these novel theories find general acceptance, most readers will be grateful for the accumulation of bibliographical notices and the generous illustrations that help track, not only the zodiacal hoop, but the cosmic, demiurgic god Aion through an intricate genealogy beginning with the shield of Achilles and including the column base of Antoninus Pius (Plate III), numerous mosaics of imperial Roman date, and an aureus of Hadrian (Plate XIc), which initiates the allegory of the hoop-rolling Aion so popular in imperial iconography. This paper, "Love makes the world go round: the Classical Greek ancestry of the youth with the zodiacal circle in Late Roman Art," (131-64) is the only one not actually delivered at the conference in Rome.

Two papers offer helpful discussions of problems related to language and terminology. Per Beskow, "Tertullian on Mithras" (51-60), studies the four brief passages by Tertullian referring to Mithraic rites and urges that key terms be interpreted in the context of Tertullian's own Christian usage. Richard L. Gordon, "Mystery metaphor and doctrines in the Mysteries of Mithras" (103-24), contributes a fascinating analysis of Mithraic use of language, including the development of linguistic codes and of a jargon (differing in various places) to be mastered as the initiate advances in the cult. Included also is a discussion of the arcane significance of labelling cult-furniture.

Two papers, "Mithra and Ahreman in Iranian Cosmogonies," by Philip G. Kreyenbroek (173-82), and "On the Armeno-Iranian roots of Mithraism," by J.R. Russell (183-93), attempt to redress the recent tendency to understand Mithraism primarily as a Roman phenomenon. Noting that in the closest Zoroastrian counterpart to the Mithraic tauroctony the killing of the bull is attributed to Ahreman, the evil spirit, Kreyenbroek proposes the derivation of certain important features of Mithraism from a pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian myth of the cosmogony, which survived among the Western Iranian Magi and credited Mithra, rather than Ahreman with the primordial sacrifice that brought warmth and energy to the world. Russell calls attention to Armenian associations for important Mithraic myths, especially the petrogeny, and suggests hidden allusions to Mithraic lore in the poetry of the Armenian St. Nerses as late as the 12th century. Helmut Waldman, "Mithras tauroctonous" (265-76), also considers the eastern origins of Mithraism and discusses critically views of some of the other contributors.

Astrological speculations dominate several papers. "In the place of the Lion: Mithras in the tauroctony," by Roger Beck (29-50), in addition to taking issue with Ulansey's 1989 publication, identifies Mithras as the Sun in Leo. The late Ioan P. Couliano, in "The Mithraic ladder revisited" (75-91), discusses the effect of Gnostic doctrine on late antique mysteries in which the ascent of the soul to heaven was widespread, concluding that the doctrine of the planetary journey (reported by Celsus as Mithraic) was especially popular among Platonists. Plato also looms large in Ulansey's contribution, "Mithras and the hypercosmic sun" (257-64), which attempts to account for the distinction between Helios and Mithras by tracing a theory of the hypercosmic sun (= Mithras) to passages in the Republic and Phaedrus, as interpreted by Platonizing Mithraists, who were influenced by such intervening sources as Philo and the Chaldean Oracles.

The hazards of Mithraic scholarship are illustrated by several papers in which "one may wonder whether," "it is possible to see," "it is easy to suppose" and similar phrases introduce a host of speculations unsupported by solid evidence. A. David Bivar ("Towards an integrated picture of ancient Mithraism," 60-73) provides a useful summary of current views of Mithraism, from the Vedic Mitra to Roman times, with emphasis on the astral significance of the tauroctony and a strong defence of the deep-rooted eastern origins of Roman Mithraism (68). The paper concludes with wide-ranging speculation about possible Mithraic connections on the part of Plato, Alexander the Great, the god Sarapis, and later Sasanian rulers. The evidence for Plato as here presented depends on two items: the lionheaded being in Republic IX ("it is hard to believe that so characteristic a simile could be wholly independent") and the fact that coins of his namesake, Plato King of Bactria, displayed as reverse types solar deities identifiable with Mithra (65).

Studies in Mithraism contains an indispensable Thematic Index, as well as separate indices of Ancient Authors, Ancient Texts, Sites, Modern Authors, and an Index to citations from the Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae. The editor is to be congratulated on the small number of misprints, relative to the length and complexity of the material and the variety of languages involved. (The misspelling of "millennia", however, is unlikely to be a misprint.)