Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.41

Hans Dieter Betz, The "Mithras Liturgy". Text, translation and commentary. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 18.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2003.  Pp. xi, 275.  ISBN 3-16-148813-X.  €39.00.  

Reviewed by Anders Lisdorf (

This book is a text edition, translation and commentary to an enigmatic papyrus text, which Albrecht Dieterich in his commentary, "Eine Mithras Liturgie" from 1903, called the Mithras Liturgy. This reexamination of the text is undertaken to make it accessible in English and to take into account crucial new archeological evidence not known to Dieterich a hundred years ago. It is of the highest quality in detail and in its overview of ancient religion, showing the extraordinary knowledge and erudition already so closely associated with Professor Emeritus Hans Dieter Betz (HDB). Truly a worthy landmark by a remarkable scholar that will, perhaps, be consulted for the next century or more by scholars wishing to know more about this mysterious text. The work will be of relevance to scholars working in the fields of Hellenistic religion in Egypt, as well as Mithraic scholars, and will be of interest in general to scholars working with Hellenistic mystery religions and magical practices. "The "Mithras Liturgy"" is, if not the definitive, then at least an indispensable commentary to the text in question.

The book has five major parts: Introduction, the Greek text, Translation, Literary analysis and the Commentary to the text. It also has plates showing photos of the papyrus under review and an index of Greek words and one of voces magicae.


The introduction is a thorough treatment of the background of the text both philologically and religio-historically. It is divided into five parts: The "Mithras Liturgy": a Provocative Title, The Papyrus, Albrecht Dieterich (1866-1908): Life and Scholarship, Genre and Composition, and The Religio-historical Context.

The "Mithras Liturgy": a Provocative Title

Dieterich wished to challenge Franz Cumont's interpretation of the text as an Egyptian hermetic text and to take seriously the reference to Mithraism, instead interpreting the text in the context of syncretistic forms of Mithraism. Dieterich's thesis was subsequently strongly challenged to a point where modern scholarship, until recently, had completely given it up. But HDB argues that Dieterich's title points to two features that still need explanation: the name of Mithras, and the "liturgical" nature of the text.

The Papyrus

The text is a segment of the "Great Magical Papyrus of Paris", sandwiched between two sections of Homeric quotations. The Papyrus was acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1857. It most likely originally came from Thebes in Egypt. It can be dated on paleographical grounds to early fourth century, but the text presupposes a much longer process of development. The origin is most likely around 100-150, then it was used in a ritual context in an Egyptian Mithras Cult from 150-200. This is followed by a period of adaptation and development by magicians from 200-300. As it is now "the text is thoroughly Hellenistic-Egyptian without any traces of Christian, Christian-Gnostic, or Neo-Platonic influences, although traditions of Middle Stoicism are apparent, as is a certain closeness to Hermeticism"(9). The author was most likely an expert on magical materials and had expertise as a literary scholar and writer. He has examined several versions of the text and offers learned comments on it.

Albrecht Dieterich (1866-1908): Life and Scholarship

Dieterich was born into a family of teachers and theologians. Started to study theology, but turned to philosophy of religion. He studied with Hermann Usener and was inspired by his combination of philology and history of religion. In his Habilitationsschrift he took up the subject of magical papyri studying the Orphic hymns. The original interest in Mithras came from Cumont. Two articles from 1902 show this interest. In 1903 "Eine Mithras Liturgie" appeared. Here he separated the non-magical Mithras Liturgy from its reworking as a magical ritual. He died of a stroke on May 6 1908.

To sum up, Dieterich's commentary demonstrates five points: The text segment in question differs significantly from the larger magical papyrus, it must be interpreted in the context of syncretistic mystery cults of Hellenistic Egypt, it is influenced by Stoic philosophy and is close to hermeticism, it involves a kind of liturgy, and cultic images play a significant role in the procedures. Today, because of advances in methodology, it can better be appreciated.

Genre and Composition

There is no external designation of genre or parallel in the larger magical papyrus. Its own designation is "Ritual of Immortalization". It can be divided into four major parts: I an exordium, a prayer, II main body of the ritual, III supplemental rituals, IV concluding epilogue.

The Religio-historical Context

The text's immediate context is a magical handbook, but it "stands out like an intruder from another world"(32) with no parallel in other magical papyri. The wider context is Hellenistic mystery cults. Not much Egyptian religion appears and there is no evidence of Neo-platonic influence. The philosophy, being Stoic, could indicate an origin in the milieu prior to Neo-platonism. The ritual of rebirth is based in processes of generation and regeneration. The cosmology is Greek in origin, not Egyptian. It seems to reflect a nascent Hermeticism of the first or second century, but it has not developed into Gnosticism.

The Greek text The Greek text for the most part follows Preisendanz' Papyri Graecae Magicae. Some alternative readings have been adopted. These are justified in the commentary section.


The translation is a revision of Marvin W. Meyer's in HDB's The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation based on the present commentary.

Literary analysis

This is a line by line structuring of the content of the text which enables you to see the overall structure of the, otherwise quite chaotic, text.


The commentary is the bulk of the work. It has ample discussions of matters at hand and thorough footnotes dealing with literature on the subject. It often lists several different interpretations, where more have been proposed.

As already mentioned, this book shows the stamp of a remarkable scholar, and it is very hard to put your finger on anything wrong. The analysis is clear and well supported by evidence and ample references to often quite obscure texts.

The introduction is very helpful in understanding the background of this text both in the scholarly context as well as in its religio-historical context.

The underlying assumption that warrants this reexamination of the Mithras Liturgy is that somewhere behind this text is evidence related to the ritual proceedings of Mithraism, something of which we know very little about from other sources. There are a few scattered irrefutable pieces of evidence that can be connected to Mithraism, such as the mention of a golden shoulder of a young calf and the description of Mithras. Other evidence, such as an idea of rebirth, the seven spheres and a general astral outlook could be traced to Mithraism, but they are general features of the religious environment at the time. This establishes that the author, or author of earlier versions, had some experience with the iconography and with matters we know from inscriptions as well. Precious little, however, of the original rituals has made it as far as the Mithras Liturgy, and what has survived is not very helpful, especially when we consider the very syncretistic and idiosyncratic character of the text. It is also worth mentioning that the point of the text is oracular consultation with the highest god, something that is unattested in Mithraism.

It is hard to imagine what sort of text would lie behind and where it would come from. HDB speculates that it has the basis in an Egyptian adaptation of Mithraism, or some other mystery cult that had taken in Mithraic elements. One critical problem is that Mithraism is very poorly attested in Egypt.

All in all there is very little information you can extract about the liturgical element of Mithraism from the text. This may disappoint some since it was the given reason for the renewed study. It should also be mentioned that, since the book does not have a topical index, it is not possible to locate the few bits relevant to Mithraic scholars. One may indeed speculate that HDB, given his past, all along was more interested in the magical aspects, and "just" needed a good reason to study this text. That would account for the inclusion of an index on voces magicae. But that does not detract from the value of "The "Mithras" Liturgy" as a meticulous study of an enigmatic text. The book shows us a highly idiosyncratic text with traces of many different religious elements that was probably used by a magician.

The book will be of most use to scholars working on the syncretistic religious environment and magical practices in Hellenistic Egypt. For Mithraic scholars, there are a few scraps of evidence, but we have no idea how they got there. That would probably take another kind of study.

An extremely helpful aspect of the book is that you have everything together: the text, translation, index, historical context, and you can even see photographs of the papyrus if you want to check the readings for yourself, an element which will make this an indispensable work.

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