Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.55

Philippa Adrych, Robert Bracey, Dominic Dalglish, Stefanie Lenk, Rachel Wood, Images of Mithra. Visual conversations in art and archaeology.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xx, 211.  ISBN 9780198792536.  $50.00.  


Reviewed by Kevin Stoba, University of Liverpool (k.stoba@liverpool.ac.uk)

Preview

Written collaboratively by five authors as part of the Empires of Faith project, Images of Mithra illuminates the diverse worship of four deities etymologically linked to Mithra (Roman Mithras, Sasanian Mihr, Bactrian Miiro, Commagenian Apollo-Mithras) by comparing the attributes and contexts of their iconographies. The refreshingly ambitious aim of the book is to convey dialogic relationships between the authors’ specialisms: although the chapters have individual authors, they were not written in isolation, and the reflective impact of collaboration is apparent in each section.

The choice to focus on Mithraic iconography further heightens the boldness of the project: since the toppling of Franz Cumont’s orthodoxy in the 1970s (who held that Roman Mithras had descended directly from Persian Mithra), it has been very unfashionable in Mithraic scholarship to look to the east. While the book maintains conversations between disciplines, it does not seek to establish historical connections between cognate Mithraic deities, but rather to reflect on common themes. Indeed, more often than not, iconographic diversity is highlighted, both between cultures and within. The influence of Jas Elsner, the editor of the Visual Conversations series (of which this is the first), is felt throughout in the importance given to the relationship between visual culture and ancient religion.

Dominic Dalglish’s Chapter 1 (“Reconstructions: Mithras in Rome”) provides background to the Roman Mithraic tauroctony and rightly highlights the multivalence and multifunctionality of the scene, which reaffirms more recent studies.1 The discussion is structured around two sculptures from Rome now in the British Museum: the Townley and Standish tauroctonies. In a novel approach, the recurrent/variable motifs of the scene are introduced through the (in)accuracies of modern restorations made on these two examples (particularly their reconstructions of Mithras’ gaze, which usually averts the bull, either facing outwards or over Mithras’ shoulder).Dalglish then considers precedents of the scene, including the widely discussed parallel of Nike/Victory killing a bull. The focus is on its iconographic divergences, most notably again the deity’s gaze, for which other parallels are found (e.g. the relief of Claudius vanquishing Britannia from the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias). For all the focus on Mithras’ gaze, Dalglish does not analyse the distinction between Mithras’ gaze facing outwards vs. at Sol/the raven (which had regional tendencies but not exclusivity, being slightly more popular in eastern Europe and Italy respectively), which echoes the book’s points about diversity.

Philippa Adrych’s Chapter 2 (“Patrons and Viewers: Dura-Europos”) moves further east to Roman Syria. The unique frescoed scenes from the Dura-Europos mithraeum are briefly discussed, but the focus is on the rare juxtaposition of two late-second-century AD tauroctonies: the Ethpeni tauroctony (smaller and slightly older), and the Zenobius tauroctony (larger and more sophisticated).

These two tauroctonies, although mostly stylistically similar (e.g. the Parthian ‘fronting’ of Mithras; the position of the dog, snake and bull’s tail; Mithras’ gaze, and the absence of the scorpion), are in some ways distinct (e.g. the depiction of Zenobius in his own tauroctony; the position of the raven, Mithras’ feet, and the bull’s wound). Aldrych tentatively suggests that these differences may reflect the merging of two distinct Mithraic groups. (Do they reflect different conceptions of the scene?) The chapter’s closing section explores the use of patrons as intermediaries in other cults in Dura-Europos (pp. 57-60), suggesting that Zenobius’ position in the Mithraic group there may reflect a distinct regional brand of Mithraic cult. This is a convincing position, although its discussion of Mithraic ritual does not acknowledge significant archaeological evidence from elsewhere of the use of incense and animals.2

Stefanie Lenk’s Chapter 3 (“Settings: Bourg-Saint-Andéol”) considers tauroctonies as physical objects and their place within mithraea, taking the rock-carved tauroctony at Bourg-Saint-Andéol as a starting point. The photographs in this chapter are particularly useful in conveying the setting of Mithraic objects. Regional diversity is discussed (pp. 65-78) concerning the similar and dissimilar characteristics of rock-carved tauroctonies, the distribution of mithraea set in the natural landscape, and the relationship between Mithraic sites and water (the frequency of proximity to streams, the presence of fonts, and the use of iconography featuring water). The chapter strongly implies a network-based understanding of connectivity in its interpretation of the dissemination of variants within Mithraic cults, but does not attempt any quantitative network analysis, which could perhaps have benefitted the overall project.3 Lenk recognises that modern universalisations of Mithraic design principles (based on e.g. Porphyry De antr. nymph. 5.6) are damaged by the diversity visible in the architecture/location of mithraea and the positions of tauroctonies within them (pp. 73-76). The full impact of this kind of variability on our understanding of Mithraic cults and their ‘purpose’ is yet to be absorbed by Mithraic scholarship.

Rachel Wood’s Chapter 4 (“Identifications: Mihr in Sasanian Iran”) provides the first focus outside the Roman world: the Sasanian Taq-e Bostan relief, featuring Mihr and three other figures. Wood narrates the difficulty of identifying Mihr and the other figures (probably the kings Shapur II and Ardashir II, with the Roman emperor Julian trampled underneath), which emphasises the sparsity of iconography (of not only Mihr) in Sasanian art. The deity’s primary purpose here was as an overseer of the king’s oath. Wood accurately dismisses Romano-centric interpretations of Mihr’s presence in the relief, such as those reading a Sasanian reclamation of the deity (pp. 90-91) following Julian’s (disputed) honouring of Helios/Mithras (if so, who was the intended audience?). The chapter also surveys the complexity of Mihr’s position within the Sasanian pantheon, the extension of Mihr-worship to the private sphere (as evidenced by the deity’s depiction on seals), and Mihr’s consistent associations in art and literature (solar attributes, friendship/contracts, and war-like aspects).

Robert Bracey’s Chapter 5 (“Interpretations: Miiro in Kushan Bactria”) moves further east again, centring on second/third century AD depictions of Miiro from Kushan Bactria. Miiro was one of several diverse deities used on coins (pp. 107-109) and at royal temples (pp, 114-115) to legitimise kingship, echoing the Taq-e Bostan relief from Chapter 4. However, unlike Sasanian Mihr (and Roman Mithras), Miiro seems to have been a personification of the sun rather than a deity with solar associations. Bracey’s most interesting point explores the possibility that “Miiro” on Kushan coins is in fact “a Bactrian translation for a traditional Kushan [sun] god otherwise unattested in our evidence” (pp. 116-119), which impacts the relatability of this deity to others etymologically linked to Mithra.

Dominic Dalglish’s Chapter 6 (“Syncretisms: Apollo-Mithras in Commagene”) studies the first century BC Commagenian depiction of Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes among the dexiosis stelae at Nemrut. Dalglish attributes the multiplicity of (Graeco-Roman and Persian) gods at Nemrut to Antiochus I’s political positioning between east and west, as he attempted to accentuate his ancestral link to Achaemenid Persia and friendship with Rome. The chapter’s most valuable point is to stress that Mithraic scholarship should not isolate Apollo-Mithras in this context, as his role here (legitimising kingship through a handshake) is also played by several other deities (a point which can be projected back to Chapters 4-5). Simultaneously, Dalglish rightly warns against ignoring the uniquely Commagenian perspective in favour of grander Persian/Graeco-Roman/Armenian narratives.

Overall, the book succeeds in highlighting the diversity seen in the worship of Mithra both within and across cultural boundaries. It also stresses the need to view each piece of evidence within its own religious, political and historical contexts, and to avoid universalisation. Claudia Brittenham’s Epilogue, which muses on the multiplicity of characteristics associated with Aztec Quetzalcoatl, also makes this point clear: “Rather than seeking to reconcile these conflicting accounts, what if we instead revelled in the differences?” (p. 179). The Conclusion still observes a few strands of consistency between some/all of the Mithraic chapters (solar attributes, youthful depictions, links to water, uses in legitimisation of kingship). These themes rightly serve reflective purposes, and are not intended to integrate the evidence historically.

Readers who are well-read in Mithraic scholarship will value the authors’ innovative approaches to familiar evidence and cross- disciplinary range and reflection, but the book provides enough exposition to appeal also to a non-specialist audience. The authors provide accessible overviews of (especially Roman) Mithraic scholarship throughout, and so Images of Mithra could also work as an introduction to the topic. Readers with backgrounds in Graeco-Roman studies will find the transitions into sections on Sasanian and Kushan cultures smooth and well contextualised within discussions of their respective religious frameworks, either in the text or through the footnotes. Befitting the title and approach, the book also contains many (often original) photographs of Mithraic material which themselves serve as useful resources.

Readers with different backgrounds may find that the authors assume awareness of Mithras’ position within the wider Roman religious context. The relationship between Mithras and other gods in the Roman world (and the relevance to regional variation in Mithraic cults), for example, is not acknowledged except in discussions of the tauroctony’s Graeco-Roman precedents (pp. 25-32), traditions at non-Mithraic cult sites in Dura-Europos (pp. 57-60), and depictions of other deities found at the Walbrook mithraeum (p. 79).

There are, however, some limitations to the project. Although the book is “unashamedly object-focused” (p. 166), its exploration of the movement of Mithraic “groups of ideas” (p. 8) is somewhat stunted without exploration into the psychosocial processes and mechanics actually involved in the spread of ideas. Cognitive approaches which address the qualities and conditions needed for iconography to spread (or, conversely, remain limited), such as Dan Sperber’s work on the “epidemiology” of images,4 have already been applied in Mithraic scholarship,5 and could have elucidated the discussion here. Similarly, as discussed above, Chapter 3 (and perhaps others) hint at but do not develop a network approach to this issue.

From a Roman perspective, the artificial ‘Persianisation’ of Roman Mithraic worship is only briefly acknowledged (referring to Mithras’ superficially ‘eastern’ garb, p. 27, pp. 159-160 and pp. 169-170). This desire to forge links with the perceived antiquity, wisdom and religiosity of Persia likely influenced many characteristics of Roman Mithras-worship, and contributes significantly to the difficulty of untangling the relationship with the cognate deities.6 As such, the phenomenon deserves more attention than it receives here.

Nonetheless, this is a successful, highly innovative collaborative contribution to a much-studied field which will surely influence similar volumes in the future. It shows the riches of Mithraic visual culture in a new light with some fresh observations, which are largely concordant with recent scholarship, and its focus on (iconographic) diversity places it well within emergent trends in both Mithraic research and ancient religions more generally. Images of Mithra is a valuable read for scholars interested in religious and art history, the movement of ideas, and the multifarious types of relationships between iconography and religion.


Notes:


1.   See e.g. Gordon, R., 2004, ”Small and miniature reproductions of the Mithraic icon: reliefs, pottery, ornaments and gems”, in M. Martens and G. de Boe (eds.), Roman Mithraism: the Evidence of the Small Finds, Brussels: 259-284.
2.   On incense, see Bird, J., 2004, “Incense in Mithraic ritual”, in M. Martens and G. de Boe (eds.), Roman Mithraism: the Evidence of the Small Finds, Brussels: 191-199. On animals, see e.g. Lentacker et al., Olive, and De Grossi Mazzorin in the same volume.
3.   Such as that offered by Anna Collar on the spread of cults of Jupiter Dolichenus (see Collar, A., 2013, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire: The Spread of New Ideas, Cambridge) and Aleš Chalupa’s forthcoming network analysis of the origins of Mithraic worship in the Roman empire (see Chalupa, A., 2016, Networks of the Roman Cult of Mithras).
4.   See e.g. Sperber, D., 1985, “Anthropology and Psychology: Towards and Epidemiology of Representations”, Man 20.1: 73-89.
5.   See Martin, L., 2015, The Mind of Mithraists: Historical and Cognitive Studies in the Roman Cult of Mithras, London, pp89-106.
6.   See the summary of this entanglement in Gordon, R., 2015, “From Mithra to Roman Mithras”, in Stausberg, M. and Vevaina, Y.S.D. (eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, Oxford: 451-455.

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