BMCR 2006.12.08

The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun

, The religion of the Mithras cult in the Roman Empire : mysteries of the unconquered sun. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 285 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780191518232. $95.00.

Table of Contents

The study of the ancient mystery cult of Mithraism has been heavily influenced over the last century by the pioneering work of Franz Cumont followed by that of M. J. Vermaseren. Ever since Cumont’s volumes first appeared in the 1890s, his ideas on Mithraism have been influential, particularly with regard to the quest for Mithraic doctrine. His emphasis on the Iranian features of the cult is now less influential with the Iranising influences generally played down in scholarship over the last thirty years. While the long shadow cast by Cumont is sometimes susceptible to exaggeration, recent research such as that of Robert Turcan demonstrates that Cumont’s influence is still strong.1

In the considerable body of work on Mithraism undertaken by Roger Beck over the last thirty years, some significant challenges have been directed at Cumont’s aims and, as a consequence, at the scholarship on Mithraism in general. In this, his latest book, Beck presents the culmination of important aspects of his work on Mithraism. This is an attempt to cement a different perspective on the mysteries, which he has been establishing for some time. There will be questions asked of this book and some sections of it will be met with skepticism. Beck, however, presents an extensive amount of material in support of his theories in a convincing style that is at times a little dense. The book is most convincing in its consideration of the importance of the Mithraeum and its iconography in toto, rather than what Beck sees as the prejudicing of iconographic interpretations for the purpose of establishing doctrine.

Beck essentially rejects the concept of an overarching doctrine of Mithraism, instead emphasising the Mithraic initiate’s apprehension and experience of astrological/astronomical symbols. Beck seeks to establish a language of star-talk as a means of understanding how the Mithraeum and its iconography enabled this to take place. This approach is acknowledged by Beck as owing much to the anthropological work of Clifford Geertz and to Richard Gordon with specific regard to Mithraism.2 Beck makes an admirable attempt at using observations from anthropology and other disciplines as a means of understanding ancient Mithraism and its practice in more complex ways than before. Perhaps less convincing are parallels drawn with modern religious practice together with claims about the evolution of the human brain and how this might help us understand the initiate’s experience of ancient Mithraism. Some sections of the book contain in-depth and, at times, close to impenetrable detail on astronomical and astrological phenomena. Each chapter contains a large number of sections and subsections, and it is not an easy book to read in places, but it is worth the investment.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which comprises four chapters designed to lay the groundwork for the second and longer section, Transition: From Old Ways to New Ways, which comprises six chapters. The first section critiques attempts made in older scholarship, and in some cases more recent scholarship, to reconstruct a doctrine of ancient Mithraism based on interpretations of Mithraic iconography. On many occasions in this section, and indeed throughout the book, Beck notes a general neglect in scholarship of ancient textual references to Mithraism. In particular, he emphasises the importance of Porphyry’s De Antro as a potential “gateway text” whereby the activities and experience of ancient Mithraists might be better understood when combined with an experiential approach to the Mithraeum and its iconography. On numerous occasions in the book, Beck emphasises a failure in the scholarship to ask not merely what the iconography means but how it means, and, in the chapters comprising the second section of the book, he attempts to redress this imbalance.

In Chapter 1, Beck discusses concerns over older attempts to discover Mithraic doctrine while concluding that more recent approaches to the study of Mithraism have resulted in one group of scholars working on reconstructing Mithraic doctrine and experience and another researching the cult more as a social phenomenon.

Chapter 2 emphasises the importance of Porphyry’s De Antro as a potential starting point for scholarship to investigate Mithraism but points out that this has generally not been the case in modern studies. Beck’s analysis of Cumont’s aim to establish “the full theology of Mithraism embodied in the totality of scenes and symbols” is most detailed in this chapter. He is particularly concerned about the presumption that a Mithraic doctrine has remained for some the ultimate heuristic endeavour and that there is a positivist assumption that the iconography conveys little of significance above and beyond the mythical stories told. The consequences of this approach are that some have concluded that the mysteries cannot have been a serious and sophisticated cognitive enterprise. Beck points out that one of the results of this approach is that the monumental iconography, particularly the Tauroctony, has been privileged over other aspects of the Mithraeum including architecture and small finds and that this remains a significant issue in scholarship on Mithraism.

As a means of redressing the main faults of twentieth-century approaches to Mithraism, Beck suggests that, because it emphasises the significance of the Mithraeum itself, more consideration of Porphyry’s De Antro would address the problem of undervaluing texts and the Mithraeum compared with the importance afforded to the figured monuments. Here, Beck is laying the groundwork for his elevation of the Mithraeum to importance alongside the iconography rather than in subservience to it.

In Chapter 3 Beck introduces the concept of the Mithraeum as a symbol in itself. In the process, he emphasises that the symbolism of both the Mithraeum and its iconography needs to be considered in terms of referents in the surrounding Graeco-Roman culture. This is because, in De Antro, Porphyry interprets the Mithraeum with reference to the cosmos. While Beck makes the approving observation that more recent scholarship has largely shed the idea of an ongoing Iranising influence on Mithraism, he sounds a cautionary note by claiming that the referents should also include those in Iranian culture. The most important referents in the surrounding culture are those of an astrological and astronomical nature, as Mithraism was “awash” with such symbols. Of key importance in this chapter and, indeed, throughout the book is the general scholarly neglect of the Mithraeum as a symbol and the preference given to interpretations of the iconography in isolation from the culture within which Mithraism operated.

The key theme of Chapter 4 is the rejection of the pursuit of a Mithraic doctrine in favour of the significance of Mithraic ritual. Traditionally, the Mithraeum has been seen as the classroom with its initiates as pupils. In much the same way that Christianity operates, there are those who are in charge and there are those who are the faithful. The faithful get from the iconography what those in charge put into it. In this chapter and in other parts of the book, Christianity is used as a point of comparison with Mithraism both from an ancient and modern perspective.

Beck engages in issues of modern translations of Porphyry’s De Antro to further demonstrate that emphasis has been placed in scholarship on the Mithraeum and its iconography acting as a vehicle of instruction regarding what happened to initiates before birth and what would happen to them after death. Beck essentially sees the Mithraeum as an inductive vehicle whereby initiates experienced what happened before and what would happen after death. The claims made in De Antro are key to this interpretation, and it does seem that modern translations of the text have been affected by the development of Mithraic doctrine in modern scholarship. This is taken up in much more detail in chapter 7. The heavy reliance placed on Porphyry’s text is bound to draw some criticism, and Beck appears to be aware that this is the case. Ultimately, however, he believes that the neo-Platonists did not misrepresent the Mithraists.

An important part of criticising the modern emphasis on Mithraic doctrine is expressed in the concern that the mysteries have been co-opted by modern scholars into a constructed ancient intellectual tradition. The result is that ownership of the mysteries has passed from “ordinary” initiates to an imagined elite that controlled Mithraic doctrine. Beck points out that one of the results of this approach is reflected in modern scholarship, where inquiries into doctrine are pursued separately from those into the social profile and cult activities of the “humble” membership. This observation is the basis for identifying a range of scholarly positions on the ancient cult. These range from the suggestions of Ulansey, who sees Mithraism as a reflection of exceptionally precise astronomical knowledge among a small, intellectual elite in the ancient world, to Swerdlow, who sees Mithraic doctrine as so poor that the cult was little more than a crude activity of the common Roman soldiery.3 In between are the positions of Merkelbach, who emphasises the ongoing importance of the Platonic tradition, and Turcan, who essentially follows a modified version of Cumont.4

Paraphrasing Beck’s own words, the first four chapters are preparation for the hermeneutic road ahead in chapters 5-10. The six chapters which comprise the second section of the book, Transition: From Old Ways to New Ways, are a detailed explanation of Beck’s position on the Mysteries of Mithras. Many of the ideas and concepts in this section were introduced in section one, and here we have a more detailed consideration of them. There is considerable detail in this section, and it is not easy to follow in places.

In Chapter 5 the anthropological approach of Clifford Geertz is applied to the Mithraic mysteries. The aim is to focus on the intent of the whole Mithraic symbol system by placing the performance of ritual and the construction, apprehension and utilisation of symbolic forms above the individual significance of the icon(s) or the sacred space itself. The greatest difficulty here is that Mithraic ritual cannot be observed, and Beck is well aware of this problem. He proposes that it is possible to undertake a Geertzian description of Mithraic ritual as the Mithraeum itself and the seven grades that initiates attained can still be entered into. It is possible to do this, he claims, by accessing appropriate referents observable within the broader culture of Graeco-Roman paganism. Essentially, the Mithraic model of the universe as conceived in the Mithraeum is the Graeco-Roman model established by Plato in the Timaeus.

An interesting, and clearly controversial, attempt is made to understand Mithraic ritual practice by considering the ritual practices of a modern religious group in Mexico, the Chamulas. Beck claims to be able to identify similarities between Chamula belief and practice and Mithraism as a further means of “observing” Mithraic ritual practice. Some will have doubts as to the validity of such an exercise.

Chapter 6 is methodologically related to chapter 5 in that it attempts to further reduce the divide between antiquity and the present in order to increase our understanding of Mithraic ritual practice. This is done using a theoretical approach recently developed in the cognitive sciences and anthropology known as the “cognitive science of religion”. This approach is aimed at demystifying religious beings and operates on the assumption that the ability to form mental representations of supernatural beings is a function of the “evolved mental endowment of Homo Sapiens“, p. 89. Beck claims that there has not been enough time for the brains of humans to evolve in just two millennia, so we should assume that we presently form representations of supernatural beings just as people did in antiquity. Ultimately, the claim is that we form representations of supernatural beings not by virtue of membership in societies but by virtue of being Homo Sapiens. Of concern here is that much of this is controversial and appears quite speculative, yet no references are made to any relevant studies in the area or to scientific work done on the evolution of the human brain. Ultimately, this approach is driven by the necessity to access the initiate’s apprehension of the symbols of Mithraism if Geertzian anthropological theory is to be successfully applied.

Chapter 7 considers in detail the Mithraeum itself as a symbol within the symbol system so central to Mithraism. Here the Mithraeum is presented as a model of the Graeco-Roman universe as it was conceived in Platonic philosophy. There is considerable description of the Mithraeum and how specific furnishings and architectural features are representative of particular universal and planetary features along with the iconography itself. These descriptions and analyses tend to assume uniformity of design of Mithraea across the empire which Beck earlier notes is not necessarily borne out by the archaeological evidence.

As a means of reinforcing the anthropological observations made in Chapter 6, Beck compares the church of the Chamulas with the Mithraeum. He also reinforces the idea of Mithraism drawing heavily on broader Graeco-Roman culture by comparing the astrological and astronomical symbolism present in well-known Roman structures such as the Pantheon, the Domus Aurea and the Circus Maximus.

Ultimately, to the initiate the Mithraeum was to be a conveyor of souls that allowed the initiate to experience once again the descent of his soul from the heavens and to experience its exit back to the heavens. This is according to Beck, the Mithraic “cosmonaut” literally getting to know the Mithraeum as the universe. This chapter finishes with some very complex discussion of biogenetic structuralism and neurotheology as a way of conceiving the initiate’s experience of the Mithraeum.

Chapter 8 investigates what Beck calls “star-talk” as an astronomical/astrological language spoken by the Mithraic monuments to initiates in the context of the Mithraeum. Important to the establishment of star-talk is the observation that for the ancients the stars spoke and the gods spoke through them. Beck acknowledges that there is debate and skepticism as to whether symbols can function as language signs to convey definite meanings. The cultural anthropologist who is most critical of this possibility is Dan Sperber, so Beck tries to cross what he calls “Sperber’s bar” as a way of demonstrating that star-talk was the language of the Mithraic mysteries.5 Generally he agrees with Sperber’s skepticism but is prepared to make an exception when it comes to Mithraism.

As a means of demonstrating that symbols within Mithraism do act as a language, Beck uses the tauroctony and its arrangement to demonstrate that a code underlies it on which the symbols are reliant. He claims that these reflect language signs that all initiates would have been able to read. To further support this claim, Beck uses examples in Graeco-Roman culture such as the writings of Origen, Augustine and Maximus to demonstrate that stars were thought more generally to act as language signs. Celestial bodies are held to have operated as language signs within the courses of their movement and powers spoke through the stars, communicating their past, present and future achievements together with their intended further meanings.

In Chapter 9, the concept of a language of star-talk is investigated further with specific reference to the Tauroctony. Beck continues to emphasise that there is not an encoded doctrine in the iconography itself but rather that the iconography represents signs used in star-talk. He sees little point in following what he claims is the well-worn path of iconography reflecting mythical stories and lessons, as this inevitably leads to Cumontian doctrinal explanation.

In this chapter there is also emphasis on the importance of the exegete and the interpreter, where the exegete assists the initiate to hear what the star-talk signs are saying and the interpreter helps the initiate hear what the star-talk signs intend. The chapter then proceeds on a long and very complicated exegesis of the star-talk signs in the Tauroctony. This chapter demonstrates Beck’s immense knowledge in this area, but it takes considerable concentration to follow.

Finally, Chapter 10 is effectively a long appendix on a lost model of lunar motion while the Conclusion is a brief summary of the new approach, which Beck has by this stage quite clearly advocated.

Roger Beck establishes a distinctive position on the Mysteries of Mithras in this book and demonstrates immense knowledge of the ancient material. The use of theoretical models from the social sciences is bound to cause controversy, but Beck must be applauded for attempting an explanation of the mysteries that is indeed holistic in comparison with traditional approaches. The problem that will always bedevil historians of Mithraism, and of ancient religions in general, is a lack of evidence from the perspective of the participants or initiates themselves. Some will find this an impediment to appreciating what Beck has done. In all, this is a rich contribution to a topic that continues to hold our fascination.


1. Turcan, R. 2000. Mithra et le mithriacisme, 2nd edn., rev. (Paris).

2. Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, (New York); Gordon, R.L. 1980 b‘Reality, evocation and boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras’, JMS 3: 19-99.

3. Ulansey, D. 1989/1991. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (New York); Swerdlow, N.M. 1991. ‘On the cosmical mysteries of Mithras’ (review article of Ulansey 1989), Classical Philology, 86: 48-63.

4. Merkelbach, R. 1984. Mithras (Königstein/Ts.).

5. Sperber, D. 1975. Rethinking Symbolism, trans. A. L. Morton (Cambridge).