The Origins Of The Mithraic Mysteries * David Ulansey (isbn 019505402)

I actually bought this book because I wanted a reference-book about this extinct mystery-religion that was an early competator of Christianity in the Roman empire. That is not what this book offers though.

Usually the origin of Mithraism is placed in Persia. Mithras would be based upon the Persian god Mithra and the doctrines can be traced back to the also extinct Persian mystery-religion of Zoroaster/Zarathustra. Not so, says the writer of this little book.

Ulansey investigated the symbols and cosmology of Mithraism and came to a quite different conclusion. I suppose most of you have seen the best-known image from the Mithras-religion, Mithras catching a bull and putting a sword in the bull’s neck? Well, a lot of clues can be drawn from this image. On most images (some have been restored incorrectly!) you see Mithras sitting on the bull with his left knee, his right leg straight, having a very typical hat on his head that looks away from the bull. The blood from the bull is sometimes ears of grain. His seed is caught in a cup that is guarded by a lion and a snake and a dog are fighting for content. Further you can see a raven and a scorpion.

The hat is a near-eastern one (a “Phrygian cap”) which adds to the idea that Mithras can be traced back to Persia, but Ulansey has different ideas about that. He found old Greek astronomical drawings where the constellations are drawn as figures. Taurus is a bull, just above Taurus you can see Perseus with the same hat and swinging his sword to the bull. Ulansey gives a star-map on which the two equinoxes are depicted and on or just below the celestial equator you can see the constellations that you can also see in the tauroctony (Mithras slaying the bull). Interesting! It gets better though.

Perseus is also a person in the Greek mythology. A son of Zeus and Danae wearing a very typical hat, the same as Mithras. Also the sword and killing of a beast is part of the Perseus mythology, but about this later.

Perseus was the principle god of the city of Parsus, the capital of Cilicia. The influence of the Greek philosophers called Stoics was quite big there and especially the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes by Hipparchus and the consequences of that for the worldview of the people of Tarsus can’t be underestimated. Ulansey shows coins from Cilicia depicting Perseus in quite typical ‘Mithraic’ poses and even other images that would later be incorporated in Mithraism.

Often there are two figures holding torches coming with the Tauroctony which are called Cautus and Cautopatus. These two figures look like Mithras, wearing the same hats. They always have their legs crossed and (again, if he resorations are done correctly) one points his torch upward, the other downward. On a few occasions the figures are replaced by trees holding torches and a bull’s head and a scorpion. Ulansey explains that these two represent the bull’s head and scorpion or the constellations Taurus and Scorpio. Also they represent the equinoxes (spring in Taurus, autumn in Scorpio) which makes the entire tauroctony a celestial map of about 2000 BC, quite some time before Ulansey places the origin of Mithraism. The Stoic philosophers of Tarsus were well-read of Greek mythology though!
Anyway, also the torchbearers can be traced back to a Greek original, being the Dioscurio. These were ancient celestial divinities with felt hats and always crossed legs. They can be found on several coins that have been found.

I mentioned Perseus slaying a beast, this is Medusa, the woman with the snakes on her head and wings on her back. Some scholars say that she originally had a lions-head. Medusa is one of the three ‘gorgons’ of the Greek mythology having wings on her back. She tries to attacl Perseus but he defending himself can’t look at her without being turned to stone. This is also the reason that Mithras never looks to the bull he slays. Eventually Perseus does kill Medusa with the help of Hermes and Athena.
Medusa is later formed to the “Lion-headed God” in Mithraism, the second image that most of you will be familiar with. Most often depicted with a human body, the head of a lion, a snake around the body and little wings attached to the shoulders (which makes me think about the Kundalini symbol / staff of Mercury / caduceus by the way). Ulansey again has a some probable prove for this as well.

Only a few lines are spent to Mithras’ birth from a rock. Ulansey uses it as another clue to identify Mithras with Perseus, who was born in an underground chamber. Not in this context is spoken about the Mithraic ‘churches’ or Mithraeums, which are always built in underground chambers as well. Later when the Christians overpowered the followers of Mithras they built their churches on top of the Mithraeums and many are left under Christian churches (see photo below).

The name of the religion and it’s main character does not -according to Ulansey- come from the Persian divinity Mithra. As mentioned he places the early days of Mithraism in Tarsus where philosophers combine Greek mythology and modern ‘science’ forming a new system of metaphores. In these days an enormous group of pirates had a lot of power in the Mediterranean. They were not just a bunch of thieves, but exploited trade, built cities and controlled fairly large pieces of land. Originally they were from Cilicia and come on very well with the ‘Mithraic philosophers’, spreading their ideas in the controlled area. Being dependant on the stars for navigation, the pirates were great astronomers and the knowledge of them and the philosophers was a two-way motion. Trying to conseal the real name of their divinity, the philosophers used a variation of the name of a great king who the pirates were also in good contact with, being Mithridates VI Eupator. The first part of his name means “given by Mithra”, indeed the Persian one, but still…

You will not reach much about the history of Mithraism in this book, but the interest in it increased first in the lands of Mithridates and later in the area of his enemy: Rome. Mithraism mostly became popular under travelling soldiers and tradesmen. It grew so big that it became a serious threat of early Christianity, but eventually didn’t make it, was suppressed and eventually wiped out.

More details in the book of course. A small one, but interesting for sure!

For more information about (nowadays) Mithraism check out the wonderfull website mithraeum.org. Also in the articles section I have several texts on the subject. <16/12/02>

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