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Mithraism

3) The Followers of Mithras

It has already been explained that in Iran Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assis others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition. Material evidence from the second century A.D. shows that wherever the Romans planted the standards, Mithras and his cult followed. M. Valerius Maximianus is a case in point. He was born at Poetovio (the modern Pettau or Ptuj) in the province of Dalmatia, now north-western Yugoslavia, where there were three large Mithraic temples, and as commander of the Thirteenth Legion (Legio XIII Gemina) he consecrated an altar in a Mithraeum at Apulum (Alba Julia in Dacia, modern Rumania). Subsequently as commander of the Third Legion (Legio III Augusta) between the years A.D. 183 and 185 he consecrated altars at Lambaesis in Numidia. There is throughout a strong connection between the Danubian provinces, where the Mithras cult is widespread in the outposts, and Africa. Evidence of Mithraism can be found at Troesmis in Moesia and also in Sitifs (Setif) in Africa, both places where the Second Legion (Legio II Herculia) was stationed at different times. M. Aurelius Sabinus, who came from Carnuntum (Deutsch-Altenburg) east of Vindobona (Vienna), where Mithras enjoyed profound reverence, consecrated as commander an altar at Lambaesis, and L. Sextius Castus, a centurion of the sixth Legion, who was in all probability of African origin, erected a Mithraic altar at Rudchester.

The pattern of the soldiers following the legions, the legions following the orders of their commanders and the Mithras cult following the army is continually repeated. An inscription from Palaepolis on the island of Andros shows how military service led to initiation. During the occupation of this island, when troops were being transported to the East for Septimius Serverus' expedition about A.D. 200, M. Aurelius Rufinus dedicated a cave to Mithras. Rufinus was a select member (evocatus) of the Praetorian Guard and as such he is also mentioned on an inscription found at Siscia in Bulgaria, in which it is recorded that he was a native of Bizye in Thrace. From examination of the extant evidence we know that in these Balkan regions Mithraism did not extend south of Bessapara and Philippolis. Rufinus therefore received his Mithraic initiation in his native district, but only while on military service, most probably in those regions where he served before joining the Praetorian cohorts. In Rome itself there was a Mithraeum close to the castra praetoria, paid for in all likelihood by public subscription, but erected for the benefit of the Praetorian cohorts.

There were also followers of the Eastern god to be found among the cavalry (equites) and bowmen (sagittarii) of the Roman army. Mithras the invicible was in a special degree the protector and patron of archers since he was himself the divine archer, who had power to shoot water from barren rocks with his arrows; a Roman relief shows that he possessed a bow from birth. Again, he was conceived as the Rider-god whose aim was so unfailing that his arrows never missed the gazelle or the wild boar. Palmyrene archers at Dura-Europos represented him on two paintings in their sanctuary as a mounted huntsman armed with bow and arrow (Fig. 4.). In Germany (for example at Dieburg and Ruckingen) there are other representations of the god hunting, attended by a pack of Molossian hounds. On a relief from Neuenheim he is shown as a powerful ruler riding a horse and holding the globus in his right hand (Fig. 3).

Although Mithras enjoyed considerable respect amongst the inhabitants of coastal towns, it was not by sailors that his teachings were spread to these places, nor are there many inscriptions set up by followers serving with the Roman fleets, in spite of the fact that he is known to have gained the gratitude of those engaged in commerece and navigation. The importance of the main land routes, ports and rivers was to faciliate the transport of troops and merchandise, but at the same time the great rivers formed a natural defence line and castra or castella, bigger or smaller fortresses, were often established along them before civilian settlements. The remains of these defence lines (limes) are to be found along the Euphrates, in Africa, in Dacia and Moesia along the Danube, in Germany along the sinuous course of the Rhine and in Britain between the Solway and Tyne, where Hadrian constructed a vallum or wall against the hostile Picts-and in all these places evidence of the Mithras cult is to be found, in the most distant outposts and in the furthest corners of the empire. In the Crimea on the Black Sea, at an important crossroads, it is recorded that beneficiarii (soldiers with special privileges) erected a Mithraeum, although the exact site is as yet unknown. In the last ten years Mithraea have been discovered at Rudchester and Carrawburgh, while the Walbrook Mithraeum in London shows a certain general similarity to the sanctuary at Merida in Spain and to another in Rome, on the Aventine below the present church of Santa Prisca. A follower of Mithras living in the Jewish quarter of Rome on the far side of the Tiber owned property in Ostia, where he had his name engraved on an altar dedicated to the god. At Dieburg and Stockstadt in Germany there are Mithraea containing statues of Mercury with his purse, a form less unusual in the East (e.g. at Commagene) where Mithras was occasionally invoked in the same breath with Hermes-Mercury.

However much human beings differ in character, rank and position, in a religious community all become united. In many Mithraea we come across expressions of simple popular faith side by side with the expansive dedications of the high and mighty. Some votaries are known to us by name, such as Jahribol, commander of the archers who had himself portrayed at Dura-Europos on the great bull-slaying relief making a sacrifice in the company of two distinguished acquaintances. Mareinos or Mareos, who executed the paintings in this sanctuary, scratched his name on one of the coloumns. It is a matter for speculation whether this talented artist was paid for his work or whether he gave his services for nothing. In the Aventine Mithraeum the followers of the god were shown in procession offering their gifts. They were mainly people of Eastern origin, as is evident from their names; their hair is short and their beards are cut close around the jaw. The painter has endowed each individual with a lively personality and the work shows considerable stylistic originality.

4) The Figures round the Bull-Slayer

In the vaulted border of the cave behind Mithras there is often a raven, sometimes perched but more usually flying towards the god. He brings a message to which the god listens; in some representations Mithras is clearly looking back towards the raven. In classical literature the raven is the messanger of Apollo, and in the Mithraic ritual he is evidently associated with the Apollo like Sun-god seen in the top left-hand corner of the relief. During the course of the actual mysteries the duties of those with the grade of Raven vividly recall the bull-slaying scene; they wear raven's masks (Fig. 5) and perform as heralds the same role as the raven performs for Mithras. The bird conveys Sol's orders to Mithras to kill the bull, and the god carries out the order, although with an expression of anguish on his face. It grieves him to slay the magnificent beast, but like a true soldier he obeys in the knowledge that in the end life will be renewed. On several representations one ray of the seven-rayed halo round the head of Sol shines out towards Mithras and so establishes contact with the god.

Nevertheless the scene is strange because there is no doubt from the evidence that the Sun-god was considered to be inferior to Mithras. Moreover, Mithras himself was also regarded as Sol invictus. One theory has it that Sol was the mediator who, through the raven, conveyed knowledge from Ahura-Mazda or Zeus-Jupiter. A second view is that Sol was originally the superior of Mithras and both were later incorporated into one mighty sun-figure, as When Mithras and Sol ascended to heaven in their chariot. This is a difficult problem to interpret and is still by no means finally resolved.

Mithras hunting; a wall painting at Dura-Europos   Meal of the Mithras
Fig. 4. Mithras hunting; a wall painting at Dura-Europos   Fig. 5. Meal of the Mithras

The Moon-goddess, as well as Sol, took part in creation. She is sometimes portrayed disappearing in her ox-drawn car at the moment when the sun's fiery chariot is rising. Usually only the upper part of the goddess is visible; she wears a diadem, and the sickle of the moon is displayed behind her head. According to Mithraic teaching the monn had the power to purify the semen of the bull and nurtured the growth of plants and herbs during the dew-laden night.

Two other figures are rarely absent from the bull-slaying. Dressed in Persian clothes similar to those of Mithras, they are placed on either side of the bull and stand perfectly still with one leg in front of the other as if taking no part in the action. In some cases, however, one of them holds the bull's tail, apparently in order to share its magic power or to stimulate the growth of the corn ears sprouting from it. Sometimes these figures are represented as shepherds who were present at the birth of Mithras, (Fig 2) but they differ in character from Attis, for each carries a torch pointing either upward or downward, (Fig. 27) by which they illustrate the ascending or descending path of Sol and Luna, the rising and setting sources of light, life and death. Generally the bearer with the uplifted torch is placed under Luna and his companion under Sol. Their names-Cautes, symbol of the rising morning sun, and Cautopates, the setting evening sun- have not yet been linguistically explained, but their symbolism has been deduced from the various representations. At the feet of Cautes there is sometimes a crowing cock (which the Greek called the Persian bird), whose crowing puts evil spirits to flight. Sometimes Cautopates is shown sitting in a highly expressive attitude with his head resting on one hand, the very soul of sadness, contrasting with the joyful (hilaris) Cautes. In the Santa Prisca Mithraeum this symbolism is also expressed in the colour of the niches in which their images were placed. Cautes stand in an orange-coloured niche while Cautopates' niche is painted dark blue. Some inscriptions even describe them as 'God' (deus) and rightly so, since we know from the writings of pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite (fourth century A.D.) that the two torch-bearers form a trinity with Mithras. Consequently Cautes represents the position of the sun in the morning (oriens), Mithras its course at midday and Cautopates its setting (occidens). Mithras may have been worshipped regularly at noon and we know that the sixteenth or middle day of the month was specially dedicated to him. The figure of Mithras symbolises not only the rising sun and the sun at its zenith but also the sinking orb; in this way Mithras's influence and power were made manifest each day.

Three heads with Phrygian caps set in a pine tree Mithras in a tree
Fig.6. Three heads with Phrygian caps set in a pine tree Fig. 7. Mithras in a tree

The teachings of Mithras, which are steeped in astrological theories, paid much attention to the position of the sun in the zodiac. When the sun stood in the sign of the bull-which indicates the beginning of spring-Cautes was portrayed holding the bull's head in his hand, but when Cautopates is seen with the scorpion we know that the sun has passed into that sign and autumn has begun. In a few instances, as at Santa Prisca, the two torch-bearers are placed beside an evergreen pine tree, while at Pettau a row of three cypresses, trees sacred to the Sun-god, indicate the Mithraic trinity. At Dieburg we see a tree with three branches and three heads wearing Phrygian caps (Fig 6). These representations are to be connected with others in which Mithras is found alone and hiding in a tree, a scene which occurs both at Dieburg and Heddernheim (Fig. 7.). Another clear allusion to the same trinity is a large marble triangle in Santa Prisca containing a globe at its centre. In short, the torch-bearers were so important that their images were to be found in almost every sanctuary.

Abstracted from : Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963

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