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5) The Legend of Mithras

The miraculous birth of Mithras

December 25th was Mithras's particular festival, when the advent of the new light and the god's birth were celebrated. This birth was in the nature of a miracle, the young Mithras being forced out of a rock as if by some hidden magic power. He is shown naked save for the Phrygian cap, holding dagger and torch in his uplifted hands. He is the new begetter of light (genitor luminis), born from the rock (deus genitor rupe natus), from a rock which gives birth (petra genetrix). Even at this stage he is equipped for his nature feats with bow and arrow, ready to perform the miracle of the striking of the rock or the miracle of the hunt. Just as the crypt of the Mithraeum is the symbol of the celestial vault, so the rock is the firmament from which light descends to earth. Sometimes, as at Dura-Europos, flames are shown shooting out from the rock's surface and even from the cap, which is often studded with stars and, like the vault of the Mithraic grotto, was regarded as a symbol of the celestial vault.

In the tenth yasht of the Avesta, the hymn for Mithras, the Persian god is described appearing in a golden glow on top of Hara Berezaiti, a mythological mountain later localised in the present-day Elburz, whence he looks out over the lands of the aryans. The theory that Mithras was descended from the union of Mother Earth and Ahuramazda does not bear examination; Mithras is saxigenus and sometimes he is shown stepping proudly out of the rock, as on a relief at St Aubin in France. The rock of Mithras's birth contains both light and fire; he who is born from the rock is thus a fiery god of light. This conception is almost certainly based on a very ancient tradition dating from the time when man first discovered that both light and fire could be produced by straking a flint. Mithras's birth is a cosmic event; he holds the globe in one hand from the moment of his birth (Fig. 8) and touches with the other the circle of the zodiac; the gods of the four winds and the four elements are all present to honour Mithras, ruler of the cosmos.

Mithras at birth with globe in hand Saturn sitting on a rock, a knife in his right hand Fragment of relief with Mithras Mithras catching the bull
Fig. 8. Mithras at birth with globe in hand Fig. 9. Saturn sitting on a rock, a knife in his right hand Fig.10. Fragment of relief with Mithras Fig. 11. Mithras catching the bull

On some representations shepherds attend Mithras's birth, (Fig. 2) but in most cases only the two torch-bearers are present, watching the event with expressions of profound amazement. On a relief at pettau (Poetovio) they appear as servants; Cautes and Cautopates carefully lift mithras bu his arms in much the same way as Venus on the Ludovisi throne is raised from the waves by two female attendants. Above this scene Saturn reclines, crowned by a winged Victory, while by his side lies a dagger which he will in due course hand to Mithras. On the Dura-Europos paintings the same god reclines on what may be intended to be clouds or a wooded mountain top and holds in his right hand a harpe, or short sword with hooked point. The palm branch of victory rests above his head and corresponds to the wreath presented to him at Pettau. On a relief at Dieburg Saturn, deep in thought, is sitting on a rock holding a dagger in his right hand, (Fig. 9) and on a relief at Nersae in central Italy the harpe is clearly visible. Saturn gives Mithras the dagger to kill the bull or, in his role as the divine reaper, presents him with a harpe. Sometimes Saturn's place at Mithras's birth is taken by the Water-god Oceanus or Neptune, and on a relied at Virunum Saturn has horns on his forehead, like Neptune, while by his side stands Amphitrite. Moreover, is some representations the birth is set close to a source of water; one such relief, now in Florence, bears the form of Oceanus. Why is it that a heavenly deity or water-god is always represented? An even more remarkable relief is to be found in the second Mithraeum at Heddernheim, where the front of the relief shows Mithras's birth while the sides are decorated with the figures of Oceanus and Caeulus, accompanied by Cautes and Cautopates, and expressly described in the adjoining inscription as the gods of the waters and the heavens. Both gods are powers of creation who are present at the birth of the creative god Mithras (Demiurge) and will later give their support to his actions. Saturn himself is called fruitful; Mithras too will give fruitfulness through the killing of the bull, but he will also strike water from a rock, which will then become an eternal spring. Consequently Saturn is sometimes shown as a witness of the bull-slaying, as in the vast Santa Prisca cult-niche.

The Mithraic priests gave even more weight to Saturn than Neptunus-Oceanus, since Saturn was equated with the Titan Kronos, who was in turn identified with Chronos, the god of Eternal Time, the Persian Zervan, and the Greek Aion. Mithras too was represented as the youthful God of Time while as Sun-god he directed the course of the sun through the zodiac. In other words, Mithras is Saturn and Oceanus as well and thus the creator of both fertility and water. That is why the leader of each Mithraic community, the Father, Mithras's representative on earth, was placed under the special protection of Saturn, as can be seen at Santa Prisca; one of the attributes of the Father is a sickle. Saturn received the wreath from the hands of Victory and this same wreath adorns many inscriptions relating to the Pater.

The adventures with the bull

Mithras's adventures with the bull appear almost exclusively monuments from the regions of the Danube and the Rhine, while elsewhere interest in these episodes seems to have been relatively insignificant, or they were considered of minor importance. The actual slaying of the bull is always, of course, the principal theme and incorporates the adventures leading up to it. Only in the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca do we find, on the right-hand wall of the cult-niche, a stucco image of Mithras with his mighty arm clasped round the neck of the bull. In a relief found in a Mithraeum in the Forum Boarium Mithras is carrying the bull on his shoulders towards the cave. This representation is, as it were, a gloss on a mid-third century poem by Commodianus in which Mithras is compared with the wily Cacus who stole the cattle of Geryon from Herakles as the hero lay in a drunken slumber on the banks of the Tiber close to what later became known as the Forum Boarium. Commodianus wrote his poem in the form of an acrostic on the theme of invictus, invicible, and included it in a collection of Instructiones which, in the words of W. Teuffel, is 'full of sentiments which, if not dogmatically correct, are truly Christian in their ardour'. His text gives some idea of how these two great opposing faiths of Mithraism and Christianity attacked each other:

If you hold him to be a god, born of stone and invicible,
Now, tell me which, then, of these two stands first.
Vanquished is the god by the stone; still to be found is the stone's creator.
In addition more yet must be added: you have also pictured him as a thief,
Laughable, because if he was a god, he would not make a living from thieving!
Terrestial was he and strange indeed his habits,
Veering their cattle from others away into the caves-
So once did Vulcan's son Casus.

Mithras dragging away the bull Mithras riding on a bull Mithras with bow and arrow
Fig. 12. Mithras dragging away the bull Fig. 13. Mithras riding on a bull Fig. 14. Mithras with bow and arrow

Despite what has been said above the reliefs from the Danube and the Rhine are so packed with all the exploits of Mithras that they often look like an open picture-book of his greatness; sometimes they even take the form of a triumphal arch. With his right hand he is lifting up a stone which he is about to throw at the roof in order to chase the animal out. On several relief from the Danube region a small boat (Fig. 15) with a second bull appears above the building. This scene may indicate the bull in the moon, since the moon is often represented as a ship. According to Porphyry the bull was identified with the moon, 'the female helpmate of creation'. This theory corresponds with the explanation of the bull-slaying given by Lommel, who bases his argument on evidence from the Indian Veda, in which Mithras definitely carries the exhausted animal away with its muzzle dragging along the ground. This gave the opponents of Mithraism an opportunity to interpret the scene as a cattle-theft and Mithras as a thief, and so to agree, probably unconsciously, with Porphyry who developes in De Antro Nympharum, 18, another complete theory about the 'cattle-stealing god'. Because the bull is identified with the moon and the moon assists in creation, Porphyry calls the souls which are created 'born of cattle' and the cattle-thieving god is 'he who secretly hearts about the creation'. So Mithras appears once more as taking an active part in the process of creation and even in the creation of souls. Porphyry's reasoning, however, seems to be an over scholarly explanation of the carrying off of the bull, which is described on a group of inscriptions (in particular one on a relief from Pettau) as transitus dei, the passage of the god. A line of verse (dated A.D. 200 and found in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum) hints at the god's heavy load, who carried the young bull on his shoulders, for if Mithras was to perform the great miracle he could not just find the bull and then kill it; the hero could only fulfil his mission after a mighty struggle. Mithras therefore carried the heavy bull towards the cave like Herakles bidden by Eurystheus to shoulder the Erymanthian boar, and his votaries, who wished as soldiers to achieve their particular life's mission, had to accomplish their personal transitus with the same determination reinforced by the god's inspiring example. Thus, on a large relief at Neuenheim, the story of Mithras and the bull is unfolded stage by stage. First we see the bull grazing peacefully in the field, but presently he is captured by Mithras and borne away on the god's shoulders, as a sheep is carried by a shephered (Fig. 10.). In this particular case Mithras's capture of the animal is not shown, but it was probably accomplished with a lasso, taurobolium, of which the original meaning is 'the catching of the bull'. But the wild and powerful beast is able to break away and drags Mithras with him at great speed (Fig. 11). The god, however, does not relax his grasp; he clutches the animal round the neck until in the end and with a great effort he succeeds in forcing it to the ground; the powerful bull's resistance is broken, but not so Mithras's strength. He lifts the beast up, pulls its two hind legs over his shoulders and drags it towards the cave (Fig 12). Some representations show him proudly riding on the bull, holding and directing it by the sickle-shaped horns (Fig. 13.). This is an echo of Porphyry's De Antro Nympharum, 24: 'Mithras rides the bull of Aphrodite, since the bull is creator and Mithras the master of creation.' The Greek text uses the word dhmiourgoV, creator, which elsewhere is used to indicate Mithras himself who, as explained above, created life anew, through the act of the bull-slaying. According to astrological theories the bull moves in the sphere of the planet Venus-Aphrodite-but how far these views are consistent with the image of Mithras as rider of the bull, and whether they were originally connected with it, it is impossible to say.

A large relief at Dieburg adds a further representation of this exhausting struggle. A on several other Danubian reliefs the bull is lying inside a building. In this particular case the building is a temple with a pediment decorated with the heads of three gods whose characters it is impossible to detect. Mithras is standing on a rock and is holding in his left hand a dagger and a cloth tinged with red.

perhaps the symbolic meaning of the sign of Taurus within the courts of the sun is fundamentally the same as that of the image of the bull in a house, since the moment which heralds spring is the moment when the bull-slaying was supposed to take place. Spring is, of course, the season in which countless other cults both past and present also commemorate the miracle of the renewal of life.

The miracle of the striking of the rock

A relief, illustrating Mithras's miraculous birth, found in Rome and now in the possession of Trinity College, Dublin, has already been mentioned in connection with the Sarmizegetusa Mithraeum. The inscription on this relief reads as if it were written in Mithras's own words: 'Lucius Flavius Hermadion gladly made me a present of this'. The artist commissioned by Hermadion portrayed the young god in a highly original manner. In his right hand he holds aloft a burning torch and looks excitedly towards this light, of which he himself is the personification. On the rock from which he has been born, lie a dagger, a bow and a quiver, and a single arrow is also shown separately. Bow and arrow served Mithras in two major exploits in which his unerring aim was all -important- the striking of the rock and the hunt.

Relief of the bull in a boat above the bull in a house Mithras on horseback holding a lasso in his lef hand Relief, possibly portraying the young Mithras before Saturn Oceanus surrounded by nymphs
Fig. 15. Relief of the bull in a boat above the bull in a house Fig. 16. Mithras on horseback holding a lasso in his lef hand Fig. 17. Relief, possibly portraying the young Mithras before Saturn Fig. 18. Oceanus surrounded by nymphs

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

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