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The sacred meal and the ascent to heaven

After the arduous bull-hunt and the miracle of the bull-slaying, Mithras completes his stay on earth by banqueting with Sol off the flesh of the bull. As already remarked, the paintings at Dura-Europos include two attendants dressed as torch-bearers who carry the dead bull on a pole slung between their shoulders.

Mithras and Sol on either side of an altar Mithras and Sol at the sacred meal Mithras and Sol Mithras in a chariot ascending into heaven
Fig. 23. Mithras and Sol on either side of an altar Fig. 24. Mithras and Sol at the sacred meal Fig. 25. Mithras and Sol Fig. 26. Mithras in a chariot ascending into heaven

The meal takes place in a cave where Mithras, in his Persian robes, reclines or sites with Sol behind a table; the relationship between the two gods is clearly a friendly one, as Mithras is sometimes seen with his arm round his companion's shoulder. The most usual expression discernible in these pictures, however, is one of profound religious feeling, which can be seen in all the representations of highly exalted events as, for example, in the painting at Dura-Europos (Fig. 25). The divine meal is more frequently portrayed than any other scene except the bull-slaying and sometimes the latter appears on the front of a relief which portrays the meal on its reverse. In such cases the relief was mounted on a pivot so that during the ceremonies the worshippers' attention could be drawn to one scene or the other by rotating the slab.

The meal can even be regarded as an event which takes place solely on a divine level between the two gods, Sol and Mithras. But the believers, according to certain texts, imitated the example of their deity during the ritual. Therefore certain representations are of a mixed nature, with the initiates themselves taking part in the meal as attendants on the gods; the example and imitation of the divine meal are woven into a single whole. A third variant of the scene represents initiates partaking of the meal alone.

In order to understand the ritual of this repast we must first consider the magnificent painting on the side wall behind the left-hand bench in the Aventine Mithraeum. This painting dates from A.D. 220. In a dark vaulted grotto, lit only by the golden glow of candlelight, Sol and Mithras are reclining on a couch; before them is a small table. Sol, clad in a long red garment with a yellow belt, holds a globe in his left hand and raises his right hand in a gesture of ardent enthusiasm; his long golden locks are surrounded by a rayed nimbus and he is gazing ecstatically upwards into the heavens. Mithras, in his red cloak and Phrygian cap, is sitting beside him and has put his right hand on Sol's shoulder. On each side stands an attendant; one of them keeps the gods provided with drink, the other, wearing a raven-mask, offers an oval plate with food; he is an initiate of the raven grade. Eight other young men, all Lions according to the inscriptions, bring gifts. They carry bread and a mixing-bowl, a cock and a bundle of tapers. Nowhere else is the Mithraic meal portrayed in such detail. The two gods have for a moment joined their earthly followers, who in their turn pay homage to their distinguished guests. In this way the divine presence is manifested while the initiates celebrate the mysteries and follow their example. The place once occupied by Mithras and Sol is now taken by their representatives, the Father of the Community and the Courier of the Sun, who during the solemnities would be wearing the same clothes as Mithras and Sol wore before them and are furnished with the same attributes. In the Santa Prisca Mithraeum a separate bench is made for these two persons to recline upon during the celebration of the meal. The lower grades, particularly the Ravens, are in attendance to supply them with food and drink.

On the reverse of the Mithraic relief from Heddernheim, Sol and Mithras are lying together behind the slain bull (Fig. 24). Elsewhere both gods or their followers are sometimes seen lying on the bull's skin, emphasising once again the magic power which they seek to extract from it. On the Konjic relief, the Raven and Lion, both wearing the masks of their grade, serve food and drink, (Fig. 5) which in these scenes consists of bread, fruit and sometimes fish. On the Heddernheim relief the attendants, dressed as torch-bearers, are offering baskets containing bread or fruit and Sol is handing his companion a bunch of grapes, a gift which Mithras regards with awe. A terra sigillata bowl found at Trier and probably used at the sacred meal shows how the attendant served the bread; at Dura-Europos we have already seen the gods receiving small pieces of meat skewered on a spit; in the representation of the repast in the Aventine Mithraeum a Lion is carrying a cake in a class dish. From the refuse-pits which are often discovered close to Mithraic sites the bones of bulls, boars, sheep, and birds have been found, and the natural deduction is that normally the bull's flesh was consumed and its blood drunk. However, if no bull was available or if the animal was too costly, one either had to be content with the flesh of other animals, generally smaller domesticated breeds, or else with bread and fish as substitutes for meat, and wine for blood. 'That bread and water were used in the mysteries by initiates of Mithras, that we know, or we can get to know,' writes Justin, one of the early Church Fathers. He is careful to use the word 'water' and not 'wine', although there is certain evidence for the use of wine. In the Mithraeum at Dura-Europos the expenses of the community are scratched on the walls, and at the head of the list come the charges for meat and wine. The bunch of grapes held in Sol's hand at Heddernheim points in the same direction (Fig. 24.). One of the attendants on a relief from Caetobriga in Portugal is emptying a jug into a large mixing-bowl, while the other has dropped his torch on the ground and is offering Sol a dish with what appear to be loaves of bread on it.

All this information is once more borne out by the painting in the Aventine Mithraeum, and it is precisely this scene of the sacred meal which suffered most at the hands of the Christian iconoclasts at the end of the fourth century; the other wall was left untouched. The reason for such vehement hatred is not hard to find. According to Tertullian the meal in the Mithras cult was a 'devilish imitation of the Eucharist', and the apologist adds that the initiates of Mithras enacted the resurrection as well. They firmly believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again just as life itself had once been created anew from the bull's blood. This food and drink were supposed not only to give physical strength but also to bring salvation to the soul which would in time achieve rebirth and eternal light.

Authors like Kristensen and Loisy have concluded from this belief that the bull was Mithras who had offered himself as sacrifice, and that the believers then consumed the divine body and drank his blood as in the Dionysiac mysteries, but neither the temples nor the inscriptions give any definite evidence to support this view and only future finds can confirm it.

Justin records that on the occasion of the meal the participants used certain formulae comparable with the ritual of the Eucharist, and in this connection mention may be made of a medieval text, published by Cumont, in which of Christ is set beside the sayings of Zarathushtra. The Zardusht speaks to his pupils in these words: 'He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation....' Compare this with Christ's words to his disciples: 'He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life.' In this important Persian text lies the source of the conflict between the Christians and their opponents, and though of later date it seems to confirm Justin's assertion.

After Mithras had accomplished his miraculous deeds he was said to have been carried up into the heavens in a chariot. Some reliefs show him running behind the Sun-god's chariot which is drawn by two or four horses, (Fig. 17) whom Helios-Sol controls by pulling on the reins or spurring them on with his whip. As a rule Sol is shown with a halo round his head and virtually naked except for a short cloak round his shoulders which flutters in the wind. Sometimes the sculptor shows the chariot's passage heavenwards, as for example on the relief at Virunum (Fig. 26) where Hermes-Mercury, recognisable by two small wings on his head and his magic wand, points the way. Reliefs from the Danube region, however, show Mithras stepping quietly into a chariot bound not heavenwards but towards the Ocean, which is represented by the figure of a reclining and bearded god, the lower part of whose body is draped in a cloak, and whose left arm rests on a water jar. Occasionally the Ocean is represented schematically by undulating lines. In the Dieburg relief of the scene the artist has surrounded Oceanus with a group of nymphs (Fig. 18.) and placed him beneath a representation of the myth of Phaethon, who had come to ask Helios for his chariot Above this figure's head a billowing cloth can be made out, a feature linking it with the reclining figure in the cult-niche of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum where a velum is draped over the god's head. On the Danube reliefs the body of Oceanus is encircled by a snake, its head pointing menacingly in the direction of the horses. The Water-god seems to combine in himself attributes of the Time-god as well as the God of Heaven, and it seems likely that this combination is a reflection of the time when the God of Heaven and the Water-god were regarded as one.

When Christian artists needed to portray on their sarcophagi the soul's ascent to heaven in 'a chariot of fire, and horses of fire'. The inspiration for this theme was the extant representations of Mithras's ascent to heaven in a sun-chariot. Oceanus is, however, replaced by a personification of the River Jordan.

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

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