ECHOES FROM THE GNOSIS
BY G. R. S. MEAD
THE MYSTERIES OF MITHRA
[Image added to original text]
ECHOES FROM THE GNOSIS.
Under this general title is now being published a
series of small volumes, drawn from, or based upon, the mystic,
theosophic and gnostic writings of the ancients, so as to make more
easily audible for the ever-widening circle of those who love such
things, some echoes of the mystic experiences and initiatory lore of
their spiritual ancestry. There are many who love the life of the
spirit, and who long for the light of gnostic illumination, but who are
not sufficiently equipped to study the writings of the ancients at first
hand, or to follow unaided the labours of scholars. These little volumes
are therefore intended to serve as introduction to the study of the more
difficult literature of the subject; and it is hoped that at the same
time they may become for some, who have, as yet, not even heard of the
Gnosis, stepping-stones to higher things.
G. R. S. M.
THE MYSTERIES OF MITHRA
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
AND DEVELOPMENT . . . .
IN THE ROMAN
EMPIRE . .
THE TEXTS . . . . . . .
. . .
THE MONUMENTS . . . . .
. . .
(F.), Art. "Mithras." Roscher’s Lexikon d.
griech. u. röm Mythologie, II. ii.
(F.), Textes et Monuments figurés relatifs
aux Mystères de Mithra, 2
vols. (Bruxelles, 1896-1899).
|The conclusion of
Cumont’s Introduction has been translated into English by T. J.
McCormack (Chicago, 1903).
THE MYSTERIES OF MITHRA.
This brief outline of the comparatively meagre information we possess
on what at one time was the most widely spread mystery-institution in
the Roman empire, is introductory to the following small volume which
will deal with the only Mithriac Ritual known to us.
In dealing with this exceedingly instructive Ritual I found that the
limits of one booklet would not suffice for an adequate introduction;
and without this, I fear, many readers will not be in a position to
appreciate the Ritual at its just value.
For, in spite of the wealth of epigraphic and monumentary material
now in our hands, the texts of the ancient writers which treat of the
religion of Mithra, are,
with rare exceptions, provokingly deficient in information on the
doctrines and inner meanings of these famous Mysteries; and, therefore,
a Ritual that unfolds to us the nature of the chief secret to which the
lower grades of the mystery-rites conducted the brethren, is of the
utmost value. It articulates, clothes with flesh, and puts life into
what have been hitherto for the most part the dry bones of a skeleton.
And this, too, in spite of the splendid labours of the Belgian
Hellenist Franz Cumont, who has done all that scholarship can do to make
accessible to us every scrap of information on the subject that industry
The two sumptuous quarto volumes of Cumont’s Textes et Monuments
figurés relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra will long remain the most
authoritative work on the subject; and the unstinted thanks of all who
are interested in this fascinating study are due to Cumont for the
admirable presentation of the labours which
have occupied upwards of ten years of his life.
The second volume, which is embellished with no less than 493 figures
and nine heliogravures, contains a reproduction of (i.) the literary
texts--Oriental, Greek and Latin; (ii.) the inscriptions or epigraphic
texts; and (iii.) the figured monuments and bas-reliefs; while the first
volume, which contains fourteen additional figures and a map, is devoted
partly to a critical introduction, in which this heterogeneous and
puzzling mass of information is skilfully analyzed, and partly to the
conclusions that may be drawn from the evidence.
Cumont has endeavoured rigorously to exclude any appearance of
subjectivity from his judgments, and claims to have founded his
conclusions on purely objective data. But when we remember that the
secrets of the Mithriaca have been most strictly guarded by all the
faithful, and that not even a single Church Father has been able to
boast that he is in
possession of their jealously guarded rites and doctrines, it will be
seen that the elements of subjectivity and speculation must enter
largely into the conclusions of even so rigid an objectivist as Cumont,
at any rate as far as the rites and doctrines are concerned.
Again, it is the habit of most of those who follow the German school,
in spite of the excellence of its methodology, to rest content when they
have traced the elements of the main doctrines and features of a
tradition to elements of a similar nature of an earlier date. If what
are called "sources" and "prototypes" can be indicated, it is almost
tacitly assumed that there is an end of the matter.
It is true that this is all the rigid adherents to pure objectivity
can accomplish; but in the domain of religion it is with every day
becoming clear that many doctrines which have been hitherto held to be
direct physical derivatives from prior doctrines, have arisen
owing to the natural evolution of the human soul and mind; that is to
say, their source is subjective and not objective. The human soul has
needs which it seeks to satisfy; and in all climes and times of similar
stages of culture, similar means of satisfaction have been devised. And
this simply because man is man.
The history of the evolution of the tradition of the Mithra-religion
in Hither Asia, and of its continued development when it spread like
wild-fire through the length and breadth of the Roman empire, in the
first four centuries of our era, is an instructive study; but the main
interest for many of us is the inner nature of the religion itself.
This, however, is a subject of extreme difficulty, as we have seen,
owing to the jealously and secrecy with which its tenets were guarded.
In spite of our more than 400 inscriptions, in spite of our upwards of
500 sculptures and bas-reliefs, we are unable to reconstruct the
It is as though the living tradition and written records of
Christianity had disappeared from the world for fifteen hundred years,
and there remained to us only a few hundred monuments and the ruins of
some three-score churches. What could we glean from these of the
doctrines of the faith? How, from such meagre remains, could we
reconstruct the story of the God, the saving doctrines, the rituals, the
Nevertheless the fragments of information which can be gleaned from
all this débris are of immense importance for the comparative
history of religion, and throw light on many problems.
The Mithraism that spread over the Roman world in the first four
centuries of our era, though it was the strongest, was not the only
stream from the same source that reached the Western world.
Post-exilic Judaism was strongly tinged with Mazdaism, in the form of
Pharisæism. Though it is strongly disputed by some,
the Pharisees (Gk. Pharisaioi, Aram. Perishaya, Heb. Perushim) may
have even owed their name to those whose doctrines they had partially
absorbed; and Perashim may thus spell Persi in Hebrew transliteration,
even as P~ rs§
does in India to-day.
But not only were the Pharisees, who gradually became the national
party among the Jews, imbued with Mazdæan ideas, but many schools of a
mystic and gnostic nature arose in Syria and Arabia who were more or
less adherents of the Magian traditions, or influenced by Magian
doctrines. Such schools formed one of the links between Jewish and
Semitic Gnosticism on the one hand, and the Christianized Gnosis on the
It is to be remarked that Simon, whom the Church Fathers regarded as
the earliest Gnostic heretic in Christendom, was surnamed the Magian,
and that The Great Announcement, which was the principal document
of the Simonian tradition, is filled with Magian doctrine.
Moreover the names of the Æons in a number of Christianized Gnostic
systems, are those of ethical abstractions, precisely as are the names
of the Amshaspands in the Avesta.
And not only are there distinct traces of this influence in some of
the Christian Gnostic documents preserved to us, as for instance in the
system underlying the Coptic Gnostic works contained in the Askew and
Bruce Codices; but also we have many indications of a large literature
derived from the doctrines of Zoroaster, and his Mazdayasnian
successors, and directly attributed to him by the Greek writers.
This literature was in circulation among certain Christian Gnostic
circles, and is also directly referred to by Porphyry, in his Life of
Plotinus, when giving a list of the Gnostics against whom his master
wrote one of the books of his famous Enneads.
Moreover the beautiful Syriac "Hymn of the Soul," which I have called
"The Hymn of the Robe of Glory," and which is almost certainly the
work of the Christian Gnostic Bardaisan (Bardesanes), is thought by some
to be based almost entirely on Magian doctrines. It may, therefore,
contain valuable material for unveiling part of the inner secrets of
Magianism, and, therefore, help us better to understand the innermost
doctrines of the Mithriaca; and I hope to treat of it later in another
Though it is true that the religion of the conquering Achæmenidæ--the
line of Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and the rest--did not have any effect on
Hellas proper, it is highly probable that it did strongly affect the
Hellenic cities of Asia Minor. Setting aside the statement that
Pythagoras sojourned for years with the Magi at Babylon, and was
initiated into their mysteries, it is for me almost indubitable that
Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 524-475 B.C.) was
strongly imbued with Magian ideas; and not only was the influence of
Heraclitus on subsequent Greek
thought immense, but he was regarded by some Christian Gnostics and
also by the Trismegistic tradition as one truly inspired by the Logos,
and as therefore speaking true "logoi."
The conquest of Egypt, in the sixth century, by the Persian arms,
moreover, cannot have failed to have made known to some extent the
tenets of the Mazdæan faith in that land of lovers of religion, and to
have awakened the curiosity of those learned in the mysteries of that
land of wisdom in the allied teachings of the Magian priests.
Again, the conquest of the East by Alexander brought Greece into
close contact with all the lands into which Magianism had directly
spread itself, and this contact would aid in the diffusion of a
knowledge of general Mazdæan tenets among the learned. Moreover, when
Alexandria became the intellectual centre of the Grecian world, this
interest in Magianism increased; and we learn that one of the librarians
of the famous
Brychion, Hermippus, the pupil of Callimachus, not only wrote a work
in several books About the Magi, but, if we can believe Pliny, he
catalogued the works of Zoroaster in the possession of the great
Library, and found that they added up to the amazing total of 2,000,000
But Magianism did not reach Alexandria in its original form; it was
already combined with many Chaldæan elements.
The "Books of the Chaldæans" also were well known at Alexandria; for
Zosimus, the Pœmandrist, referring to the traditions of the Chaldæans,
Parthians, Medes, and Hebrews, says that they were to be found "in the
book-collections of the Ptolemies, which they stored away in every
temple, and especially in the Serapeum."
The Serapeum was the second great building in which the world-famed
Library was kept, when the rolls had grown too numerous for the
Not only then were these Books in
circulation in the original tongues in Syria, Palestine and Arabia,
especially among the numerous mystic and gnostic communities, but also
in Egypt. Zosimus, moreover, further informs us that they were
translated into Greek and Egyptian.
It was on such translations, we must suppose, that the famous Greek
poem known as The Chaldæan Oracles (and also as the Oracles of
Zoroaster) was based. This was certainly in circulation in the
second century, and may have existed earlier even in its present form.
When further we remember that, from the time of Porphyry onwards, the
Later Platonic School esteemed these Oracles highly, and that at the
same time Porphyry was intimately acquainted with the Mithraic
Mysteries, and that the leading philosophers of the School were almost
all Initiates of these Mysteries, we are not without hope of recovering
the general drift of the main doctrines, on lines other than those
Cumont has followed. But consideration of this side of the subject
must be postponed until I come to deal with this poem itself in a
All this shows that before the direct immigration of the Mithraic
Mysteries (as known to us from the monuments) into the Roman empire,
Magian doctrines had already strongly influenced Hellenistic religious
As, however, we have already indicated, it is not to be supposed that
the Magian doctrines of which we are speaking were of pure Iranian
derivation. Magianism was already a blend. Irrespective of divisions and
reforms within its own originally pure Aryan tradition, it had, from the
days of Cyrus onwards, absorbed many elements from the astral lore and
theurgic practices of the complex of Semitic religious traditions that
formed the cults of Babylon. As so often happens in the world’s history,
the conquerors in war were subsequently conquered by peaceful means.
This stream of Magianism came direct
from Babylon viâ Syria to Hellenistic Greece. The stream which
we know later on as the Mysteries of Mithras, came by another way; it
matured first of all especially in Armenia, Pontus, and Cappadocia (that
is, Eastern Asia Minor), doubtless absorbing there some fresh elements
from the indigenous cults, and eventually passed by way of the sea and
military routes into the Roman empire.
Nevertheless the Mithriac tradition, in spite of its absorption and
adoption of foreign elements, clung tenaciously to its ancestral myths
and rites and doctrines, as constituting the real esotericism of its
cultus; within them alone, it claimed, was to be discovered the
secretum secretorum of its Mysteries.
The tradition of the Mithriaca, therefore, is of interest not only to
students of the history of the influence of Oriental faiths on the
culture and religion of the West, but should also be of value to the P~
rs§ s, and to all students
of the Zend and Pahlavi books, who generally
hold that the Avestan tradition is indubitably in the main stream of
direct Mazdæan descent; and that therefore the accounts of the Westeran
classical writers are to be rejected when they do not agree with these
On the other hand, it is a most remarkable fact that the Mithriac
traditions possess features that more closely resemble the beliefs and
practices of the Great Kings of the Achæmenid line, than do the Zend and
still later Persian writings. Indeed no less an authority than
Darmsteter has argued that Avestan Mazdaism was a later development, and
as it were a systematized reform of Zoroastrian Magianism effected
during the period of the Sassanid dynasty (226-628 A.D.).
With this view Cumont agrees, and maintains that the Mithriac traditions
preserve more of the earliest features of the original Iranian faith
than do the Zend writings.
ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT.
In the Magusæan tradition, that is the tradition of the Magians of
Asia Minor, Mithra is all-important; in Avestan theology, the latest
development of the great Zoroastrian reformation, Mithra holds but a
subordinate place among the yazatas, or celestial deities,
created by Ahura-Mazda.
It is, however, quite evident both from the oldest Vaidic hymns and
the oldest traditions preserved in the Avestan documents, that in the
beginning the God whom the Hymns call Mithra was one of the highest
deities of a pantheon which was in prehistoric ages the common property
of the forefathers of both the Iranian and Hindu Aryan races.
It is true that in the Zend books the ancient grandeur of the God is
only by incidental allusions; but His attributes are such as to place
Him on almost an equality with the Supreme.
In earliest days Mithra was God of Light, and was invoked together
with Heaven (Zd. Ahura, Sk. Varuna).
In the Avesta, Mithra is Lord of the Heavenly Light, and therefore of
the heavenly lights. He is the Light, and not the Sun; the Sun is His
Chariot, or rather His Charioteer. He is "ever awake, ever on watch." He
is neither sun nor moon nor stars; but with His "thousand ears and His
ten thousand eyes" watches over the world. He hears all, sees all; no
one can deceive Him. And so by a natural transition He is God of truth
and loyalty; He is invoked in taking oaths, and guarantees all contracts
and punishes all who violate their bond and plighted word.
And if He is Light, He is also Heat, and Life--the Vaidic K~
ma, the Orphic ErÇ s. He
fecundates all Nature. Mithra is "the Lord of wide pastures"; ’tis He
who makes them bring forth. "He giveth increase; He giveth abundance;
He giveth herds; He giveth progeny and life." He poureth forth the
waters, and causeth the plants to grow; He bestoweth on His worshippers
health of body, wealth and well-dowered offspring.
In fact He is precisely what the worshippers of Osiris, and the
followers of the Trismegistic tradition, and other Hellenistic cults,
called AgathodaimÇ n or the
Good Spirit, the Benefactor.
And not only does He bestow material benefits, but He also gives the
good things of the soul--peace of heart, wisdom, and glory; He makes
concord among the brethren who worship Him.
As God of Light He is the relentless foe of the Darkness and all its
creatures--all suffering, sterility, vice and impurity. Against the
forces of evil Mithra "sleeplessly on watch protects the creation of
Mazda." He is the Leader of the hosts of Heaven against the hosts of the
Abyss, and in all probability the prototype of Michael.
And in general it may be said that the picture which the Zend and
Pahlavi books gives us of this ancient Aryan divinity is similar to the
portrait with which the Vaidic hymns present us, though in the latter
case with less clear detail.
But though the Zend G~
thas allow us to catch clear glimpses of the physiognomy of the
Light-God, the Zoroastrian system, in continuing His cult, reduced the
ancient grandiose conception of the God to somewhat meagre proportions,
owing to the exigencies of the Avestan theology which placed Him among
Nevertheless every now and again the high rank of Mithra forces
itself to the front in spite of all theological suppression, and we find
Him several times joined with Ahura in one and the same invocation; the
two forming a pair. Again it is said that though Ahura
created Mithra as He created all things, nevertheless He made Him as
great as Himself.
Mithra is a yazata, but at the same time He is the greatest of
all yazatas. "Ahura-Mazda hath established Him to guard the whole
world of life, and to watch over it." It is by means of this Mediator,
the Ever-victorious Warrior, that the Supreme Being destroys the demons
(the daevos or devs) and causes the Spirit of Evil himself
to tremble. The main outline of the Magian system which Plutarch hands
on to us at the end of the first century, agrees with this, as also does
the ancient tradition placed at the beginning of the later Pahlavi
This suggests that the fundamental religious conception of the
subjects of the Achæmenid kings was simpler than the more complex and
refined Zoroastrian theology. It presents us with a Supreme Deity
throned above the stars in the Empyrean, reigning in eternal serenity
and peace. Below Him stands an Active God, His Delegate, Mithra,
Chief of the celestial armies in this perpetual struggle against the
hosts of the Spirit of Darkness, who from the Abyss below the earth
sends forth his devas to war on the "good creation" of Mazda.
From the inscriptions we know that the Great Kings (the Achæmenids)
invoked Mithra alongside of Ahura-Mazda, and gave him special worship as
their Protector. It was He who bestowed upon them the power of success,
or the presence or glory, called HvarenÇ
, which can be translated as "aureole." This Grace and Good Fortune of
Mithra was a guarantee of perpetual victory. The epithet "most
glorious," signifying the power of bestowing this HvarenÇ
, was given to Ahura-Mazda and Mithra alone. Mithra in one of the Yashts
is spoken of as He "who goeth through all the regions dispensing glory;
. . . He goeth dispensing sovereignty and increasing victory."
The supremacy of Mithra is also shown by the enormous number of names
of kings, princes and nobles containing the name of the God, and this
not only in later days, but also in the earliest times.
The conquering kings of Persia established their religion wherever
they carried their victorious arms. Especially at Babylon, which became
the winter-residence of the Great Kings, was the Magian cult established
in great splendour.
The Persian arms had laid low the temporal power that had previously
reigned over the cities of the Chaldæi, and the priests of the
conquerors, the Magi, were established in the highest place as the
representatives of the religion of the Court. But the Iranian religion
was not strong enough to resist the fascination of the ancient faith of
the conquered that reached back, as it were, to the night of time, and
preserved a science of the heavens that far surpassed the knowledge of
the followers of Mazda. So strong was this influence
that centuries later in Rome it was believed that the native land of
Mithra lay on the banks of the Euphrates.
If we are unable to say that in Mesopotamia the religion of the Magi
was entirely transformed, we can assert that it absorbed so many new
elements that it assumed an entirely new form.
Of its spread eastwards we know little, though the astronomer Ptolemy
assures us that Mithra was worshipped everywhere in all the lands from
Assyria to India.
Babylon, however, was only the first stage in the propaganda of
Mazdaism westwards, and also in its absorption of new elements. Under
the Great Kings it spread rapidly into Armenia, Cappadocia, Pontus,
Galatia, and Phrygia; and in these countries too we must believe it
absorbed new elements from the ancient cults of these lands, and from
the mystery-rites that handed on the inner instruction and preserved the
secrets of the outer forms of worship.
In the great confusion that followed the downfall of the Persian
empire, all political and religious barriers were broken down. Already
to some extent Ionian philosophy had, in a few instances, felt the
influence of general Magian ideas; but now in the train of the
conquering arms of Greece, the influence of Greek civilization in its
turn made itself felt on the Orient, and the Iranian princes and priests
submitted to its charm.
The contact of all the religions of the "Orient" and of all the
philosophies of Greece produced the most unexpected combinations. It was
probably in the years following the Conquest of Alexander that the
Magian priests departed from the reserve that they had hitherto
maintained as far as Greece was concerned; for that reserve had been
already broken down entirely with regard to the Chaldæan science, and
doubtless to a large extent in the intercourse of the Magusæi with the
initiatory cults of the more
immediate countries north and west of Babylon.
Then it was that Mithraism blended with itself Grecian elements, and
doubtless began to translate into Greek some of its rituals and
liturgies, replacing the native names of its pantheon with what
equivalents or approximations it could find in the names of the Olympian
As Cumont writes, "it is certainly during the period of the moral and
religious fermentation promoted by the Macedonian conquest, that
Mithraicism received its more or less definitive form"--that is to say,
the form in which it spread in the Roman empire.
This "synonomy," or translation of names, though perhaps necessary if
the doctrines of Mithra were destined to spread widely in the West, was
from a mystic or spiritual point of view unfortunate. For the vague
personifications conceived by the Oriental imagination in no long time
borrowed the precise forms
with which the Greek art had clothed the Olympian gods.
Perhaps the Iranian deities had never previously been represented
under a human form; if there had been images, they were probably similar
to the "monstrous" or symbolic creations of the East, and of the same
order as the awe-inspiring figure of the Æon which was still preserved
in its original lineaments in the Mithræa.
And in the spread of the Mithriaca westwards, not only did art aid in
softening what to those trained in Greek culture would appear to be the
rudeness of these ancient Mysteries, but philosophy also was called in
to help in the task; or rather the priests of the Invincible One,
Nabarze, declared that in the best of philosophy were also to be found
the secrets of their own sacred traditions.
The school whose tenets lent itself most easily to this purpose was
that which later became the most popular of all among the cultured of
world, the School of the Porch. When the cult of Mithra reached the
upper classes of Roman society, after its first irruption among the
soldiery and slaves, it was the adherents of the Stoic School who were
most successful in finding in the dogmas and myths of the Magian
tradition traces of an ancient wisdom consonant with their own ideas.
And in this connection it is of interest to repeat that the
philosophy of Heraclitus had already strongly influenced the disciples
of Zeno, the founder of the Wisdom of the Stoa, and that Heraclitus, who
passed his life at Ephesus in the last quarter of the VIth and first
quarter of the Vth century B.C., was almost
indubitably indebted to Persian influence for his leading doctrines of
the Ever-living Fire, of the transmutation of the Elements, of Struggle
and Strife, and some other features of his remarkable system.
The analysis, therefore, of the compost of the Mithriac doctrines as
propagandised in the Roman empire, presents
us, as it were, with a series of stratifications. The deepest deposit
belongs to the faith of ancient Iran; on this foundation of pure
Mazdaism was deposited a thick layer of Semitic doctrines from the
ancient religions of Babylon; and on this again a shallower sediment of
the cults of Asia Minor.
In this fertile soil, Cumont says, a luxuriant growth of Hellenic
ideas sprang up and largely concealed from view its original nature. But
if it is true that Mithraism in its contact with the West clothed its
outermost form in Greek dress and with Greek art, it is equally true
that it owed nothing of an essential nature to Hellenic notions. Its
inner mystery-teachings were independent of Hellas; and any attempt to
interpret these teachings from the standpoint of purely Hellenic ideas
is doomed to failure.
Such was the composite faith--though hardly a Hellenized Parsism, as
Cumont calls it--which flourished in the Alexandrine period in Armenia,
Cappadocia; and had Mithridates Eupator of Pontus realized his dreams
of conquest, it would doubtless have become the religion of a vast
It was probably on the downfall of Mithradates that the débris
of the Pontic armies and fleets spread the knowledge of the Iranian
Mysteries among the sea-kings of Cilicia. Under the protection of Mithra
these hardy adventurers pillaged without fear the most sacred
sanctuaries of Greece and Italy; and so for the first time, it is said,
the Latin world heard the name of the Conquering God (Per. Nabarze, the
Courageous, Gk. Anik‘ tos,
Lat. Invictus, the Unconquered) who was soon to receive the homage of
the armies and navies of Rome, and finally of its emperors.
DIFFUSION IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
It would be out of place in this short sketch to touch on anything
but the main features of the diffusion of the Mithriaca in the Roman
empire. The admirable account of Cumont, in the second chapter of his
Conclusion, is practically exhaustive of the subject, and shows in
detail, and with the aid of an excellent map, how the religion of the
Victorious God spread into the most remote regions of the West, from the
time that the Roman arms under Pompey, in the second quarter of the
first century B.C., began seriously to undertake
the conquest of the nearer East.
It was in Cilicia that Pompey’s legionaries were first initiated into
It is not surprising that the religion of Mithra should have found
favour with the soldiery; for the cult of Victory was essentially a cult
of warriors. Mithra was a warrior and a God of warriors; He was not only
General of the celestial militia in the Good Fight, but also Protector
of all brave deeds and chivalrous adventures.
It is a somewhat remarkable fact that the Magian influence in its
earlier south-western diffusion, viâ Syria, Palestine and Egypt,
seems to have been exclusively welcomed by strict ceremonialists like
the Pharisees, or by mystic and ascetic communities of gnostic
tendencies, or by circles of the learned at Alexandria; whereas in its
direct spread westwards, it at first contacted a totally different
stratum of society. It was welcomed at first almost exclusively by the
common soldiery, and also by the slaves or those who had been freed by
the state of servitude. The first propaganda of this second stream of
Magianism thus followed
the lines of the great military and trade routes.
The legions were being continually moved from station to station;
corps raised in the East were, in accordance with the Imperial policy,
despatched to the most distant provinces of the West; and the veterans
on gaining their discharge either settled in the districts where they
had last been stationed, or returned home, and so spread a knowledge of
Mithra among their neighours.
Much of the trade in the great marts and factories was in the hands
of Syrians and Levantines, whose chief commodity was the traffic of
human flesh. The slaves brought from Asia Minor helped largely to spread
the cult of Mithra among their fellows, and as many of them eventually
held positions of responsibility in the management of the huge
properties of the Roman nobles, they gradually succeeded in interesting
their masters in their religion.
The above facts show very clearly
that there were two distinct forms of Magianism that influenced the
West; the one a doctrine better suited to priests and the learned, the
other a teaching more adapted for warriors and the illiterate.
If we might so put it, one was of a Brahmana form, the other of a
Kshattriya nature. The south-western stream seems to have been a form of
Zoroastrian priestly Mazdaism; the direct western stream shows itself
originally as a cult of kings and warriors, who exalted Mithra almost to
equality with Ahura-Mazda.
The flood of Mithraism flowed with ever-increasing strength westward
during the first and second centuries. It ascended the great rivers; and
on the banks of the Danube, the Rhone, and the Rhine, it established its
temples in great numbers. It penetrated to the North of Britain, to
Spain, to the borders of the Sahara. Gradually it was established in all
the great cities and trade centers, until with the third century we find
practically the dominant cult of the Empire, under the protection of
the Imperial lords of Rome, whose claims to divine kingship were
strongly supported by the tenets of a faith which attributed the power
and victory of kings to the direct Favour and Glory of the God of
By this time, however, we have strong reason to suppose that the two
streams of Magianism were, at any rate in some of the circles of the
learned, flowing together. At any rate we see that in the case of
Porphyry, at the end of the third century, this philosopher was not only
learned in all that pertained to Mithra, but was also deeply versed in
the Hellenized Mago-Chaldæan Oracles; and that from this time onwards
the members of the Later Platonic school were mostly initiated into
Mithraism and also great lovers of these Oracles.
Much has been written on the struggle between Later Platonism and
Christianity for the possession of the Western world.
This Platonism was not a direct renascence of the older Platonism,
but derived immediately from Alexandrian Hellenism. This Alexandrian
Hellenism already consisted in a philosophizing of Oriental ideas--and
among these ideas we must include a tincture of Magian tenets.
There is, therefore, little surprise that the most mystical school of
Greek philosophy should have allied itself closely with the Mysteries of
Mithra; and in so doing it supplemented its too aristocratic doctrines
with ancillary tenets that had already found favour among the masses of
the poor, the rude, and the unlettered.
But even so, neither Mithraism alone nor Neo-Platonism combined with
it was destined to become the Faith of the West. It is true that in the
years just prior to Constantine, the religion of Mithra seemed almost to
have triumphed. But it was not to be; Christianity ascended the throne
of the Cæsars, and Christianity became Cæsarized.
The daring effort of the Emperor Julian (A.D.
360-363) to re-establish the ancient order of things, or rather to save
the ancient order by purifying it, and so winning the world to a loftier
cult of the Gods, interpreted by philosophy and the mystery-teaching,
collapsed; and with it passed the Gods from the Græco-Roman world.
Mithraism gradually faded out, or concealed itself in cognate
Manichæism, which long survived as a harbour of refuge for the
shipwrecked Gnostics and Mystics of the ancient world and early Middle
Indeed the doctrine of Mani seems to have been in no small measure a
third outpouring, so to speak, of Magianism. This outpouring blended
itself intimately with the doctrines of the Christ-mystery, and even
perhaps with Buddhism, and handed on a Gnosis that may ere long be
better appreciated. For no less than 800 fragments of Manichæan MSS., in
an ancient Persian dialect, have recently
been discovered at Turfan in Chinese Turkestan, and are now at Berlin
awaiting publication. As these are the only direct documents we possess
of the religion of Mani--the rest of our information being derived from
hostile sources--it is highly probable that we shall at last learn the
true secret of its success, even as the Ritual we shall treat in our
next volume, will enable us to see in some measure why Mithra exercised
such sway over the hearts of His worshippers.
A certain form of Christianity conquered; that is to say, of all the
various forms of faith in the West in those early years, Christianity in
a certain form proved the most suited for the souls and minds of the
coming nations. That form survived which was the fittest to survive for
the instruction of the young nations which were gradually to develop
into the ruling nations of the West. But that which withdrew did not
die; it returned whence it came. It is there as it ever has been to
other forms according to the birth, and growth and death of nations,
and according to the coming and going of souls.
When souls are born who are not content with the forms of faith
handed on by the ancestors of their bodies, their longing for what they
consider new forms more suited to their needs, does but bring into
manifestation once more the same Wisdom that instructed their spiritual
forebears. We are to-day at an epoch when many such souls are in
incarnation, and the interest in the doctrines of the Ancient Wisdom is
accordingly increasing on all sides.
The religion of Mithra was one of the many forms of the
Christ-mystery; and the mystery of the Christ is the mystery of man’s
perfectioning and final apotheosis. A comparative study of christology,
in this its widest sense, and in all its manifold aspects, in the great
religions that have disappeared or are still existing, is of the utmost
value; and it is from this standpoint mainly that we are
interested in the nature of the great secret of the Mithriaca.
The secret of regeneration, of being born anew, or spiritually, or
from above--in brief, the divinizing of man, was the last word of the
Mithra-rites; all else is introductory or ancillary.
This secret was the one secret of all the great mystery-rites and
mystery-arts. It was the secret of the Gnosis in all its forms,
contemplative or operative. We are, therefore, not surprised to learn
that even as early as the end of the fourth century we find Zosimus, a
disciple of the Trismegistic lore, and an alchemist, in a treatise "On
Asbestos"--that is to say, presumably, on that pure body of man that can
remain in the Fire without being consumed--writing as follows in mystic
"And if thou dry it in the sun thou shalt possess the mystery that no
man can impart, in which no one of all the wisdom-lovers hath ventured
to initiate in words; but only by the sanction of
themselves [that is, the sanction of their own divinity] have they
imparted its initiation. For this they have called in the scriptures the
chief of all mysteries: The Stone that is no stone, the unknowable known
unto all, the that which hath no honour yet is of greatest honour, the
that which none can give but God alone. But I will sing its praise, the
that which none can give but God alone, the one (material) thing in all
our operations which is superior to all that is material. This is the
remedy which doth contain all power--the Mithriac Mystery."
FROM THE TEXTS.
In this short sketch it is only possible to dwell on one or two of
the most striking passages from the classical writers.
Dion Chrysostom (c. 50-120 A.D.) was
born at Prusa in Bithynia, travelled extensively in Asia Minor, and was
very familiar with the Magian cult; in all probability he was himself an
initiate of the Mithriaca. In one of his Orations, Dion hands on to us a
very instructive mystery-myth which was chanted by the Magi in one of
their sacred hymns.
They sang of the Supreme as the Perfect and Primal Charioteer of the
Most Perfect Vehicle--more admirable and ancient far than the chariot of
the sun which all can see. This Perfect Vehicle was the Cosmic Car drawn
by the four Great Elements. It was the
All-perfect Sphere of the Æon, or Eternity; that is to say, of
Boundless Time, who was also regarded by the Magi as Infinite Space. He
is the Zervan Akarana, Eternity without Bounds, who in this tradition of
Magianism transcended Ahura-Mazda Himself.
The Four Elements are the Steeds of the Great Chariot of all things.
The course of the first Winged Horse is beyond the limits of heaven
itself. This Steed transcends the rest in beauty, greatness and speed,
and shines with purest brilliance. Its resplendent coat is dappled o’er
with sparks of flame, the stars and planets and the moon. Such is the
Steed of Fire.
The second Horse is Air. Its colour is black; the side turned towards
its shining mate is bright with light, but that in shade is dark. In
nature it is mild, and more obedient to the rein; it is less strong than
Fire and slower in its course.
The third is Water, slower still than
Air; while Earth, the fourth of this great Cosmic Team, turns on
itself, champing its adamantine bit.
Round it its fellow Steeds circle as round a post. And this continues
for long ages, during which the Cosmic Team work steadily together in
peace and friendship.
But after many ages, at a certain time, the mighty Breath of the
first Steed, as though in passion, pours from on high and makes the
others hot, and most of all the last. And finally the fiery Breath sets
the Earth Horse’s mane ablaze. In the suffering of this cosmic passion
the Earth causes such distress to its neighbour Steed and so disturbs
its course, that exhausted by its struggles it inundates the Earth with
floods of sweat.
This all happens at certain great periods of time when the Charioteer
either reins in His Steeds or urges them on with the whip, as need may
be to keep the world-course that His Will marks out.
But at the end of the world’s age a still stronger mystery is
wrought. A Divine Contest takes place among the Steeds; their natures
are transformed, and their substances pass over to the mightiest of the
Four. It is as though a sculptor had modelled four figures in wax, and
melted them down again, and remade them into one form.
The One Element becomes omnipotent, and finally in its triumph is
identified with the Charioteer Himself.
It is easy to see in this great myth, the periods of partial
world-destruction by fire and water; and finally the re-absorption of
all things in the Ever-living Element, now rebecome the One Element, the
Single Body of all things.
To the Church Father Origen, writing some seventy-five years
afterwards, we owe an important quotation from the True Word of
the philosopher Celsus, who composed his criticism of Christianity about
Origen, after telling us that Celsus is treating of the way of souls
down and up through the planetary spheres, continues with a verbatim
quotation as follows (vi., 22):
"These writings are symbolically set forth by the Wisdom of the
Persians and the Initiation of Mithra which is practised among them. In
the latter there is a certain symbolic representation of the two
circuits in the heaven--both of the regular circuit and of that which is
assigned to the irregular spheres--and of the passage of the soul
"This symbolic representation is as follows: A ladder with seven
gates, and at its top an eighth gate.
"The first of the gates is of lead, the second of tin, the third of
copper, the fourth of iron, the fifth of alloy, the sixth of silver, and
the seventh of gold.
"The first they assign as Saturn’s, indicating by lead the slowness
of the star; the second as that of Venus, setting in correspondence with
brightness and softness of tin; the third of Jupiter, for it has a
copper basis and is hard; the fourth as Mercury’s, for both Mercury and
iron are patient of work of every kind--the one transacts all business,
the other is wrought with much labour; the fifth as that of Mars, for it
is irregular from its mixture and variegated; the sixth as the Moon’s,
the silver one; and the seventh as the Sun’s, the golden--in imitation
of their colours."
Origen then tells us that Celsus gives further reasons for this
arrangement, based on the symbolism of the names, and adds "musical
reasons" as set forth in the "theology of the Persians."
This is the only description we have of the famous Mithriac Climax or
Ladder, and it must be confessed that it leaves much to be desired.
Whatever be the correct attribution of the metals to the "planets," and
whatever may be the correct key to the alchemical or astrological
secrets involved in it, it may be
of interest to remark that this scheme was adopted as a means of
Mirrors of different metals were placed on the walls of an octagonal
chamber, and in the centre was a couch, the legs of which were
insulated. On this lay the seeker, and gazed into the mirror before him;
in it he was supposed to see visions of invisible things, and develop in
himself the senses of the soul.
My old friend and instructor had one of these chambers built shortly
before her passing away, but it was never furnished, and so the
experiment was not made. But recently a young friend of mine who had
never heard of this, has had a dream-experience of a similar chamber, in
which he seemed to have been once lying in Egypt. The couch on which he
lay was a lion-couch.
The Church Fathers, however, seem to have had but the meagrest
information on the Mithriaca.
Justin Martyr (c. 150 A.D.) says that
the evil demons in the Mysteries of Mithra aped the Christian
Eucharist; for there was an offering of bread and of a cup of water with
certain explanatory sacred formulæ.
Tertullian in his exhortation On the Crown, written about 210
A.D., also accuses the Devil of aping some of the
divine teachings in order to put the Christians to shame; and he
instances certain of the Mithriac practices as follows (c. xv.):
"Blush, ye Fellow-soldiers of Christ, who need not be condemned by
Him, but by any Soldier of Mithra.
"For when this Soldier is initiated in the Cave--in the Camp of
Darkness as may well be said--and a crown is offered him at the sword’s
point--as though it were a mimicry of martyrdom--and then placed on his
head, he is bidden to put up his hand and change it from his head to, it
may be, his shoulder, declaring that Mithra is his Crown.
"And henceforth he never allows a
crown [or wreath] to be put on him; and this he has as a mark whereby
to prove himself, if on any occasion he should be tried concerning his
mystery; immediately he is recognised as a Soldier of Mithra, if he cast
down the crown, and declare that his Crown is his God."
Again in his treatise On Prescription against Heretics (c.
xl.), Tertullian returns to the same convenient theory that the Devil by
his wiles has perverted the truth, and "emulously mimics even the
precise particulars of the divine sacraments by the mysteries of idols.
"He too baptizes some--of course his own believers and faithful; he
promises the remission of sins by a bath. If I still remember rightly,
Mithra there [that is in the Cave] signs his Soldiers on their
foreheads, celebrates also the offering of bread, introduces an image of
the resurrection, and purchases for himself a crown at the sword’s
"What are we to say also of his appointing for his chief priest a
marriage only. He, too, has his virgins; he, too, has his celibates."
Augustine, at the end of the fourth century, in boasting that the
Christian faith publishes and uncovers all the secret mysteries invented
by the evil demons, instances the Mithriaca in the passage:
"But what kind of play is that which is played for them in the Cave
with veiled eyes? For they have their eyes veiled lest they should
shudder at the disgraceful dishonour to which they are put. Some like
birds flap their wings imitating the cry of ravens; others again roar
like lions; while others with hands bound with the entrails of fowls are
made to leap over trenches filled with water, and then some one comes
and severs the bond, and calls himself their liberator."
This apparently typified the effort of the soul, bound with the bonds
of the passions, to overleap the watery regions, and gain the other
shore, where the saviour severs the bonds with the sword of knowledge.
Lastly, Jerome, about the same date, in endeavouring to prove to a
lady correspondent called Læta (Letter cvii.), that it is never too late
to be converted, instances a certain patrician named Gracchus, "who had
repudiated the Cave of Mithra and all the monstrous figures used in the
initiations of the Raven, Griffin, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-courser,
So much for the Fathers; as for the Philosophers, the one who tells
us most about the Mysteries is Porphyry (c. 234-304
A.D.). His information is of importance not only
owing to the reasons we have given above, but also because he was a
careful student of a large literature on the subject which has since
In his Cave of the Nymphs, and allegorical, philosophical and
mystical interpretation of a famous passage in Homer, he tells us that
the Ancients very properly
symbolized the world by a cave, and then continues (c. vi.):
"Thus also the Persians, in their mystery-rites which give
instruction on the path of souls in their descent to earth and the way
out and up of their return, initiate the candidate (myst‘
s) in what they call the Cave.
"For, according to Eubulus, Zoroaster was the first who consecrated,
in the mountains near Persia, a [certain] brilliantly coloured natural
cave, with springs in it, in honour of Mithra, the Creator and Father of
all things. This cave represented for him an image of the world which
Mithra had made, and its regular stratification symbolized the cosmic
elements and zones.
"After this Zoroaster, the practice was established among the rest
[of the Magi] also of using grottoes or caves, either natural or
artificially excavated, for the handing on of the mysteries."
In the Leontica or Lion-grade of the Mithriaca there was a
this Porphyry refers when he writes (c. xv.):
"The theologers have used ‘honey’ in many different symbolic ways
owing to its being a same deduced from many powers, [and especially]
because it has both a purifying and preservative virtue; for by honey
many things are preserved from decay, and with honey long open wounds
are purified. Moreover it is sweet to taste, and collected from
‘flowers’ by ‘bees’ who happen to be ‘ox-born.’ [These are evidently all
"When, therefore, they pour into the hands of those who are receiving
the Leontic initiation, honey for washing instead of water, they bid
them keep their hands pure from everything that causes pain or harm, or
brings defilement; just as when the purifying medium is fire, they bring
the candidate appropriate means of washing, declining water as inimical
"Moreover it is with honey too they purify their tongues from every
"Further, when they bring honey to the Persian [that is, to the
candidate who is being initiated in this grade, in the rites called
Persica], as to the ‘Keeper of the Fruits,’ they symbolically signify
the power of keeping [or preserving]."
The use of honey in the Leontica is corroborated by the engraved
figure of a lion with a bee in its mouth. Nor is it easy in this
connection, when we remember the bas-reliefs of the heroic deeds of
Mithra, and the similar cycles of exploits of solar heroes, such as
Nimrod, Gilgamesh and Hercules, to refrain from quoting the famous
riddle put to Samson: "What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than
I also remember the mystic experience of a friend, who in a symbolic
vision was chased by a great bee, and when in fear was told to let it
suck his honey; after which a lion was sent to protect him, and he was
told that he was being taught the veiling of the mystery. But to return
to our text.
Porphyry then goes on to say that some think that honey further
typifies the celestial nectar and ambrosia, and also the pleasure which
draws souls down into generation. Then is the soul moistened and becomes
watery; it is sucked down into the watery spheres within the great Cup
or Crat‘ r of Generation;
and so a crater or bowl is placed near Mithra to signify this.
"The Ancients moreover used to call the priestesses of Mother Earth
t‘ r) Bees, in that they
were initiates of the Terrene Goddess, and the Maid (Kor‘
) herself Bee-like. They also called the Moon the Bee, as Lady of
Generation; and especially because [with the Magians] the Moon in
exaltation is the Bull, and Bees are Ox-born--that is, souls coming into
birth are Ox-born--and the ‘God who steals the Bull’ [Mithra] occultly
Further on Porphyry tells us that there are two entrances to the
Cave; namely, the zodiacal Crab by which souls
descend, and the Goat by which they ascend. By the northern gate the
souls descend as men, by the southern they ascend to become gods. The
northern regions and the southern are thus apportioned to souls
descending into generation and then separating themselves from it (c.
"Hence they assigned to Mithra His proper seat upon the equinoctial
circle." Thus astrologically interpreted, he may be said to bear the
sword of the Ram, which is the martial sign, and to be borne upon the
Bull, which is under the rule of Venus. And Mithra as well as the Bull
is the Demiurge, or Creator, and Lord of generation.
One side of the Magian Mysteries, therefore, dealt with the descent
of souls into generation, and the other with the ascent of souls and
their freedom from the necessity of rebirth--that is, with their
becoming gods. And this agrees with the nature of the Lesser and Greater
Rites of all the great Mystery-institutions.
In his famous treatise On Abstinence, Porphyry further gives
us a hint that the signs of the zodiac and the rest were but a veil to
still more recondite secrets, in the following interesting passage (iv.,
"Among the Persians those who are wise concerning divinity and are
servants of God, are called Magi; for this is the meaning of Magus in
their native tongue. This race was considered so great and august among
the Persians, that [King] Darius, son of Hystaspes, in addition to the
rest of his titles, had engraved upon his tomb the fact that he had also
been Master of the Magic [Mysteries].
"The Magi were divided into three castes, as Eubulus, who wrote the
history of Mithra in many books, informs us. The first and most highly
trained of them neither eat nor kill anything possessed of soul, but
adhere to the ancient rule of abstinence from animals. The second [? the
warriors] use flesh, but do not slay tame creatures. While the third
[though they eat domesticated animals] do not use all of them as do
the rest of the people.
"For the chief doctrine of all of them is that of metempsychosis. And
this they also seem to make clear in the Mysteries of Mithra; for they
are accustomed to indicate us [that is the grade or nature to which we
belong] by means of animal forms, thus mystically symbolizing the nature
which we have in common with the animals.
"Thus they call the initiates who take part in the actual rites Lions
. . ., and those who serve [or the subordinates] Ravens. In the case of
the Fathers moreover [the same symbolism is used], for they are called
Eagles and Hawks.
"[These are the distinguishing marks of the three great grades]; in
addition, he who receives the initiations in the Lion-grade is dressed
in many animal-forms.
"And Pallas, in his books about Mithra, when giving the rationale
says that the general opinion would carry it right up into the
zodiacal circle, whereas the true and correct reply declares that it has
to do with the mystery of human souls which, they say, are clothed in
bodies of every kind."
The above passages contain the most important scraps of information
we can glean from the Greek and Latin texts. Owing to their fragmentary
nature it is, of course, impossible to recover anything but a few
scattered outlines of what must have been a very complex tradition.
There was in the East an elaborate public cult as well as an esoteric
side of Mithraism; in the West there was nothing that can be called a
public cult in any precise form, and no doubt, also, the mystery-rites
were considerably modified to suit Greek and Roman ideas--at any rate in
the exterior degrees of the general inner rites. Moreover, as they were
introduced by the rough soldiery, these preliminary degrees retained or
exaggerated the rude features of the tradition; and it was only in
the hands of the philosophers and the cultured that the inner rites
contacted the deeper truths and intimate experiences which they were
devised to veil and guard.
We will next turn to the evidence of the monuments.
FROM THE MONUMENTS.
It is, of course, generally assumed that where there is any doubt
between the evidence of the texts and the testimony of the monuments,
the latter must decide the question. If, however, we should apply the
same test to, say, Christianity, or to any other great religion in
imagined similar circumstances, we see at once that the monuments would
by no means be the more important witnesses; indeed they would be
frequently very misleading. What, for instance, could we make out of the
Stations of the Cross, if we possessed no single word of the Gospel
story? What, from the naïve mediæval figured representations of the
Creator, could we divine concerning the true attributes of the Supreme?
Of all the sculptured figures discovered
in the ruins of the Mithræa, the most extraordinary, and even
awe-inspiring, is the symbolic statue of the mysterious Æon,
transcending gods and men. He is the Everlasting One, the Lord of Light
and Life--the Autozoon, He that gives life to Himself, and is the Source
and Ender of all lives. He is Zervan Akarana, Boundless Time, and also
Infinite Space, the Ingenerable and Ineffable, the Pantheos.
[Image added to original text]
The rest of the Mithriac sculptures are disguised by the genius of
Greek art, which in beautifying the originals and humanizing the
symbolic creations of Oriental imagination deprived them of their
mysterious nature. The Æon alone remained intractable to the ingenuity
of Hellenic iconography.
This mysterious figure is that of a "monster" as it is called; or
rather it typifies the source or prototype of all ensouled forms
including that of man.
The body is that of a man, and is
frequently covered with the signs of the zodiac.
The feet are sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes they end in
the coils of a serpent.
In all cases there is a huge serpent coiled round the body of the
Æon, generally in seven coils; and the head of the serpent lies on, or
curves over, the head of the statue, and in one case bends round into
the Æon’s mouth.
The head of the figure is that of a lion thickly maned.
From the shoulders spring two wings upwards, and below these two
wings hang down. These are sometimes decorated with symbols of the four
On the breast is the sacred bolt of power, and in either hand a key,
while the right holds a sceptre or rod as well.
This startling image generally stood on the celestial sphere;
occasionally other symbols were added to the pedestal--such as the
serpent-rod of Hermes, the cock of Asclepius, the tongs and hammer
of the Fire-god, Hephæstus, and the pine cone. All these symbols are
connected with the creative power.
The Æon therefore typified the power of all things and of all gods.
The Æon was Lord of the whole Celestial Sphere, and of the Four Great
Elements. The serpent symbolized earth; the head of it entering the
mouth is paralleled by a number of monuments on which the serpent drinks
from a crater or water-vessel; the wings symbolize air; and the
lion-head with its shaggy mane typifies fire and light.
The keys are the keys of life and death, of light and darkness, of
all the opposites. The bolt and sceptre are the emblems of supreme
But the Æon was not only a symbol of the cosmogonical power of the
creator. The promise that was gradually revealed to the initiate was
that he might not only see the Æon in all His glorious actuality, but
finally become the Æon. There was not only instruction as to the
way down, but also precise doctrine as to the way up.
Man was destined to become the Æon by making his own body cosmic as
was the Body of the Æon. There was a Perfect Body in man hidden in the
imperfection of his partial frame. The serpentine power and all the
other powers were to come to birth in him when the time appointed by the
Æon should be fulfilled.
Of the rest of the monuments the chief was the group of the
Bull-slaying Mithra. In every Cave this formed the chief object, and it
was placed in the apse of the subterranean temple like a modern reredos.
[Image added to original text]
Within a sculptured frame representing a natural cave, the ever-young
God, with averted face, as though in sorrow, plunges his short sword, or
broad sacrificial knife, into the heart of the Bull, grasping its
nostrils with the left hand, and with his left knee upon the back of the
Mithra is clad in trowsers and a single robe girdled round the
centre, and with a mantle flying in the wind, as though it were the
wings of an eagle settling on its prey. This mantle or cloak is
generally covered with constellations. On his head is a Phrygian cap.
The blood that flows from the wound of the Bull is sometimes
represented by bearded ears of corn, and frequently the tuft of hair at
the end of the Bull’s tail is also composed of similar wheat-ears.
A dog, the symbol of instinct and watchfulness, laps the blood; while
below the smitten beast is a serpent and a crat‘
r, or water-vessel, and a scorpion seizes the generative parts of the
On either side are two smaller figures, almost duplicates of Mithra;
one holds a torch upwards, the other a torch reversed. These dadophors
or torchbearers represent the powers of life and death, of waking and
waning, of spring and autumn, of ascent and descent. They are also
symbols of the two
great powers represented, in the Alchemical and Rosicrucian
tradition, by the right hand raised with finger pointing upwards, and
the left down with finger pointing downwards--accompanied by the mystic
utterances Coagula and Solve; Collect and Disperse, Fix and Volatilize.
This famous artistic group was based on an Attic original by an
artist of Pergamum in the second century B.C. The
original was a bas-relief which ornamented the balustrade of the temple
of Athena-Nik‘ on the
Acropolis--the well-known figure of Victory sacrificing a bull.
But the group of the Tauroctonous Mithra was significant of greater
According to the Avestan tradition the first living creature created
by Ahura-Mazda was a Bull. The Spirit of Opposition, Ahriman, oppressed
it with every ill and finally compassed its death; but, marvellous to
tell, from its body sprang up the whole vegetable kingdom.
In the Mithriac tradition, in which we find scarcely any reference to
the mystery is otherwise explained. It is the Vice-regent of the
Supreme who accomplished the primal sacrifice. This is depicted
admirably by the artists who delineated the look of regret and remorse
on the face of the God, sacrificing His own most prolific creation that
greater benefits might be showered upon the barren earth.
The wheat-ears typify vegetation on the one hand and also the
spermatic power of the creative life on the other. Moreover the
Bundahish tells us precisely that when the Primal Bull was slain,
all the different species of plants sprang from the different parts of
its body, and especially from its spinal marrow.
But this was not all. If there were mysteries of generation, cosmic
and human, there were also mysteries of regeneration. There was a
christology and soteriology as well as a cosmology.
We know from our texts that the ancient Persians believed in a
resurrection of the dead, and the Mazdæan books
prophesy that at the last day the Saviour Saoshyañt will slay a Bull,
and from its fat mingled with the juice of the white Haoma (the Indian
Soma, replaced in the West by Wine) will prepare a Draught of
Immortality for all men.
But the highest initiates of Mithra knew that the last day was for
every man when the Æon gave command; and that Mithra as Creator was ever
slaying the Cosmic Bull, and Mithra the Saviour was ever slaying the
Bull of Generation in the presence of His true worshippers. The Draught
of Immortality was ever ready for him who had made himself ready.
But the Tauroctonous group though the central one, was not the only
scene depicted on the Mithriac reredos.
Besides various symbolical representations connected with the sun,
moon and planets, etc., there are two series of tableaux which specially
invite our attention. It is, of course, somewhat rash, in the absence of
all confirmatory texts, to hazard a suggestion of anything but
the main purport of these two series of scenes.
The first consists of six scenes; the second of ten. The first is
apparently a history of cosmogenesis; the second is clearly a pictorial
memorial of the exploits of Mithra.
I. THE COSMOLOGIC
1. The first tableau consists of a full face, surrounded by a thick
encircling which appears to be divided into eight parts. This is
evidently the primordial deity; in its solitariness doubtless the Æon,
but taken in connection with the next scene it is Heaven.
2. For the second tableau represents a woman, with the upper part of
her body naked, reclining on the earth; her left hand touches a basket
of fruits, her right is raised above her head. Near her is the figure of
a man, visible only as far as his waist, who supports a great sphere on
his head. This Atlas is clearly Heaven
and the recumbent figure Earth--the primordial pair.
3. Then follows a male figure half recumbent on the rocks; a similar
figure sometimes appears with water flowing at his feet. This is clearly
Ocean; and the Avestan tradition has preserved the ancient saying: "All
was created from water." Did Thales, then, derive his leading dogma from
4. Next comes a group of three female figures in long robes. They are
the triple Fortune or Fate, who was regarded in Persia as the daughter
of Heaven and Earth. All the above related to the night of time, during
the reign of Zervan.
5. For the next scene depicts Zervan (Kronos) handing over to Mazda
(Zeus) the sovereignty of the world.
6. Finally, we have a scene which depicts Ahura brandishing his
thunderbolt and hurling down from heaven the rebellious giants.
II. THE HEROIC
1. The first scene represents the birth of the God from a rock. This
stone was called the Generative Rock. Frequently this rock is surrounded
by a serpent raising its head towards the child, whose body is naked,
and only half out of the stone. On his ringlets he wears a Phrygian cap,
and carries in the right hand a knife and in the left a torch.
[Image added to original text]
The cosmogonic interpretation connects this birth from the rock with
the birth of light from the firmament which was regarded as solid in
Iranian tradition, while the solar interpretation would refer it to the
rising of the sun from behind the mountains. But let us come to
something nearer home. Our tableau seems to represent a greater
mystery--the birth of what may be called the first spark or again the
first outpouring of life on earth.
If we may elaborate somewhat the mystery of that which sleeps in the
mineral, wakes in the animal, and is perfected in man, it might be
said that the first light-spark, or life-stream, according as we regard
it in its masculine or feminine potency, is passive or sleeps in the
mineral and is active or wakes in the vegetable.
The second spark, or the intensification or power of the first,
sleeps in the animal and wakes in man; while the third is the mystery of
what Basilides would call the third "sonship," which is that of
2. It is, therefore, of interest to remark that next to the tableau
of Mithra Petrogen‘ s comes
a scene in which there is a great tree with leafy branches extending to
the top of the picture. Before it is standing a young man, quite naked,
except for his Phrygian cap. He is cutting from the tree a branch
covered with leaves and fruit. The spark becomes active in the vegetable
kingdom on earth; it plants there a branch from the tree of life.
Often in this same scene is seen a figure clothed in an oriental
tunic half issuing from the leafage of the tree, while another figure
blows or breathes straight in his face. This is evidently a different
incident in the cycle of experience, and the two scenes were sometimes
depicted apart. It seems clearly to represent the passage from the
vegetable to the animal kingdom, and the inbreathing of the second
spark, the breath of lives, the animal soul. The naked first spark is
half clothed by the second.
3. The next tableau represents a young man clad in an Asiatic costume
and wearing a Phrygian cap, the usual full clothing of Mithra. He holds
in his hand a bow and shoots an arrow at a lofty rock. Where the arrow
hits the rock there cascades forth a spring of water. A kneeling figure
catches the stream in the palms of his hands and drinks of the water
This seems to represent the coming to birth of the generative power,
animal nature in man. It may even hide an ancient mystery tradition
that man was born before the animals on earth, and through his greedy
delight in the passion nature of the watery planes, he produced the
animal world as known on earth. However this may be, the symbolism seems
to suggest that the water is the stream of genesis and that man is
absorbed in its delights. There is as yet no war in his members; he is
the natural primitive animal man.
4. With the next tableau the order changes, and the Bull is brought
upon the scene.
First of all we have two representations which are closely connected,
and are always found together when they occur on the same monument,
though one of them sometimes is found alone. A kind of wherry which
appears to float upon the waters, bears on it, either standing or lying
down, the mythic Bull.
Alongside of this scene, is another consisting of a little gabled
which the Bull is ready to leap. One of the monuments gives us the
reason of this leaping forth. Two persons, of whom one is indubitably
Mithra, seem to be applying torches to the roof and door of this byre.
This seems to suggest the descent and the rousing into activity of
the animal generative power under the fervent heat of the divine
5. We next come to a series of scenes variously depicted, but all
connected with the contest of Mithra with the Bull.
First the sacred animal is seen browsing quietly in a meadow, or
raising its head as though to listen.
Then Mithra comes on the scene. Sometimes he is seen carrying the
Bull on his shoulders, like the Good Shepherd with the lamb, or Hermes
Criophorus with the kid; he turns his head as though he feared pursuit.
Sometimes he walks alongside of the beast, holding its horns; again
he mounts astride upon it and rides it quietly,
guiding it with one hand by means of its nostrils.
In another scene the Bull starts off in a wild gallop; Mithra with
his arms round its neck lies flat along its back as though all but swept
off by its rush; sometimes he has fallen and only just saves himself by
clinging desperately to its horns.
At last, however, the fierce animal is conquered; the God takes it by
its two hind feet over his shoulders, and drags it off, with its front
hoofs trailing on the ground. He thus carries it to the cave where he is
finally to slay it.
Whatever other interpretations there may be of this most famous
exploit of the God, it seems very clear that it chiefly signified the
conquest of the irrational nature by the reason, and the final reversal
of the latter,--the beginning of the ascent, the true "repentance," or
But to me it seems to indicate as well certain processes of mystic
psycho-physiology. What I have called a spark (following a certain
gnostic nomenclature) is really a power or substance hidden in every
atom of the body, and is only graphically spoken of as one spark or
These scenes in which Mithra grasps the horns of the Bull, seem to
signify the marriage of what might be called an atom of the mental
nature with an atom of the passional nature. There is struggle, there is
conquest, and finally there is death prior to resurrection.
The passional nature is converted, led back by the initiate into the
cave in the depth of his own substance, there to be slain--"the lamb
slain from the foundation of the world"--and from its blood will spring
up the plants and trees of life, and it will give corn with which to
feed the hungry with the bread of life.
6. The next group depicts Mithra holding in his right hand above his
head the shoulder of a calf; kneeling before him is a young man naked,
or in a simple
chlamys, raising his hands in sign of supplication. With this must be
taken a similar scene in which Mithra apparently lays aside the object
in his right hand, and with his left places on the suppliant’s head a
radiant crown; while again in another scene he lays his left hand on the
head of the sword at his waist, and the crown lies on the ground between
The shoulder of the calf is, in celestial imagery, the symbol of the
seven stars of the constellation of the Bear which were supposed to turn
the great sphere. These are the Lords of the Pole, and Mithra is their
Lord. The seven jewels, representing the seven simple senses of the
celestial or spiritual body, are now ordered in the initiate’s heaven
and he is crowned with the Sun.
7. The next scene represents a compact or bond of brotherhood between
Mithra and the Sun. Perhaps this represents the grade of the
Heliodromos, or Sun-courser, as I have translated it above in
the passage from Jerome; of the man whose course is now as the course
of the stars in high heaven.
8. Whether or not this scene is here in the right order, it is
impossible to say. It represents what is apparently Mithra’s Hunting.
The God is mounted on a horse in full gallop; his cloak flies in the
wind behind him and he shoots his arrows, while an attendant follows
with a quiver of darts.
This seems to suggest the activity of the perfect man, mounted on the
white steed of purified passion, and directing his powers against the
forces of evil; the attendant is perhaps the Sun, who supplies him with
9. The next tableau depicts a feast. Mithra and the Sun are seated on
a cushioned couch with a table before them on which are loaves,
quartered by a cross, and they hold goblets in their hands. Surrounding
them, and serving them apparently, are symbolic representations of the
initiates of various
degrees--such as the Raven, Persian, Soldier and Lion--and below the
latter are some of the sacred animals, notably the Bull; indeed, from
one of the greater monuments it seems as though the Bull’s back formed
the table of this final Banquet or Agap‘
This feast perhaps pertained to the Master-grade alone; it could only
be partaken by the Fathers.
10. The last scene depicts the Departure of Mithra, in the Chariot of
the Sun, towards the Region of the West, represented by the figure of
Ocean. It is the consummatum est; He goes unto His own.
One is well aware that these mythic scenes can be interpreted in many
other ways, according to the number of times there may be power to turn
the key. One is also well aware how hazardous is the present undertaking
in the absence of all documents. But as there is confidence that all the
great Mystery-traditions set forth chiefly the Mystery of Man, I have
ventured to suggest the
above interpretation from what I have gleaned of other similar
traditions and a comparative study of the Gnosis.
From this brief sketch I have been compelled to omit a thousand
points of interest and a thousand puzzles of scholarship. But as there
has been no intention of writing an elaborate treatise, but only the
object of getting as much of interest as one could into these few pages,
as introductory to the more definite subject of the Ritual which
Dieterich has rescued from the chaos of the famous Greek Magic Papyrus
of Paris, I must now break off, and reserve what else there may be to
say for the next small volume.