The relief and an outline of basic elements of the Mithraic mysteries and cult
Article and Images by Michael Elafros & Thule Georgiadou
Translated from Greek by Panagiotis Dallas
It’s been more than twenty years and still my emotions are overwhelming me no matter how many times I have been there. Perhaps since secrets always mystify and attract the seeker. Perhaps since nothing has changed, after so many centuries. And this, by itself, the solid monument through time, the archetype, is a rare luxury, a rare feeling in our constantly changing, distorted, urbanised world…
The sun was mercilessly burning upon us. It was midday and he wanted to demonstrate his absolute power as an irony against the vanity of human actions. We stopped, we needed a rest. For a while, we were seeking strength in the shadows of a narrow path. We could feel that after one hour οf fruitless efforts, our strength abandoned us. We stayed in a slope trying to recover our strength. Around us everything was covered with leaves and where was a path carving the ground like a vein. For some time, we were seeking the ancient, sacred, rock, whose existence I accidentally discovered in the pages of an old archaeological guide for the region. We could not believe our eyes: A Mithraic monument so close to us! After a few minutes of silence, we followed the path downhill, like a solemn agreement between us to abandon our quest, and went back to the empty road. We had tried to cover all options for which direction to take, all the small sideways left and right, so the only thing we encountered was walls of trees. Suddenly, our silence was broken by the cheerful voices of a group of children coming towards us. We stopped in front of them.
They were staring towards us and we kept staring at them, tired as we were. There were three children, around 10 years old with their bicycles. Their presence somehow managed to awaken our senses, seeing their energy, the power of their youth, helping us to tolerate the extreme heat. Their Greek was not particularly good, and among some Greek and Pomak words, we asked if they knew where the monument we were looking for was. And suddenly the three of them raised their hands and showed us a place a bit further up the path, around which we had been moving for hours, saying that there is a small fountain there, close to the monument and that they have been there many times. With newly gained hope and momentum, we went to the place where the children showed us. We walked up the small path, went through the dense flora, this time we were certain we were heading in the right direction.
We indeed found the small fountain, beautiful like a painting described in fairy tales, and on the left stood a tall rock. Our eyes kept gazing wildly, and we finally realised we reached the end of our journey.
I will try to describe the relief and to outline a few basic elements of the Mithraic mysteries and cult. I do keep my reservations as to the archaeological and scientific clarity of the historical findings and the meanings of the symbols and symbolisms that I will mention; it is a courageous effort to write an article for something that touches the boundaries of my faith, philosophy and understanding of the cosmos.
The relief is located at the eastern side of a huge rock, with a height of 6.80 m, and is at the third from the western settlements of the village of Thermes, in Xanthi prefecture, close to the Greece-Bulgaria borders. Thermes are one of the Pomak villages, covering the biggest part of the mountainous area of the prefecture, and they are 42 km north from Xanthi, the largest city in the prefecture. Due to the isolation and the unique cultural, social and geographic characteristics of the area, this monument remains largely unknown.
This unique anaglyph was constructed during the Roman period (it is estimated from 2nd to the beginning of 3rd century A.D), has a height of 2.03 m and is 3 m above the ground. It pictures the God Mithras sacrificing a bull.
Its base is 1.04 m wide and pictures various events from Mithras life. The huge rock and the fountain next to it are the two fundamental reasons for building the relief in this specific place.
Of course, the monument has suffered various destructions, initially in ancient times from various invaders (example are the Costovoci, 2nd century), but even recent ones from treasure and ancient relics hunters.
According to an ancient Persian myth, Mithras was ordered by the god of the sky, Ahura Mazda, to be in a constant fight with the powers of evil, the powers of Ahriman. One of the most epic adventures of Mithras was his fight with the large bull, the first living being that Ahura Mazda created. Many researchers believe that this animal was representing an evil spirit while others that the bull was a sacred animal and its death was nothing more than a sacrifice. In any case, bull-slaying is a central part in the Mithraic mysteries and in the initiation process of its followers, so with respect to the information mentioned, the slaying of the bull is a common image in many sacred places of Mithras.
Inside an arc-shaped relief we can see Mithras sacrificing the cosmic bull; hence his name as the bull-slayer. The arc can be considered as a representation of a cave since caves were where the worshipping and the initiation usually took place. The cave represents the celestial sphere and the whole universe, a creation of the god. He is wearing a traditional hat from Phrygia, Persian clothes, chlamys, and from his belt is hanging the holder for his sword. His chlamys is weaving on his shoulders, in a way that reminds the paintings and anaglyphs of the Thracian Rider and Thracian Hero. Numerous of these Thracian relics can be found in the whole region.
He holds the bull on the ground with his left knee, while with his left hand he grabs the bull’s nostrils and his right hand is stabbing the animal’s back. Beneath the bull’s body, there is a snake, waiting to taste the blood of the sacrifice. From the Thermes anaglyph, it seems there are two significant elements completely absent.
These two elements are usually seen in this type of monuments, and I will mention them since they are essential for the understanding of the history of the cult and the monument itself. In many depictions, usually, there is a dog who tries to stop the snake from tasting the blood and a scorpion who tries to take a small part of the bull’s vital energy and virility by biting his testicles.
What takes place in all this peculiar and complicated system is, practically, a cosmogony. According to Mithraic traditions, at the moment of his death, the cosmic bull undergoes a transformation taking the shape of Moon (Selene), in contrast with Mithras who symbolises the solar light, while his cap is the celestial sphere with all the stars and the planets. The blood that is running from the deep cut at the bulls back, is a giver of life to nature and for that reason is some representations, from this cut are growing grapevines and wheat. The body and the blood of the bull are then becoming the bread (wheat) and the wine (grapevine) for the people. These extreme opposites are incarnating the symbolic dualism of the ritual: birth and death. Bull’s blood, symbolises the transfer of virility, creativity, strength, from what is dying to what lives on. This will provide the necessary continuation, the evolution of all things and the perennial life circle. According to the myth, from god’s cherished knife cut at the bull are born all the plants and herbs and Mithras is now in the position of a saviour and a protector of the folk.
From the seed that fell from the bull’s testicles are created all living organisms and human beings. Earth, sky and humans are now in complete harmony. From now on starts the change of the days, with the circular pathway of the sun, the night, the monthly cycle of the moon and time, solstice and equinox are formed. From the earth though we observe the rise of the chthonic forces of nature, with the shape of the serpent who wants to grab and destroy the new life that is forming, even if this snake itself is a symbol of birth and fertility. With the snake in this cosmic battle there is a scorpion, another chthonic symbol but with two different meanings, that tries to stop the spreading of the holy seed in nature. Against the forces of evil, side by side with Mithras fights his friend, a wild dog who is battling against the snake like a real protector. Ahriman, the lord of the forces of evil and eternal enemy of the good and benevolent Ahura Mazda, wants to dominate the new human race. Mithras, on the other hand, when he sees the first human couple, is immediately taking his part as the protector of these extraordinary creatures; the human beings. The eternal battle between good and evil has just begun and will last forever.
On the left and the right side of the depicted sacrifice, we see two torch bearers, comrades of Mithras who are also wearing a Phrygian hat. The torch bearing is a ritual of fertility and reveals the power of birth that is represented with fire. On the right side is the burner Cautes who keeps the torch and on the left side the burner Cautopates who holds the torch towards the earth, the ground, possible symbols of the circle of life (heat) and death (coldness), the rising and the setting sun. The presence of both of them extinguishes their individuality and power: life and death are part of the whole, and one presupposes the other. Beneath the arc, we can see an unknown face. Probably it is a picture of Sun or another solar symbol.
According to mythology, Mithras was born without a mother or father but descended from a rock, a rock named as the Petra Genetrix. We can see this image in the Thermes relief and it is located between the bull and the burner, where the birth of Mithras from the rock in a prayer position, having a knife in one hand and a torch in the other. In the base of the relief, there is an engraving with seven episodes of the mythological cycle of life and the great deeds of Mithras all of them embedded in arcs. In the first scene, we see Atlas, keeping the whole earth on his shoulders, in the second, Mithras with an arrow hitting a rock and from there, the water of eternal life starts pouring (the Fons Perennis). In the third episode, Mithras is winning the fight with the bull. In the fourth episode, Mithras is carrying the bull on his shoulders. In the fifth, Mithras has his hand on the head of the kneeling Sun-this symbolises the ritual of the initiated from the priest. The sixth scene pictures the symposium of Mithras and Sun. The seventh is the apotheosis. Mithras and the Sun are on a carriage and horses are driving them to the sky. In other anaglyphs, this scene takes place in a cave and is not surrounded by an arc.
This relief is classified as Danube type and can be seen in many other places, for example in Dacia, Mysia and Thrace. Similar monuments carved in stones can be found in Germany, Pannonia, Dalmatia, Kosovo and Serbia. Here we have to say that the representation of the bull sacrifice was a foreign element in the initial Zoroastrian images of Mithras, but later on became a part of the cult, thanks to the exchange of other Mediterranean and Western ideas, both of them helping the spread of the religion.
Another important element arising from the discovery of the relief in 1973, was the revision of the initial idea that was dominant till then, that south of Philipoupoli there should be no Mithraic monuments. So, by moving further south the boundaries of this religion provided with new questions and things to consider regarding not only the presence of the relief in this area but also the absence of similar sites in the nearby region. Mithraic anaglyphs were always parts of open field ceremonies, but always require the presence of a nearby village or settlement or a permanent military base, since, during the Roman Empire, Mithras was popular in the legions who carried him from the East to Europe.
However, no settlement has been discovered in the region, except a very small fortress from the Roman times, 1 km away. It is located on a steep and rocky hill in order to control the whole area and its presence encourages the opinion that the anaglyph was a place of worship for Roman troops who were defending the access to Egnatia and the Thracian Sea. The traces of rich mines, close to the present village and the possible presence of healing baths that are everywhere in the region, are revealing the importance of the place and the necessity of it being guarded by a permanent army unit. The spread of the Mithraic cult was helped by the infrastructure built by Emperor Trajan and subsequently by Emperors Adrian, Antonine and Marcus Aurelius.
MITHRAISM CHARACTERISTICS & ORIGIN
So what exactly does Mithras symbolise? Mithras is the personification of the solar light and is called Sun god. He is the archangel and protector of Ahura-Mazda (who if we want to draw similarities with Ancient Greece, he was similar to Zeus). He is also the god of Truth and Justice, he punishes liars, he protects oaths and agreements. He demands truth, honesty, courage, bravery, loyalty, benevolence, discipline and hard training. Mithras is pure, never sleeps, never gets tired and the training in his cult is not passive. His life is a constant struggle and victory demands action and active participation by the people who worship him. For all these fighting characteristics, he becomes particularly popular with the soldiers, he is their archangel in their fight and leads them to victory. He personifies the positive forces of nature, the cosmic force and knowledge and wisdom. In the mind of his worshipers, he had the role of a mediator between heaven and earth, between the celestial forces and the human race that suffers on earth.
Mithraism, like other religions and cults, is coming from the agricultural life and is giving huge emphasis in the initiation rites. These rites involved purification acts, washings and blessings and unknown ritual words. The worshipers were going from one degree to the other by passing various tests in order to prove their courage and their endurance. The degrees that needed to be obtained for acquiring divine knowledge were seven: Corax, Nympus, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus, Father. The final target was the initiated person to be free from the body chains and reach the seven celestial spheres.
The beginnings of the Mithraic cult is another important matter and has been the subject of intense research by historians. Mithraic worship first appeared in Persia, around 600 B.C. There are already references in Avestas (laws), the Zoroastrian scriptures where Mithras is the spirit of the heavenly light worshipped by Ahura-Mazda, the god of heaven in Sanskrit. Centuries ago another similar cult can be found in the ancient Hindus and is written in Vedas. The Mithras of Vedas is also a solar god and is worshipped at the same place with the celestial Varuna, So, the common characteristics of this solar god lead to a common route of an ancient civilisation, now lost. This civilisation that borrowed so many things to the Indo-Iranians is the Akkadians of Mesopotamia who flourished in the region around 2500 B.C.
The Mithraic religion was shaped according to the ancient Persian cults that were influenced by the nearby Babylon and from other less known philosophies of Minor Asia. It was further influenced by the Chaldean astrology and the Greek mysteries, such as the Orphic Mysteries. Mithraism was developed through this mixing and influenced every single nearby people (Armenia, Scythia, Black Sea), but took its final form after the Macedonians conquered the whole region.
Kings were always seeking Mithras’s help and favour and were dedicating holy places to him. It is worth mentioning the temple, built by Antiochus I Theos of Commagene (98-31 B.C.), on the top of tombs decorated with colossal statues. This monument can be seen at the top of the Nemrod Dag, in Taurus mountains overlooking the whole of Euphrates valley. Among these statuses are pictured Greek and Persian gods alongside Antiochus.
EXPANSION OF MITHRAISM IN GREECE/ EUROPE
A fundamental role for the spreading of Mithraism in the West was played by the Asian warriors, from the Black Sea till Tarsos. These soldiers were gaining strength from this warrior-cult and they challenged the Roman supremacy in the sea. They indeed considered themselves a superior nation, a chosen nation, with the final mission to conquer and spread their invincible god. Having a strong belief in the protection of their god, these fearless soldiers and sailors kept raiding and pillaging the Roman Empire and the name of this barbaric cult started being heard for the first time in the powerful cities of the Western world. Soon these cities would be worshipping the Sun god.
The Persian god was adopted by the Romans during the time of the Flavian dynasty, in a similar manner with the secret cults of Osiris and Isis, foreign religions that had a huge influence on Romans. Emperor Nero was also initiated in the Mithraic Mysteries and Mithraism became a semi-official religion of the Roman Army.
An important factor for the acceptance of this exotic cult on the Roman world was the wellknown, powerful, statue by a sculptor of the Pergamon school around 2nd century A.D. It is very similar to the picture of Mithras that we are discussing now and it decorated all the holy caves. Even if the Phrygian hat was common in all these representations, while the influences of the classical Greco-Roman art, inevitably made the barbaric characteristics less obvious.
Mithraic cults spread throughout Europe and subsequently it followed the Roman legions around Europe, where his worshippers built ceremonial places, from Mediterranean shores to Great Britain, and from the Black Sea to the Alpes and the flat land of Central Europe.
In Greece, Mithras is known since the times of Herodotus and is the only Persian deity that had a decent number of followers. Still, it was never a widespread phenomenon and was kept in small numbers in contrast with other Eastern and Egyptian gods, for example, Isis, Serapis, Arpokrates, Oros and Attis. There were many foreign deities that had gained popularity and became an integral part of the society before Mithras. Furthermore, the local deities of Orfeas and the Great gods of Samothrace were constantly preventing the Mithraic expansion.
MITHRAISM AND CHRISTIANITY
But the biggest enemy and opponent of Mithraism was Christianity. During the first years of its expansion, Christianity provided a strong resistance in the Mithraic cult and was a huge competition for the final victory over Rome. So, while Christianity tried to expand and gain power it indeed borrowed and copied many elements from this Persian deity. The 25th of December, the winter solstice, the rebirth of the sun are the days when Mithras was born and a very important day for the solar worship. It is the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (The birth of the unconquered sun), the triumph of the forces of light against the forces of evil. The writer Lili Zografou is writing on the matter:
“Despite all the restrictions, it was clear that the traditions and the local customs stayed alive, like Nature and Life. Then the cunning Fathers found a new trick: They put at the heart of the deeply embedded and rooted pagan holidays their own celebrations: The presentation of Mary, which is celebrated on the 21st November is an example. Before that, 21st November was when the important celebrations of Pyanepsion took place. And then are the Christmas, what was Mithras’s birthday and so on….”
“After recent research studies in the Vatican, what came to light was a mosaic that seems to belong to the end of the 3rd century. In this mosaic, Christ is now the Sun, in his carriage. In effect, it was after this period that was established the 25th of December as the Christmas celebration, the birth of Mithras, the birth of the sun and the growing of the day, of the daylight”.
“And Mithras is born without other witnesses except for shepherds. This is why shepherds were chosen in the Christian myth since Mithras was the contemporary and dangerous competitor of our Jewish saviour!”
“A star falling from the sky towards a cave is leading the magicians, the wise people, in order to find a newborn son, the saviour king, the reincarnation of Mithras…”
The baptism, the initiation, the holy communion with bread and wine, the candles and the torches, the strict moral code, the acceptance of heaven and hell, the coming Apocalypse, the coming resurrection of the dead are just a few similarities between Christianity and Mithraism. In the end, as it is always the case in religions that one took the place of the others, we again observe the passing of the philosophy of a dying god who is resurrected from the dead and promises immortality to his followers.
I will now consider the relief again, and see it through the modern, ugly reality and distorted lens. I would like to be more precise and say that the relief does not stay unchanged through time. All the archaeological agencies of Greece and of course the Ministry of Culture have totally abandoned it.
It is apparent and rather sad that both the Ministry of Culture and the local administrations care exclusively for the destruction and disappearance of the cultural treasures of our nation, in order not to be known for the coming generations. Besides the absence of signs (there is only one but is not enough), and the opening of a decent walking path, that make the finding of the monument very difficult, there is no cover that will protect it neither any other information. And of course, the copy that can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Komotini is not enough… Unfortunately, all the operations and research stopped in 1980 despite holding great promise for potentially leading to many new findings.
Regardless, Mithras relief stays there till now and will stay there forever, a sole witness of an ancient, glorious religion and cosmology, long since gone. It will be there for centuries beneath the same sky, fighting against time and decay, against the weather and our negligence for its protection. And fights. Always fights. As it is the proper and suitable thing to do with respect to the god it represents…
To A. & Ω. Nama, Nama Sebesio! (Mithraic ritual exclamation of unknown meaning)
Michael Elafros / Thule Georgiadou: www.eclipsis.gr
Panagiotis Dallas: [email protected]
FURTHER READING: / REFERENCES
“The Roman Cult Of Mithras” – Manfred Clauss – Edinburgh University Press – 2000
“Myths And Symbols In Indian Art And Civilization” – Heinrich Zimmer – Harper Torchbooks, NY – 1962
“Mithras” – Reinhold Merkelbach – Hain – 1984
“Mithras” – Kadmon – Aorta no18 – 1994
“Τα Μυστήρια του Μίθρα” – Franz Cumont – Πύρινος Κόσμος – 1990
“Λεξικό Συμβόλων” – J.C. Cooper – Πύρινος Κόσμος – 1992
“Αντιγνώση. Τα δεκανίκια του καπιταλισμού” – Λιλή Ζωγράφου – Αλεξάνδρεια – 1974
“Θράκη” – Χ. Μπακιρτζής & Δ. Τριαντάφυλλος – Ίδρυμα ΕΤΒΑ – 2001
“Δεκαπέντε Εσταυρωμένοι & Αναστημένοι Σωτήρες” – Γεώργιος Γρηγορομιχελάκης – Δαδούχος – 2003
“Θράκη – Οδηγός” – Δημήτρης Δ. Καρακούσης – ιδιωτική έκδοση – 1995
“Θρακικά Χρονικά – ν.44” – Δ. Τριαντάφυλλος – 1990
“Τελεία & Παύλα – τ.21” – Νικόλαος Κόκκας – 2001
A MITHRAEUM IN MARINO, ITALY. Large painted depiction of Mithras killing the bull, with side panels. A Mithraeum was discovered in 1963 in the village of Marino in the Alban mountains south of Rome, near the ancient Castrimoenium. It has been dated on stylistic grounds to 160-170 AD, but Vermaseren dates it rather to the Severian period, to ca. 200 AD. A long narrow corridor, with the entrance at the western end, leads into the cave, at the eastern end of which is a The Mithraeum has the usual benches on either side, and an altar in front of the cult relief.
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