The Conflict Of Religions In The Early Centuries Of The Christian Era
We have already considered to some extent the reactions of Judaism and Christianity against the prevalent Paganism. When we ask ourselves how we are to account for the large measure of success that attended the early Jewish and later Christian missionary propaganda, we can never unhesitatingly that the causes were fundamentally moral. As Paul Kruger has pointed out in Hellenismus and Judentum im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter (1908), the epoch of late Hellenism is a time of general disintegration. “Institutions in political, social, and religious life, which had the prestige of centuries behind them, fell to pieces and were obliged to assume new forms.”
At such a time the break-up of the old national religions was inevitable. One of the results of this was the popularizing of new (especially Oriental) cults in the Western world – Orontes flowed into Tiber; another was the desperate attempt to establish a new religious basis in the worship of the Emperor. I propose to sketch some important aspects of the part played in this struggle by the Oriental cults.
In a well-known passage in the City of God, St. Augustine denounces with flaming indignation with scenes he had witnessed in his youth in connection with the worship of the Mother of the Gods (Magna Mater), which for centuries possessed a firm hold on the Roman world. He describes what he saw in Carthage as follows:
“We ourselves (once in our youth) went to view these spectacles, their sacrilegious mockeries; there we saw the enthusiastics, persons rapt with fury; there we heard the pipers, and took great delight in the filthy sports that they acted before their gods and goddesses: even before Berecynthia (surnamed the celestial virgin, and mother of all the gods), even before her litter upon the feast-day of her very purification, their beastly stage-players acted such ribaldry as was a shame (not only for the mother of the gods, but for the mother of any senator or any honest man, nay even for the mothers of the players themselves) to give ear to. Natural shame hath bound us with some respect unto our parents, which vice itself cannot abolish. But that beastliness of obscene speeches and actions which the players acted in public before the mother of all the gods, and in sight and hearing of a huge multitude of both sexes, they would be ashamed to act at home in private before their mothers, were it but for repetition’s sake. And as for the company that were their spectators, though they might easily be drawn thither by curiosity, yet beholding chasity so foully injured, methinks they should have been driven from thence by the mere shame that immodesty can offend honesty withal. What can sacrileges be if those were sacrifice? Or what can be pollution if this were a purification? And these were called fercula (litters, dishes), as if they made a feast where all the unclean devils of hell might fill their bellies. For who knows not what kind of spirits these are that take pleasure in those obscenities? Unless, indeed, he know not that there be any such unclean spirits that thus delude men under the name of gods; or else, unless he be such a one as wisheth the pleasure, and feareth the displeasure of those accursed powers more than he doth the love and wrath of the true and everliving God.” (De Civi. Dei., II., 4.).
Sir Samuel Dill devotes a chapter in his great book Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius to “Magna Mater,” and shows how persistent and aggressive this Eastern cult became. By the time when Augustine wrote, her cult had been enthroned for more then 600 years on the Palatine. In the year 204 B.C., she had been summoned to Italy by an embassy from her original home at Pessinus in Galatia, and had been welcomed at Ostia. But her cult remained a foreign one. No Roman was permitted to accept the Phrygian priesthood for a century after her coming, but towards the end of the Republic her worship had won great success, and her priests and symbols meet us in the pages of Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, and Propertis restored her temple. Another stage in her triumphal march was reached with the accession of the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian restored her temple at Herculaneum, and the goddess appears on the coins of Antoninus Pius. A taurobolium- a rite intimately associated with her worship – was offered at Lyons for the Emperor in A.D. 165, and we are told by Tertullian that a high priest of Cybele – i.e., the Great Mother – vainly offered his blood for the safety of Marcus Aurelius seven days after the Emperor had died in his quarters on the Danube. In the third century her worship had attained immense popularity – that was the period when the power of the Oriental religions was at its height. At the end of the fourth century, the Great Mother and Mithra were leading the pagan resistance in its last great struggle against triumphant Christianity.
The worship of Cybele was at first a patrician cult, yet it also became popular with the masses of the people. The legend embodied elements of human interest which made a wide appeal. “The love of the Great Mother for a fair youth, his unfaithfulness, and penitential self-mutilation under the pine-tree; the passionate mourning of the lost love, and then the restoration of the self-made victim, attended by a choir of priests for ever, who had made the same cruel sacrifice – all this (says Dr. Dill), so alien to old Roman religious sentiment, triumphed over it in the end by novelty and tragic interest. The legend was developed into a drama which, at the vernal festival of the goddess, was produced with striking, if not artistic, effect. On the first day the Dendrophori bore the sacred tree, wreathed with violets, to the temple. There was then a pause for a day, and, on the third, the priests, with frantic gestures and dishevelled hair, abandoned themselves to the wildest mourning, lacerating their arms and shoulders with wounds, from which the blood flowed in torrents. Severe fasting accompanied these self-inflicted tortures. Then came a complete change in sensation. On the day called Hilaria, the votaries gave themselves up to ecstasies of joy, to celebrate the restoration of Attis. On the last day of the festival a solemn procession took place its way to the brook Almon, to bathe the goddess in its waters. The sacred stone, brought originally from her home in Asia, and the most sacred symbol of the worship, wrapped in robes, was borne upon a car with chants and music, and other accompaniments of a gross, unabashed naturalism.”
And here a word must be interpolated on the question of the taurobolium, a sacrificial rite which was performed in connection with the cult of the Great Mother. Whether this connection was original is doubtful. However this may be, its diffusion was effected by the Great Mother cult. It formed one of its most celebrated rites in the last two centuries of paganism. It has been described by Prudentius, a Christian poet of the fourth century: “The high priest of the Great Mother, a golden crown on his head, hie temples richly bound with fillets, his toga worn cinctu Gabino, descends into a deep foss which is completely covered by a platform of planks pierced by a great number of fine holes. On to this platform is led a huge bull, bedecked with garlands of flowers, his front gleaming with gold. His breast is pierced by the consecrated spear, and the torrent of hot, steaming blood floods the covering of the trench, and rains through the thousand chinks and perforations on the expectant priest below, who throws back his head the better to present cheeks, lips, ears, nostrils, and even tongue and palate to the purifying baptism. When life has fled and left cold the body of the slain bullock, and the flamens have removed it, the priest emerges, and with hair, beard, and vestments dripping with blood, presents himself to the expectant throng of worshippers, who salute and do obeisance to him as to one who has been purified.” (E.R.E. (Encyc, Rel, and Ethics), XII., 214.).
The object of this sacrifice was differently motived. In the earlier period (second and third centuries) it was a public sacrifice usually for the Emperor or community. A frequent date was March 24, the dies sanguinis (day of blood) of the annual festival of Mater Magna and Attis. In the later period (third and fourth centuries) it was frequently celebrated for the purification and regeneration of an individual, who, having received it, was spoken of as renatus in aeternum (reborn into eternity). It was apparently performed by laymen as well as priests, and by persons of both sexes. In Rome it was usually performed at a shrine near the site of St.Peter’s church. The rite itself was probably a survival of ancient savage practice which was alter re-interpreted to lend it a spiritual significance. The last known celebration of it occurred at Rome to A.D. 394.
The central idea of the taurobolium, as it emerges in the later period, is clearly that of regeneration, and it may have been attached to the cult of the Great Mother, as Cumont supposes, through contact with Mithraism, having belonged originally belonged originally to the worship of the Persian goddess Anahita, who had been closely associated with the Mithra worship in the old Persian religion. It is certain that Mithraism, which was essentially a man’s religion, was closely associated with the cult of the Great mother, which it perhaps helped to spiritualize, in the late pagan period. The two religions, which served to complement each other, could thus work together in alliance. The worship of the Great Mother was elaborately organized during the Imperial period. It had its priesthood, which sometimes lasted for life or fixed term of years. Women were also admitted to its priesthood. The Dendrophori, who bore the sacred tree in the festive processions, were organized into a sacred college, and there were other similar organizations embracing the keepers of the mystic symbols. Chanters, drumers, and cymbal-players were in requistion at the great ceremonial occasions such as the taurobolium, and were graded according to rank. There were also vergers and apparitors who had charge of the chapels of the goddess, and finally there were the simple worshippers who formed a powerful guild with its officers. “This cult,” says Dr. Dill, “like so many others, existed not only for ceremonial rite, but for fellowship and social exhilaration, and, through its many gradations of religious privilege, it must have drawn vast numbers into the sacred service in the times of the Empire. That this worship was, however, attended by many accompaniments of a grossly immoral kind is certain, not on the evidence of hostile Christian witnesses, but on the testimony of pagan writers. Crowds of disreputable persons used the name of Cybele to exploit the ignorant devotion or the religious excitability of the masses. But it had better and nobler side, as we can see, and was capable, from time to time, of renewal and revival.”
I have already referred at the beginning of this chapter to the breakdown of the old nationalistic types of religion which marked the Hellenistic period and was characteristic of the epoch dating from the time of Alexander the Great. Religion became cosmopolitan and individualistic.
notable was the wide diffusion of the Isis-Serapis mystery-cult. This was known at Rome in the first century B.C., and later became widespread. It is an interesting example of the syncretistic tendencies which were at work. Serapis, according to the predominant view held among scholars, is a name compounded of the two names Osiris-Apis – i.e., the Apis of Memphis transformed into Osiris – and is to be regarded as a syncretistic deity, intended to fuse together Greek and Egyptian religious ideas. This cult, which probably included the Isis mysteries referred to by Plutarch, was brought into contact with the Greek world by the first Ptolemy. It was part of his far-seeing political outlook to make religion one of his instruments in fusing together his Greek and Egyptian subjects. For this purpose he introduced into Alexandria – practically virgin soil – the cult of Serapis. According to an old tradition, reported by Plutarch, Ptolemy summoned one of the hierarchs of Eleusis – viz., Timotheus, to consult with him as to the character of the new divinity. The new cult does, indeed, seem to have been formed by a combination of Osiris-worship and elements derived from the Eleusinian mysteries. And so it came about that Osiris, “the Lord of life and death, the final arbiter of human destiny,” was surrounded with the halo of the Greek mysteries. Though this composite cult was not welcomed by the native priesthood of Egypt, and, in fact, never apparently, it had a wonderful success, as I have already pointed out, outside the boundaries of Egypt. Commenting on this fact, Mr. Legge says:
“Ptolemy . . . . was building better than he know, and the hybrid cult, which the provident old soldier had fashioned as an instrument of government, turned out to be the first, and not the least successful, of the world-religions for which Alexander’s conquests left clear the way. During the wars of the Diadochi, all the powers who at any time found themselves Ptolomy’s pawns in the mighty war-game then played on a board stretching from India to Thrace, thought to curry favour with their rich ally by giving countenance to his new religion. An association of . . . . worshippers of Serapis held their meetings in the Piraeus not long after the institution of the Alexandrian cult; and before the death of Ptolemy Soter a Serapaeum was built in Athens over against the Acropolis itself. Cyprus, Rhodes, Antioch, Smyrna, and Halicarnassus were not long in following suit, and before the end of the century several islands of the Aegean, together with Boeotia, which was said by some to be the native country of Dionysus, had adopted the new worship. In the second century B.C., the temples of the Alexandrian gods were to be found in Delos, Tenedos, Thessaly, Macedonia, and the Thracian Bosphorus in Europe, and in Ephesus, Cyzicus, and Termessus among other places in Asia Minor.” A hundred years before our era a Serapaeum was in existence at Puteoli. It had reached Rome by 80 B.C., though several attempts were made to suppress it. “Under the Empire,” writes Mr. Legge, “the temple of Isis in the Campus Martius became one of the fashionable resorts of the Roman youth, and although Tiberius seized the occasion of a real or pretended scandal in connection with it to exile a number of the faithful to Sardinia, his successors were themselves initiated into the faith, while under Nero the worship of the Alexandrian gods was formally recognized by the State. From that time it followed the Roman arms into every quarter of the ancient world, and its monuments have been found in Morocco, Spain, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the Danube provinces. Ridicule was as powerless to stop its march as persecution, and the satire of Juvenal and Martial had no more effect upon it than the banter of the new Comedy, which was quick to observe that even in Menander’s day the gilded youth of Athens swore “by Isis” or “by Horus.” Under the Antonines it probably reached its apogee, when the Emperor Commous appeared in the precessions of the cult among the bearers of the sacred images, and few Romans seem to have been aware that the Alexandrian gods were not gods were not Roman from the beginning. Like Ptolemy’s master, Ptolemy’s gods might have boasted that they commanded the allegiance of the whole civilized world.” (Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, I., 52 f,)
The Isis-Serapis worship was, as we have seen, itself the product of syncretistic tendencies, and was a powerful agent in further developments of the same tendency. In Apuleius’ romance Isis announces herself to Lucius as “queen of all the elements, earliest offspring of the ages, highest of godheads, sovereign of the Manes, first of the heavenly ones, one-formed type of gods and goddesses.” “The luminous heights of heaven,” she proceeds, “the health-giving breeze of the sea, the sad silences of the lower world I govern by my nod. I am she whose godhead, single in essence, but of many forms, with varied rites and under many names, the whole earth reveres. Hence the Phrygians, first-born of men, call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the Gods; here the first inhabitants of Attica, Cecropian Minerva. There the wave-rocked Cypriotes, Paphian Venus; the arrow-bearing Cretans, Diana Dictynna; the three-tongued Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; the Eleusinians, the ancient goddess Ceres – others Juno, others Bellona, these Hecate, these Rhamnusia; and they who are lighted by the first rays of the sun-god on his rising, the Ethiopians, the Africans, and the Egyptians skilled in the ancient teaching, worshipping me with ceremonies peculiarly my own, call me by my true name, Queen Isis.”
The tendency of these cults was in the direction of what has been called a monotheistic pantheism. Serapis appears as exhibiting a type of godlike character which made an irresistible appeal. He is hailed as the god who is “the protector and saviour of all men,” “the most loving of the gods towards men,” the one god who is ready to assist man in his need when man invokes him.
How genuinely religious the worship connected with Isis and Serapis could be can be illustrated, perhaps, by the beautiful prayer of thanksgiving to Queen Isus uttered by Lucius after his initiation into the Isis mysteries, as reported by Apuleius. It runs as follows, and is manless taken from an actual liturgy:
“Thou who art the holy and eternal Savour of mankind, ever bountiful to the mortals who cherish thee, thou bestowest thy gracious mother-love upon the wretched in their misfortunes. No day . . . no brief moment ever passes without thy benefits. On land and sea thou watchest over men, and holdest out to them thy saving right hand, dispelling the storms of life. Thou dost undo the hopelessly ravelled threads of Fate, and dost alleviate the tempests of Fortune and restrainest the hurtful courses of the stars. . . . As for me my spirit is too feeble to render thee worthy praise, and my possessions too small to bring thee fitting sacrifices. I have no fluency of speech to put into words that which I feel of thy majesty. Therefore will I essay to do that which alone a poor but pious worshipper can: Thy divine countenance, and thy most holy presence will I hide within the shrine of my heart: there will I guard thee, and continually keep thee before my spirit.”
We turn now to consider what is perhaps the most interesting and important of the Oriental religions which were active in the religious struggle during the early centuries of our era – the religion of Mithra.
By the time the cult of Mithra invaded the Roman Empire it had, of course, passed through a long history. The Mithraism revealed to us by the inscriptions and monuments of the Roman period had been largely external influences. The probable early history of the god has been conveniently summarized by Mr. Phythian-Adams as follows:
- Mitra or Mithra was from earliest times worshipped both by the Indians and Persians as a god of light, with (if any) only secondary ethical aspects. He is at this stage almost invariably coupled with another god (originally Ruler of the Sky) Varuna or Athura, the two being regarded as sovereigns and co-creators of the Universe. It is in this primitive form that Mitra appears in Northern Mesopotamia about the fourteenth century B.C, as a national god of the Mitanni.
- The Iranian Mithra in the course of Persian conquests underwent an internal and an external transformation. He became (a) the God of Truth, the war-like defender of the Righteous; and (b) an equivalent of the Babylonian Shamash, who dowered him with all the lore of Chaldean astrology.
- The later Archaemenid monarchs, ignorant or impatient of Zoroastrianism, which had degraded their favourite god into the rank of a genie, restored him to his original place by the side of Ahura Mazda.
- After the conquests and death of Alexandar, Mithra is found in Pontus Armenia, Cappadocia, and Commagne. The kings of these states, who boasted of their Achmaemenid descent, were careful to preserve the religion of their fathers and displayed their devotion to the god by frequently incorporating his name in their own – e.g., Mithridates. In this period Mithraism became connected with, but not assimilated to, the Anatolian cults of Ma and Atys, Men, Sabazius, etc.
It is remarkable fact that Rome, which had in 204 B.C., welcomed the Great Mother of the gods from Pessinus, had tolerated the worship of Isis and Serapis for a century before the Christian era, and had recognized other Oriental deities like the Cappadocian Bellona, was still ignorant of the Persian worship, and was not to hear much about it till the Empire had been established for a century. The explanation of this fact is to be found in the inaccessibility of the regions where the Mithraic worship was established. The Anatolian highlands were then, as now, difficult to approach and penetrate. In these regions the Iranian princes of Asia Minor practised the ancient rites of their religion unmolested by the world. According to Plutarch the Roman first learnt of Mithra from the pirates who were subdued by Pompey in 67 B.C. – the pirates had themselves been in the service of Mithridates – but the real invasion of the Roman world by the cult of Mithra came later. It is a striking fact, pointed out by Cumont, that Mithra practically made no impression upon the Hellenic world. “The ancient authors of Greece speak of him only as a foreign God, worshipped by the Kings of Persia. And this is almost equally true of the Hellenistic period, from the time of Alexander, when so many exotic cults had penetrated into the Greek world. The name of Mithra does not enter any of the theophorous or god-bearing names which were formed in such abundance in Hellenic or Hellenized countries in connection with other Oriental cults.
“Although the Thracian Bendis,” says Cumont, “the Asian Cybele, the Serapis of the Alexandrians, and even the Syrian Baals were successively received with favour in the cities of Greece, that country never extended the hand of hospitality to the tutelary deity of its ancient enemies.”
The Mithraic cult had its seat in a part of the world that long resisted Hellenic influence and largely lay outside the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Where the hand of Rome had fallen – as in the conquest of the province of Cilicia in 102 B.C. the country had not been fully conquered till a later time. In fact, places like Western Pontus, Commagene, and lesser Armenia, were not definitely incorporated in the Empire till the Flavian period. Then, and not till then, were permanent relations established between these remote provinces and the rest of the Empire. Certain military needs – the establishment of three legions along the frontier of the Euphrates – and later the expeditions and conquests of Trajan, Lucius Verus, and Septimius Severus in the East set up communications between Mithraism and the old-established parts of the Empire which resulted in the diffusion of the cult in the Latin world.
From the Flavian period Mithraism began to be well known in the Roman world. About the beginning of the reign of Vespasian the cult was brought by the 15th Legion to Carnuntum on the Danube, which remained one of its most important centres. By the end of the first century it had penetrated into Northern Italy; about the middle of the second century it was practiced by the troops in Germany. Under the Antonines, especially from the reign of Commodus, the proofs of its presence abound an all countries, and at the end of the second century its mysteries were celebrated in at least four temples at Ostia. The widespread diffusion of the cult is proved by its monuments, which abound from the shores of the Black Sea to the mountains of Scotland and to the borders of the Sahara desert along the whole line of the Roman frontiers. Its final phase was reached in the third and fourth centuries when, under imperial patronage, it seemed on the point of becoming a world-religion. It was in 307 that Diocletian, Galerius, and Licinius, meeting in conference at Carnuntum, dedicated an altar to Mithras fautori imperii sui (the patron of their Empire) in one of the most ancient centres of the cult in the Empire; but the victory of Constantine altered the situation. Mithraism lost the imperial patronage, which was now given to a rival creed – that of Christianity (A.D. 313). With the loss of its privileged position it gradually sank to one of tolerance, and finally with persecution was at last rooted out by the victorious Christian faith. The causes of its rapid diffusion in the earlier period are not hard to determine. It was primarily spread by the legions of the Roman army, especially by those which had been recruited in the remote regions where the cult of Mithra was most firmly rooted. These recruits included large numbers drawn from Cappadocia, Pontus, and Cilicia, and even Parthia.
“The Roman soldier,” says Cumont, “was, as a rule, pious, and even superstitious. The many perils to which he was exposed caused him to seek unremittingly the protection of Heaven, and an incalculable number of dedicatory inscriptions bears witness both to the vivacity of his faith and to the variety of his beliefs. The Orientals especially, transported for twenty years and more into countries which were totally strange to them, piously preserved the memories of their national divinities, and whenever the opportunity offered, they did not fail to assemble for the purposes of rendering them devotion. They had experienced the need of conciliating the great lord (Baal), whose anger as little children they had learned to fear. Their worship also offered an occasion for reunion, and for recalling to memory, under the gloomy climates of the North, their distant country. But their brotherhoods were not exclusive; they gladly admitted to their rites those of their companions in arms, of whatever origin, whose aspirations the official religion of the army failed to satisfy, and who hoped to obtain from the foreign god more efficacious succour in their combats, or in case of death a happier lot in the life to come. Afterwards, these neophytes, transferred to other garrisons, according to the exigencies of the service or the necessities of war, from converts became converters, and formed about them a new nucleus of proselytes. In this manner, the mysteries of Mithra, first brought to Europe by semi-barbarian recruits from Cappadocia or Commagene, were rapidly disseminated to the utmost confines of the ancient world.”
But the influence of the army will not count for all the facts. Other agencies were at work of a non-military character which helped to diffuse the Mithraic religion. These operated especially in the towns and country districts of the provinces in which no troops were stationed. The Roman peace led to the opening up of great trade routes throughout the Empire, and a cosmopolitan commercial class, drawn from the Semitic provinces largely, sprang up which concentrated in its hands the entire traffic of the Levant. These Syrians had their colonies dotted along all the shores of the Mediterranean, and their activities extended also much farther – up the valley of the Danube and in Gaul. Under the Merovingians they still spoke their Semitic idiom at Orleans, and I believe the dialect of Malta to this day has a large Semitic admixture. Wherever these people settled they established their national cults. Some of these ‘Syrian’ settlers coming from the Euphrates and beyond were worshippers of Mithra, though the more important and the more numerous were worshippers of Semitic Baals. A large number of slaves were imported from the Asiatic provinces, and these , with the Syrian merchants, introduced Oriental cults and particularly that of Mithra. another class, too, who were not free men, embracing what we should describe as the lower ranks of the civil service (collectors of taxes, treasurers, clerks of all kinds, and functionaries), played a great part in the diffusion of foreign religions, and among them were many devotees of Mithra. They have been described as “the apostles of the universal religions as opposed to the local cults.”
It is impossible within the short space at our disposal to describe in detail the elaborate organization, both external and internal, of the Mithraic worship, even if full and complete knowledge on all points were available. But some slight description of the main features must be attempted.
The Mithraic Temple was designed to suggest a cave (spelaeum, specus), a rock-hewn vaulted chamber, and was, where possible, constructed underground. Where this was for some reason impossible an artificial construction was arranged to suggest descent into a cave. The innermost sanctuary could only be approached through a series of intermediate rooms. The actual entrance was by a series of descending steps, and in a complete mithraeum was surrounded on the outside by a pronaos or cloister with a colonnade. The intervening rooms included a sacristy or apparatorum where the actors in the sacred drama put on their special costumes, and a vestible. The actual chapel consisted of a central aisle about 8ft/2.4m. broad flanked on either side by benches or platforms. The central aisle was presumably intended for the mystic masquerade and other services of the cult. At Ostia seven semicircles inscribed upon the pavement indicated that the planets were here invoked; and here also animal sacrifices took place. At the end of the chapel was the apse containing the sacred images. It may be noted that these Mithraic chapels were, as a rule, quite small, affording room for barely fifty worshippers. In the apse stood the grand bas-relief, which is the most striking and impressive feature of the Mithraic monuments, of the young god slaughtering the bull. Before this were usually fixed two or more altars, and to the right and left the statues of the two torch-bearers or Dadophoroi. In some shrines a sort of chancel-rail separated off the relief. A water-stoup was also a usual feature, and great importance was attached to securing a water supply for ritual purposes. The scene depicted on the great bas-relief is thus described by Mr. Phythian-Adams: (Mithraism).
“Under the rocky vault of a cavern the young and beautiful god has forced his quarry – i.e., the bull – to the ground. Kneeling on its back and pressing his right foot on its hind-leg, he drags back the head by grasping a horn or fixing his fingers in the nostrils, while he plunges his knife into the kneck above the right shoulder. His dress on the reliefs is almost always the same; he is clad in the tunic and breeches which typified ‘Asia’ to the western world, with a short-cloak which floats out behind him. On his flowing locks is the familiar ‘Phrygian’ cap. His face is often turned to the spectator, or over the right shoulder, and wears an indescribable expression of mingled grief, exaltation, and fear.” besides the Dadophoroi, “whose role appears to be that of melancholy onlookers, the sun himself looks down upon the sacrifice and darts a ray into the gloom of the cavern. A dog and a snake advance from opposite directions to drink the spurting blood, while a scorpion, sometimes with an ant, absorbs the seed of the victim. Meanwhile. perched on a rocky height, or even upon the. . . . mantle of the god, a crow sits watching the mysterious scene.”
The general significance of this picture has been the subject of much speculation. Its governing motif – which apparently goes back to an ancient Iranian myth of creation in connection with the death of the primeval ox which signalized the springing into existence of grain and plant-life – seems to be that the death of the bull brings life and fertility to the earth. Other subordinate features were sometimes added. But one scene, which is sometimes represented on a separate monument, owing to its peculiar importance in the cult, depicts the birth of Mithra, who rises as a naked child from a parent rock, holding in his hands a knife and a torch.
Mithra himself appears to have been originally a god of the heavenly light; his birth from the rock may symbolize the appearance of the dawn on the mountain-tops, or the effulgence of light from the vault of heaven. The two torch-bearers dressed in the same Oriental costume as the god himself, holding one torch aloft and the other reversed, apparently represent the rising and setting sun. From the fact that the signs of the zodiac are commonly depicted as a framework of the Relief, and in other ways, and that busts of sun and moon, together with pictures of the planets, and emblems of the seasons, winds, and other elements appear, it is reasonably certain that in the Mithraic mysteries “a complete system of cosmography was taught.” Unfortunately, we have no text of a genuine Mithraic liturgy, for it is extremely doubtful whether the document published by Dieterich as such is anything more than a text illustrating the syncretistic tendencies of the age. But it is probable that the ascent of the soul through the seven spheres was taught in these mysteries. It is at any rate clear that astrology had deeply influenced Mithraic doctrine.
According to Cumont, Mithra, in his migrations, was accompanied by other deities of the Mazdean pantheon, at the head of which stood the Supreme Being, who is represented as a Mithraic Kronos, in the likeness of a human monster, with the head of a lion, and his body enveloped by a serpent. He was considered ineffable, bereft of name, sex, and passions. Mithraism, as we meet it in the West, assigned to Mithra a role which made his cult very attractive. The ancient conception of the god assigned him a zone situated midway between Heaven and Hell, and for this reason the name or “mediator” was given to him. Doubtless, his identification with the Babylonian Shamash or “Sun-God” helped to stereotype this idea, for according to the Chaldean doctrines the sun occupied the middle place in the planetary choir. But the middle position was also invested with a moral significance. Mithra was regarded as the “mediator” between the unapproachable and unknowable god who reigned in the ethereal spheres and the human race struggling and suffering here below. As such he had been entrusted with a terrestrial mission, which included the guardianship of the first human pair, whose existence was threatened by the spirit of Evil. The labours of Mithra were embodied on a series of heroic exploits which numbered among them the conquest of the sun, regarded henceforth as the god’s ally and friend. At the conclusion of these toils Mithra, “in a last supper,” which the initiated commemorated by mystical love-feasts, celebrated with Helios and the other companions of his labours the termination of their common struggles. Then the gods ascended to the heavens. “borne by the Sun on his radiant quadriga, Mithra crossed the Ocean, which sought in vain to engulf him, and took up his habitation with the rest of the immortals, and from the heights of heaven he never ceases to protect the faithful who piously serve him.”
Mithra was thus conceived as a sort of Logos, to whom the supreme deity had committed the task of establishing order in nature. The conflict between good and evil still raged in the universe, both above and below. Life is a warfare in which these forces are ever in conflict. The followers of Mithra were pledged to certain moral obligations, the carrying out of which would enable them to fight a good fight. “Their dualistic system,” says Cumont, “was particularly adapted to fostering individual effort, and to developing human energy. They did not lose themselves, as did the other sects, in contemplative mysticism; for them the good dwelt in action. They rated strength higher then gentleness, and prefered courage to lenity. . . . A religion of soldiers, Mithraism exalted the military virtues above all others. In the warfare against evil and sin which his devotees waged they could always invoke – and never in vain – the help of Mithra. his mighty aid could assure his soldiers of victory both against earthly and unearthly foes, salvation, deliverance, redemption, both in this world and in the world to come.”
In a world where moral anarchy reigned, the vigour of its ethical system undoubtedly was a force that appealed to many. It bound together its elect in one great army. It also, in its assimilation of astrological ideas, which formed a sort of reconciliation between the science and religion of the time, appealed to the educated.
Another side of Mithraism was important. It helped to furnish a doctrinal basis for the Emperor-worship which gradually assumed new and startling forms. It was only when Oriental religions, triumphed over and submerged ancient Roman ideas that the apotheosis of the living ruler was acquiesced in without serious protect by the Roman people. According to Persian ideas the ruler reigned by grace of the Supreme Being. And thus grace was conceived as a sort of dazzling fire or nimbus of divine glory which illuminated the legitimate sovereign, but without itself from usurpers. “The monarch upon whom thus divine grace descended was lifted above ordinary mortals, and revered by his subjects as a peer of the gods.” After the downfall of their native dynasties this veneration was transferred by their Asiatic subjects to the Roman Emperors. From the reign of Commodus (A.D. 180-192), when the influence of Oriental ideas had become powerful, the Emperors officially assumed the titles of pius, felix, and invictus, which remained a permanent part of their official designations. Here felix probably reflects the idea of (fortunate) – i.e., he is illuminated by the divine grace. Invictus was an epithet specially associated with the sun which, as chief of the planetary bodies, was arbiter of the Fortune of ?Kings. “In assuming the epithet invistus, invincible, the Caesars formally announced the intimate alliance which they had contracted with the sun.” Another epithet borne by the solar divinities of the Orient – viz., “eternal,” became also part of their official titles. Thus it came to pass that the Emperor was conceived as having a share in the divinity of the royal star, of which he was the representative on earth.
It was an alliance between the throne and the altar of which the Caesars dreamed, and it was the priests of Serapis, of Baal, and of Mithra who prepared the way for this by preaching the doctrine of the divine right of kings. In its original form this project was wrecked by the hostility of the Christians. Nevertheless, by a strange irony the Church was destined to realize in another form the idea for which the pagan rulers of the third century had worked. Under the form of an Established Church, protected by a Christian Emperor, the fateful alliance between Church and State, between altar and throne, became a fact, the influence of which is patent to the world today.
The syncretism which was so marked a characteristic of the third and fourth centuries is the later phase of Mithraism, and especially by its relations to other cults. In particular, an alliance was formed between the cults of Mithra and the Great Mother. Political reasons may have helped to make this expedient. By such an alliance the followers of Mithra obtained the support of a powerful and officially recognized clergy. and so shared in some measure in the protection afforded it by the State. They also complemented each other. Since men only were admitted to the Mithraic mysteries, it was natural that other mysteries to which women were admitted should be associated in the movements of the time. The Great Mother had her “Maters,” or Mothers, just as Mithra had his “Fathers,” and the initiates were known among each other as “sisters” in the one case, just as they were called “brothers” in the other.
Mithraism, in the fourth century, was aiming at “the union of all gods and all myths in a vast synthesis – the foundation of a new religion and political constitution of the philosophy and political constitution of the Empire. . . . Breaking with the Roman principle of the nationality of worship it would have established the universal domination of Mithrs identified with the invincible Sun. Its adherents,” says Cumont, “hoped by concentrating all their devotion upon a single object to impart new cohesion to the disintegrated beliefs. Solar pantheism was the last refuge of conservative spirits now menaced by a revolutionary propaganda that aimed at the annihilation of the entire ancient order of things.”
Christianity and Mithraism had spread to the Roman Empire at about the same time; the same reasons favoured their diffusion – viz., the political unity and moral anarchy of the Empire. Both were Eastern religions in orign, which knew how to win their way to the West. Both soon realized that they were engaged in a life and death struggle, and discovered with a shock of amazement the similarities of certain rites which they shared. Justin Martyr, referring to the Eucharist, says: “The devils had by way of imitation introduced this very solemnity into the mysteries of Mithra; for you may know that when anyone is initiated into this religion, bread and a cup of water with a certain form of words are made use of in the sacrifice.” Tertullian also refers to the same sort of similarity in a similar way. The duel was waged between the two adversaries with implacable fury – for the prize was the dominion of the world. We know the result. Mithraism, when it seemed to be on the point of victory, lost the imperial patronage and sank to the position, first of a tolerated and then of a persecuted sect. Its collapse in any case was inevitable sooner or later, for in Christianity it met a rival braced by moral struggle and still fresh in glorious youth endowed with high moral enthusiasm and the sense of conquering mission. The words of the last representative of solar pantheism, the gallant and ill-fated Julian – the pathetic champion of a lost cause – still ring out as the epitaph on that vanished ancient world, and its last grim struggle: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.”