The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
"Salve vera Deûm facies, vultusque paterne,
ΦΡΗ = ϒΗC = =
THE innumerable monuments of every kind bequeathed to us by the widely-spread worship of the deity styled Mithras, serve, at the same time, copiously to illustrate the important contributions of Zoroastrian doctrine towards the composition of Gnosticism. The Mithraic religion, according to Plutarch, first made its appearance in Italy upon Pompey's reduction of the Cilician Pirates, of whom it was the national worship; * a and who, when broken up into colonists and slaves all over Italy, propagated it amongst their conquerors. In the new soil the novel religion flourished so rapidly as, in the space of two centuries, to supersede (coupled with the earlier introduced Serapis worship) the primitive Hellenic and Etruscan deities. In fact, long before this final triumph over the sceptical, Pliny appears disposed to accept Mithraicism, in its essential principle, as the only religion capable of satisfying a rational inquirer; as may be deduced from this noble passage (ii. 4): "Eorum medius Sol fervidus, amplissima magnitudine, nec temporum modo terrarumque sed siderum etiam ipsorum cœlique Rector. Hanc esse mundi totius animam ac planius mentem, nunc principale Naturæ regimen ac Numen credere decet, opera ejus æstimantes. Hic lumen rebus ministrat, aufertque tenebras, hic reliqua
sidera occultat, illustrat; hic vices temporum annumque semper renascentem ex usu Naturæ temperat, hic cœli tristitiam discutit, atque etiam humani nubila animi serenat: hic suum lumen cæteris quoque sideribus fœnerat; præclarus, eximius, omnia intuens, omnia etiam exaudiens; at principi literarum Homero placuisse in uno eo video. Quapropter effigiem Dei formamque quærere imbecillitatis humanæ rear. Quisquis est Deus, si modo est alius, et quacunque in parte, totus est senses, totus visus, totus auditus, totus animæ, totus animi, totus sui." Thus, during the second and third centuries of the Roman Empire, Mithras and Serapis had come almost to engross the popular worship, even to the remotest limits of the known world. For Mithraicism was originally the religion taught by Zoroaster, although somewhat changed and materialized so as better to assimilate itself to the previously established Nature Worship of the West. Under this grosser form it took its name from Mithras, who in the Zendavesta is not the Supreme Being (Ormuzd), but the Chief of the subordinate Powers, the Seven Amshaspands. Mithra is the Zend name for the sun, the proper mansion of this Spirit, but not the Spirit himself. Hence the great oath of Artaxerxes Mnemon was, "By the light of Mithras," a counterpart of the tremendous adjuration of our William the Conqueror, "By the Splendour of God!" But the materialistic Greeks at once identified the Persian Spirit with their own substantial Phœbus and Hyperion. Thus Ovid has,
In this view of his nature Mithras was identified with other types of the Sun-god, such as the "Phanaces" of Asia Minor, and the "Dionysos" of Greece; and thereby soon usurped the place of the latter in the long established Mysteries, the ancient Dionysia. The importance into which the Mithraica had grown by the middle of the second century may be estimated from a fact mentioned by Lampridius, that the emperor himself (Commodus) condescended to be initiated into them. Nay more, with their penances, and tests of the courage of the neophyte, they may be said to have been maintained by unbroken tradition through the secret societies of the Middle Ages, then by the Rosicrucians,
down to that faint reflex of the latter, the Freemasonry of our own times. But this curious point must be reserved for the last Section of this Treatise investigating the nature of the last named societies. My present object is to point out the gradations by which the Mithraic principle passed into the Egyptian and semi-Christian forms of Gnosticism.
The mystic name Abraxas (asserted to have been the coinage of the Alexandrian Basilides) is said to mean either in actual Coptic "Holy Name" (as Bellermann will have it); or, as seems equally probable, is merely the Hebrew Ha-Brachah "Blessing," Grecised, in the same sense. That the symbolic figure embodying the idea of the Abraxas god has a reference to the sun in all its components is yet more evident, as shall be shown hereafter; similarly, the Brahmins apply their Ineffable Name Aum to the "fierce and all-pervading Sun"; and Macrobius devotes much curious learning to prove that all the great gods of antiquity, whatever their names and figures, were no more than various attempts at personifying the One Deity, whose residence is the sun. It must here be remembered that Basilides was by no means a Christian heretic, as the later Fathers found it expedient to represent him, but rather as his contemporary Clemens, relates, a philosopher devoted to the study of divine things; and thus possibly imbued with such Buddhistic notions as the intercourse between Alexandria and the cities of Guzerat (then ruled over by the Jaina kings) may have naturalized both in Egypt and in Palestine. This metropolis, as the grand emporium for foreign doctrines as well as foreign wares, supplies the reason for the frequent union of Mithras with Abraxas in the same stone, proceeding from the Alexandrian talisman-factory. A curious exemplification is a green jasper (Marlborough), bearing on one side the normal Zoroastrian device, Mithras slaughtering the Bull; on the other, the well-known Gnostic Pantheus. A truly Indian syncretism, which converts all deities from separate beings into mere deified attributes of one and the same God, and (for the initiated few, that is) reduces that seemingly unlimited polytheism into the acknowledgment of the existence of the Supreme Creator.
That model of a perfect prince, Severus Alexander, must have imbibed a strong tinge of the Gnosis (as indeed might have been expected from his birthplace and style of education), for although upon every seventh day he went up to worship in the Capitol, and also regularly visited the temples of the other Roman gods, he nevertheless "was intending to build a temple unto Christ, and to rank Him in the number of the gods." Which thing Hadrian also is said to have thought of, and actually to have ordered temples without images to be built in all the chief cities of the Empire: which same temples, because they contain no gods, are now called temples raised to Hadrian himself, although in reality he is reported to have prepared them for the purpose above-named. But he was prevented from carrying out his design by those who consulted the oracles (sacra), and discovered that, if it should be carried out, everybody would turn Christian, and thereby the other temples would be all deserted" (Lampridius i. 43). Indeed, there is every reason to believe that, as in the East, the worship of Serapis was at first combined with Christianity, and gradually merged into it with an entire change of name, though not of substance, carrying along with it many of its proper ideas and rites, so in the West the Mithras-worship produced a similar effect upon the character of the religion that took its place. Seel, in his admirable treatise upon Mithraicism ('Mithra,' p. 287) is of opinion that "as long as the Roman dominion lasted in Germany, we find traces there of the Mosaic law: and in the same way as there were single Jewish families, so were there single Christians existing amongst the heathen. The latter, however, for the most part, ostensibly paid worship to the Roman gods in order to escape persecution, holding secretly in their hearts the religion of Christ. It is by no means improbable that, under the permitted symbols of Mithras, they worshipped the Son of God, and the mysteries of Christianity. In this point of view, the Mithraic monuments, so frequent in Germany, are evidences to the faith of the early Christian Romans." This same supremacy of the Mithras-worship in his own times makes the grand scheme of Heliogabalus prove less insane than it strikes the modern reader at the first impression. He was intending
[paragraph continues] (according to report) to permit no other worship at Rome than that of his own god and namesake, the Emesene aerolite, apt emblem of the Sun; "bringing together in his temple the Fire of Vesta, the Palladium, the Ancilia, and all the other most venerated relics; and moreover the religion of the Jews and Samaritans, and the devotion * of the Christians." (Lampridius 3). To such a heterogeneous union that numerous section of the Roman public who shared Macrobius’ sentiments on the nature of all ancient gods, could have found no possible objection so far as the principle was concerned.
That such a relationship to Christianity was actually alleged by the partisans of Mithraicism (when in its decline) is proved by the remarkable declaration of Augustine himself (John I. Dis. 7). "I remember that the priests of the fellow in the cap (illius pileati) used at one time to say, 'Our Capped One is himself a Christian.'" In this asserted affinity probably lay the motive that induced Constantine to adopt for the commonest type of his coinage (the sole currency of the Western provinces), and retain long after his conversion, the figure of Sol himself, with the legend "To the Invincible Sun, my companion (or guardian)." A type capable of a double interpretation, meaning equally the ancient Phœbus and the new Sun of Righteousness, and thereby unobjectionable to Gentile and Christian alike of the equally divided population amongst whom it circulated. Nay more, this Emperor when avowedly Christian, selected for the grandest ornament of his new Capital, a colossal Apollo, mounted upon a lofty column, which retained its place until cast down by an earthquake in the reign of Alexius Comnenus.
Through a similar interchange, the old festival held on the 25th day of December in honour of the "Birth-day of the Invincible One," and celebrated by the Great Games of the Circus (as marked in the Kalendar "viii KAL.IAN. N. INVICTI. C. M. xxiv" †) was afterwards transferred to the commemoration of the Birth of Christ, of which the real day was, as the Fathers
confess, totally unknown: Chrysostom, for example, declares (Hom. xxxi.) that the Birthday of Christ had then lately been fixed at Rome upon that day, in order that whilst the heathen were busied with their own profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their holy rites without molestation.
And Mithras was the more readily admitted as the type of Christ, Creator and Maintainer of the Universe, inasmuch as the Zendavesta declares him to be the First Emanation of Ormuzd, the Good Principle, and the Manifestation of Himself unto the world. Now it was from this very creed that the Jews, during their long captivity in the Persian Empire (of which when restored to Palestine they formed but a province), derived all the angelology of their religion, even to its minutest details, such as we find it flourishing in the times of the Second Kingdom. Not until then are they discovered to possess the belief in a future state; of rewards and punishments, the latter carried on in a fiery lake; the existence of a complete hierarchy of good and evil angels, taken almost verbatim from the lists given by the Zendavesta; the soul's immortality, and the Last Judgment--all of them essential parts of the Zoroastrian scheme, and recognised by Josephus as the fundamental doctrines of the Judaism of his own times.
To all these ideas Moses in the Law makes not the slightest allusion; his promises and threatenings are all of the earth, earthy; he preaches a religion of Secularists, and such a religion was, down to the latest days of Jerusalem, still maintained by the Sadducees. Now these Sadducees were the most ancient and respectable families of the nation, who boasted of keeping the law of Moses pure, and uncontaminated from the admixture of foreign notions imbibed by the commonalty during their long sojourn amongst the Gentiles. Nay more, there is some reason to accept Matter's etymology of the name of their opponents, the Pharisees, as actually signifying "Persians," being a term of contempt for the holders of the new-fangled doctrines picked. up from their conquerors. And this etymology is a much more rational one, and more consistent with the actual elements of the word, than the common one making it to mean "Separatists"--an epithet by no means applicable to a party constituting
the immense majority of the race. It is only necessary now to allude to the ingenious theory of Bishop Warburton, set forth in his 'Divine Legation of Moses,' who converts the absence of all spiritualism from his teaching into the strongest argument for its being directly inspired from Heaven.
But from whatever source derived, how closely does the Zoroastrian idea of the nature and office of Mithras coincide with the definition of those of Christ as given by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that profound Jewish theologian, who styles Him the "Brightness (or reflection) of his glory, the express image * of his person, upholding all things by the word of his power;" and again, "being made so much better than the angels as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent Name than they," and here it may be observed that the Reflection of the Invisible Supreme in his First Emanation is a distinguishing feature in most of the Gnostic systems. Mithras used to be invoked together with the Sun, and thus, being confounded with that luminary, became the object of a separate worship, which ultimately superseded that of Ormuzd himself: and this was the only one propagated by the Pontic colonists and their converts amongst the nations of the West. Secondary deities often usurp the places of those of the first rank; so Vishnu and Siva have entirely eclipsed Brahma. Serapis had played the same part with the Pharaonic gods of Egypt, and yet more striking analogies from modern creeds are too obvious to require quotation. Through this relationship of ideas Mithraic symbolism found its way into early Christian art in many of its particulars. The bas-relief over the portal of the Baptistery at Parma (a work of the 12th century), has all the aspect of a Mithraic monument, and certainly its design would be very difficult to understand from a Scriptural point of view.
115:* This deity, under other titles, had ever been the great god of Pontus. As patron of Sinope he appears under the form of Helios-Dionysos, upon the medallion of Pharnaces II. In his proper name he was the patron of Trebizond, being worshipped on the Mount Mithras overhanging that most ancient of Grecian colonies. For destroying his statue, the fanatic Eugenius, justly punished by Diocletian, was adopted, in the succeeding times of superstition, for the tutelary saint of the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond.
119:* This curious distinction between "religio" and "devotio," is meant to mark the difference between a national and established creed and one held by individuals, without any public sanction.
119:† Signifying that twenty-four consecutive races of chariots were exhibited on that occasion in the Circus. Maximus.
121:* Ἀπαύγασμα--χαρακτήρ, the latter word literally "impression of a seal," is the exact counterpart of the Hebrew title, "Tikkan," the Primal Emanation.