Sacred Texts  Gnosticism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, [1887], at

p. 122


The principal rites of the worship of Mithras bore a very curious resemblance to those subsequently established in the Catholic church; they likewise furnished a model for the initiatory ceremonies observed by the secret societies of the Middle Ages, and by their professed descendants in modern times. The Neophytes were admitted by the rite of Baptism; the initiated at their assemblies solemnly celebrated a species of Eucharist: whilst the courage and endurance of the candidate for admission into the sect were tested by twelve consecutive trials, called "The Tortures," undergone within a cave constructed for the purpose; all which "tortures" had to be completely passed through before participation in the Mysteries was granted to the aspirant.

The two distinguishing Rites, or "Sacraments" (to use the technical term) are thus alluded to by Justin Martyr (Apol. II) in the earliest description which has been left us of their character. "The Apostles in the Commentaries written by themselves, which we call Gospels, have delivered down to us that Jesus thus commanded them: He having taken bread, after that He had given thanks* said: Do this in commemoration of me; this is my body. Also having taken a cup and returned thanks, He said: This is my blood, and delivered it unto them alone. Which things indeed the evil spirits have taught to be done, out of memory, in the Mysteries and Initiations of Mithras. For in these likewise a cup of water, and bread, are set out, with the addition of certain words, in the sacrifice or act of worship of the person about to be initiated: a thing which Ye either know by personal experience or may learn by inquiry." Again, Tertullian, writing in the following century, has in the same connection: "The Devil, whose business it is to pervert the truth, mimicks the exact circumstances of the Divine Sacraments, in the Mysteries of idols. He himself baptises some that is to say, his believers and followers; he promises forgiveness

p. 123

of sins from the Sacred Fount, and thereby initiates them into the religion of Mithras: thus he marks on the forehead his own soldiers: there he celebrates the oblation of bread: he brings in the symbol of the Resurrection, and wins the crown with the sword." By the "symbol of the Resurrection" Tertullian clearly means that "simulation of death" mentioned by Lampridius (of which more hereafter), and which is typified on so many talismans by the corpse bestridden by the Solar Lion. The final ceremony he has himself explained in another passage: "Blush, my Roman fellow-soldiers, even though ye be not to be judged by Christ, but by any 'Soldier of Mithras,' who when he is undergoing initiation in the Cave, in the very Camp of the Powers of Darkness, when the crown (garland, rather) is offered to him (a sword being placed between, as though in semblance of martyrdom), and about to be set upon his head, is instructed to put forth his hand, and push the crown away, transferring it perchance, to his shoulder, saying at the same time: My crown is Mithras. And from that time forth he never wears a crown (garland), and this he has for the badge of his initiation, for he is immediately known to be a 'soldier of Mithras,' if he rejects a garland when offered to him, saying that his crown is his god. Let us therefore acknowledge the craftiness of the Devil; who copies certain things of these that be Divine, in order that he may confound and judge us by the faithfulness of his own followers." As to the ceremony here mentioned, unimportant as it may seem to the modern reader, it may be remarked that as the wearing a garland was indispensable among the ancients on all festive occasions, the refusal of one upon such occasions would be a most conspicuous mark of singularity, and of unflinching profession of faith. But every dispassionate observer will perceive that these over-zealous Fathers proceed to beg the question when they assume that the Mithraic rites were devised as counterfeits of the Christian Sacraments: inasmuch as the former were in existence long before the first promulgation of Christianity; unless indeed to imitate by anticipation be considered as merely another proof of the mischievous sagacity of its diabolical opponent. On the other hand, there is good reason to suspect that the simple

p. 124

commemorative, or distinctive, ceremonies, instituted by the first founder of Christianity, were gradually invested with those mystic and supernatural virtues which later ages insisted upon as articles of faith, by the teaching of unscrupulous missionaries, anxious to outbid the attractions of long-established rites of an apparently cognate character. By this assimilation they offered to their converts through the performance of, as it were, certain magical practices, all those spiritual blessings of which the rites themselves were, at their institution, the symbols only, not the instruments. A very instructive illustration of such union of Mithraicism and Christianity, in the celebration of the Eucharist, is afforded by the Pistis-Sophia's description of the great one celebrated by the Saviour himself upon the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which will be found given at length in its proper place. And lastly, it deserves to be mentioned that "eating the flesh and drinking the blood" of a human sacrifice was far from being a mere figure of speech in certain of these mystic celebrations. Pliny gives high praise to Claudius for having suppressed the worship of the Druids (whom he considers as identical in their religion with the Magi), in whose rites "it was esteemed the highest act of religion to slaughter a man, and the most salutary of proceedings to eat the flesh of the same." And in this notion, which necessarily became attached by suspicion to the proceedings of all secret societies, lay most probably the root of the belief so widely diffused amongst the Roman vulgar, that the real Eucharist of the first Christians at their nocturnal meetings was the sacrifice, and the feasting upon, a new-born child, concealed within a vessel of flour, into which the catechumen was directed by his sponsors to plunge a knife.

In the particulars preserved to us of the Mithraic Sacrament, certain very curious analogies to those of the Christian rite cannot fail to arrest our attention. The "Bread therein used was a round cake," emblem of the solar disk, and called Mizd. In this name Seel discovers the origin of Missa, as designating the Bloodless Sacrifice of the Mass, assuming that this Mizd was the prototype of the Host (hostia), which is of precisely the same forum and dimensions.

p. 125

It is not out of place to notice here the various etymologies which have been proposed for the word Missa. The most popular one, which moreover has the sanction of Ducange, derives it from the words "Ite, missa est," with which the priest dismissed the non-communicant part of the congregation, before proceeding to the actual consecration of the Eucharist. The translation of the phrase by the vulgar into "Depart, it is the Missa," would certainly be obvious enough. But, according to the rule in all such cases, the object sacrificed gives its name to the ceremony, rather than a phrase from the ceremonial itself, and this object had from time immemorial gone by the name of hostia, or "victim." The early Christians were quite as partial as the Gnostics to the naturalizing of the Hebrew terms belonging to the Mosaic ordinances, and applying the same to their own practices. Thus the old Covenant went amongst them by the name of Phase, for example:--

"In hoc festo novi Regis,
 Novum Pascha novæ legis
    Vetus Phase terminat."

The Rabbins have possibly preserved a tradition that explains the true origin of the wafer. Alphonsus de Spira, in his "Fortalitium Fidei" (II. 2), asserts that its circular form is a symbol of the sun, and that it is in reality offered in sacrifice, at the celebration of the Mass, to the genius of that luminary! For the Kabbalists hold that Moses and the prophets were inspired by the genius of Saturn, a good and pure spirit, whereas Jesus was by that of Mercury, a malevolent one; and the Christian religion was the work of Mercury, Jupiter and the Sun, all combining together for that purpose. There is yet another curious analogy to be noticed, when it is remembered that the Mass symbolises the death of its first institutor. A round cake (the chupatty of such evil notoriety at the commencement of the Sepoy Mutiny) is, amongst the Hindoos, the established offering to the Manes of their ancestors. The Christian "breaking of bread," besides symbolising the great sacrifice once offered, seems, from the account of the Manifestation at Emmaus, to have been done in some peculiar

p. 126

way which should serve for a masonic token, or means of mutual recognition amongst the brethren.

The sacramental Cup, or chalice, is often represented as set upon the Mithraic altar, or rather, table; and a curious piece of jugglery connected with its employment (though not amongst the Mithraicists), is described by Epiphanies (Hæres. xxxiv.). The followers of Marcus, in their celebrating the Eucharist, employed three vases made of the clearest glass. These were filled with wine which, during the progress of the ceremony, changed into a blood-red, purple, and blue colour, respectively. "Thereupon the officiating minister, or more properly speaking, magician, hands one of these vessels to some lady of the congregation, and requests her to bless it. Which done, he pours this into another vase of much greater capacity, with the prayer, "May the grace of God, which is above all, inconceivable, inexplicable, fill thine inner man, and increase the knowledge of Himself within thee, sowing the grain of mustard-seed in good ground!" Whereupon the liquid in the larger vase swells and swells until it runs over the brim.

The worship of Mithras long kept its ground under the Christian emperors in the capital itself, and doubtless survived its overthrow there for many generations longer in the remote and then semi-independent provinces. At the very close of the fourth century, Jerome, writing to Læta, says, "A few years ago, did not your kinsman Gracchus, a name the very echo of patrician nobility, when holding the office of Prefect of the City, break down and burn the Cave of Mithras, with all the monstrous images which pervade the initiatory rites, as Corax, Niphus, the Soldier, the Lion, the Persian, Helios, and Father Bromius?"

In the imagery here alluded to, it is easy to recognise figures that perpetually occur upon the still extant representations of the Mithras worship. In Corax, the Raven; in Niphus, Cneph the serpent; the armed man; the Lion bestriding the human victim; the youth in Persian garb; the Sun, expressed either by Phœbus in his car, or by the star with eight rays; and Bromius "the Roarer," appropriate title of the Grecian Dionysos; who also appears as the Asiatic Phanaces, a youth holding a

p. 127

torch in each hand, one elevated and one depressed to signify his rising and setting. Chiflet's gem (Fig. 62) may on good grounds be taken for a picture of the Mithraic ritual, and upon it all the forementioned figures and symbols are easily to be discovered. Two erect serpents form a kind of frame to the whole tableau; at the top of which are seen the heads of Sol and Luna confronted; between them stands an eagle with outspread wings; at the back of each, a raven. In the field are two naked, crowned men on horseback, trampling upon as many dead bodies; between them a kneeling figure in supplicatory attitude, over whose head are two stars. Behind each horseman stand two soldiers. In the exergue is set out a table supporting a loaf, a fawn (sacred to Bacchus), a chalice, and something indistinct, but probably meant for the crown Tertullian speaks of. The reverse presents a more simple design: two crested serpents (dracones), twined about wands, and looking into a cup; two stars over a table resting upon a larger vase; and on each side a bow, the ends of which finish in serpents’ heads.

In this composition we probably see portrayed certain amongst the tests of the neophyte's courage, which, according to Suidas, were termed the "Twelve Degrees" or "Tortures." These corresponded in nature, although of vastly more severe reality, with those trials of courage to which our Masonic Lodges subject the "apprentice" who seeks admission amongst them. During the Mithraic probation, which lasted forty days, * the candidate was tested by the Four Elements, he lay naked a certain number of nights upon the snow, and afterwards was scourged for the space of two days. These Twelve Tortures are sculptured upon the border of the famous Mithraic tablets preserved in the Innsbruck Museum, and a brief account of their several stages will serve to elucidate much of what remains to be discussed. I. Man standing and about to plunge a dagger into the throat of a kneeling figure, who holds up his hands in supplication. (This scene appears analogous to the one in the modern ceremonial, when the candidate, ordered to remove the bandage from his eyes, beholds many swords pointed in the

p. 128

most threatening manner at his naked breast.) II. Naked man lying on the earth, his head resting on his hand, in the posture of repose. (Probably the penance of the bed of snow.) III. The same figure, standing with hands uplifted in a huge crescent (perhaps an ark, and representing the trial by water. To this last, Plato is reported to have been subjected during his initiation in Egypt, and to have but narrowly escaped drowning). IV. The same, but now with the pileus, cap of liberty, upon his head, rushing boldly into a great fire (the trial by fire). V. He is now seen struggling through a deep stream, and endeavouring to grasp a rock. VI. Bull walking to the left.

On the other side come the remaining stages. VII. Four guests reclining at a horseshoe table (sigma), upon which is set a boar roasted whole. VIII. Youth guided up a flight of interminable steps by an aged man. IX. Youth kneeling before a man in a long robe, whose hand he grasps in prayer. X. The same figures, but their positions are interchanged. XI. Seated man, before whom kneels a naked, crowned, youth, escorted by one in a long robe. XII. Naked man holding up the hind legs of a cow, so as to receive in his face the stream still regarded by the Hindoos as the most efficient laver of regeneration, and consequently always administered to persons at their last gasp. The same sacred fluid (as I am informed by a Parsee) is used in the sacramental cups drunk by every male upon his first admission into that religion, which takes place on his completing his seventh year. Nay more, such is the belief in its cleansing virtue, that scrupulous Parsees always carry a bottle thereof in their pocket, wherewith to purify their hands after any unavoidable contact with unbelievers!

Very similar ceremonies to these were practised in the secret societies of the Middle Ages, if we choose to accept Von Hammer's interpretation of certain mysterious sculptures, still to be seen in the Templar-churches of Germany; and which he has copiously illustrated in his 'Mysterium Baphometis revelatum.' In the intaglio already described, the kneeling neophyte is encompassed by all the terrific and mysterious host of Mithras, so remorselessly destroyed by the zealous Gracchus.

p. 129

[paragraph continues] And again, the corpses trampled on by the crowned horsemen clearly refer to that recorded test of the candidate's fortitude--the apparent approach of death--for Lampridius puts down amongst the other mad freaks of Commodus, that during the Mithraic ceremonies, "when a certain thing had to be done for the purpose of inspiring terror, he polluted the rites by a real murder:" an expression clearly showing that a scenic representation of such an act did really form a part of the proceedings. The Raven properly takes its place here, as being the attribute of the Solar god in the Hellenic creed, on which account it is often depicted standing upon Apollo's lyre.

Many other gems express the spiritual benefits conferred by the Mithraic initiation upon believers. A frequent device of the kind, is a man, with hands bound behind his back, seated at the foot of a pillar supporting a gryphon with paw on wheel, that special emblem of the solar god; often accompanied with the legend ΔΙΚΑΙΩΣ, "I have deserved it." Another (Blacas) displays an unusual richness of symbolism: the same gryphon's tail ends in a scorpion, whilst the wheel squeezes out of its chrysalis a tiny human soul that stretches forth its hands in jubilation; in front stands Thoth's ibis, holding in its beak the balance, perhaps the horoscope of the patient. This talisman too, unites the Egyptian with the Magian creed, for the benefit of the carrier; for the reverse displays Isis, but in the character of Hygieia, standing upon her crocodile; the field being occupied by strangely complicated monograms, of sense intelligible to the initiated alone, and doubtless communicated to the recipient of the talisman, who found in them "a New Name written, that no man knoweth, save he that receiveth the same." But both doctrines and ceremonial of this religion are best understood through the examination of extant representations displaying them either directly or allegorically; which in their turn are illustrated by the practice of the faithful few who still keep alive the Sacred Fire, namely the Parsecs of Guzerat. The series therefore will be most fittingly opened by the following curious description of a cave of Mithras, as discovered in its original and unprofaned condition, written by that eminent antiquary, Flaminius Vacca. (No. 117.)


122:* This expression seems to prove that the notion of blessing, or consecrating, the elements, had not then (the second century) crept into the Christian practice.

127:* Perhaps the origin of the Lenten term of self-inflicted punishment.

Next: III. A Roman Mithras in His Cave