The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
Mithraic gems are, for the most part, earlier in date than those emanating from the Gnosticism of Alexandria, with whose doctrines they had no connection whatever in their first origin. Little difficulty will be found on inspection in separating the two classes, the former being pointed out by the superiority of their style, and yet more so by the absence of the Egyptian symbols, and long Coptic legends that generally accompany the latter. Indeed many of them belong to the best period of Roman art--the age of Hadrian; and it is easy to perceive how the worship of Apollo gradually merged into that of his more
spiritual oriental representative, in the times when religious ideas of Indian origin began to get the upper hand throughout the Roman world--a religion essentially speculative, and dealing with matters pertaining to another life and the Invisible, utterly different in nature from the old Grecian creed, so materialistic, so active, so entirely busying itself with the Present and the Visible.
In accordance with the rule that prescribed the proper material for talismans, the Jasper (Pliny's Molochites), green, mottled, or yellow, is almost exclusively employed for intagli embodying Mithraic ideas, and which take the place of Phœbus and his attributes amongst the glyptic remains of the second and third centuries. To judge from their fine execution, certain examples of the class may even date from the age of the first Cæsars, and thus form as it were the advanced guard of that countless host of regular Gnostic works, amidst whose terrific barbarism ancient art ultimately expires. In their beginning these Mithraic works were the fruit of the modified Zoroastrian doctrines so widely disseminated over the Empire after the conquest of Pontus--doctrines whose grand feature was the exclusive worship of the Solar god, as the fountain of all life--a notion philosophically true, if indeed the vital principle be, as some scientists assert, nothing more than electricity. As will be shown hereafter ("Serapis"), the later Platonists, like Macrobius, laboured hard to demonstrate that the multitudinous divinities of the old faiths, wheresoever established, were no other than various epithets and expressions for the same god iii his different phases. The aim of all the school was to accommodate the old faith to the influence of the Buddhistic theosophy, the very essence of which was that the innumerable gods of the Hindoo mythology were but names for the Energies of the First Triad in its successive Avatars, or manifestations unto man.
To come now to the actual types setting forth these ideas; prominent amongst them is the figure of the Lion (he being in astrological parlance the "House of the Sun"), usually surrounded with stars, and carrying in his jaws a bull's head, emblem of earth subjected to his power. Sometimes he tramples on the serpent, which in this connection no longer typifies wisdom,
but the Principle of Evil. For in all religions emanating from the East, where deadly poisonousness is the most conspicuous character of the snake-tribe, the reptile has been adopted as the most speaking type of the Destroyer. In the West, on the other hand, where the same species is for the most part innocuous, and a mere object of wonder, it has always symbolized wisdom, and likewise eternity, from the popular belief in the yearly removal of its youth through casting the slough; on this account the serpent was made the companion of Apollo and Aesculapius; and furthermore plays so important a part in Scandinavian mythology, holding the whole universe together in its perpetual embrace.
Mithras himself often makes his appearance, figured as a youthful Persian, plunging the national weapon, "Medus acinaces," into the throat of a prostrate bull (which expresses the same doctrine as the type last mentioned), whilst overhead are the sun and moon, the group standing in the centre of the Zodiac. But the completest assembly of Mithraic figures and symbols that has come under my notice, is the intaglio published by Caylus ('Recueil d’Antiquités,' vi. pl. 84). It is engraved upon a very fine agate, 2 × 1½ inches in measurement. In the centre is the usual type of Mithras slaughtering the Bull, the tail of which terminates in three wheat-ears, and between the hind legs hangs a huge scorpion; below is the Lion strangling the Serpent--emblem of darkness and of death. On each side stands a fir-tree, admitted into this system because its spiry form imitates a flame, for which same reason its cone was taken for the symbol of the element fire, and therefore borne in the hands of deities in the most ancient Syrian sculptures. Against these fir-trees are affixed torches, one pointing upwards, the other downwards, which clearly stand for the rising and setting of the Sun. At the side of one is a scorpion, of the other, a bull's head. Above each tree again is a torch, each pointing in an opposite direction. The principal group is flanked by Phœbus in his four-horse, Luna in her two-horse car. Above the whole stand two winged figures entwined with serpents and leaning upon long sceptres, between whom rise up three flames, besides four more at the side of the right-hand
figure, making up the mystic number seven--perhaps representing the seven Amshaspands or Archangels. A naked female, surrounded with stars, kneels before the angel on the left--doubtless the soul for whose benefit the talisman was composed--soliciting his patronage.
Could this elaborate composition be interpreted, it would certainly be found to contain a summary of the Mithraic creed as it was received by the nations of the West. As it is, however, some portions of the tableau are explained by certain legends to be found in the Parsee sacred books; whilst others derive light from comparison with the larger monuments of the same worship. Thus, the termination of the bull's tail in ears of wheat allude to the fifty life-giving plants which sprang from the tail of the Primæval Bull (or Life, the same word in Zend) after he had been slain by Ahriman. Of the same animal the seed was carried up by the Izeds (genii) to the Moon, where, purified in her beams, it was moulded by Ormuzd into a new pair, the parents of all that exists in earth, air and water. The scorpion is appended to the part of the body, properly under the influence of the sign so called, for as Manilius teaches, "The fiery scorpion in the groin delights." In this particular situation it expresses Autumn, as the serpent underneath does Winter; and with good reason takes the place of the bull's genitals, for, as the same poet sings (iv. 217.)
The torches raised and lowered signify the East and West. In the circular altar of the Villa Borghese (Winckelmann Mon. Ined. No. 21) the bust of Luna appears resting on a crescent over an aged head in front face with crabs' claws springing out of his forehead--a speaking type of Oceanus. The bust of the rising sun, with his customary badge, the eight-rayed star, in point, rests upon an erect flambeau, whilst that of the setting luminary looking downwards, is placed upon another lowered towards earth. Again, the serpent winding four times about the figures may signify the sun's annual revolution; an explanation
rendered the more plausible by the torso of Mithras at Arles, in which the Zodiacal Signs occupy the intervals between the coils of the same serpent. The lion and raven stand for the attendant priests; for in these mysteries the higher officials were denominated Lions, the lower Ravens: whence the rites themselves got the name of "Leontica," and "Coracica."
The fires, the planets and the genii presiding over them are in number seven--a numeral the most sacred of all amongst the Persians. But of these seven Fires, three are ever depicted in a special manner as those most worthy to be held in reverence. These three are the "Fire of the Stars," that is, of the planet Venus, named Anahid; the "Fire of the Sun," or the Fire Mihr; and the "Fire of Lightning," or the Fire Bersiov, that is, the planet Jupiter. The Mihr is the winged orb, so common in all Assyrian sculpture--an emblem which serves to explain the Prophet's simile, "the Sun of Righteousness with healing in his wings."
The worship of the Fire Gushtasp (or that of Anahid) figures on the Zend sculptures as a very ancient worship, and also in the "Shah Nameh;" just as that of the goddess Anaitis does in many Greek authors from Herodotus downwards. This historian observes (I. 131) that at first the Persians worshipped only the sun, moon, and elements, until they learnt from the Assyrians the worship of Venus Urania, whom they called Mitra, the same being the Mylitta of the Babylonians, the Alata or Alilat of the Arabians. Now Mitra (feminine of Mithras) and Anahid, are one and the same goddess, that is to say, the Morning Star, a female Genius, presiding over love, giving light, and directing the harmonious movement of the other planets by the sound of her lyre, the strings whereof are the solar rays--"Apollo's lyre strung with his golden hair" (Creuzer, Ital. de l’Antiq. ii. 731). In this doctrine we discover the reason for the separation of the Fires upon Caylus’ gem into two groups; the principal group consisting of the three most anciently adored; the subsidiary one of the remaining four.
Other Mithraic symbols are of a very speaking character, and almost explain their own meaning at first sight. Thus Mithras piercing the bull's throat with his dagger signifies the penetration
of the solar ray into the bosons of the earth, by whose action all Nature is nourished; as is further expressed by the Dog's licking up the blood that pours from the wound. The sign Capricorn frequently introduced into the same group, declares the necessity of moisture to co-operate with the Sun's influence in bringing about the germination of the seed sown; whilst the scorpion, in the significant position above noticed, expresses the generative heat. The union of two diverse religions, already mentioned, is curiously exemplified by those stones that show the Mithraic group surrounded by sets of the sacred animals of Egypt, arranged by threes--crocodiles, goats, calves, vultures, hawks, ibises--standing around in attitudes of adoration, and gazing upon the great work of their supreme lord, Mithras (see page 41, fig. 2).
Mithraic bas-reliefs cut upon the smoothed faces of rocks, or upon tablets of stone, still abound throughout the former western provinces of the Roman Empire; many exist in Germany; still more in France; others in this island, along the line of the Picts’ Wall, and a remarkably fine example at York, the station of the Sixth Legion. The famous "Arthur's Oon" (destroyed in the last century) upon the Carron, a hemispherical vaulted building of immense blocks of stone, was unmistakably a Specus Mithraicum--the same in design as Chosroes’ magnificent Fire temple at Gazaca. Inasmuch as the sun-god was the chief deity * of the Druids, it is easy to imagine what ready acceptance the worship of his more refined Persian equivalent would find amongst the Celtic Aborigines, when once introduced by the Roman troops and colonists, many of whom were Orientals. To the last circumstance a curious testimony is incidentally borne by Lampridius, when he remarks that the entire military force employed by Maximinus in his great invasion
of Germany, was the same that had been raised by Severus Alexander, and which had accompanied him to the scene of his murder, "either the North of Gaul or Britain," which same army the historian describes as "potentissimus quidem per Armenios et Osrhoenos, et Parthos, et omnis generis hominum." For this sagacious emperor had appointed to subordinate commands in his own army all the prisoners of royal or noble birth whom he had taken in his preceding Persian campaign.
Although the modern Parsecs, like their Achæmenian ancestry in the days of Herodotus, abominate idols and all visible representations of things divine, yet do they still piously cherish the ideas embodied on the sculptures just passed under review. Amongst these, most conspicuous is their veneration for the Dog which they yet esteem the most holy of animals. Tavernier (I. 493) was on this account greatly scandalised by the Guebres of Surat; "they have another strange custom--when a person is on the point of death, to take a little dog, and place it upon his breast. When they perceive that he is at his last gasp, they apply the dog's muzzle to the dying man's mouth, and make it bark twice when in this position, as if they meant to make the person's soul enter into the dog, * which they pretend will deliver it unto the angel appointed to receive the same. Moreover, if a dog happens to die, they carry it out of the town, and pray to God in behalf of that piece of carrion, as though the brute's soul could derive any advantage from their prayers after its death." Following up this analogy, the sculptured dog licking up the bull's blood may actually be intended for such a vehicle of departing life. In these times the Parsecs expose their dead, upon gratings laid on the summit of the "Tower of silence," to be consumed by the birds alone; but under the Sassanian monarchy it was the inviolable rule to lay out all corpses in the open fields to be devoured by the dogs. This was no more than carrying out to the full a very ancient principle of the Zoroastrian religion. Herodotus (I. 140) states from his own knowledge that the corpse of a Magus was not allowed to be buried before it had been attacked by a bird or
dog; adding that the same was reported of the other Persians. The Magi regarded the killing of a dog equally criminal with that of a human being. This primitive style of obsequies the Sassanians strove hard to enforce upon all nations subjected to their sway, viewing as a great sacrilege the placing of dead bodies in the bosons of the earth; a still greater, the consuming them by the sacred element, Fire. This practice above all others scandalised the narrow-minded Byzantines; the historian Agathias expressing his horror at the casting the dead to the dogs, whatever their rank or dignity in life; as in the case of the great Satrap Mermeroes, whom he saw thus exposed naked in the fields to be so devoured. When the last seven sages of Greece, expelled from their professional chairs at Athens by the stupid bigotry of Justinian, sought refuge in the ostentatious hospitality of Nushirwan the Just, even they (despite their philosophy) found themselves obliged, by their disgust at the sight of this practice, * to return home with sad loss of dignity, and submit to the spirit of the times. If the dogs refused to touch the carcase, this was looked on by the friends of the deceased as the very worst of indications as to the ultimate destination of his soul. The Parsees, who, with more decency, constitute the raven † (or equally sacred creature) sexton and sepulchre in one, derive a similar augury from observing which eye is first attacked by the bird, the preference for the right one being the token of salvation; for the left, of the reverse.
A very curious portion of the initiatory ceremony in the
ancient Mysteries was the giving of the "Mark of Mithras." After successfully undergoing each stage of the ordeal, the accepted candidate was marked in a certain indelible manner, but the exact nature of this marking cannot now be ascertained The expressions used by St. Augustine (in Johan. i. dis. 7) lead us to conclude two things: firstly, that the engraved stones, the object of our consideration, were given to the candidate at the end of his probation, for a token of admission into the fraternity, and for a medium of recognition between members: and secondly, that every one, upon admission, was stamped with a secret Mark, indelibly imprinted in his flesh. "Something of the sort has been copied by a certain Spirit, in that he will have his own image to be purchased with blood, forasmuch as he was aware that mankind were some day or another to be redeemed by the shedding of blood." This last expression shows that this Mark was not burnt in, but incised or tattooed; and the same conclusion may be deduced from St. John's using the termχάραγμα, engraving, not στίγμη, branding, for that badge of servitude which all the subjects of the Second Beast, "having horns like a lamb's, and speaking like a dragon," were forced to receive, either in their right hands (i.e., upon the palm) or upon their foreheads, and he caused all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a Mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: "and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the Mark, or the Name of the Beast, or the Number of his Name" (Rev. xiii. 17). These words contain a compendious account of the different kinds of "Stigmata" then in use to distinguish those devoting themselves to any particular deity. The Mark was the figure of the special symbol or attribute of that deity (exactly answering to the caste-marks of the modern Hindoos): the Name was his own, written at full length in some sacred language: the Number was the more recondite way of expressing that name, either by a single numeral in the primitive Chaldæan fashion, or by other letters taken numerically, and yielding the same sum. The author of the Apocalypse very probably had the Mithraicists in view when penning this allegory; yet we may be certain that the members of a secret society did not receive the mark of membership
upon any conspicuous part of their persons. The same necessity meets us here, as in every other branch of this inquiry, for placing the origin of all such sectarian bodily Marks in India--the true fountainhead, directly or indirectly, of so many Gnostic practices. There, the votaries of the several deities are still distinguished, each by the proper symbol of his patron-god impressed upon his forehead, but by a milder process than of old, being traced, not in his own blood, but with the ashes of cow-dung, the powder of sandal-wood, or coloured-earths, daily renewed. Inasmuch as amongst them the symbol of Fire (Bramah) is an equilateral Triangle, with the apex pointing upwards, it may be conjectured that the Mithraic χάραγμα was the same simple figure, by which indeed Horapollo informs us the Egyptians symbolised the Moon, and Plutarch that Pythagoras expressed the goddess Athene. * Clarkson, however, asserts positively that the Mark of Mithras was the "Tau mysticum," but whence he derived this knowledge I have never been able to ascertain. †
The Seven Stars, so conspicuous upon these talismans, doubtless stand for something higher than the mere planets; in all likelihood they denote the Seven Amshaspands, the First Order of Angels in the Zoroastrian hierarchy; and who became the "Seven Spirits of God" to the later Jews, and thence by gradual transition gave the epithet "Septiformis munere" to the Spiritus Sanctus of Christianity. Of these Amshaspands the names and offices are: Ormuzd, source of life and creation; Bahman, king of the world; Ardibehest, giver of fire; Shahrivar, of the metals; Çpandarmat (the Gnostic Sophia), queen of the earth; Khordad, presiding over time and the seasons; Amerdad, over trees and plants. Of these the highest in place are (after Ormuzd) the four named next in gradation. Below this order stand the Izeds, twenty-seven in number, ruled over by Mithras; they govern the heavenly bodies and the elements.
[paragraph continues] Against each Amshaspand and Ized is arrayed a corresponding Angel of Darkness, to thwart all his operations, namely, the Seven Arch-Devs, and the Twenty-Seven Devs.
136:* As "Belenus" he continued to the last the patron god of Aquileia, that Gallic metropolis of Cisalpine Gaul, and to his power was ascribed the death of Maximin when besieging that city. The acclamations of the senate on the receipt of the news of their deliverance from the tyrant, prove that Belenus was held to be another name for Apollo. A shoe of the giant emperor, a convincing testimony, literally an "ex pede Herculem," to his incredible stature, was yet to be seen in the days of Lampridius, nailed to a tree in the sacred grove at the place of his fall.
137:* My Parsee informant assures me this ceremony is now modified into the merely bringing a dog into the dying man's chamber.
138:* To which they would have been forced to conform had they continued under the protection of the Sassanian king.
138:† The same practice prevails in Thibet with the motive thus assigned. "Several bodies exposed on the banks of the stream were being devoured by crows and buzzards, which soon leave nothing but the skeletons, which are washed away by the summer rise of the stream. The Tibetians believe that as each buzzard, gorged with its foul repast, soars into the heavens, a portion of the spirit of the deceased is taken up into heaven. In the case of rich people Lamas are employed to divide the body into small pieces and carry it up to the top of a bill, where the vulture and buzzard soon dispose of it. Interment of the dead is also practised, but only among the poorer people, who cannot afford to pay Lamas to perform the ceremony of exposing the body."--Cooper's 'Travels of a Pioneer of Commerce,' p. 270.
140:* Herself the lunar deity, according to an old tradition preserved by Aristotle.
140:† There is very good reason to discover a Mithraic mark in the "Phanaces" or, Sun between two Crescents, the regular badge of the kings of Pontus, and as such pm upon the states of Athens bearing the names of Mithridates and Aristion. (In the Duc de Luynes Collection.)