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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

p. 281



§ 1. Introductory.

In the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, supervised by so eminent a scholar and hierologist as the late Professor Robertson Smith, as against some hundreds of pages on the books of the Bible, there was devoted to the subject of the ancient Persian deity Mithra or Mithras, and his cultus, one column. All the while, Mithraism was well known to have been the chief rival to Christianity in the ancient world. Within the past dozen years there has taken place a great improvement in the sense of proportion among the cultivators of hierology; and the study of Mithraism, in particular, has been conducted with a zeal and a competence which leave little opening for new contributions. The present survey, first undertaken over twenty years ago, is an attempt to elucidate, in the light of comparative science, what is likely to remain an obscure problem.

When all is said, we have but a fragmentary knowledge of Mithraism. But we do know that it was during some centuries the most widespread of the religious systems of the Roman empire. That is to say, Mithraism was in point of range the most nearly universal religion of the western world in the early centuries of the Christian era. As to this, students are agreed. 1 To the early

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[paragraph continues] Fathers, we shall see, Mithraism was a most serious thorn in the flesh; and the monumental remains of the Roman period, in almost all parts of the empire, show its extraordinary extension. In our own country, held by the Romans for three hundred years at a time when Christianity is supposed to have penetrated the whole imperial world, there have been found no signs whatever of any Roman profession of the Christian faith; while there are a number of monuments in honour of Mithra. 1 There has been found, for instance, a Mithraic cave 2 at Housesteads, in Northumberland, containing sculptures of Mithra-worship, and an inscription: "To the God, best and greatest, invincible Mithra, Lord of Ages"; 3 and another at Kichester, with an inscription: "To the God the Sun, the invincible Mithra, the Lord of Ages." Other monuments have been found at Chester, on the line of the Roman wall, at Cambeckfort in Cumberland, at Oxford, at York, 4 and at London and Manchester. 5 And "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." 6 According to Mr. King, again, "the famous ‘Arthur’s Oon’ (destroyed in the eighteenth century) upon the Carron, a hemispherical vaulted building of immense blocks of stone, was unmistakeably a Specus Mithræum, the same in design as Chosroes’ magnificent fire-temple at Gazaca." But in other lands the remains of Mithraic shrines are far more numerous: they abound in the Alps, in Southern France, in Eastern Italy, in Dalmatia, in Dacia, in many Mediterranean ports; and though their distribution is unequal, they signify that the cult went wherever went the legions and the Syrian traders who followed them.

And yet, with all this testimony to the vogue of Mithraism in the early Christian centuries, there ensues for a whole era an

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absolute blank in the knowledge of the matter in Christendom—a  thousand years in which the ancient cultus seems a forgotten name in Europe. One modern investigator, M. Lajard, 1 thinks that since the time of the Fathers the first in European literature to mention Mithra was Pietro Riccio (Petrus Crinitus), 2 born about 1465, a disciple of Politian; and no other mention occurs till about the middle of the sixteenth century. 3 Such was the ignorance of most scholars, that of three now well-known Mithraic monuments discovered about that period, not one is attributed to Mithra either by the great antiquarian of the time, Rossi, or by his pupil, Flaminius Vacca. Every one knows the sculptured group of Mithra slaying the bull, so often engraved, of which we have a good example in the British Museum. Rossi declared one of these monuments to represent Jupiter, as the bull, carrying off Europa; and Vacca tells how a lion-headed image, now known to represent Kronos-Zervan or the Time-Spirit in the mysteries of Mithra, but then held to represent the devil, was (probably) burned in a limekiln. 4 A century later, Leibnitz demonstrated that Ormazd and Ahriman, the Good and Evil Powers of the Persian system to which Mithra belonged, were simply deified heroes; and later still the historian Mosheim, a man not devoid of judgment, elaborately proved that Mithra had simply been at one time, like Nimrod, a famous hunter, 5 before the Lord or otherwise. Other eighteenth-century scholars discussed the problem more intelligently; 6 but even in our own day, when all the extant notices and monuments of Mithra have been carefully collected and studied, vigilant scholars 7 confess that we know very little as to the Mithraic religion. It is somewhat remarkable that this should be so; and though in the terms of the case we cannot look to find much direct knowledge, we may hope at least to find out why the once popular cultus has fallen into such obscurity. To that end we must see what really is known about it.


281:1 Cp. Tiele, Outlines of the History of the Ancient Religions, Eng. tr. p. 170; Gaston Boissier, La Religion Romaine d’Auguste aux Antonins, i, 395, ii, 417; H. Seel, Die Mithrageheimnisse, Aarau, 1823, p. 214; Sainte-Croix, Recherches sur les Mystères du Paganisme, 2e. édit. ii, 123; Smith and Cheetham's Dict. of Christ. Antiq., art. Paganism; Beugnot, Hist. de la Destruction du Paganisme, 1835, i, 156-8, 336, ii, 225; Windischmann, Mithra, ein Beitrag zur Mythengeschichte des Orients, in Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlands, Bd. i, p. 62; E. Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, 1884, i, 541; Ozanam, History of Civilisation in the Fifth Century, Eng. tr. i, 77; Creuzer, Das Mithrēum von Neuenheim bei Heidelberg, 1838, pp. 10, 19; Lajard, Recherches sur le culte public et les Mystères de Mithra, 1867, p. 672; Preller, Römische Mythologie, ed. Köhler, pp. 758-63; Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, 1905, Bk. iv, ch. 6; Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, col. 3067, 11. 20-30; Prof. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, 1894-6, passim (partly translated by T. J. McCormack, 1903, under title The Mysteries of Mithra, where see pp. 38-84, and in Open Court, May, June, and July, 1902. where see pp. 303, 305, 306, 310, 340, 347, etc.); Quinet, Génie des Religions, 1. iv, sec. 1; Renan, Marc. Aurèle, éd. 1882, pp. 576-581; Jean Réville, La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères, 1886, pp. 78, 84-5, 102; Hertzberg, Geschichte Griechenlands unter der Herrschaft der Römer, 1866, 3te Th. pp. 120-121; Gardner, Exploratio Evangelica, 1899; p. 333; Hausrath, Hist. of N.T. Times: Time of the Apostles, Eng. tr. 1895, i, 96-7.

282:1 Wright, The Celt, The Roman, and the Saxon, 4th ed. pp. 327, 353.

282:2 Such a cave, since discovered at Ostia, is described in the Athenæum, Oct. 30 and Nov. 6, 1886 (ext. rep. in Ancient Calendars and Constellations, by the Hon. Emmeline E. Plunkett, 1903, p. 62).

282:3 There are a shrine and two altars. The second altar has on its frieze the simple word Deo, the whole inscription running: "To the Sun-God, Mithra, unconquered, eternal." The first was erected in the year 252. See the Newcastle Society of Antiquarians' Guide to the Black Gate, etc., pp. 11-12.

282:4 Wright, as cited, p. 327; Wellbeloved, Eburacum, 1842, pp. 75, 84; Stukeley, Palæographica Britannica, No. 3, London, 1752. See also the inscriptions to Sol and Mithra in Hübner, Inscr. Brit. Lat.

282:5 See the scholarly and temperate essay of Canon (now Bishop) Hicks, Mithras Worship (rep. from "The Roman Fort at Manchester"), Manch. Univ. Press, 1909.

282:6 C. W. King, The Gnostics and their Remains, 2nd ed. p. 136. The statement as to France seems inexact. Cp. Prof. Cumont, Textes et Monuments, passim. Prof. Cumont ascribes the largest share of Mithraic monuments to Germany, noting that they are abundant also in Italy, and fairly plentiful in south-eastern Gaul, but rare in central and western France, and very scanty in Greece.

283:1 Introduction à l’étude du culte de Mithra, 1846, pp. 2-3.

283:2 De Honesta Disciplina, v, 14, cited by Lajard.

283:3 By Smet and Pighi.

283:4 Cp. Cumont, Textes et Monuments, ii, 196; King, pp. 129-130.

283:5 Mosheim's notes on Cudworth, Intellectual System, Harrison's ed. i, 475.

283:6 See a list in Fabricius, Bibliographia Antiquaria, ed. 3a. 1760, p. 332; and cp. M. J. C. Wolf, Manichæismus ante Manichæos, 1707, pp. 62-7.

283:7 Havet, Le Christianisme et ses Origines, iii, 402; Cumont, Textes et Monuments, as cited, i, 5-7; J. Réville, La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères, p. 88.

Next: § 2. Beginnings of Cult