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

§ 7. The Cultus.

Resembling other cults at various points, the Mithraic was latterly peculiar in others. The great specialty of this worship, as we learn from several writers, is that it was carried on in caves—so far at least as its special mysteries were concerned—the cave being considered so all-important that, where natural caves did not exist,

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the devotees made artificial ones. 1 Porphyry puts it on record 2 that the "Persians, mystically signifying the descent of the soul into the sublunary regions, and its regression thence, initiate the mystic in a place which they call a cavern. For, as Euboulos says, Zoroaster was the first who consecrated in the neighbouring mountains of Persia a cave, in which there were flowers and fountains, in honour of Mithra, the Maker and Father of all things—a cave, according to him, being an image of the world, which was made by Mithra. But the things contained in the cavern......were symbols of the mundane elements and climates."

This explanation of the cave was not improbably suggested by a well-known passage in Plato; 3 and it is obvious that the custom must have had some simpler origin. At an early culture-stage among the Romans, indeed, we find the name mundus given to the sacred cave on the Palatine Hill into which the people threw specimens of all their domestic utensils and a handful of Roman earth. 4 This is remarkably close to the symbolic idea in Porphyry; but there must have been an earlier form still. 5 A cave, in fact, seems to have been one of the earliest forms of temple. 6 It is easy to understand how to half-civilised man caves would have a hundred mysterious significances, as places for dwelling or meeting made by the Deity himself; and fire- or sun-worshippers would have the special motives supplied by finding in caves the remains of the fires of earlier men, and by the not unnatural theory that the sun himself went into some cave when he went below the horizon at night. Indeed, Porphyry admits that caves in the most remote periods of antiquity were consecrated to the Gods, before temples were. Thus the Curetes in Crete dedicated a cavern to Zeus; in Arcadia, a cave was sacred to the moon, and to Lycean Pan; and in Naxos to Dionysos. 7

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[paragraph continues] "But," he adds, "wherever Mithra was known, they propitiated the God in a cavern." 1

It appears that the greatest sanctity attached to caves in the living rock; and there are many remains of Mithraic altars cut in rocks; 2 nay more, the rock came to be specially associated with Mithra, 3 who was named "rock-born"; and the phrase, ''Θεὸς ἐκ πέτρας, God out of the rock," or "Mithras out of the rock," became one of the commonest formulas of the cultus. 4

In these rock-caves, then, or in artificial caves, the priests of Mithra celebrated the habitual rites and special mysteries of their religion. The rising sun would be daily hailed with joy, 5 as among the Jewish Essenes, and sun-worshippers everywhere; and during the night, when the sun was hidden, special prayers would be offered up. The first day of the week, Sunday, was apparently from time immemorial consecrated to Mithra by Mithraists; and as the Sun-God was pre-eminently "the Lord," Sunday was "the Lord's day" long before the Christian era. 6 On that day there must have been special Mithraic worship. But we have some exact information as to the two chief Mithraic ceremonies or festivals, those of Christmas and Easter, the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the birthday of the Sun-God and the period of his sacrifice and his triumph. 7 That Christmas is a solar festival of unknown antiquity, which the early Christians appropriated to their Christ in total ignorance of the real time of his birth, is no longer denied by competent Christian scholars—when they happen to allude to the

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subject. That Easter is also a solar festival 1 is perhaps not so freely recognised. But we know not only that Mithra and Osiris (and Horus), like so many other solar and vegetal deities, were especially adored at the vernal equinox, 2 but that in these worships there were special formulas representing, apparently at this date, 3 the symbolical death of the deity, the search for his body, and the finding of it. The Christian Firmicus wrathfully tells how the priests of Osiris, who have a representation of the God in the most secret part of their temples, mourn for a certain number of days (presumptively forty, 4 = Lent), while professedly searching for the scattered members of his mangled body, till at length they feign to have found it, when they finish their mourning and rejoice, saying, "We have found him: rejoice we." 5 And we learn also from Tertullian that Osiris in the mysteries was buried and came to life again. 6 Some such idea would seem to be implied in the ritual performed by the people of Patræ at the annual festival of Dionysos, when the God, called Asymnetes ("the Judge" or "the King"), represented by his image in a chest, was carried outside of the temple in the night, to be hailed by the worshippers. Of the image in the chest, it was obscurely told that the sight of it had driven Eurypilus mad—a suggestion that it may have been dismembered. 7

But as to Mithraism the details (if only we can be sure of one identification) are still more precise. The worshippers, Firmicus tells us, 8 lay a stone image by night on a bier and liturgically mourn for it, this image representing the dead God. This symbolical corpse is then placed in the tomb, and after a time is withdrawn, whereupon the worshippers rejoice, exhorting one another to be of good hope; lights are brought in; and the priest anoints the throats of the devotees, murmuring slowly: "Be of good courage; ye have been instructed in the mysteries, and ye shall have salvation from your sorrows." As the stone image would be laid in a rock-tomb—the God being pre-eminently "from the rock" and worshipped in a cave—the parallel to a central episode in the Christian legend is sufficiently

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striking; and in view of the duplication of the motive on all hands, in the cults of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysos, it is impossible to doubt that we are dealing with a universal myth.

To assign the origin of the rite to any known religion would be unwarrantable; nor is it even certain whether it was originally a part of a solar or of a vegetal cult, though there are grounds for ascribing it to the latter. In any case, it was adaptable to both. It is argued by Dr. Frazer, the chief exponent of the lore of the subject, that the God who dies and rises again does so not as Sun-God but as Vegetation-God; and it may be granted that the vegetation principle is either primary or present in the cults of Attis, Adonis, Dionysos, and Osiris. But on the other hand the pre-eminently solar Herakles dies on the funeral pyre, descends to Hades, and reascends to Heaven; the obviously solar Samson of the Semitic myth, who also in its earlier form probably descended to the underworld, 1 dies ostensibly in his solar capacity (with shorn hair, 2 blinded, and placed between the "pillars" = Herakles’ pillars), and must, as God, have risen again; and even the strictly solar Apollo, as is shown by K. O. Müller, 3 made his Descent to Hades, as did Orpheus, who is inferribly a Day-God. Now, the Descent into Hades was for mortals simply Death; and since the God as such cannot cease to exist, he may as well be said to die in one way as in another. In all these cases the explanation is more or less clearly astronomical; and it is so in the case of the Descent of Mithra to Hades, noticed later; though, as above remarked, the sacrificial principle, identifying the God with the sacrifice, would so complicate the doctrine as to make the solar cult approximate closely to that of the Vegetation-God.

This, however, was only one of the Mithraic mysteries, presumably celebrated once a year. We have further records of another enacted at the initiation of every new devotee, and probably repeated in some form frequently. Justin Martyr, 4 after describing the institution of the Christian Lord's Supper, as narrated in the gospels, goes on to say: "Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithra, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water 5 are placed with certain incantations

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in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn." This is borne out by Tertullian, who intimates 1 that "the devil, by the mysteries of his idols, imitates even the main parts of the divine mysteries. He also baptises his worshippers in water, and makes them believe that this purifies them of their crimes......There Mithra sets his mark on the forehead of his soldiers; he celebrates the oblation of bread; he offers an image of the resurrection, and presents at once the crown and the sword; he limits his chief priest to a single marriage: he even has his virgins and his ascetics (continentes)." Again, 2 the devil "has gone about to apply to the worship of idols those very things in which consists the administration of Christ's sacraments."

Reference is here made to a certain ceremony of initiation. It strongly suggests the mysteries which are practised in our own time among savage tribes in many parts of the world. 3 The complete initiation of a worshipper, we know, was an elaborate and even a painful process, involving many austerities, trial by water, trial by fire, by cold, by hunger, by thirst, by scourging, by branding or bleeding, 4 and the mock menace of death. 5 Of these austerities different but vague and scanty accounts are given. According to some accounts they lasted fifteen days; according to others, for forty-eight: 6 one old writer 7 alleges eighty different kinds of trials. It is more likely that they numbered twelve, seeing that on the Mithraic monuments we find representations of twelve episodes, probably corresponding to the twelve labours in the stories of Herakles, Samson, and other sun-heroes; but probably also connected with the trials of the initiated. 8 More explicitly we know from Porphyry and from Jerome that the devotees were divided into a number of different degrees, symbolically marked by the

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names of birds and animals, and apparently by wearing, during some of the rites, the skins or heads of these animals. 1 Porphyry 2 mentions grades of lions, lionesses, and crows, and higher grades of eagles and hawks; Jerome 3 speaks of crow, gryphon, soldier, lion, Persian (or Perses), sun, Bromios = roarer (or, the bull), and father. Out of the various notices, partly by hypothesis, M. Lajard has constructed a not quite trustworthy scheme, 4 representing twelve Mithraic degrees: three terrestrial, the soldier, the lion, 5 and the bull; three aërial, the vulture, the ostrich, and the raven; three igneous, the gryphon, the horse, and the sun; and three divine, the grade of fathers, named eagle, sparrow-hawk, and father of fathers. 6 It makes a sufficiently grotesque list, in this or any other form; but it is the old story—all religions are absurd to those who do not believe them; 7 and it is not well for those who keep a private conservatory, however small, to throw stones.

The "mark on the forehead" of the initiate, finally, was in all likelihood the cross, the universal symbol of life and immortality, and in particular of the Sun-God. Presumably it was not the gammadion or swastika, the most specific symbol of the Sun, for that appears to have been notably absent from Persian art. 8 That it was one of the normal forms of the "Christian" cross may be inferred from the mode of Tertullian's statement, and from the fact

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that the tau or cross was inferribly a forehead mark in the Judaic cult set forth in the book of Revelation. 1 We know that the symbol entered into the fire-worship of Persia by way of architecture; 2 and it could not have been absent from the imagery of an eastern Sun-God of the time.


304:1 See Justin Martyr, Dial. with Trypho, cc. 70, 78. Caves were made in honour of Mithra, as temples in honour of other Gods. See Orelli, 2340, 2341. There were no other Mithraic temples. Cumont, ii, 57-8.

304:2 De antro nympharum, vi. Cp. Firmicus, v.

304:3 Republic, B. vii.

304:4 Macrobius, Saturnalia, i, 16; Festus, s. v. Mundus.

304:5 Here I venture to dissent from the view of M. Cumont (i, 6) that the Persian custom of sacrificing in the open air "gave birth" to that of worshipping Mithra in caverns. I cannot follow the supposed causation. Open-air sacrifice was in early times a Greek and a Semitic as well as a Persian usage. The Roman mundus seems to have passed for the entrance to the lower world.

304:6 See the article "The Mycenean Tree and Pillar Cult and its Mediterranean Relations." by A. J. Evans, in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. xxi (1901), p. 99, as to the multitude of caves containing votive and sacrificial deposits found in Crete. Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. p. 207, note.

304:7 The usage was in fact nearly universal in early times. Cp. Wait, Jewish, Oriental, and Classical Antiquities, p. 47. Hermes and Zeus were cave-born (Homerid. Hymn to Hermes; Hesiod, Theogony, 483); and Typhon in turn was born in the Cilician caves (Æschylus, Prom. 359-60; Pindar, Pythia, i, 32). The resting-places of Apollo and Dionysos were alike caves (Pindar, Olymp. vii, 57; Diod. Sic, iii, 59). Finally, Apollo, Dionysos, Herakles, Cybelê, Dèmêtêr, Poseidon, and Zeus were all worshipped in caves (Pomponius Mela, i, 5; Pausanias, i, 28; ii, 23; iii, 25; vii, 25; viii, 15, 36, 42; Cicero, De p. 305 natura deorum, i, 42; Strabo, xvi, 2, § 38). In Phrygia, Herakles, Hermes, and Apollo were specially called "the cave Gods" (Pausanias, x, 32). But whereas all these deities, starting from the cave, which is the primary temple, acquired loftier fanes, the cult of Mithra in the west reverted and adhered to the cave, natural or artificial. The idea was preserved, apparently, in the worship of the Sun at Hatra in Assyria, where the temple was an entirely dark place (Justi, Geschichte des alten Persiens, 1879, p. 67).

305:1 De antro, xx. Cp. Statius, Theb. i, 719-20; and Commodianus: "vertebatque boves alienos semper in antris" (Instructiones, i, 13).

305:2 Cp. the pictures in Jacob Bryant's Analysis of Ancient Mythology, ed. 1774, i, 232, 234, 294; and in Cumont's Textes et Monumentes, passim.

305:3 As with Apollo, born in rocky Delos, to whom the hymnist sings: "Thou hast had delight in all rocks, in the steep crags of tall mountains, in rivers hurrying seaward, in shingles sloping to the tide, and harbours of the sea" (Homerid. Hymn to the Delian Apollo). The idea seems to be that the mountains and rivers and harbours were all visible from the place of the God's birth on Mount Cynthus (see ll. 25-44); while the rock, which can strike fire, is his earthly symbol, and as it were his source. Johannes Lydus (De mensibus, iii, § 26) gives as the reason for Mithra being held rock-born that rock is "the central point of fire."

305:4 Firmicus, De Errore, xxi; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, c. 70; Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, i, 7 (Migne, xxiii, col. 219); Windischmann, pp. 61-2, citing Commodianus and Johannes Lydus.

305:5 Under the Mazdean system, prayer was offered to Mithra thrice daily; at dawn, at noon, and at sunset. (Rawlinson, Seventh Oriental Monarchy, p. 628, citing Spiegel, Tradit. Schrift. d. Pars. p. 135).

305:6 Above, p. 180, note. As to this fact, which has been contemptuously denied by Dr. J. E. Carpenter, see Appendix.

305:7 Julian, In regem solem, cc. 19, 20; Preller, Röm. Myth. p. 755; von Bohlen, Das alte Indian. i, 258; Creuzer, Das Mithrēum von Neuenheim, p. 29. Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. p. 308.

306:1 Or rather a luni-solar. It is singular that this movable feast should be celebrated as an anniversary of an event with apparently no orthodox misgivings.

306:2 Macrobius, Saturnalia, i, 18. Cp. Preller, Röm. Myth., 1865, p. 760.

306:3 But see Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, c. 39, which creates a difficulty. There was considerable variance in the dates of the solar festivals in different countries. Cp. Julian, In regem solem, c. 20, and Max Müller, Natural Religion, pp. 529-30.

306:4 Compare the forty nights’ mourning in the mysteries of Proserpine. De Errore, c. xxviii (xxvii, ed. Halm).

306:5 De Errore, last cit.

306:6 Against Marcion, i, 13.

306:7 Pausanias, vii, 19, 20. Cp. ii, 7, where it is told that the Sicyonians have "statues in a secret place, which one night in every year they bring to the temple of Dionysos."

306:8 De Errore, xxiii (xxii). I have elsewhere (Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. p. 381, note) discussed Dr. Frazer's view that this passage in Firmicus refers to the cult of Attis. The evidence is clearly against it, the stone image belonging distinctly to the cult of Mithra, though similar rites, with wooden images, belonged to the worships of Attis and Osiris. In the Dionysiak cult, however, the image may have been of stone.

307:1 Steinthal on The Legend of Samson, § 3.

307:2 It is true that in some cults this might signify only previous dedication and the preparation for sacrifice. In the practice of the man-sacrificing Khonds, for instance, the victim was kept unshorn till ten or twelve days before the sacrifice, when his hair was cut (Macpherson, Memorials, p. 117). But in the story of Samson the shearing of the hair has clearly also the significance of the weakening of the sun's heat.

307:3 Introd. to Mythol. pp. 244-6, note. Cp. Preller, Gr. Myth. ii, 317.

307:4 1 Apol. c. 66.

307:5 The Ebionite Christians (the earliest), it will be remembered, celebrated the communion rite with bread and water (Epiphanius, Hær. 30). And water was mixed with wine in later usage; see Bingham, Christian Antiquities, B. xv, c. ii, § 7 (ed. 1855, v. 242).

308:1 Præscr. c. 40; Cp. De Rapt. c. 5; De Corona, c. 15.

308:2 Præscr. c. 40.

308:3 Cp. Cumont, i, 315-316.

308:4 On this see Mr. King's Gnostics, p. 139, citing Aug. in Johann. i, 7. Mem. Revelation, xiii, 17; also Gregory Nazianzen's First Invective against Julian, c. 70.

308:5 On this see the details collected by Frazer, Golden Bough, 2nd ed. iii, 422-445, of the primitive cults in which "death at initiation" is a ritual feature. This is one of the origins of the idea of being "born again."

308:6 Sainte Croix, Recherches, ii, 126, n.

308:7 Nonnus, cited by Selden, De Diis Syris, Syntag. i. c. 5; and by Windischmann, p. 69. See there also the important citation from Elias of Crete, according to whom the trials were twelve, and were "per ignem, per frigus, per famem, per sitim, per flagra, per itineris molestiam, aliaque id genus." Compare Suidas, as cited p. 314. As to the origin of the trials, see Darmesteter on Mihir Yasht, xxx, 122. Darmesteter suggests that the trials may be traceable to that passage, which runs:—"Ahuramazda answered, Let them wash their bodies three days and three nights; let them undergo thirty strokes for the sacrifice and prayer unto Mithra......Let them wash their bodies two days and two nights; let them undergo twenty strokes for," etc.

308:8 On the twelve episodes, cp. Sainte-Croix, as cited, with King, Gnostics, p. 128. Compare the "twelve stoles," in the mysteries of Isis, mentioned by Apuleius (Metam, B. xi). There is a remarkable correspondence between the twelve Mithraic trials and twelve forms of Hindoo penance (especially as regards the last), as described by Maurice, Indian Antiquities, 1794, v, 981. These twelve orders of fast include trials lasting fifteen days; and the whole would cover more than eighty days.

309:1 On this practice cp. Cumont, as last cited, and W. Simpson, Jonah, 1899, pp. 29-33.

309:2 De Abstinentia, iv, 16.

309:3 Epistola, cvii (vii), ad Lætam.

309:4 Recherches sur le Culte Public et Mystères de Mithra, ed. 1867, p. 132, et seq. The main authority for twelve degrees is Porphyry's citation from Pallas as to the signs of the zodiac; but M. Lajard's list is not zodiacal. The grade of the ostrich is particularly ill made-out (p. 338).

309:5 Every animal's name used must have had a symbolical meaning. Thus we have it through Tertullian (Against Marcion, i, 13) that "the lions of Mithra are mysteries of arid and scorched nature."

309:6 Apart from dubieties of detail, it may be taken as certain that the common principle of quadration, or grouping in fours, was distinctly recognised in the Mithraic cult; and likewise the principle of trinities or sets of three. In an old Mithraic monument at Mycelia are figured three rings and four balls. For the Persians, too, as for Greeks and Romans, the Sun's chariot had four horses (Mihir Yasht, xxxi, 125), who stood for the four seasons as well as the "four elements"—earth, air, fire, and water. Heaven, too, was by them represented as quadrate. See Bähr, Symbolik des Mosaischen Cultus, 1837, i, 166; also ii, 147, as to the priestly arrangement of the 12 signs in 4 rows of threes; and Creuzer, as there cited. That four and seven (4 + 3) were numbers always occupying the Persian mystics we may gather from a quatrain of Omar Khayyam (cited by Bähr, p. 167) exhorting a Sufi to give them up and drink wine.

309:7 There is a curious correspondence between M. Lajard's four grades and the emblems of the four evangelists given by Augustine: Matthew = lion, Mark = man (this order often reversed), Luke = ox, John = eagle. See "Variorum Teachers’ Bible," Aids to Students, p. 10. These, however, were introduced into Judaism from Assyrian sources at the exile. Cp. Ezekiel, i, 10; x, 14; and Rev. iv, 7. It is interesting to note in this connection that the four Egyptian amenthes or genii of Hades, the mediators for the dead, had respectively the beads of a man, a hawk, an ape, and a dog (Sharpe, Hist. of Egypt, 7th ed. i, 163), while the Assyrian cherubim were compounded of lion, eagle, and man, with a general approximation to the ox. The Arabs had the same symbols (Wait, as cited, p. 155). The original source of the idea is clearly the zodiac, which figures so largely in the Apocalypse. The four "corner" constellations were the Lion, the Bull, the Waterman, and the Scorpion. But the latter, being an evil and destructive sign, could not be given to an Evangel, so there would naturally be substituted that of the Eagle, which rises before that of the Man, and like that is opposite the Lion.

309:8 Goblet d’Alviella, The Migration of Symbols, Eng. tr. 1894, pp. 80-82.

310:1 Cp. Zœckler, The Cross of Christ, Eng. tr. 1877, pp. 80-81, 105; Rev. vii, 3; xiv, 1; xxii, 4; Ezek. ix, 4; S. Baring Gould, Curious Myths, 1888, pp. 376-7.

310:2 Justi. Gesch. der oriental. Völker im Altertum, p. 397.

Next: § 8. The Creed