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

§ 12. Absorption in Christianity.

Now, however, arises the great question, How came such a cultus to die out of the Roman and Byzantine empire after making its way so far and holding its ground so long? The answer to that question has never, I think, been fully given, and is for the most part utterly evaded, though part of it has been suggested often enough. The truth is, as aforesaid, that Mithraism was not overthrown; it was merely transformed.

It had gone too far to be overthrown: the question was whether it should continue to rival Christianity or be absorbed by it. While Julian lived, Mithraism had every prospect of increased vogue and prestige; for the Emperor expressly adopted it as his own cultus. "To thee," he makes Hermes say to him, "I have given to know Mithras, thy Father. Be it thine to follow his precepts, so that he may be unto thee, all thy life long, an assured harbour and refuge; and, when thou must needs go hence, full of good hope, thou mayest take this God as a propitious guide." 3 It is the very tone and spirit of the cult of the Christ; and as we have seen, the Christian Fathers with almost one consent saw in Mithraism the great rival of their own worship. The spirit of exclusiveness which Christianity had inherited from Judaism—a spirit alien to the older paganism but

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essential to the building up of an organised and revenue-raising hierarchy in the later Roman empire—made a struggle between the cults inevitable.

The critical moment in the career alike of Mithraism and of Christianity was the death of Julian, who, though biassed in favour of all the older Gods, gave a special adherence to the War-God Mithra. Had Julian triumphed in the East and reigned thirty years, matters might have gone a good deal differently with Christianity. His death, however, was peculiarly disastrous to Mithra-ism; for he fell at the hands of the Persian foe, the most formidable enemy of the later empire; and Mithra was "the Persian" par excellence, and the very God of the Persian host. There can be little doubt that Jovian's instant choice of Christianity as his State creed was in large measure due to this circumstance; and that at such a juncture the soldiery would be disposed to acquiesce, seeking a better omen. Yet, even apart from this, we are not entitled to suppose that Mithraism could ever have become the general faith, save by very systematic and prolonged action on the part of the State, to the end of assimilating its organisation with that of the Church.

Religions, we say, like organisms and opinions, struggle for survival, and the fittest survive. That is to say, those survive which are fittest for the environment—not fittest from the point of view of another and higher environment. What then was the religion best adapted to the populations of the decaying Roman Empire, in which ignorance and mean subjection were slowly corroding alike intelligence and character, leaving the civilised provinces unable to hold their ground against the barbarians? An unwarlike population, for one . thing, wants a sympathetic and emotional religion; and here, though Mithraism had many attractions, Christianity had more, having sedulously copied every one of its rivals, and developed special features of its own. The beautiful and immortal youth of the older sun-worships, Apollo, Mithras, Dionysos, was always soluble into a mysterious abstraction a in the Christian legend the God was humanised in the most literal way; and for the multitude the concrete deity must needs replace the abstract. The gospels gave a literal story: the Divine Man was a carpenter, and ate and drank with the poorest of the poor. So with the miracles. The priesthoods of the older religions often, if not always, explained to the initiated in the mysteries the mystical purport which was symbolised by the concrete myths; and in some early Christian writers, as notably Origen, we find a constant attempt so to explain away concrete miracle and other stories as allegories.

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[paragraph continues] But gradually the very idea of allegory died out of the Christian intelligence; and priests as well as people came to take everything literally and concretely, till miracles became everyday occurrences. This was the religion for the Dark Ages, for the new northern peoples which had not gone through the Pagan evolution of cults and symbolisms and mysticisms, but whose own traditional faith was too vague and primitive to hold its ground against the elaborate Christian theology and ritual.

We may say indeed that the preference for such a God as Jesus over such a one as Mithra was in full keeping with the evolution of æsthetic taste in the Christian period. Some may to-day even find it hard to conceive how the Invincible God of the Sun could ever call forth the love and devotion given to the suffering Christ. As we have seen, Mithra too was a suffering God, slain and rising again, victorious over death; so that to him went out in due season all the passion of the weeping worship of Adonis; but it is in his supernal and glorious aspect that the monuments persistently present him; and for the decaying ancient world it was still possible to take some joy in the vision of beauty and strength. Many there must still have been who wondered, not at the adoration given to the mystically figured Persian, beautiful as Apollo, triumphant as Arês, but at the giving of any similar devotion to the gibbeted Jew, in whose legend figured tax-gatherers and lepers, epileptics and men blind from birth, domestic traitors and cowardly disciples. Ethical teaching there was in Mithraism; and for the Mithraists it would be none the less moving as coming from an eternal conqueror, the type of dominion. But even as the best Mithraic monuments themselves tell of the decline of the great art of Greece, so the art of Christism tells of a hastening dissolution in which æsthetic sense and craftsmanship alike sink to the levels of barbarism. In the spheres alike of Byzantium and of papal Rome, the sculptured Mithra would yearly meet fewer eyes that looked lovingly on grace and delightedly on beauty; more and more eyes that recoiled pessimistically from comeliness and turned vacantly from allegorical or esoteric symbols.

The more we study the survival of Christianity, the more clearly do we see that, in spite of the stress of ecclesiastical strife over metaphysical dogmas, the hold of the creed over the people was a matter of concrete and narrative appeal to every-day intelligence. Byzantines and barbarians alike were held by literalism, not by the unintelligible: for both alike the symbol had to become a fetish; and for the Dark Ages the symbol of the cross was much

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more plausibly appealing than that of the God slaying the zodiacal bull. Other substitutions followed the same law of psychological economy. Thus it was that Christianity turned the mystic rock, Petra, first into the Christ, 1 but later into the chief disciple Petros; made an actual tunic of the mystic seamless robe of the Osirian and Mazdean mysteries, the symbol of light and sky; caused to be performed at a wedding-feast, for the convenience of the harder drinkers among the guests, the Dionysiak miracle of turning water into wine; made Jesus walk on the water not merely in poetry and symbol, as did Poseidon, but for the utilitarian purpose of trying Peter's faith and saving him; and put the scourge of Osiris in the Lord's hand for the castigation of those who defiled the temple by unspiritual traffic. 2 There can be little question as to which plane of doctrine was the more popular. The Christian tales, in a different moral climate, represent exactly the commonplace impulse which built up the bulk of Greek mythology by way of narratives that reduced to an anecdotal basis mystic sculptures and mysterious rites.

But that was not all. The fatal weakness of Mithraism, as pitted against Christianity, was that its very organisation was esoteric. For, though an esoteric grade is a useful attraction, and was so employed by the Church, a wholly esoteric institution can never take hold of the ignorant masses. Mithraism was always a sort of freemasonry, 3 never a public organisation. 4 What the Christians did was to start, like Rome herself, from a republican basis, combining the life-elements of the self-supporting religious associations of the Greeks with the connecting organisation of the Jewish synagogues, 5 and then to proceed to build up a great organisation on the model of that of republican and imperial Rome—an organisation so august for an era of twilight that the very tradition of it could serve the later world to live by for a thousand years. The Christian Church renewed the spell of imperial Rome, and brought actual force to make good intellectual weakness. And so we read that the Mithraic worship was by Christian physical force suppressed in Rome and Alexandria, in the year 376 or 377, 6 at a time when, as the inscriptions show, it was making much headway. 7

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[paragraph continues] At Rome, the deed was done by the order of the Christian prefect Gracchus; but the proceeding was specifically one of ecclesiastical malice, since even so pious an emperor as Gratian dared not yet decree a direct assault upon an esteemed pagan cult. But, once begun, the movement of destruction spread, and the Church which still makes capital of the persecution it suffered at pagan hands, outwardly annihilated the rival it could not spiritually defeat. In an old Armenian history of the reign of Tiridates, 1 it is told how St. Gregory destroyed in the town of Pakaiaridj the temple of Mihr "called the son of Aramazd," took its treasure "for the poor," and consecrated the ground to the Church.

But such acts of piratical violence, which had been made easy by the earlier check to Mithraism in its special field, the army, only obscured the actual capitulation made by the Church to the Mithraic as to the other cults which it absorbed. Even the usages which it could not conveniently absorb, and therefore repudiated, prevailed within its own fold for centuries, so that in the eighth century we find Church Councils commanding proselytes no more to pay worship to fanes and rocks. 2 And there were other survivals. 3 But all that was a trifle as compared with the actual survival of Mithraic symbols and rites in the very worship of Christ. As to the sacrifice of the lamb we have seen; and though at the end of the seventh century a general Council ventured to resist the general usage of picturing Christ as a lamb, 4 the veto was useless; the symbol survived. Some Mithraic items went, but more remained. The Christian bishop went through a ceremony of espousing the Church, following the old mystery in which occurred the formula, "Hail to thee, new spouse; hail, new light." 5 His mitre was called a crown, or tiara, which answered to the headdress of Mithra and the Mithraic priests, as to those of the priests of Egypt; he wore red military boots, now said to be "emblematical of that spiritual warfare on which he had entered," in reality borrowed from the military worship of Mithra, perhaps as early as Jovian. And the higher mysteries of communion, divine sacrifice, and resurrection, as we have seen, were as much Mithraic as Christist, so that a Mithraist could turn to the Christian worship and find his main rites unimpaired, lightened only of the burden of initiative austerities, stripped of the old obscure mysticism, and with all things turned to the

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literal and the concrete, in sympathy with the waning of knowledge and philosophy throughout the world. The Mithraic Christians actually continued to celebrate Christmas Day as the birthday of the sun, despite the censures of the Pope; 1 and their Sunday had been adopted by the supplanting faith. When they listened to the Roman litany of the holy name of Jesus, they knew they were listening to the very epithets of the Sun-God—God of the skies, purity of the eternal light, king of glory, sun of justice, strong God, father of the ages to come, angel of great counsel. In the epistles of Paul they found Christian didactics tuned to the very key of their mystical militarism. Their priests had been wont to say that "he of the cap" was "himself a Christian." 2 They knew that "the Good Shepherd" was a name of Apollo; 3 that Mithra, like Hermes and Jesus, carried the lamb 4 on his shoulders; that both were mediators, both creators, both judges of the dead. Like some of their sacred caves, and so many pagan temples, the Christian churches looked toward the east. Their soli-lunar midnight worship was preserved in midnight services, which carried on the purpose of the midnight meetings of the early Christians, who had simply followed Essenian, Egyptian, Asiatic, and Mithraic usage; there being no basis for the orthodox notion that these secret meetings were due to fear of persecution. 5 Their myazd or mizd, or sacred cake, was preserved in the mass, which possibly copied the very name. 6

Above all, their mystic Rock, Petra, was presented to them in the concrete as the rock Peter, the foundation of the Church. It has been elsewhere shown 7 that the myth of the traitorous Peter connects with those of Proteus and Janus as well as with that of

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[paragraph continues] Mithra, inasmuch as Janus also had "two faces," led the twelve months as Mithra presided over the zodiacal signs and Peter over the twelve apostles, and, like Proteus and Peter and the Time-God in the Mithraic cult, bore the heavenly keys. Here again the mythic development of Peter probably follows on that of Jesus; at all events Jesus too has constructively several of the attributes of Proteus-Janus: as "I am the door"; 1 "I stand at the door and knock"; "I am in the Father and the Father in me" (=Janus with the two faces, old and young, seated in the midst of the twelve altars); "I have the keys of death and of Hades." The function of Janus as God of War is also associable with the dictum, "I came not to bring peace, but a sword." Finally, the epiphany is in January. But there is to be noted the further remarkable coincidence that in the Egyptian Book of the Dead 2 Petra is the name of the divine doorkeeper of heaven—a circumstance which suggests an ancient connection between the Egyptian and Asiatic cults. On the other hand, the early Christian sculptures which represent the story of Jesus and Peter and the cock-crowing suggest that it originated as an interpretation of some such sculpture; and the frequent presence of the cock, as a symbolic bird of the Sun-God, 3 in Mithraic monuments, raises again a presumption of a Mithraic source. There is even some ground for the view that the legend of St. George is but an adaptation of that of Mithra; 4 and it is not unlikely that St. Michael, who in the Christian east is the bearer of the heavenly keys, is in this aspect an adaptation from the Persian War-God. 5 The dragon-slayer clearly derives from Babylon.

From the Mithraists too, apparently, came the doctrine of purgatory, 6 nowhere set forth in the New Testament save in the spurious epistle of Peter. 7 And though their supreme symbol of Mithra slaying the bull was perforce set aside, being incapable of assimilation, they knew that the Virgin Mother was but a variant of the Goddess-Mothers whose cults had at various times been combined with those of Mithra, and some of whose very statues served as Madonnas; 8 even as the doctrines of the Logos and the Holy Spirit and the Trinity were borrowed from their own and older Asiatic cults and those of Egypt alike.

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It has chanced, indeed, that those Christian sects which most fully adopted the theosophies of Paganism have disappeared under the controlling power of the main organisation, which, as we have said, held by a necessity of its existence to a concrete and literal system, and for the same reason to a rigidly fixed set of dogmas. We know that the Gnostics adopted Mithra, making his name into a mystic charm, from which (spelling it Μειθρας) they got the number 365, as from the mystic name Abraxas. 1 Manichæism, too, the greatest and most tenacious of all the Christian schisms, carried on its ascetic front the stamp of the Persian environment in which it arose, and visibly stands for a blending of the ascetic and mystic elements of Mithraism and Christianity. For the celebration of the slain Christ it practically substituted that of the slain Manes, at the paschal season; reducing the crucifixion to a mere allegory of the cult of vegetation, and identifying the power and wisdom of the Saviour-God with the Sun and Moon. 2 Neither its adherents nor its opponents avowed that it was thus a fresh variant of Mithraism; but the Mithraists cannot have failed to see and signalise alike the heretical and the orthodox adaptation, and it is clear that Mithraism not only entered into Manichæism but prepared the way for it in the West. 3 The more reason why Mithras should be tabooed by the organised Church. Thus, then, we can understand why the very name seemed at length to be blotted out. And yet, despite all forcible suppression, not only do the monuments of the faith endure to tell how for centuries it distanced its rival; not only do its rites and ceremonies survive as part of the very kernel of the Christian worship; but its record remains unknowingly graven in the legend on the dome of the great Christian temple of Rome, destined to teach to later times a lesson of human history, and of the unity of human religion, more enduring than the sectarian faith that is proclaimed within.


327:3 Caesares, end. Cp. In regem solem, end.

330:1 Cor. x, 4. Jesus, too, bore the keys in the earlier Judaic cult (Rev. i, 18) before the development of the myth of Peter. Cp. Rev. iii, 7, as to "the key of David."

330:2 On these and other assimilations see Christianity and Mythology, Part III, Div. i.

330:3 I originally wrote this without knowing that Renan had already said it. Marc-Aurèle, p. 577.

330:4 On the significant smallness of the Mithraic caves, see Cumont, i, 65. Cp. p. 73 as to the esoteric attitude.

330:5 Cp. A Short History of Christianity, pp. 18, 57-8, 82-4.

330:6 Jerome, Epist. cvii, ad Lætam (Migne, xxii, col. 869); Socrates, Ec. Hist., B. y, c. 16.

330:7 Renan, as last cited, pp. 579-80.

331:1 Langlois, Hist. ancienne de l’Arménie, i, 168, cited by Cumont, ii, 4.

331:2 "Nullus Christianus ad fana, vel ad Petras votas reddere præsumat." Indic. Paganiarum in Concilio Leptinensi, ad ann. Christ. 743; cited by Bryant, Analysis, i, 294.

331:3 See note by Mosheim on Cudworth, Harrison's ed. i. 478.

331:4 Bingham, Christian Antiq. B. viii, c. 8, § 11.

331:5 Firmicus, xx.

332:1 See the sermons of Saint Leo, xxii, 6, cited by Dupuis and Havet, and by Gieseler, Compend. of Ec. Hist. Eng. trans. 1846, ii, 43. Others than Mithraists, of course, would offend, Christmas being an Osirian and Adonisian festival also. Macrobius, Saturnalia, i, 18.

332:2 Augustine in Joh. i, Dis. 7; cited in King, Gnostics, p. 119. Prof. Cumont (ii, 58) suggests that by "him of the cap" was meant Attis. This seems to me unlikely; but if the priests of Attis could so speak, those of Mithra could well do likewise.

332:3 Macrobius, Saturnalia, i, 17.

332:4 Or the bull. See Lajard's Atlas, Pl. xcii; and Garucci, as cited. It is now generally held that the Christian figure of the lamb-bearing Good Shepherd is taken from the statues of Hermes Kriophoros, the Ram-bearer (Pausanias, iv, 33). But see also Jastrow's Talmudic Dict. s.v. ‏אייל‎, for a Jewish parallel; and see Erman, Handbk. of Eg. Rel. Eng. tr. p. 228, for an Egyptian one of doubtful date.

332:5 Cp. 1 Thess. v.

332:6 King, Gnostics, p. 124, states that the round cake in the Mithraic Eucharist was called Mizd, giving no authority, but acquiescing in the view of Seel that this term is the origin of Missa, the Mass. As to the ordinary interpretation see A Short History of Christianity, pp. 237-9. The word missa might come, however, from the Greek maza, a name for a barley cake mixed with honey, etc. (Hesiod, Op. et Dies, 588). Cp. Adams’s note in. trans. of Hippocrates, 1849, i, 163; and Athenæus, iv, 31, as to the Phigalean "barley-feasts" in honour of Dionysos, at which barley cakes (maza) were essential, and in which the bread had a talismanic virtue.

332:7 Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 347-52.

333:1 John x, 9.

333:2 Ch. 68. Budge's trans. p. 123.

333:3 As to its holiness, see the Bundahish, xix: the Vendîdâd, Fargard xviii, § 2; and note to latter (Darmesteter's trans. p. 197).

333:4 Gutschmidt, cited by Cumont, ii, 72.

333:5 Lueken, Michael, 1898, p. 46 sq., cited by Cumont. Cp., however, Erman, Handbk. of Eg. Rel., Eng. tr. p. 227, for an apparent Egyptian variant or prototype.

333:6 Cp. N. Söderblom, La vie future d’après le Mazdéisme, as cited, p. 126; and west, Pahlavi Texts, ii, 115 (S. B. E. xviii).

333:7 1 Peter, iii, 19.

333:8 Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 167-9.

334:1 Jerome, in Amos, c. 2, on vv, 9-10.

334:2 Augustine, Contra Epist. Manichæi, viii; Contra Faustum, xv, 5; xx, 1-4, 8.

334:3 Cp. Lea, Hist. of Sacerdotal Celibacy, 2nd ed. pp. 43-4; Baur, Das manichäische Religionssystem, 1831, pp. 91, 208, 241, 407; Neander, Gen. Hist. of the Chr. Relig. Eng. tr. ii, 174-9, 194.

Next: § 13. The Point of Junction