Mithras killing the celestial bull. Roman relief from Dormagen, now in Bonn's Rheinisches Landesmuseum.
Yesterday, I received an impressive present: a book on the cult of Mithra(s). Impressive: it measures 50×31 centimeters and was published more than a century-and-a-half ago, in 1847. To be honest, I do not think that Félix Lajard’s Introduction à l’étude du culte public et des mystères de Mithra en Orient et en Occident, is still useful today. Yet, it is a beautiful book, and it is charming to read that it was printed “par autorisation du roi à l’ imprimerie royale”. Such were the courtesies of the ancien régime.
The author has collected all kinds of drawings of Iranian and Roman reliefs, seals, and coins, and tries to trace the development of the cult of Mithras in Iran and the Roman Empire. In other words, we get lots of pictures of oriental and Roman art objects that Lajard believed to be relevant to the study of the mysteries of Mithras.
It is hard not to be impressed by his attempts to get the details straight. He had not traveled as widely as we expect scholars to do, and was therefore unable to decide which representation of a particular relief was the best, so we often get two pictures of the same monument. I was surprised to learn how large the differences between drawings can be.
This late Iranian Mithra shows no similarities to the contemporary western bull-slayer reliefs (Taq-e Bostan)
The problem was, of course, that he had no idea what he was looking for. The decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform, which revolutionized our knowledge of the Near East, took place in 1857, and Lajard still could adduce parallel illustrations that we now know to be irrelevant, or only marginally relevant, to the study of Mithraism.
The main problem, and a problem that Lajard could have avoided, was the assumption that there was a continuity from Iran to the Roman Empire. Of course it would be exaggerated to state there was no continuity at all: the name Mithras is clearly derived from Mithra and one of the grades of the Roman mysteries was called “Persian”. But the cult of Mithras is essentially a Roman phenomenon. With one possible exception, no Mithraic cave has ever been excavated in Iran, nor are there indications that Avestan hymns were chanted in the Roman mithraea.
It often happens that elements from one civilization cross over to another, and it would certainly have been possible for an Iranian god to join the Roman pantheon. But how much that was Iranian was he allowed to take with him? Compare it to Christianity, which is essentially a type of Judaism accepted by Greeks and Romans. Some converts believed that only a couple of ideas were really useful; men like Marcion of Sinope thought that the Old Testament books could be done away with, and that the Jewish context was best forgotten. Other Christian authors, like Irenaeus, stressed the need to keep in touch with the original foundations. The Roman cult of Mithras seems to have originated with a Marcion-like prophet, who took a couple of lose elements and abandoned the rest of Iranian Mithraism.
Bull and lion on an Iranian relief (Persepolis): no connection to the Roman mithraic reliefs.
This is now very obvious, but it has taken some time to get here. The study of the cult of Mithras has for a long time been dominated by Cumont and Vermaseren, great scholars who believed, just like Lajard, that there had been some kind of continuity.
As I said, Lajard could have avoided the mistake. Even the most unattentive reader thumbing through the pages of his beautiful book will immediately realize that not a single element of the Roman Mithras reliefs – all those bulls being killed – can be connected to ancient Iran. Almost all elements of the Roman monuments, like the bull, the snake, the raven, the cup, the raven, the scorpion, the ear of wheat, and finally the twins Cautes and Cautopates, are absent from the Iranian iconography. (The lion may be an exception, but in Iranian art, the animal is either killed by the king or attacking a bull. He is not watching how someone else kills a bull.)
Yet, Lajard put the eastern and western iconography together as if they had much in common. He was essentially assuming what needed to be proven.
And this, it seems, is what happens often to the study of Roman Mithraism, and not just by people studying its origins. People studying its influence make the same error: assuming a continuity from the Roman mysteries of Mithras to Christianity that needs to be proved. I will not digress on this last point; I just refer to Roger Pearse’s interesting blog articles on this subject. I found his most recent installment and this article especially worthwhile, but he has written more articles on Mithras (which I would love to use for my collection of common errors). Recommended.