Mithra and Mithras

26 November 2009

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.


Why Virgil’s Aeneid is Bad

25 November 2009

Opening lines of Virgil's Eclogues (Vatican)

Behind your verse
so masterfully made
we hear the weeping
of a Muse betrayed.

About half a year ago, I discovered the poetry of a German author named Stefan George (1868-1933). Even though I do not understand everything he wrote, I am impressed by his words. The man, however, was also a proto-Nazi. Yet, George’s political opinions do not really matter to me; art is art and should be judged as art in the first place, and as a political message only after that.

I can also appreciate Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious movie Triumph des Willens and Sergej Eisenstein’s October. I am fully aware of the repugnant political ideologies, but when I see those films, I can somehow dissociate from their messages, and focus on the artistic merits. The same goes for other artists: David was court painter of Napoleon, Raphael and Michelangelo served a papacy that was in desperate need of reform. Yet, their paintings are dear to me, or at least some of them.

So if I can make a distinction between art and political message, why can’t I just appreciate Virgil’s Aeneid, which I just reread, a bit more? I do not find it difficult to admit that his Georgics are among the finest that was written in Latin. The Eclogues do not irritate me either. And yet, there’s something that I find terribly annoying about the Aeneid.

Partly, it’s the use of outdated artistic forms. Those interfering deities had, somehow, a reality of their own in the days of Homer; for him, it was a fact that the gods were present during the fights. For Virgil, the use of the same motifs must have felt empty. As survivor of the civil wars, he must have known better and must have had different ideas, and I think that his contemporaries must have appreciated the divine interventions as a literary jeu d’esprit only.

Another aspect is the ridiculous scene in which Anchises teaches “Roman history in the future tense” (as W.H. Auden aptly phrased it). It was avoidable; the same aim – the idea that all history is just a prefiguration of the coming of Augustus – might have been achieved by mirroring scenes from Roman history in the adventures of Aeneas. The effect would have been less terrible, yes even amusing; now, it is hard to take the poem seriously after the sixth book.

But my main criticism is that Virgil is making his art subject to a political system. I know I am inconsistent: I can ignore the political opinions of Michelangelo, Raphael, David, Eisenstein, Riefenstahl, and George, so why not Virgil? I wish I understood why. Maybe one of the reasons why I dislike Virgil, is that I see my own inconsistency.

The Big Sleep

23 November 2009


“[Scythopolis] had first been settled by Scythians when they invaded Persian Palestine in the 7th century…”

This line is from the book I’m reading, Derks & Roymans, Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity (2009). It contains thirteen essays, including several very good ones, like the one on Ionians in the Archaic Period by Crielaard, and the one on the Frisians, about which I’ve blogged before. I’ve now read eight essays and expect more delights. But the line above came as a shock. As a double shock, to be precise.

First shock: the author of these words, whose name we will discreetly veil over, ought to have known that Scythopolis was not founded by the Scythians. The Asheri/Lloyd/Corcella Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV even calls this idea “absurd” (page 154), and although it is possible that a professional scholar has not read the very latest on Herodotus, this same professional ought to have realized that if your entire evidence amounts to one remark by the Halicarnassian sage, you have no evidence at all (testis unus, testis nullus).

Second shock: Persians in seventh-century Palestine? Someone has been sleeping. And not just someone – a team of two doctores and eleven professores. Even when a book by modern scholars turns out to be acceptable, perhaps even good, there will inevitably be a point where it reminds you of the fact that today’s archaeologists, classicists, and historians are just not up to their task.

Eric Cline, Biblical Archaeology

20 November 2009


Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and indeed, the laudatory quotes on the cover are usually best left unread. But the remark by Aren Maeir, quoted on the backcover of Eric Cline‘s Biblical Archaeology. A Very Short Introduction, that “this book is a gem”, is completely true. Being forced to stay at home by an acute bursitis of the knee, I read it in a couple of hours, and am very happy to have done so.

The book offers two histories. The first half is a history of the discipline, from Flinders Petrie to Albright to Yadin to Finkelstein, with some digressions about archaeolocal methods; the second half is an overview of the way in which archaeology confirms or contradicts the story told in the Bible. The final chapter deals with the notorious frauds of the last years: the pomegranate, the James Ossuary, and the Jehoash Tablet.

I write “contradicts”, but Cline himself writes that “the archaeological findings and the biblical account are asymmetrical”, which is probably a better way to phrase it. Written sources and archaeological finds are two types of evidence, and can be read in various ways. “Asymmetrical” is a nice way to express it, because there is often no real contradiction. We will never excavate the seven walls of Ecbatana mentioned by Herodotus, because it is a fairy-tale motif; that until 2012, we had no archaeological confirmation of Caesar‘s conquest of Belgium, was not worrysome, because his southern campaigns had been confirmed; Israel is not exceptional when archaeology does not say the same as the written sources.

It is for this reason that I was surprised by the title. Israel should not be exceptional and the expression “Biblical Archaeology” ought to be obsolete. “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” is more accurate. Cline is aware of the problem: archaeologists digging in the Middle East are interested in much more than the Bible, which remains an important source among other sources, just like its reliability is one question among other questions. Cline quotes Amnon Ben-Tor, who said that eliminating the Bible from the archaeology of the Land of Israel is like depriving the discipline of its soul.

Cline seems to agree – at least, he offers no criticism. Yet, in spite of the fact that I generally agree with him, I must say that this is simply nonsense. No one is talking about eliminating the Bible, which will always remain a valuable source of information. We are talking about defocusing – other questions are becoming equally important, and we should abandon a name that is obviously misleading. It is just like “Classical Archaeologists” becoming “Mediterranean Archaeologists”: they are no longer only interested in the classical tradition, but have a wider scope.

This is one of the few points of criticism. Another one is the way Cline writes about the archaeological campaigns in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. He writes that “the subsequent demolition and construction projects in the city enabled Israeli archaeologists to make important discoveries as they excavated in areas that had previously been inaccessible to them”. I don’t know whether that’s a euphemism or doublespeak.

But this is about everything I have to be critical about. This is really a nice little book. In 156 pages, Cline offers an extremely useful and readable introduction to Syro-Palestinian Biblical Archaeology, which I can sincerely recommend.

Egyptian Evidence for Babylonian Chronology?

20 November 2009

Hammurabi (left)

I would like to know more about this little news item: a seal of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, found in Egypt. The seal itself is not what intrigues me, it is the reference to a similar seal, which has been discovered (at an unspecified moment) in the tomb of the Egyptian king Khayan.

I am always interested when disciplines interact, but this may turn out to be truly special – at least, if the statement is correct that the Hyksos ruler Khayan was king of Egypt from 1653 to 1614 BCE. (I am not an Egyptologist, and the last time I ventured into the Hyksos age, many dates were still in doubt.)

But if we assume that Khayan’s regnal dates are correct, then we may finally come within reach of the solution of the main chronological problem of Babylonian history, where four chronological systems are possible. According to these, Hammurabi’s reign can be dated to 1848-1806 (“high chronology”), 1792-1750 (“middle chronology”), 1728-1686 (“low chronology”), and 1696-1654 (“ultra-low chronology”).

Now this seal must have been attached to a document or an object sent from Babylonia to Egypt. I do not know how long correspondence was kept in ancient archives, but if the Amarna Letters are a valid comparison, we must think of no more than thirty years. Calculating wildly, I’d say that the year 1653+30=1683 BCE ought to be within the series of regnal years of Hammurabi, which brings us to the ultra-low, or possibly the low chronology.

Again, I am not a specialist, and I may be completely wrong. For the time being, I will cling to the conventional “middle chronology”. Yet, about one thing we can be certain: ancient historians ought to be interested in all ancient cultures. They never have access to sufficient sources to solve even the most basic problems, like the chronology of second millennium Mesopotamia, so they cannot afford to become specialists, studying only one civilization.

Naqš-i Rustam

15 November 2009

Little noticed by the visitors, a couple of eagles guard Naqš-i Rustam.

Naqš-i Rustam, where the Achaemenid kings lie buried and the Sasanian kings proclaimed how they had defeated Roman emperors, is one of the main archaeological sites of Iran. The oldest monument dates to the Bronze Age. No one knows why the people started to make rock reliefs on this site, but I am tempted to think that it had something to do with acoustics: there are not many places with such a beautiful echo.

Four Achaemenid kings (Darius the Great, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II) were buried in the rocks of Naqš-i Rustam. These men were also responsible for several other monuments, like the mysterious structure that is called “Ka’bah-i Zardusht“.

Later, the Sasanian rulers added many reliefs: in chronological sequence, the Investiture relief of Ardašir I, which became the model for several other reliefs; the famous Triumph Relief of Shapur I; the Audience Relief of Bahram II; the Equestrian Relief of Bahram II and the Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II; the remarkable Investiture Relief of Narseh; the Equestrian Relief of Hormizd II; and finally the badly damaged Audience relief of Shapur II.

I am grateful to the Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, whose work normally graces the pages of the National Geographic; she allowed me to use a splendid picture of Naqš-i Rustam in the winter.

The Vanden Berghe List

14 November 2009

Ardašir's Investiture, Firuzabad

Louis Vanden Berghe (1923-1993) was a Flemish Iranologist, the founder of Irania Antiqua, the excavator of a/o Pusht-i Kuh in Luristan, and a member of the prestigious Society of Antiquaries of London. He is also the author of a useful list of Iranian rock reliefs, published in Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien (1983). Because I am now changing my pages on Naqš-i Rustam, a site with many Sasanian reliefs, the book is on my desk, and I decided to make it available online. So here it is, with links to photos of the sites.