Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.


One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of Tertullian.org and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.

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.