When I talk to my big sister, Sally, about what’s happening in Pattieland, she always recommends I write a book about my adventures and she refers to this imaginary book as Mithras and me. This blog is in part a nod to this oft heard suggestion. (The real spurs here, however, is the wife. She’s my everything. =D)
To that end, I’m writing to catch up on Mithras and me.
On March 14, in this second year of the plague, I started a new Facebook group called Offerings to Mithras (in addition to my original page.) My initial idea was to offer, for a fee, to create an altar to Mithras for people. I went as far as creating a menu of items to be offered and a fee schedule. This quickly went by the wayside as bitter me remembered I’m the only one with this level of interest/dedication. LOL So I modified MY goal and decided the group’s goal is to focus on one piece of mithraic art a week. To **really** study it. Like a slow-art mithraic group. And while yes, the first one went two weeks (there was a lot to look at!) it has been progressing nicely.
And in the way of such things, it lead to my current project: compiling a list of museums in the USA with mithraic items in their collections. I began by reaching out to the several Roman focused groups I belong to on Facebook, asking for museums with notable Roman collections. I wrote to the Met, as well. The wonderful members of RAT were the most helpful and I am continuing to use their suggestions. It was during this period that I discovered our second piece in the new Mithras group (above) is housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; a mere half hour from Sally’s house! Walters boasts 5 mithraic pieces, according to their catalogue, four of which are on display. I have already contacted them with questions.
My plan is to visit Sally mid-May for a trip to the Walters, but we’re also going to drive down to Richmond, VA. While it IS almost 4 hours one way, she DID drive to me 3 hours to Lens in France to see CIMRM 415 so I know she’s up for it.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Art is home to this post-CIMRM tauroctony. I’m excited to get a new picture of the back of my head with this tauroctony. (And I’m really sorry for this poor bull and its obvious hip problem.) Because it’s interesting, I have to include this Beck quote from Roger’s page: The relief is probably or certainly from Rome. It is notable for the curious way in which the gaze and angle of the heads of Cautes and Cautopates mirror those of Sol and Luna, above them. I honestly didn’t notice it until it was pointed out. Cool, huh? Proof that we really need to slow down and get to know these pieces!
This project also put me in contact with the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Michigan, offering me another chance to prove that you have nothing to lose by asking. The conversation between myself and the curator was delightful, and when the registrar was looped in, we all learned the unhappy news that the photo in question was lost, and its bin mates so severely curled as to be beyond scanning.
I’m working on finding a way of sharing the spreadsheet, but if you’re interested or have a museum suggestion feel free to contact me.
Finally, I would like to end with the delightful fact that in a mere ten days from today this blog will be 3 years old. Thanks to the wife and my big sister for suggesting I do this. It has been rewarding, to say the least.
This is, IMO, too high a number to not be significant. So the wife and I discussed possible uses for a basin. She outright rejected my thought that water might add to the cave-like atmosphere. (She insisted that, “Guys don’t care about dank or danker.”) We then moved to the most obvious answer: a foot bath. But why a foot bath? Perhaps for the ritual purification of your superiors’ feet, ah la Mary Magdalene? Were clean feet considered something nice, or necessary, before reclining on the podia?
Not knowing the circumference or depth of these nine basins, I’m sticking with the foot bath explanation, because if the purpose was simply to have water available during a ritual, setting it in the floor doesn’t make sense. You’d expect to have a basin and ewer on a table or on an ornate stand if it was to be part of a ritual.
And so, the nine basins will remain a mystery to ponder.
Back in the studio, however, I have a different issue. I’ve been looking into the Raven grade and keep bumping into the 5th century Christian writer, Ambrosiaster, who declares that during rituals some Mithraists, ‘flapped their wings like birds, imitating the croak of the raven.’ (Yup. They had wings for these events. Remember winged Mithras in this post?) The feast scene from the mithraeum at Konjic is then used to illustrate the point. (We’re looking at the first person on the left in a Raven mask.)
Just as telling, I can add my own image from Dura-Europos. (You ‘ll have to scroll down to check out his leg.)
But let’s consider a few points. Was Ambrosiaster a sympathetic writer? Has anything even remotely like an animal mask been excavated from a mithraeum? What would be the point of putting on a mask when everyone present at a ritual knew, more or less, who was who? Sure, we can project, allowing for the occasional visitor from another mithraeum, but that visitor’s grade was going to be known to all so as to avoid a career-ruining faux pas.
Also, if we wanted to ritually reenact the tauroctony, and needed someone to play the role of Raven delivering the ‘go ahead’ message from Sol for Mithras to wound the bull, both feast scenes happen after the killing and subsequent flaying of the bull, and so a Raven is no longer needed. Any new info from Sol could be delivered by His simply leaning over and telling Mithras directly as they recline on the bull hide.
“Horace is very scathing on the subject of Centaurs in one of his Epistles. He asks, who ever saw a half-human horse? Did he not realize that Centaurs, Silenians, Satyrs, and the like were merely Pelasgians, pictographically identified as belonging to the Horse, Goat, or other totemic fraternities.”
So, can’t we simply “read” the feast images from Konjic and Dura as telling us that Ravens waited at table, rather than taking it to be a literal representation of men in masks? Who wants to walk around a dark “cave”, carrying food, in a mask? Seriously.
Yes, these are the kind of things I ponder in Pattieland.
I threatened to do a post about these images a while ago and got busy with other things. As one does. But this morning over breakfast, where I do most of my reading, I was reminded of the threat when I grabbed my copy of The Golden Game.
For me, alchemical art is always fun to look at/read. I can drop this image here and know that other “Sons of the Art” will understand where, in the process, I am.
And that is, in my opinion, exactly what 18th century orientalists were trying to recapture when they began making copies of ancient art. To imbue these images with arcane knowledge… real or imagined… that only initiates would understand, seemed to be their goal. Were they successful? It’s hard to say, as too often the image in question is from a lost original.
Well, I’m going to take a stand and say that no, they failed at every mark. Sometimes hilariously so. These images are SO over the top, SO purple as to epitomize the definition of artistic license. And I’m torn whether to begin with the worst, or save it for last.
I originally encountered this image reworked by Manly P Hall and titledThe Secret Teachings of All Ages. Fun, right? It’s like one of those Highlights magazine find-the-hidden-items pictures from every pediatrician’s office in America. How many cults can you find, kids?
And the tauroctony chosen for this image is CIMRM 335, which is annoying lost to us. The first time this tauroctony appeared in print was 1564, in the Speculum romanae magnificentiae. And through the magic of the internet, you too can wander through Speculum’s myriad engravings, including CIMRM 335. (Crazy zooming ability!)
But I’m making it my business to point out some of the issues I take with this rendering. Such as Mithras, on a bender. Was He out late last night? I don’t know, but try not to make any loud noises.
And let’s admire the top register…
“Paint me like one of your French girls…” our first Aeon (yes, there are two) seems to be saying. And what are those spools between each altar?
But my favorite addition on this piece HAS to be the extra… scorpion? Crab? Testiclaws? Because two sets of pincers has to be better than one. And I love the snake, getting a fresh perspective. Watch out, the lion is about to sneeze.
Remember, I saved the “best” for last. Let’s move on to the next image. And we’re keeping with Planches as it boasts four mithraic images.
Not a lot to say about this image. It speaks for itself, though I will point out the elephant in the room, His wings. The wounding knife is a strange crescent thingie that could double as a handle and what is that quadruped wandering the cave top? We’re expecting a poor harvest, as the bull has no tail; sorry.
Onward! I’ll just drop this one here. And I’m with Cautopates on this one; I can’t even.
Standing within a cartouche, our conquering hero, with His gumdrop hat, holds the orb and sceptre/sword amid palm trees and poplars. The hurrying head with lion’s mane is unique and everyone is pointedly looking away from it. The scorpion has joined the raven, leaving the dog, the snake, and the bull in a tête-a-tête down front. Jupiter’s eagle and bolt have been added, wink wink, nudge nudge.
I admit, the lion’s mane head thing drives me wild, wondering what it was meant to be… but not enough to keep me up at night.
We’re going to leave Planches for this next one. And off the top of my head, I don’t know it’s source.
My favorite thing about this one is it’s backwards, unapologetically so, as the labeling letters are not reversed. We can tell it’s a riff on CIMRM 335 by the fact that there are two scorpions and a sneezing lion, but the bottom of the image is such a confused jumble that it’s hard to know if the artist lost interest or was out late last night with Mithras.
Yeah, THAT Mithras.
This next one is another riff on CIMRM 335. Can you guess how I know this? Do I know exactly where you’re going to look first?
Hey, you know what? I see what the spools were meant to be; and was our lion’s mane head actually a VERY poor rendering of a lion? But yeah, two scorpions. Mithraic art! Now with extra scorpions! Luna’s cattle have become stags… wink wink. An ouroboros, because having a snake is just boring, oh, and we upped the annual wheat quotient; you’re welcome.
I’ll threaten to do another post about the lower register at this point, to make sure you’re still with me. I mean, really! Who is that interloper at the feast?
This one. Wow. Flaming bull hooves or THE nastiest case of thrush ever. (DO NOT google thrush! You cannot unsee!) Why is Cautes naked? Where is the snake off to? Heck, where is Sol off to and who is He gesturing to? There’s a LOT of movement, and caps, in this offering. But Mithras’ hair. Yeah.
Finally! The moment we’ve all be reading for. The most preposterous interpretation of Cautopates’ downward torch EVER is our leap-off point.
We’re back to Planches and I’m willing to bet that this is supposed to be an illustration of the Mithraic cameo.
In the cameo’s redrawing, artistic license has reached its pinnacle. The artist has seen, perhaps even studied, the cameo and wants to draw it large (and “cleaned up”) so everyone can enjoy it. I mean, look at that turtle! Actually, no, don’t look at the turtle. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.
Sol’s whip is a nice identifier, if we needed one, but the star that’s about to collide with His face is one of the seven we need for the seven planets, and as such it’s almost hidden against His face. When you’re counting the stars, you have to hunt for that one. Raven, check; strange T floating in air that should really be a sword, check! Jupiter’s lightning bolt for the Leos, check… and His eagle for over kill? check! Mercury’s caduceus, check; arrow; horn; strange, glowing disembodied, floating head with crescent, check! Random whale because that snake didn’t look enough like a snake to be recognizable? Sure! Spidery scorpion, check. Turtle. Urrrm, check? Kidney bean? Why not. Harpe (phew! back on solid ground), check! Things sprouting from Cautes’ hand…and we’re off solid ground again…check. Let’s finish up with a feathery fern with skull, because we can!
Wow. That was a lot of art to look at. Do you feel inspired? Triggered? Puzzled as to what I eat in the morning? Did you feel the art was inclusive? Exclusive? Were all the “hidden” messages smacking you in the face like the fish slapping dance?
It’s a shame we’ll never know what the artist intended, but they did give us a lot to think about.
This isn’t something I’ve researched exhaustively, though I can see me making more mental notes in future. The thing is, I’ve noticed that when there is a krater in the tauroctony scene, the snake is going for it, rather than the bleeding bull. No clue why, or if it’s a regional thing. It’s just something of interest… to me. 😉
Here’s a quick photoshop pile up of images so you can see what I’m seeing. Enjoy, and puzzle along with me.
I’ve been reading an article about the use of ritual space in a mithraeum. Naturally, it’s got me thinking.
Ok. Not thinking. Obsessing.
We’re going back to Carrawburgh for this one. In the first image from TripAdvisor you can see the stairs in question behind Cautes’ left elbow, against the building wall. Or, in the second image, on the far right, just below the turf bench.
Now, the thing that is bothering me is the fact that there is zero need for steps, as that “bench” for members to recline on is about ankle high. And while I would like to take into account centuries of floor creep, you can clearly see that those two steps are resting on the ground. Were they a sop to other mithraea where steps were a necessity? Did the builder strive for uniformity? And sure, there might have been 7 steps originally, but we’re focusing on these three.
What I’d like to imagine is that members of the mysteries gathered in the narthex. They would arranged themselves in two lines, in order of their grade, the sun-runners going in before the Persians, so as to be closest to the action, and so on down to the bridegrooms, leaving the ravens free to wait on members. This procession would pass through the opening in the screen. Once in the sacred space, they would turn to either the left or right…
Here’s the floor plan for Carrawburgh. Please notice that upon entering the temple proper (just inside the screen) there are four shaded squares. Two “disused bases” (we will assume they were in use when our procession took place) and the usual statues of Cautes and Cautopates.
It seems that the easiest means of getting onto the benches would be to walk down the center aisle and step onto the bench. From there, it’s simple enough to make yourself comfortable on the leather cushions and wait for the ritual to begin.
So why are there stairs?
If we hit play, our procession might turn towards the walls and move between the four shaded squares, using the steps to avoid walking into the sacred space of the temple where a ritual is about to be enacted. Did they symbolically rise above the earth and ascend to the firmament? leaving the sanctuary free for the mystagogues, who we assume are busy making final preparations.
I have been to plenty of rituals, and understand the differences between the sacred and the mundane; of how putting yourself into an uncommon position removes you from the secular. I’ve been to pow-wows, where we were cautioned to be respectful when crossing the dance circle, which is considered a sacred space for the duration of the gathering.
I can easily imagine a similar scenario playing out in a mithraeum; where not everyone in attendance is a participant in the ritual, where those on the floor, not on the benches, are no longer of this world…but are only three tiny steps away.
I have spoken about this before, and will doubtless pick it up again in the future, but I want to try and cement another date into the Pattie calendar of Mithraic events.
Knowing that we have no way of knowing when anything was celebrated, I feel that February 1st is the appropriate time to celebrate the tauroctony. And by that I mean, the event encapsulated by the image we call the tauroctony.
I know, I know. Last year I celebrated the tauroctony on the Spring Equinox. And who knows, perhaps next year I’ll move it again based of further reading. No one said any of this is carved in stone. Literally, or perhaps ironically. Which is both nice, and frustrating.
Allow me to outline my reasons for choosing this date.
February 1st is called Imbolc by Celtic pagans. Many Neo-pagans count this day as one of the eight sabbats. Imbolc is known by several names, including “the quickening,” and one needs only to look at the tauroctony bull’s tail to see what’s inspired me.
Now, I don’t mean to conflate a Celtic observance with an ancient Roman one, but happily there is a festival, called Sementivae, celebrated near the end of January that is a sowing festival that I can dovetail into. And yes, I feel the need to dovetail as I have to consider the Roman calendar when thinking of my own. The reason being that even thousands of miles from Rome, a Roman legionary would have been required to observe the calendar customs going on at the capital. Probably not with the same level of pomp, but to mark the day in some way.
So it’s helpful to know about Sementivae, as it means that the weather was not vastly dissimilar to what was going on in Celtic Britain, that both had similar observances around the same time.
I admit that I put the tauroctony on the Spring Equinox because the equinoxes and solstices **seem** more important than the cross-quarter days. But in my heart, the wheat from the bull’s tail just feels more Imbolc-y.
Today is Feb 1st, and I have nothing prepared. The candles on the altar are lit, as always, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. In all likelihood I will do something on March 19th, but this will be in recognition of the time to sow wheat for a late summer harvest, and not a time when the world is stabbed awake from its winter slumber.
Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 11:19 PM is only days away!
I’m sorry. I never shared images of my tauroctony ritual here on the blog. My bad. And as we move closer to the only annual event we can label with even a modicum of certainty, I’m already planning how I’m going to recognize Mithras’ birthday.
As I’ve written in the past, I celebrate His birthday on the winter solstice. I have a geode on the altar that I open as close to the event as possible, and leave open for some indeterminate amount of time. It’s my own rock-birth imagery. Oh, and speaking of opening things, this year I have been posting an image a day on Facebook, it’s a sort of Mithras Advent calendar.
Like the March ritual, I have a “shopping” list going in my mind, and this year I have an altar dedicated to the event to work on, thank you daddy! The funny thing is, I wanted it to be on the small size, but the lettering I chose renders it the largest of my many altars. Whoops. lol@me
On my short list is the need for greenery. Cedar being my pine of choice. I have a pot of sterno, which I’ll make a collar for… to hide the silver and make it look less like a pot of sterno. 😉 (I like sterno at this time of year over candles; it’s flamey.) I plan on cooking a whole chicken that day, as capon isn’t an option, and will put some of the meat on the altar. Incense, wine, pine cones, pita, barley, probably honey…because I like it.
And I wrote a short invocation. Enjoy. And when I say “enjoy” I mean USE IT! =D
I invite You, Lord Mithras, Invincible Sun, Lord of the Ages, Creator of All Things, Father of Life, and Friend to the Hand-shaken, to be present.
Know that in this cave, Your name is spoken above all.
Rise from the rock’s womb. The earth is cold and dark. Burn Your light into our hearts and minds! Throw Your cloak of stars over us. Watch over us in the coming year. Guide us, help us, stand by and defend us. Whether we dwell in comfort at home, parade on the Field of Mars or battle to preserve those we will never meet.
All glory is Yours! All honors are Yours! And when Your indefatigable pursuit of the bull is over and Your keen blade is poised to renew life, Father of All, our bond will be stronger than ever.
A recent internet search landed me on these singular images of Mithras.
Done in the 12th century for a Christian cloister, this pseudo-tauroctony represents, for me, the very notion of “lost in translation”. I can imagine the conversation as one man excitedly describes an ancient monument he had seen to a somewhat-engaged artisan. The hat was important. Straddling the bull was paramount, and oh yeah, he’s stabbing it. Think you can do it?
The elements are there, and are strong enough that we are referring to it as a tauroctony.
But this isn’t the first time that the tauroctony has been the subject of misinterpretation. Allow me to introduce you to a folder in my collection titled dorsuale. Not familiar with the term? You’re not alone. Here’s the common definition:
noun (n., 3rd pure I-stem declension)
1. a cover for the back
If you were to do a google image search for dorsuale, you’d come up with lots of pretty bulls (and some sheep and pigs) draped in decorative cloth as they are being lead to be sacrificed. These creatures have literally been dressed up for church. But where is the Mithras connection?
Let’s return to my earlier, imagined conversation, only this time our artist is contemporary with the cult, but living far from the source material. He has seen a tauroctony… perhaps this one.
Look at the blood, cascading from the wound; from the bull’s back all the way to the dog’s eager mouth. So very dorsuale-like. This inspires our artist, recalling similar images he’s seen of other sacrificial animals. And he’s decided to improve on the image, like this over-the-top version, in which the cascade of blood has become a wreath under His knee.
And while I’m throwing these out there, this artist has a completely different interpretation, as the snake takes the place of the dorsuale/wreath:
Yeah, that’s a long snake. But I digress.
I believe that the addition of a dorsuale to any tauroctony is a misinterpretation of the blood pouring from the bull’s wound. The bull that Mithras is wounding is the very one He ran to ground, carried to the cave, and pressed into submission to wound for our benefit. Mithras is not, IMO, pausing to gussy up His victim. He has a job to do and that doesn’t include OTT wreaths of fruit or a pretty cloth. Or a snake.
The transition began two days ago. Three men arrived at his house early in the morning. One of them asked for the pouch that Marcus had been presented when his grade advanced from Nymphus to Miles. A Miles no longer, the leather pouch would be presented to his replacement. Marcus was not sorry to hand the item over, as the prospect of being a Leo far outweighed sentimentality.
Together, the four men went to a local wine merchant. Marcus knew one of the three who accompanied him was Pater of his mithraeum, but he was unsure which of the three was Pater, Heliodromus, or Perses. The three men acted naturally; there was no solemnity in their demeanor as they discussed which inn they would visit for the midday meal. As it was Marcus’ duty to feed them, he tried to not flinch as they named a new, upscale establishment he had only heard about.
In the wine merchant’s stall, Marcus watched while the three men ordered a prodigious amount of wine. Directions for its delivery was made and, as one, the men turned to Marcus to settle the account.
From there, they went to a merchant who sold honey. Again, the amount ordered was staggering but, in this at least, Marcus had been warned that it was the incoming Leo’s duty to provide honey for the coming year. He would not be expected to do this again.
It didn’t make his purse feel any better.
Over lunch at the local bath house, Marcus was asked to detail his time as a Miles. There were good-natured shots fired into his list, but more wine helped keep things from becoming too serious. Marcus then returned home, convinced the next day would continue in a similar manner.
Marcella met him at the door with a warm hug. She knew what was happening, though without any details, and offered what support she could.
“I’ve had a package from my brother,” she said, placing a small box in Marcus’ hand. “He told me not to look, but to give it to you. He says you should take it with you and you’ll know when to use it.”
Marcella’s brother, who served the Empire in Egypt, was already a Leo so Marcus gratefully accepted the gift. “He’s been very good to us.”
Marcella smiled down at the box, “Yes, he has. I’ve already written our thanks.”
Breakfast was just over when the three men returned to Marcus’ home. Together they trooped to a local butcher. Marcus was quick to take them to the stall where a calf waited. When the calf had been born, it bore all the necessary auspicious markings, but had had a broken leg. As a result, Marcus had gotten it for half the usual price. Earlier, Marcus had sent a message to the butcher to remove the splint for the inspection, and he sagged with relief to see that the butcher had both removed the splint and fluffed the hairs to hide where the wood had been. He made a mental note to add a few extra coins to the man’s fee.
When one of men with him went into the stall and knelt next to the calf, looking hard at the leg, Marcus held his breath. The seconds dragged on. Finally the man nodded as he rose with a grunt.
“Acceptable. Will your wife be preparing the feast?”
Marcus breathed around his hammering heart. “I’ve hired a chef,” was as much as he could muster.
The man nodded again and waved a dismissive hand at Marcus, telling him to settle the account and leave directions for where the butchered calf was to be delivered. Marcus knew that they would oversee the ritual slaughtering, so he nodded his understanding and retreated to the front of the shop to settle the bill.
As Marcus stepped out into the busy street, he saw a man across the way push off the wall he had been leaning on. The man approached him with a wave.
It only took a second for Marcus to recognize and greet Gaius. “I haven’t seen you since…”
Gaius cut him off with a laugh, “Don’t say it! I’m feeling old enough.” As they clasped arms, Marcus wasn’t surprised to feel gentle pressure from Gaius’ thumb, alerting him to Gaius’ membership in the mysteries. Not that he needed a reminder, but then Gaius leaned towards Marcus’ ear. “I stopped by your house and told Marcella not to expect you tonight.”
They spent the rest of the day together, Gaius outlining what was upcoming and what was expected of his friend.
“I remember,” Marcus said at one point, “those graffiti at Caserna.”
Gaius nodded. “I’ve seen them, too. I think they did that to frighten the incoming Coraxis.”
“Putting them all together like that made me think it was all going to happen at the same time,” Marcus said, laughing at the prospect.
“That’s the idea, I’m sure. And now tell me, what did you prepare as an offering?”
Marcus’ gaze turned inward, his mind racing, but then he smiled, drawing the small box into view. “My wife’s brother sent me this. He’s stationed in Alexandria and said I would know when to use it.”
Sliding the lid off, they looked down at the fragrant pine cone.
Are you keeping a running total of the things I’ve shared with you about myself? Well, here’s a new one for the collection: in my mind, my ideal job would be art restoration.
I have no formal training, no art history degree… I just think restoring images to their former glory would be awesome. Like watching this guy on Youtube. Or when they did the Sistine Chapel over. I’ll never forget going back to college for an accounting degree (which, FTR, I don’t have) and meeting a woman who was going for the same degree. I asked her what she currently did for a living and she said art restoration. I was floored and asked why she wanted to change. She sighed and said that restoration was, “mind-numbingly dull.” HELLO???? You think being an accountant is going to be fun??? I like to say my job is stultifyingly dull, but mind-numbing works, too.
That was MANY years ago. 😉
In the way of such things, I was looking at some images today (thank you Szabo for your excellent posts) and noticed something that I’m kinda conflicted about. But before I say anything, please understand that I am working from an assumption. If someone knows the answer to my eventual question, don’t hesitate to set me straight.
So…. Imma just drop these here…
Or, if you’d like:
In his blog post of June 2016, Szabo says the mithraeum in Marino was then “recently reopened” and I’m guessing that restoration was the reason it had been closed. If you know for sure, let me know, please.
Now. Knowing what my ideal job is, will you be surprised to read that I’m not thrilled with this restoration? =D I remember people complaining bitterly, when the Sistine Chapel was cleaned, that subtle details had been cleaned away with the grime. Looking at the dog’s face, I’m getting that vib. The dog, after cleaning, looks almost comic bookish to me. Is it because I’m used to seeing the “dirty” image in my mind? Most definitely. Will I get over it? Totally! I console myself with the thought that restoration typically includes preservation and conservation. I’m trusting that the people who were fortunate enough to lay hands on this image were working for its good, and for future members of this beloved mystery cult.
So tell me. What do you think of these two images?