Pondering in Pattieland

My current breakfast re-reading is Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome. I was reading bits to the wife this morning; specifically that nine of the fourteen excavated mithraeum have a basin set in the floor of the sanctuary.

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.)

From Wikimedia

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.

Don’t ya just love that Frankenstein seam up the bull’s back?

Moreover, I was reminded of something Robert Graves said in his intro to Hercules: My Shipmate.

“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.

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