Arthur Darby Nock

JRS 27 (1937) 108-13 [202]

Since Sir Henry Stuart Jones has Included Mithraism among his many interests [1], it seems appropriate to offer to him on this occasion some remarks on its general significance. No phenomenon in Imperial paganism has attracted as much attention, and this is natural.

Virtus, Albine, est pretium persolvere verum
quis in versamur, quis vivimus rebus, potesse.

Let us make another provisional attempt to determine the pretium verum of Mithraism.
We see in it something of eastern worship detached from its native content and developed in a new milieu; apparently it had no oecumenical organization; certainly it tolerated other gods, and lent itself to an unchecked local diversification of forms [2]. In all these respects it was essentially on a par with the other 'oriental religions in .Roman paganism'.

Nevertheless, it differed from them in various significant ways. The normal exclusion of women and the moral demands made of the initiate have often been remarked; but that is not all.

First, the social basis ofMithraism was peculiar. Syrian and Egyptian cults were commonly carried abroad by Syrian and Egyptian migrants. Men of other racial origins came to use these rites, but a native character persisted, and in the western half of the empire the administration of the ceremonies seems to have remained in the hands of a clergy which, if not oriental in birth, at least preserved the appearances of oriental origin, and which, like the priesthoods of the Near East, seems to have been pro fessional in character and to have lived by the exercise of religious functions [3]. Cybele's cult was different, because of its deliberate introduction at Rome in a Roman form under the direction of the quindecimviri. Her conquests in the western provinces were the conquests of a Roman goddess.

Mithras never acquired civic status or a place among the sacra publica [4] But he was not carried by groups of emigrant Iranians. His worship had indeed entered the Greek world on a national basis, starting, as it must have done, with groups of Persians who remained in Asia Minor after the victories of Alexander; an indication of this remains in the use of Terses' as the title for the fifth grade of initiation [5]. Nevertheless, the Mithraism which reached the western world was a new thing, created by fusion in Asia Minor; the Mithraism which came to Dura-Europos was brought first by Palmyrene archers [6] and secondly by Roman soldiers not by Parthians [7]. In general, the cult was carried by pirates, soldiers, functionaries, traders, and slaves, who had learned this derivative of Persian belief, and it did not travel on a national basis. The spread of religious ideas, Jewish in origin, by the Christians is in fact analogous, and 'nama' in Mithraism corresponds to 'Amen'.

Furthermore, Mithras in the western world does not seem to have had a priestly caste or a professional clergy. We do not find any special terminology except that of the grades of initiationnever magus, and nothing comparable with profeta, pastophorus, gallus, fanaticus,but in - stead sacerdos, antistes, hieroceryx, and the normal words for men holding office in a collegium. Our inscriptional records mention a pater (an initiate of the highest grade) or a sacerdos or antistes as the person in charge [8]. Cumont left it an open question whether there was or was not some priestly order in Mithraism as a whole [9].

The evidence is scanty. In a late Roman dedication we find the ordo sacerdotum honouring the pater patrum [10]. May we not suppose that the priestly office was, sometimes at least, annual; and that the ordo, like the or do Angus'tedium, was composed of men who had held it? This would be clear, if we could be sure of the reading sac(erdote) iterum) in a votive inscription found in the Mithraeum of Deutsch-Altenburg: Mommsen and Cumont both treat it as uncertain [11], while Kubitschek, who checked the text later, makes no comment [12]. A second indication, again unfortunately open to question, is afforded by a text from Dorstadt in Dacia: [Invic]to S[oli deo ge]nitori [P. Ael. Art]emidorus de [c(?) ......] sacer(dos) creatus a Pal[myre]nis do(mo) Macedonia et adve[n]tor huius temp i pro se et suis fecit. [13]

Cumont is now inclined to restore de[orum] sacerdos, and to suppose that this man was made a priest of the Pahnyrene gods [14] . But deorum sacerdos is a very strange phrase [15], and it is easier to imagine that these Palmyrenes made a man from Macedonia priest of Mithraswhose cult had an extra-national basisthan to envisage them making him priest of Malachbel and similar gods. Consequently we may prefer Cumont's earlier supplement de[curio (?) . . .] [16], and interpret sacerdos as sacerdos Mithrae. If this is right, we have another indication against the existence of anything like a priestly order or caste; for creatus implies the choice of an ordinary man to perform priestly functions whether for a year or longer. If there had been individuals held to possess an inherent fitness to conduct priestly ministrations, and if a congregation chose at will from among them, as in effect it chooses Episcopalian clergy in the United States, we should expect some such word as adscitus. [cf. also p. 787, infra].

We cannot have any great confidence in the interpretation of these and other data [17], and we must suppose that custom varied in different times and places [18], but we may provisionally conclude that a Mithraic collegium selected its priestly officials after the manner of other collegia, and that pocyoi and uocyouo-aloi had no equivalent in the west. If this is so, there must have been at least two important stages in the evolution of Mithraism. The first is indicated by the word eiJdyeuoe in an inscription at Ariaramneia in Cappadocia; for Eporyeuore implies that a man who was not a magos by birth could become one by some ceremonial and could thus acquire competence to perform Magian rites [19]. The second stage ; abandoned the appearance of - Magianism. In any case, whatever were the functions performed by sacerdos or anfistes , the initiations, which were the most solemn part ofMithraic life, were in the hands of the patera Further, the whole community of initiates were sacrati.

Secondly, the other oriental religions in Roman paganism had two principal expressions in worship: (a) a cult-drama, in which the sacred story of man's deliverance was annually set forth in action before all who cared to attend; (b) initiations, in which those who were found worthy were one by one subjected to ceremonies which, either at once or by stages, produced a new spiritual condition and a new relationship to the gods: (a) was normally an integral part of the cult, and, although the deities concerned were also approached in the ordinary way by processions, sacrifices, votive offerings, hymns, and prayers, the cult-drama was probably performed wherever there was a substantial temple; (b) was for the relatively few, and there is no reason to suppose that it existed in every temple oflsis or Cybele or the Syrian deities [21].

Now Mithraism, so far as we know, had nothing corresponding to the cult-drama; in fact the essential mystery-idea of a deity annually doing or suffering something was absent. Mithras was not born annually and did not die annually: he had created once; in the present he helped and saved; in the end he would inaugurate the new order which would last for ever. Although the Greek idea of cycles could be superimposed, the original Iranian basis of Mithraism involved a concept of history akin to that of the Jews; semel Christus natus est. On the other hand, Mithraism, outside Asia Minor, always included initiations. Accordingly, while the range of popular devotion to Mithras was thus limited, his worship had a more inturned and intense character. That it remained a private cult was no accident.

Thirdly, Mithraism had its own cosmogony and eschatology, and the bas-relief which met the eye in every Mithraeum set this cosmogony in the centre of things [22]. This may well have been an asset in Imperial times, when cosmogony gained a new interest from an incoherent but widespread mood of questioning and of spiritual anxiety [23], and the tendency to value non-Greek wisdom as of fabulous antiquity was very strong. So we see a multiplication of'barbarian' cosmogonies; four in our Hermetic literature, a fifth 'Hermetic' one presupposed by Sanchuniathon as quoted by Philo of Byblus; the Phoenician cosmogony of Sanchuniathon himself; those quoted by Damascius, Dubitationes et solutiones i 321 ft. (ed. Ruelle) from the Babylonians, the Magi, the Sidonians and the Egyptians. Mithraism was unique in that it told of the end as well as of the beginning. Further, other mystery-religions could be interpreted by the use of Greek philosophic concepts; but in Mithraism, as in Judaism and Christianity, there was what seemed a core or philosophy [24].

Fourthly, the myth of Mithras was quite different from the myths of the other oriental gods who were attracting attention at the same time. The worshipper of Attis and Adonis was concerned only with the god's death and with the subsequent turning of sorrow into joy; for Osiris there was also a tradition of his earthly rule and of his introduction of civilized order into human life. Each of these gods had a birth-story, and the birth of Osiris had in Egypt a liturgical commemoration in the Pamylia. But none of these gods had a Vita, as Mithras had, a chain of actions each of which was an event in the world's drama. This Vita throughout represented vigorous heroic achievement. Attis and Adonis had a distinctly feminine aspect in art and story; Osiris had an air of age. All three were for a time worsted, although they ultimately triumphed; Mithras was throughout invictus [25]. So, while the cult of Mithras could give some satisfaction to the anxious questing mood of the time, it spoke also the language of another and a more Roman moodthe instinct for unsparing exertion in the face of mighty obstacles. This may have contributed to the god's popularity in the higher ranks of the army. I suspect that this note of energy was more important than the note of revelation. Julian was a keen Mithraist and looked to Mithras as moral guide, commander and redeemer: but for insights concerning the universe he turned to his philosophic teachers and to the doctrines enshrined in the new synthetic mysteries which were associated with the Chaldaic Oracles [26].

Mithras had a character which was all his own. A man might hope to be delivered as Attis, Adonis, and Osiris were delivered; he might hope to be delivered by them; but we can hardly suppose him to have desired to be like them. On the other hand, a man could follow Mithras, not only as leader but also as exemplar. An Ostian dedication has the noteworthy Arase antistes del iubenis (sic) inconrupti Solis invicti Mithra[e] [27]. Mithras .iad from of old been god of justice and truth as well as god of light. In the Graeco-Roman world one feature of his story perhaps acquired a new importance. Unlike the gods of Greece and the gods of Rome as seen in the light of Greek ideas, and the gods of Syria and Egypt who had come into the picture, Mithras had no erotic mythology. It may be that the god thus drew to himself some of that sentiment glorifying sexual abstinence which is illustrated in the Greek novel (above all in Heliodorus) and in the Historia Augusta [28].

Fifthly, the representation of supernatural personages in art made a deep impression on the ancients, just as it did on the men of the Middle Ages; the pictorial theology of Villon's mother is an instructive illustration. Artemidorus tells how people dreamed of the gods and saw them in one or other of the familiar art-types. Now Mithraism had an iconography which, in spite of differences, is on the whole curiously consistent [29]. This is not in itself peculiar; Sabazios, Nemesis and Isis had types which are found everywhere, and the representation of a goddess between two riders is found all over the eastern half of the empire and sporadically in the west. Nevertheless, Mtthraic iconography is very significant, because it emphasized so well both the cosmogonic and the heroic aspects of the sacred story. Apart from the appearance of Phaethon in the Dieburg Mithraeum, there is no progressive Hellenization, but rather a fixity which is almost creedal. In this, as in the two stages of organization discussed earlier, we must see the work of a definite individual or individuals.

Sixthly, while Mithras was originally a god of light and not a Sun god, and while in legend and art Helios is different from him and, in fact, subordinate, Mithras was nevertheless solar in the eyes of the people and in dedications he was very commonly equated with Sol. So was Sarapis but the link was less close. The appeal of Mithraism was therefore reinforced by very widespread and powerful trends: the philosophic heliocentric piety which meant so much to so many; the universal acceptance of a solar calendar [30]; the Syrian solar cults; natural piety towards the Sun as the source of light and life [31]. Mithraism drew from this far more than it contributed. The Sol invictus who came to Rome with Aurelian was Syrian and not Iranian: this was the god whom Constantine's ancestors, strengthened perhaps by a background of Thracian beliefs, accepted. Mithraism had thus ideas, power, intensity and qualities which differentiated it from its natural rivals. Without a hierarchy, without the control of the quindecinmri, it retained its characteristic forms over a wide range.

But it showed its strength only in part of the empire. We can easily be misled by the devotion which the last circles in Rome showed towards Mithras; his cult and the taurobolium were, so to speak, the forms of paganism which seemed to them most deeply laden with emotion; Julian's example probably counted for something [32].

Suppose that Christianity had perished early, whether as a result of a consistent persecution or by being swallowed up in the general religious and cultural atmosphere of the time: we should not then have had a Mithraic world. We might have had a world in which Mithraism itself was the special devotion of a few but in which it had been otherwise absorbed in a solar piety grafted on the normal observances of ancient paganism, with perhaps some mild diffusion of a higher moral tone. There was, if anything, less chance of the Roman Empire turning Mithraic than of seventeenth-century England turning Quaker. To say this is not to under-estimate Mithraism or Quakerism.


1 Article in J. Hastings, Enc. Rel. Eth. viii 752 ff.; Quarterly Review ccxxi (1914) 103 ft

2 Cf. E. Wust, RE xv, s.v. 'Mithras', 2145 f.; Nock. Gnomon vi (1930) 33 ft

3 The priests of cult societies for the Syrian deities need not have been professional.

4 Julian is speaking in terms of his own personal devotion when he says of the Romans, Orat. iv, p. 155

5 Mr. Le Roy Campbell of Yale University, who kindly read this article in proof, makes an alternative suggestion which may well be rightthat 'Perses* is an artificial piece of archaism invented to give atmosphere.

6 Rostovtzeff; Rom. Mitt. xlix, 1934, 194 rf Cumont, CRAI 1934, 90 fF, suggests that these men may have learned Mithraism from the Hadrianic garrison of Palmyra. This is possible; but see below for Palmyrenes in Dacia apparently worshipping Mithras.

7 We know very little as to the type of religion prevalent in Parthia during this period. Cumont, Riv.fil. Ixi (1933) 145 ft., has shown reason for believing that the Tiridates who visited Nero knew something like our Mithraism; but in general we may suspect that ritual practices such as were common in the Achaemenid period predominated.

8 Cumont, Textes et monuments it 535 f. [Vermaseren, Corpus i p. 352, ii p. 427}; add from the Mithraeum at Gimmeldingen, . . . fanus consacra(tus) per Potentianum patrem (A.D. 335: J. Leipoldt, Die Religion des Mithra (H. Haas, Bilderatlas sur Religionsgeschichte^ Lief. xv) p. xix) [Vermaseren ii nr. 1315].

9 Les mysteres de Mithra3170.

10 CIL vi 2151 == Textes ii, p. 96, inscr. 18 [Vermaseren i nr. 521]; cf. p. 118, inscr. 141 f Vermaseren i nr. 23 5] ... sacerdoti... sacerdotes.

11 CILiii 4417 == Texfesii, p. 147, inscr. 372 [Vermaserenii nr. 1675].

12 CILiiip. 1770.

13 CIL iii 7728 [Cumont inscr. 257, Vermaseren ii nr. 3008].

14 Les religions orientates dans lepaganisme remain* 276 n. 39.

15 1 can quote only CIL x 1560 (Puteoli)servitor deorum, which does not profess to be an official title, and vi 377 pater deoru omnium.

16 Textesn, p. 134, inscr. 257.

17 The term privati in a dedication in the Mithraeum at Bingen (published by H. Finke in RGK, xvii. Bericht, 1927, 75 [Vermaseren ii nr. 1242]) seems to be in contrast with the higher grades of initiation; another text from Bingen, ibid. 74 [ibid. nr. 1243] mentions a pater sacrorum and a matricarius.

18 Thus at Rome we find an antistes who is leo and has not yet reached the highest grade {Textes ii, p. 101, inscr. 45 [Vermaseren i nr. 367]).

19 Cf. Nock in Jackson-Lake, 'Beginnings of Christianity v 177 [p. 320, supra].

20 The two terms are clearly synonymous.

21 Cf. Nock, Conversion 38 ff, 56 ff.

22 M. P. Nilsson, Deutsche Literaturzeitung 1933, col. 253, has pointed to the attractive power of Mithraic cosmogony.

23 Cf. Nock, Gnomon xii (1936) 610 fE. [pp. 449 fT., supra].

24 At the same time we must distinguish between Mithraism as a religion on the one hand and the literary dissemination of Iranian ideas on the other; I hope to return to this topic elsewhere.

25 On this epithet L. Berlinger, Beitrdge zur inoffiziellen Titulatur der romischen Kaiser (Diss. Breslau, 1935) 20 ft., has some very valuable remarks and has properly stressed the importance of Heracles.

26 The barbarian cosmogonies quoted by philosophers under the Empire (as earlier by Aristotle) are given as interesting illustrations; only at the lower intellectual level of the Hermetica is one a dogma.

27 CIL xiv 55 [Textes ii, inscr. 139, Vermaseren i nr. 315]; cf. Cumont, CRAI 1934

28 E.g. Vita Opilii Macr. 12 (savage punishments of sexual offences); Vita Pescenii 6.6 rei veneriae nisi ad creandos Uberos prorsus ignarusan interesting contrast with the concubine of Marcus Aurelius. On the Greek novel and its ethical sentimentalism cf. M. Braun, Griechischer Roman u. hellenistische Geschichfschreibung 35 n. i, 62 ft. and index s.v. 'Gewissen'; on popular morality, cf. S. Reinach, ARW ix (1906) 312 ft. I suspect that certain scruples at the popular level fused in a measure with the salvationism which spread downwards from Pythagorean and Platonic circles; cf. Gnomon xii (1936) 610 f. [pp. 449 f, supra}.

29 Cf. F. Saxi, Mithras', L. Deubner, Gnomon ix (1933) 372 ft.; and note the phrase in a Mithraeum at Ostia, deum vetusta retigione in velo formatum (of Caelus): G. Calza, N. d. sc. 1924, 73 [Vermaseren i nr. 233].

30 Cf. M. P. Nilsson, AR Wxxx (1933) 141 ft. [Opuscula ii 462 fFJ.

31 Cf. Nock-JTS xxxvii (193 6) 305.

32 For a new monument of the period found in Rome cf. R. Paribeni, N. d. sc. 1933, 478 fF. [= Vermaseren, Corpus i nrs. 411-12]; it must be Mithraic, but the sun god, as Paribeni remarks, resembles Juppiter Heliopolitanus more than Mithras.


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