Category Archives: Astral Religion

Mithraism and Plato: Conference Paper

 Antiquity Matters! Warwick Classics Department Postgraduate Colloquium (June 2013)

‘The Mithraic Mysteries: a religious manifestation of Platonic soteriological cosmology’

Abstract

Since the efforts of Franz Cumont, scholarly opinion concerning the Roman cult known as Mithraism has been divided. The lack of written evidence has led to a wide variety of opinions concerning every aspect of the cult from the purpose of its astronomical imagery, to the gender and status of its members. This disparity has led to an abundance of theories, some of which strive to present Mithraism from the point of view of a single dogma, but all suffer from the necessary flaws of conjecture. There are some scholars such as Beck, Ulansey, and Turcan who believe that on some level or another, a Platonic influence pervades every aspect of this cult, and furthermore, that we can find answers to the Mithraic Mysteries in the texts of Plato. This paper agrees with these scholars inasmuch as it argues that Platonic philosophy, especially Platonic cosmology and astronomy, does indeed pervade the cult. A brief overview of the transmission of Platonic doctrine will at least suggest the likelihood of Plato’s influence. However, this paper also aims to show how far this influence has indeed spread, and suggests that Platonic theory might even explain once for all, why Mithraism was androcentric, and how the initiates sought salvation in the sky.

 

Paper

In the ancient world, natural phenomena were often thought to be in some way divine. This was as true of the celestial landscape as the terrestrial. Plato was one of the first Greek philosophers we know of to have associated the planets themselves with the Greek pantheon. He also outlined a great deal of astronomical theory in the Timaeus, the Republic, the Epinomis and elsewhere. For Plato, this divinely created and inhabited astronomical mechanism was intrinsically associated with the transmigration of souls. Spiritually then, every man was capable of travelling to the realm of the gods, and ultimately to the realm of the Demiurge himself. But did this belief start and end with Plato? This paper examines the negative. After outlining Plato’s theories of astronomy and transmigration, this paper explains how one of the greatest cults of the Roman Imperial period – Mithraism – incorporated these Platonic theories into their soteriological practice. From the physical structure of their temples to the planetary grades of initiation, every aspect of the Mithraic Mysteries suggests a practicable belief in the Platonic cosmos.

While Hesiod was one of the first poets to compose a mythical cosmogony in the 8th century BCE, the tradition carried through to Plato four hundred years later. Plato presented a theory that the planets were divine beings created by the Demiurge in order to generate and measure time. He gave them the names from the Greek pantheon, and explained how they occupied seven consecutive spheres in the sky, and also described the eighth sphere of the fixed stars or ‘world-order’. Alongside this belief in divine planets, Plato also formed an astronomical theory of the heavens. The key features of which I will now outline:

Plato’s works, the Timaeus and the Republic, paint a picture of an astronomically mechanic universe which allowed for the transmigration of souls through the celestial spheres. Key features of this universe include;

Eight celestial spheres, concentrically nestled inside each other. Seven are for the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and Moon) as well as the fixed eighth sphere which houses the fixed stars and the souls. This entire collection spins around a fixed central axis which Plato called the Spindle. Plato also described the celestial equator and the ecliptic circle, two bands in the sky, which intersect to form the letter chi ‘X’. Within this mechanical structure permeates a divine spirit known as the ‘World-soul’, a creation of the Demiurge, which both surrounds the universe whilst also being centred within it. Furthermore the Timaeus records how the Demiurge assigned each human soul to a star and set them on earth with individual destinies. Where a life was lived virtuously, the soul could return to its personal star in the eight sphere when the body died. This account of stellar souls also describes a form of spiritual hierarchy whereby women were considered less spiritually evolved than men.

The ‘Myth of Er’ also presents further details regarding the process of metempsychosis and spiritual descent. While Er observes the process of reincarnation in the afterlife he describes how pure souls, after picking their next lot in life, descend through the planetary spheres to their physical incarnation. The implication being that as they fell to their rebirth the position of the planetary spheres was imprinted on their souls in the form of a horoscope. From this briefest survey of Platonic cosmology these few basic precepts of Platonic transmigration can be presented:

1)            The Demiurge is the sole creator of the universe (Timaeus 28c-29a)

2)            The cosmos is both surrounded by, and permeated with, the World-Soul (Timaeus 34b)

3)            The physical structure of the cosmos consists of:

a.            eight concentric spheres around the fixed, central earth (Republic X.616d)

b.            a central axis or spindle (Republic X.617b)

c.             the intersecting celestial equator and ecliptic (Timaeus 36b-d)

4)            The planets are divine (Epinomis 987b –d; Timaeus 38c-d)

5)            Each soul belongs to a star on the stellar sphere (Timaeus 41d)

6)            Souls travel through the eight celestial spheres to a physical body on earth when they are born or incarnated (Republic X.616b-617b)

7)            Virtuous souls return to their star when the body dies (Timaeus 42b)

8)            Women are less spiritually evolved than men and so their souls cannot ascend to the celestial sphere until they have lived virtuously as men (Timaeus 90e-91a)

However, we cannot assume that Plato’s astronomical theories were anything more than the conclusions of a single writer. The paper now goes on to explore the possibility that Platonic astro-theology (that is, in the sense of an astronomical or celestial theology) later manifested itself in the Roman cult known as Mithraism which was founded five-hundred years later. This would suggest a practiced and physically enacted belief in a divine and astronomically structured universe which concerned itself with the salvation of human souls.

Before we can continue however it is necessary to present a brief discussion of the transmission of Platonic philosophy into the Imperial Period when Roman Mithraism began. For it would be pointless to argue a real and manifest connection between Plato and Mithraism if there is no evidence to suggest that Plato’s works were circulating in Rome prior to its foundation. There was in antiquity a tradition that Plato’s protagonist Timaeus ‘our best astronomer’ was a Greek or Greek-speaking philosopher from Locri in Southern Italy. Furthermore an astronomical work titled ‘On the Soul of the Universe’ has been attributed to him. Whether true, or not, the very tradition of an Italian-living Timaeus creates a Roman association with Platonic astrotheology, suggesting that Platonic astrotheology may well have circulated in the Latin world after the 400s BCE. However, even if we ignore this tenuous connection we do know that a Latin translation of the Timaeus was composed by Cicero in the first century BCE, and we also find Platonic resonances of spiritual incarnation in the Dream of Scipio. There is a Platonic account of the transmigration of souls at the River Lethe in the Aeneid. Furthermore, Platonic works continued to be popular, translated, and commented upon over the next centuries by writers such as Calcidius and Proclus. These translations demonstrate that Platonic cosmology, specifically the Timaeus which concerns the salvation of astral sould and the mechanisms of the universe, were circulated in the Latin-speaking world from at least the century immediately prior to the foundation of Roman Mithraism. And that its popularity remained current throughout the centuries in which Mithraism flourished.

Now the transmission of Plato from its authorship to the foundation of Mithraism and beyond has been established, we can now move on to a brief description of the Mithraic Cult and an analysis of how certain features of the cult appear to relate directly to Platonic astral theories. Mithraism was a Roman mystery cult practised in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th centuries CE. The cult appears to be soteriological, involving the worship of Mithras and Sol, primarily involving a progress or ascension through seven grades. The initiates met in underground, cave or cave-like structures known as mithraea, about 420 of which have been unearthed by archaeologists. However there are few or no written texts, no theology, or doctrine pertaining to the religion to have survived. In short, while there is a wealth of archaeological evidence, there is no comprehensive account of what the Mithraists actually believed or practised. However, Platonic astral-theology, which we know to have been circulating and popular at the time of Mithraism’s foundation, can be compared to archaeological evidence in order to establish the likelihood (if any) of Platonic influence on the cult.

The physical structure of the Mithraic temples will be explored first, and secondly the ritualistic aspects of the cult, in order to establish any evidence of Platonic astronomy or transmigration theories. In order to do this it is necessary to employ the works of Porphyry, a third century Neoplatonist, as one of our few literary sources pertaining to Mithraism. In a key section of his work De antro nympharum Porphyry describes the foundation of an archetypal mithraeum:

 ‘the Persians [Mithraists] call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate to the mysteries, revealing to him the path by which souls descend and go back again…the cave is an image of the cosmos which Mithras had created, and all the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos.’

According to this extract from Porphyry; the Mithraic temple represents the cosmos and was used as an instrument, symbolically catered to the actual practice of spiritual transmigration. Therefore we would expect to find elements of Platonic astronomy in the very structure and symbolism of the mithraea themselves. The illustrations from Roger Beck demonstrate the astronomical blueprint of an ideal mithraeum reconstructed from an amalgamation of Porphyry’s text and the most symbolically dense mithraeum known as Sette Sfere – the Seven Spheres, in Ostia.

Beck Blueprint

Mithraeum Blueprint Source: Beck p.103

Sette Sfere, Ostia Source: Beck p.104.

Sette Sfere, Ostia
Source: Beck p.104.

For the sake of space, Beck’s blueprint will suffice to represent the archaeological data which entirely, partially, or possibly matches it. According to Beck, the cave is the most suitable imitation of the universe because it ‘is an inside without an outside’. The ceilings of the temples were frequently vaulted, domed or decorated to represent the outer stellar sphere. A fine example of this is the stucco ceiling of the Ponza mithraeum which depicts the northern celestial hemisphere, centring on the constellation Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In the Ponza ceiling there is also a celestial north pole marked by an indentation on the Ursa Major.

The northern pole in the ceiling of the mithraeum creates an imaginary axis extending from the zenith in the ceiling to the nadir below the floor. This axis is the ‘Spindle’ of the Platonic universe, around which the spheres rotate. The Seven celestial spheres are themselves symbolised by the planetary icons which either appear on the benches, or along the central aisle as per the mosaic floor of the Felicissimus Mithraeum, in Ostia. The benches, combined with the imaginary Spindle combine to create the intersecting ecliptic and equator described by Plato as the chi cross. These intersecting celestial bands are also depicted graphically in the celestial globe found at the feet of the obscure lion-headed god. This cosmos-cave Mithraic temple complete with Spindle, ‘chi’ intersection, and planetary spheres matches the Platonic description of the heavens outlined earlier.

Felicissimus Mithraeum, Ostia  Source: Clauss & Gordon p.47

Felicissimus Mithraeum, Ostia
Source: Clauss & Gordon p.47

But what can we say about the Mithraic divinities, or Platonic astral-migration? The Platonic World-Soul is indicated by the secondary sacred figure found in the Mithraic Mysteries – the lion-headed god who as we have already seen stands atop the cosmos. This divinity has been described as ‘the world-ruling power generated by the endless revolution of all the wheels of the celestial dynamo’. In the Barberini mithraeum of Rome a fresco depicts the lion-headed god extending above and beyond the zodiac into the region beyond. The region beyond the stellar sphere is the fiery realm beyond the cosmos inhabited by the World-Soul and the Demiurge. The lion-headed god in the fresco is depicted as a guardian of the celestial sphere, marking him as the Platonic ‘World-Soul, woven throughout Heaven from the centre to the extremity, and enveloping it in a circle’. Like Plato, Cicero believed the realm beyond the cosmos to be filled with ‘a fiery atmosphere which encircles and embraces the universe’. This fiery aspect is exactly what connects the lion-god to the Platonic World-Soul, his fire-kindling attribute is depicted in multiple sources including two reliefs in Roma and Vienne. The World-Soul who encircles the universe, has the role of a guardian and this is mirrored by the key which the lion-headed god holds in his statues. The Lion god is the mediator between the cosmos and what lies beyond, the realm of the Demiurge. Why though, should there need to be a boundary guardian unless this boundary could be breached? And if it could be breached – who by?

Leontocephaline on the Cosmic Sphere Source: CIMRM 543

Leontocephaline on the Cosmic Sphere
Source: CIMRM 543

This brings us to our final section – the transmigration of souls. As we have seen the mithraeum contained fundamental celestial symbols which were used to ‘reveal to the initiate the path by which souls descend and go back again’. The first of these symbols is the cosmological structure of the mithraeum which provided a physical mechanism for spiritual transmigration. The second symbol of importance is the seven gated ladder (klimax heptapylos) associated with levels of initiation. If the significance of the celestial structure is Platonic, as we have seen, then it follos that the seven gated ladder should also be Platonic.

In the Republic the route of the souls is found in the physical heavens (of which the mithraeum is a reconstruction). Both the Mithraist and the Platonist would recognise the klimax heptapylos as a spiritual pathway to salvation – the seven planetary spheres. Indeed, it is believed by most Mithraic scholars that the seven grades of initiation are associated with the planets. It therefore seems likely that in a soteriological cult members sought their salvation in a manner of spiritual ascension through the planetary spheres until they reached the World-Soul guardian who could escort them across the eighth gate into the realm of the Demiurge beyond. In other words, Mithraism was a religion based on a physical enactment of Platonic astronomy and transmigration.

Finally, it is also possible to account for another famous feature of the Mithraic Mysteries: the apparent exclusion of women from either membership, or at least exclusion from the grade system. Many explanations have been offered; that women had their own cults, or maybe it was a military institution where women were generally unwelcome. However, these conjectural theories aside, there is a much firmer explanation when we accept that the cult is fundamentally Platonic. That is, according to Plato: ‘men who proved themselves cowardly and spent their lives in wrong-doing, were transformed, at their second incarnation, into women’ Timaeus 90e. In other words only virtuous men could ascend the klimax heptapylos, while the souls of women had to incarnate into men before they could attempt their salvation. This feature of Platonic spiritual doctrine neatly explains the patriarchal nature of the cult, while also explaining the rare occurance of female presence in the mithraea – there was nothing to prevent female members, they simply could not take part in the ritual salvation.

In conclusion, that the Roman world maintained such an interest in Platonic cosmology, while also being the centre of a cult which specifically seems to contain Platonic ideals of the universe and the soul, cannot be coincidence. That is not to say that the founder or founders of Mithraism drew a specific doctrine directly from Platonic texts, but that the philosophical ideas contained within were contemporaneous and also popular amongst the literate members of society. Therefore it seems likely that Platonic cosmology greatly, if not directly, influenced the ideologies of Mithraism.

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HANDOUT:

“Wherefore, as a consequence of this reasoning and design on the part of God, with a view to the generation of Time, the sun and moon and five other stars, which bear the appellation of “planets,” came into existence for the determining and preserving of the numbers of Time. And when God had made the bodies of each of them He placed them in the orbits along which the revolution of the Other was moving, seven orbits for the seven bodies…” Timaeus 38c

“The Moon He placed in the first circle around the Earth, the Sun in the second above the Earth; and the Morning Star and the Star called Sacred to Hermes He placed in those circles which move in an orbit equal to the Sun in velocity…” Timaeus 38d

“For indeed they have received titles of gods: thus, that Lucifer, or Hesperus… should almost belong to Aphrodite… and that that which follows the same course as the sun and this together should almost belong to Hermes…One must be mentioned, the eighth, which we may especially address as the world-order, and which travels in opposition to the whole company of the others,” Epinomis 987b

For Myth of Er see Republic 616b-617b.

“Then his father Anchises answered: ‘They are spirits, owed a second body by destiny, and they drink the happy waters, and a last forgetting, at Lethe’s stream.’” Aeneid VI:703-723

“And the Spindle turned on the knees of Necessity, and up above on each of the rims of the circles a Siren stood, borne around in its revolution and uttering one sound, one note, and from all the eight there was the concord of a single harmony” Republic 617b

“And the World-Soul, being woven throughout the Heaven every way from the centre to the extremity, and enveloping it in a circle from without, and revolving within itself.” Timaeus 36e

“Suppose that a man were to take his stand in that region of the Universe in which the substance of fire has its special abode” Timaeus 63b

“The most unquestionable deity is that remote all-surrounding fiery atmosphere called the aether which encircles and embraces the universe” Cicero De Natura Deorum I:37

“‘These things [i.e. the celestial ascent of souls] the mysteries of Mithras intimate.. for there is therein a certain symbolon of the two celestial revolutions, that of the fixed stars and that assigned to the planets, and of the route of the soul through and out (diexodou) of them. Such is the symbolon: a seven-gated ladder (klimax heptapylos) and an eighth on top.’” Origen Contra Celsum VI:22

“‘the Persians [Mithraists] call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate to the mysteries, revealing to him the path by which souls descend and go back again…the cave is an image of the cosmos which Mithras had created, and all the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos.’” Porphyry De Antro Nympharum 6

“all those creatures generated as men who proved themselves cowardly and spent their lives in wrong-doing were transformed, at their second incarnation, into women” Timaeus 90e-91a

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BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Cicero, ‘Dream of Scipio’, in, Peabody, A. P. (2008) Collected Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, London: BiblioBazaar.

Cicero, ‘De Natura Deorum’ (accessed: 22/04/2013).

http://archive.org/details/onthenatureofthegods_1212_librivox

Hesiod, ‘Works and Days, Theogony’, and, Theognis, ‘Elegies’, in, Wender, D. (trans.) (1986) Hesiod and Theognis, London: Penguin.

Origen, ‘Contra Celsum’, (accessed: 20/03/2013).

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04161.htm

Plato, ‘Epinomis’, (accessed: 19/03/2013).

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DEpin

Plato, ‘Phaedo’, (accessed: 20/03/2013).

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D109a

Plato, ‘Republic’, in, Lee, D. (trans.) (1975) Plato: the Republic Second Edition, London: Penguin.

Plato, ‘Timaeus’, in, Lee, H. D. P. (trans.) (1965) Plato: Timaeus, London: Penguin.

Porphyry, ‘Cave of the Nymphs’, (accessed: 22/03/2013).

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/porphyry_cave_of_nymphs_02_translation.htm

Timaeus of Locri, ‘On the Soul of the Universe’, in, Baltes, M. (1972) Über die Natur des Kosmos und der Seele, Leiden: Brill.

Virgil, ‘Aeneid’, in, West, D. (trans.) (2001) Virgil: the Aeneid, London: Penguin.

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Beck, R. (2006) The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clauss, M. (1990) trans. Gordon, R. (2000) The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cumont, F. (1896-1899) Textes et Monuments figures relatifs aux mysteries de Mithra, Brussels 2 vols. (TMMM).

Dillon, J. (1980) ‘Review: L. Tarán, Academica: Plato, Philip of Opus and the Pseudo-Platonic Epinomis (1975)’, in American Journal of Philology 101: 486-488.

Jackson, H. M. (1985) ‘The Meaning and Function of the Leontocephaline in Roman Mithraism’, in, Numen vol.32: 17-45.

Slings, S.R. (1999) Plato: Clitophon Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Somfai, A. (2002) ‘The Eleventh-Century Shift in the Reception of Plato’s “Timaeus” and Calcidius’s “Commentary”’, in, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.65: 1-21.

Temporini, H., & Haas, W. (eds.). Beck, R. (1978). Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen Welt: Principat (Vol. 9). Walter de Gruyter.

Ulansey, D. (1989) The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vermaseren, M. J. (1956) Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 2 vols. (CIMRM).

Vermaseren, M. J. (1974) Mithriaca II: The Mithraeum at Ponza Leiden: Brill.

Mithraism and Plato

Is Mithraism A Religious Manifestation of Platonic Soteriological Cosmology?

This post is both an extract from the opening of the second chapter of my Warwick Thesis ‘Astronomical and Celestial Symbolism in Ancient Religions’, and also a taster of the paper I will be delivering at the Warwick University Classics Postgraduate Colloquium in June.

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‘Each soul He assigned to one star…

And he that has lived his time well shall return again to his native star.’[1]

This chapter begins the exploration into the astronomical knowledge contained within ancient Mediterranean religions. The Mithraic Mysteries are here used as a proto-type for the subsequent study of Judaism and early Christianity. Although Mithraism was founded post-Judaism and at roughly the same time as the Christian Gospels were written there is already almost universal agreement among scholars that astronomical imagery was a central feature of the Mithraic cult. However, opinions differ as to the nature and purpose of this astronomical imagery, ranging from whether it was merely aesthetic, to whether it represented the central tenets of Mithraic doctrine. This chapter not only supports the latter theory, but also aims to demonstrate that the astronomical content of the Mithraic Mysteries was based on contemporary philosophical theories concerning the structure of the cosmos and its relationship to the soul, namely the works of Plato.

First, Platonic theories concerning metempsychosis and the structure of the cosmos (drawn mostly from Timaeus, Epinomis, Republic X and Phaedrus) will be outlined, and the transmission of these ideas in Rome and the Latin speaking West explained in order to present an overview of the philosophical climate into which Mithraism was born. Secondly, this chapter will provide an in-depth, though not exhaustive, analysis of how the art, architecture, rituals and doctrine of the cult were influenced by these Platonic-based theories of the soul and its relationship to the stars. This second section will begin by describing the cosmic nature of the Mithraic temples (sg.mithraeum; pl.mithraea) which were constructed so as to represent the universe: complete with axis, equator, ecliptic, solstices and equinoxes among other features. Then the study will turn to the central feature of all mithraea, the tauroctony or bull-slaying scene, which will be examined in its role as celestial map and establisher of Mithras as the equinoctial point of Aries among other manifestations. The exploration will then turn to other key iconographical figures such as the dadophoroi (torch-bearers), also known as Cautes and Cautopates, who appear very frequently in Mithraic art, and the important leontocephalic god who features less commonly. Finally the chapter will explore the very limited data that pertains to the activities, rituals and doctrines that existed within the religion, in order to confirm that Platonic soteriology did indeed form the central tenets of Mithraic practice.

In short, this chapter aims to establish these five primary conclusions:

i. The Mithraic Cult was soteriological

         a.Salvation concerned the souls relationship to the cosmos as per Plato.

ii. The mithraeum represented (i.e. was) the Universe/Cosmos

         a. The tauroctony/Mithras represented (i.e. was) the spring equinox, the door was the vernal equinox, and the two benches represent the north and south sides of the ecliptic/zodiac.
         b. Mithras also performed a key role as bringer (and guider) of souls, among other identities.
         c. The leontocephalic god represented the Platonic World-Soul or gatekeeper between the eighth fixed sphere and the realm of the Demiurge.
iii. Salvation was achieved through a relationship with the Cosmos/Mithraeum

         a. Plato determined that every soul belonged to a star.[2]
         b. The initiates practiced spiritual ascension through the seven planetary spheres (grades) in order to guarantee their souls return to their star upon death.
         c. The ‘Soul Gates’ of Cancer and Capricorn acted as entry points.

iv. The initiates began their soul journeys while living

         a. The ‘seven grades’, associated with the planetary spheres, indicated where you had reached on your journey.
         b. When you died you would begin your soul journey from where you had reached while living e.g. a member of the sixth grade need only ascend twice more, whereas a member of the second grade needed to ascend through six more spheres (regardless they had a ‘head start’ on non-members).

v. Women were excluded from membership while male slaves weren’t

          a. Plato determined that female souls were less evolved than male souls.[3] By definition only male souls could begin the cosmo-spiritual journey.

[1] Plato Timaeus: 41d-42b.

[2] Plato Timaeus: 41d.

[3] Plato Timaeus: 41d-42b; 90e-91a.

Celestial and Astronomical Symbolism in Ancient Religions

The Tranmission of Celestial and Astronomical Knowledge through Symbolism in Ancient Religions

Masters Thesis Outline: University of Warwick

Work In Progress Draft February 2013

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My thesis explores the relationship between ancient religious iconography, myth and scripture, and ancient understandings or representations of astronomical knowledge and cosmology. Briefly, the pagan religion Mithraism, and the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Christianity all contain the same celestial imagery and symbolism. Key features among this symbolism are; the zodiac, a band of constellations around the equator – or sun’s annual path through the sky, represented by the number 12 (or 13 and 1); the seven planets including the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; calendrical markers such as the solstices and equinoxes; and even the phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes which is manifested in the changing of the heliacally rising constellation at the spring equinox – an event that occurs approximately every 2,160 years.

These astronomical features, among others, were known to all the ancient cultures of the world and the knowledge of them was transmitted through stories and metaphors told by the priest-classes. As such they were incorporated into religious scripture, art and mythology. As astronomy’s sister science, astrology, eventually became condemned by orthodox faiths, these obvious astronomical allegories became lost. Some of them have become mistaken as absolute historical truth by religious fundamentalists, some of them have been lost in translation, and some of them are merely grossly overlooked by scholars. While there remain scholars who independently advocate astronomical readings of Mithraism, such as David Ulansey, or astrological symbolism in Judaism, such as Lester Ness, and Christianity such as Nicholas Campion, many of these concentrate on astrological interpretations rather than astronomical ones which, I believe, are more prevalent. Fewer scholars still, seek to unify these astronomical metaphors into a comprehensive study of ancient religion, the nearest attempt to this I have come across is Hamlet’s Mill by Santillana and Dechend which was published in 1977 and is more concerned with cultural myths and epics, rather than religious symbolism.

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Briefly, the working structure of my thesis at the moment is to open with a chapter outlining ancient astronomical knowledge. Then, instead of following in chronological order I study Mithraism first in Chapter Two because the astronomical rendering of the cult art is well attested and it sets the best examples in place for Judaism to follow. Astronomical symbolism in Judaism is attested by ancient scholars and ancient art and much of it is comparable to Mithraism. Christianity is the harder religion to attest astronomical lore too as much of it is based on secondary interpretation, seeing as the Church Fathers sought to criticise and condemn any pagan astrolatry (that is, star worship), especially when it was competing with the popular Solar Cult of the later Roman Emperors. I am not sure yet whether I am going to summarise and compare throughout the chapters, or let them stand alone and compare them briefly in a final chapter.

At the end of the Introduction I will include a note on terminology. During my research I have studied broad and sometimes complicated, but seemingly always differing, definitions of terms such as religion and science. I will clarify these. However, the distinction between astrology and astronomy in the ancient world is perhaps harder – many scholars of astrology will argue simply that there was none. But it seems from my research, and this quote from Ptolemy, that many did distinguish between the mathematical functions of star gazing, and the interpretations of diviners or astrologers. Certainly within Judaic history there is even a distinction between what I would call star worship (which obviously included observation) and divining the future (known as horary astrology). And an even greater difference between sacred calendar making, a feature integral to Jewish faith, and claiming to know God’s will in advance through reading the stars which is clearly condemned.

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Chapter One

As I have said, this will comprise of a description of which astronomical features the ancients recognised such as the celestial north pole, and the celestial equatorial and ecliptic circles. Most of this is well documented and acknowledged by scholars. However, there is one area of contention I hold against some scholars. Hipparchus of Nicaea is credited in the 150s BCE with discovering phenomenon of the heavens known as the precession of the equinoxes. Precession because the zodiac signs move backward rather than forward as per their usual yearly cycle. For many, this precession which sees the change of the rising constellation at the spring equinox every 2160 years, could not possibly have been known by early peoples, as it seems to imply a strict record of astronomical knowledge passing by word of mouth over 108 generations. However, I would argue that it was known, and perhaps even known by the Predynastic Egyptians before 3000BCE, but certainly well known before Hipparchus wrote it down in 150BCE. It is easy to see using only a line of site marker such as a tree, that a constellation which heralded the spring equinox such as the Pleiades had moved a day out of kilter in only 70 years. Astronomical documentation, as shown in the Mesopotamian texts, was much more common and intelligent than we probably wish to concede.

Accepting knowledge of the Precession before Hipparchus is one of the integral features of my thesis. I believe that Mithraism and Judaism document the precession from Taurus to Aries, and that the Christian messiah manifests the precession from Aries to Pisces, perhaps even foreshadowing the movement into Aquarius which will happen in the next 150 years.

My premises are as follows. Astronomy, astrology, divining, and calendar making in all cultures of the ancient world such as Mesopotamia and Egypt was the responsibility of the priestly classes. The political importance of these priests compared to the king or ruler of the state was considerable. As such, this knowledge was both sacred, and by necessity, elitist or known only to high order religious members. Most of this knowledge was transmitted through symbols or metaphor either to preserve its clandestineness, or because there was no other means. I certainly believe that Wisdom Symbolism was a key partner to the Wisdom Literature of the ancient world, and perhaps even predates it. Most religions make reference to those that know or can see the truth, and those that cant. Origen claimed this was how Mithraism worked, and Christ himself claimed it of his followers: ‘let those who have eyes see’.

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Chapter Two

The Chapter on Mithraism will be broken down into three main sections. The first focuses on the central icon of all known mithraea – called the tauroctony. Key features of this image are accepted by most Mithraic scholars as pertaining to astronomical constellations or features. Though much debate is given over which exact figures, zone of the sky, or time of the year they represent – and perhaps more importantly, who Mithras is if the others are astronomical. I would argue that the constellations represent the zone of the sky between Taurus, the Bull, and Scorpio, the Scorpion shown attacking the bulls genitals. Mithras is then either the age of Aries personified, as Porphyry alludes to in Cave of the Nymphs 24, or Perseus the constellation above Taurus in the sky and ruled by Aries, or both. There is certainly no reason to believe that the tauroctony can, or should only be interpreted as one stellar symbol, perhaps it was deliberately polysemic. Regardless, it is clearly celestial or astronomic in its nature.

Section two (still under research) will focus on the other images in the mithraea – namely the figures of the cautes and Cautopates or torchbearers which could indicate any number of astronomical features (or indeed all of them) and the more mysterious Lion headed god which I believe to symbolise either Time personified, or even the cosmocrator, or perhaps the precession personified. It seems possible he has his origins in Egypt, where animal headed gods are certainly better known.

Section three  will focus on the more mundane or physical aspects of Mithraic belief. None of which is documented, and so largely based on conjecture. However there remains a key feature known as the initiation mosaics which list seven grades of initiation associated with seven planets. It is not known whether this was just for priests, or for all initiates but it certainly seems to have comparison with the Platonic cosmology. That is, it is entirely likely Mithraism was a physical practice of Platonic cosmology, and concerned itself with spiritual salvation while living and ascendency through the seven planetary spheres. It is also possible this belief is found in later Gnostic and Christian texts.

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Chapter Three

Again, the chapter on Judaism will be broken down into three sections. The first concerns physical evidence of stellar iconography in Jewish art. Such as the little discussed zodiac mosaics mostly found near Galilee. They clearly incorporate the zodiac and perhaps even the sun in his solar chariot within Jewish temples themselves. I believe this is more than aesthetic or Hellenised tastes. There is evidence to suggest that the priest himself and the menorah are also astronomically endowed:

‘Now the seven lamps of the menorah signified the planets… the twelve loaves that were upon the table signify the circle of the zodiac and the year.’  Josephus Antiquities 5.217

‘In the temple [was] a Babylonian curtain…embroidered upon it were the twelve signs’ Josephus 5.212

And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man…he had in his right hand seven stars… Revelation 1:10-20

Jewish art then corroborates with Jewish texts. This is also considered against the Jewish obsession with sacred calendars which of course relied on astronomy to function.

The second section is concerned with passages from the Old Testament, namely the appearance of Moses as a horned and therefore Arian figure who ended the rule of the golden bull. In this way he mirrors Mithras. I am also working on the passages about Samsun Hebrew (Shemesh or sunny/solar) which seem to contain a wealth of astronomical symbolism such as the fall of Leo (Samsun) in Aquarius (Delilah) and his death between the two pillars which either represent Pisces or perhaps the Axis Mundi or World Pillar. He is also paralleled with the Greek Atlas who held up the celestial sphere, and there are other similarities with Hercules who is known as a solar hero.

The third section will consider the importance of the number twelve in Jewish literature, namely the 12 tribes of Israel and the story of Joseph. These seem to represent the zodiac signs though scholars debate over which. There is also reference in Numbers to the cosmological structure of society based on the twelve tents around the tabernacle. This symbolism appears to carry over into Christianity as the twelve apostles.

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Chapter Four

The first section here is concerned with the story of Christ. The features of his life and death are mirrored in ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, as well as in nearly every single culture of the world. The features of his life such as the adoration of three kings and the death for three days could all be astronomical. There is evidence in the Nag Hammadi texts that astronomical imagery was intended to be read into the New Testament. Central to this discussion is the debate between the Gnostic Valentinus and the Christian Irenaeus who argued over the length of Christs ministry. Valentinus arguing, from the symbolic viewpoint, that Christ’s ministry lasted only one year so to fit with his solar characteristics. If we accept that Joseph of the Old Testament is solar in nature, the parallels with the Jesus story are great enough to consider Christ also as solar. This is documented in Christian art which often portrays Christ as Helios.

The second section covers the story of the twelve apostles who parallel the twelve tribes of Israel in their zodiacal significance. Again, which one is which is much debated but they were recorded in Christian art as representing the zodiac signs. The four evangelists; Matthew Mark Luke and John are easier to ascribe. They represent the four Royal Stars of Mesopotamia located in the four fixed signs of the zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius, and are represented as such in Christian art.

The final section which I am still working on should cover commentary on the Gospel of Mark which I believe to be a fully astronomical or astrological text (accounting for its non-chronological nature) and the book of Revelation which contains clear astronomical symbolism such as seven stars and four headed beasts (again as the four fixed signs).

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In Conclusion I hope to show that astronomical knowledge is contained within Mithraism, Judaism and Christianity. While it is clear that by the time of the composition of the New Testament as it stands now, most of this astronomical knowledge was muddled, distorted, purely aesthetic or misused. But the evidence of it shows that the tradition of recording astronomical knowledge in religious texts and symbols pervaded from the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish (1200BCE at the latest) up to as recently as the 18th century. I am not arguing that this imagery or symbolism was mystical or astrological in origin, though I imagine some or most of it could be and would have been interpreted as such. There are strong currents between astronomy and astrology, and it would not be surprising that many people used these texts and images for astrological purposes. This is an astrology which is better compared to Stoic sympatheia or universal harmony than any modern understanding of the term. While we cannot rule out astrological readings I think it is safer to argue for an astronomical intent behind these images and myths, mostly because it is clear that astronomical observation was the purpose of the priestly class whether or not divination was accepted or not. However, it is equally impossible to know the intent of the writers, or where texts have been altered. We also cannot know, especially in the case of Judaism, what was the will of the prophets, and what was the will of the people – the Book of Judges makes it clear that most of the populous including the kings were star worshippers. In the case of Mithraism, we can know almost nothing at all. But there remain patterns which, analysed from an astronomical point of view – a science fundamental to the life and religion of ancient people – seem to portray a unity of thought across time and culture which cannot and should not be overlooked.