Antiquity Matters! Warwick Classics Department Postgraduate Colloquium (June 2013)
‘The Mithraic Mysteries: a religious manifestation of Platonic soteriological cosmology’
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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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