The icons of this ancient Mediterranean cult can be deciphered

only in terms of a worldview that placed the powers controlling

human destiny not on the earth but in the stars.

by David Ulansey

Scientific American, December 1989 (vol. 261, #6), pp. 130-135.

In hundreds of underground temples scattered across the territory of the Roman Empire from England to Syria, modern archaeologists have uncovered paintings and carvings of a young man killing a bull. The significance of this picture, the central icon of a secretive cult known as Mithraism, has been one of the great unsolved archaeological mysteries of this century. What mythical event is depicted by these figures? What clues does the bull slaying yield about the teachings of the cult? I and several other researchers have come to a conclusion that may seem unlikely at first: the image does not represent a myth about events on the earth; instead it is an astronomical code with strong religious implications.

This surprising interpretation gains credibility when considered in light of the widespread religious and social upheavals of the time. Mediterranean civilization in the seven centuries between Alexander the Great and Constantine provided exceptionally fertile soil for the growth of new religions. Alexander's conquests, solidified by his Hellenistic and Roman successors, rapidly created a unified Mediterranean culture out of what had formerly been a diverse collection of individual nations, city-states and tribes. Older forms of religious expression, which had generally been the product of smaller, close-knit societites, were losing their ability to furnish a sense of meaning for individuals adrift in a vastly expanded and increasingly impersonal empire.

As the Hellenistic and Roman empires swallowed up the older city-states and tribes, people came to feel that the powers determining their lives lay out of reach, in the distant parts of the empire. Any philosophy or religion that could offer people a sense of understanding or control exercised a strong attraction.

The emergence of Christianity was one response to these conditions. It offered membership in a symbolic community--the "New Israel"-- to people whose actual communities, now submerged in the imperial order, could no longer supply a firm sense of identity. Another response was the rise of fatalism, the idea that life completely controlled by an impersonal fate. Indeed, a personified form of Fate or Chance came to be worshipped as a god in many Hellenistic cults. The name of one Hellenistic philosophy that embraced this fatalistic worldview, Stoicism, survives today, signifying resigned endurance of whatever life may bring.

The general fatalism of the time prepared the way for the success of the more specific fatalism of astrology. Astrology, which first began to gain popular acceptance during the Hellenistic period (the time following the conquests of Alexander), claimed, with a persuasive aura of mathematical accuracy, that all events were pre-determined by powers residing in the stars. The growth of fatalism and astrology in this period makes it plausible that a religion based on the stars should have arisen.

The cult known as the Mithraic mysteries, or Mithraism, was one of the most important--and certainly one of the most intriguing--of the religions that arose at about the same time as Chrstianity. It came into existence in the first century B.C.; Plutarch writes that the Cilician pirates were practicing Mithraic rites by 67 B.C. (The pirates, based in the province of Cilicia in Asia Manor, numbered about 20,000; at their height their operations extended over the entire Mediterranean Sea.) Mithraism reached its peak in the third century and finally succumbed to the expansion of Christianity in the late fourth century, about the time that the Western Roman Empire was falling.

The cult's membership for the most part comprised soldiers, state bureaucrats and merchants; women were excluded. Like a number of other ancient religions (the mysteries of Isis and the Eleusinian mysteries among them), Mithraism limited its membership to those who had passed through a secret initiation ritual. Initiates were forbidden to speak to outsiders about cult secrets, and hence, they were named mysteria, a word whose root means to keep silent. The English word mystery and related words such as mysticism are ultimately derived from the Greek name for the cults. Mithraism was organized around seven distinct grades of initiation, forming a hierarchical structure through which members gradually ascended.

The cult's secrecy meant that no written record of Mithraic doctrines survives. As a result, the only information available to scholars attempting to reconstruct the cult's teachings is the elaborate iconography that decorates the temples. Most of it depicts various activities involving the cult's god, Mithras; the crucial scene is the so-called tauroctony, or bull slaying, in which Mithras, accompanied by various figures, is shown in the act of killing a bull. A tauroctony is found in the most prominent location in virtually every Mithraic temple, and it is clear that this icon holds the key to the central secret of the Mithraic mysteries. In the absence of any written explanation, however, deciphering it has proved a notoriously difficult task.

For most of the 20th century scholarly attempts to explain the tauroctony were dominated by the work of Franz Cumont, the famous Belgian historian of religion. Cumont's interpretation, first presented in 1899, was based on the fact that Mithras is the Greek and Latin name of a much older Iranian god, Mithra. Cumont concluded that Mithraism was imported from the ancient Iranian cult of Mithra, who represented light and truth and was believed to be the special guardian of contracts and agreements. Cumont argued that deciphering the tauroctony was simply a matter of finding parallels to its symbolic elements in ancient Iranian mythology.

Cumont's approach had significant problems. Most important, there is no known Iranian myth in which Mithra has anything to do with killing a bull. Cumont seized instead on an Iranian creation myth in which Ahriman, the embodiment of evil, kills a bull from whose blood and body spring all the living creatures of the earth. He claimed that this myth must have existed in a variant form (for which there is, however, no evidence) in which the good god Mithra replaced the evil Ahriman as the bull slayer. Cumont's eminence was such that his theories remained virtually unchallenged for more than 70 years.

The Iranian connection, and with it Cumont's interpretation of the tauroctony, came under concerted attack at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, held at the University of Manchester in 1971. Several scholars, chief among them John Hinnells of Manchester and R.L. Gordon of the University of East Anglia, suggested that Mithraism had in fact been created as a completely new religion somewhere in the Greco-Roman world and that it had merely adopted the name of the Iranian god to give itself an exotic flavor and an aura of antiquity.

If the tauroctony did not represent an Iranian myth, what did it represent? Starting in the mid-1970's, several scholars (including Roger Beck of the University of toronto, Stanley Insler of Yale University, Michael Speidel of the University of Hawaii, Alessandro Bausani of the University of Rome and me) put forward new interpretations of the tauroctony (and of Mithraism) based on the hypothesis that the picture is actually a star map.

Astrological beliefs permeated Mediterranean religious and intellectual life at the time Mithraism originated. In part this was the result of the fatalism of the age. In addition, for individuals cut off from their local traditions and free to move at will anywhere in the empire, astrology filled the need for new symbols that could help make sense of everyday life but were not tied to a particular locality or community, as were the older religious forms. The configurations of the stars appeared the same no matter where in the empire one traveled and so provided ideal raw material for such a universal symbolic system.

The acceptance of astrology led to a growing belief that the dwelling place of the gods was in the realm of the stars. For example, it was during the Hellenistic period that it became the standard practice to call the planets by the names of various Greek gods, such as Zeus (Jupiter) and Ares (Mars). Astrology also encouraged a new conception of life after death, according to which the soul did not go to the underworld, as had earlier been believed, but rather rose through the planetary spheres to the sphere of the fixed stars and then to the paradise that lay beyond the outermost sphere. In time this journey came to be imagined as difficult and dangerous, with secret passwords required to cross each planetary threshold.

Astronomical concepts must have been important in Mithraism, given the frequent appearance of astronomical symbols in Mithraic iconography. The 12 signs of the zodiac and symbols of the sun, moon and planets often appear together with the tauroctony and elsewhere in Mithraic art. The classical author Eubulus, writing during the first or second century, said that the Mithraic temple was meant to be "an image of the cosmos." It now appears that the tauroctony itself was an astral symbol.

In addition to Mithras and the bull, the tauroctony contains a number of other figures: a dog, a snake, a raven, a scorpion and sometimes a lion and a cup. It cannot be coincidence that each has a parallel among the constellations: Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus, Scorpio, Leo and Crater; the bull is paralleled by Taurus. My work has been directed toward explaining how these constellations could come to form the central icon of a powerful religious movement.

These seven constellations, I have found, are linked in the sky as well as in the tauroctony. With the exception of Leo, they lie along a path defined by an ancient position of the celestial equator. The celestial equator is a projection of the earth's equator onto the celestial sphere. It is an imaginary circle tilted at an angle of 23 degrees to the plane of the earth's orbit (the ecliptic, or the plane that defines the circle of the zodiac). The celestial equator crosses the zodiac at the equinoxes-- the points on the celestial sphere where the sun appears to be on the first day of spring and the first day of autumn.

In antiquity the celestial equator was far more than merely an imaginary circle. Ancient astronomers believed that the earth was located in the center of the universe and was absolutely immovable; the fixed stars were attached to a great sphere that rotated around the earth once a day on an axis running between the sphere's north and south poles. Features of this sphere, such as its poles and equator, played a crucial role in the ancient understanding of the structure of the cosmos. As a result, the celestial equator was much better known in antiquity than it is today; for example, Plato, in his dialogue Timaeus, writes that the creator of the universe began the formation of the cosmos by shaping its substance into the letter X to represent the crossing of the ecliptic and the celestial equator.

For most of antiquity it was believed that the axis of the celestial sphere was, like the earth, immovable. In fact, the earth's rotational axis (the modern equivalent of the ancient cosmic axis) is not fixed; it has a wobbling movement. As it wobbles, the celestial equator wobbles with it, and the relative positions of the equator and the ecliptic change. This so-called precession of the equinoxes means that the position of the sun in the sky at the equinox moves backward along the ecliptic, and so the equinox occurs slightly earlier every year. The complete precession takes approximately 25,920 years; the sun moves through one constellation every 2,160 years. Today the spring equinox is in the constellation of Pisces; in about the year 2200 it will enter Aquarius. During Greco-Roman times the spring equinox was in Aries, which it had entered in about 2000 B.C. Before that it was in Taurus.

With the exception of Leo, all the constellations in the tauroctony lie on the celestial equator as it would have been seen when the spring equinoxwas in Taurus. (Leo marks the sun's location at the summer solstice-- the position of which is also shifted by the precession-- in that era.) The arrangement of constellations in the tauroctony, then, matches an astronomical situation that prevailed 2,000 years before the origins of Mithraism.

How could Mithraists have known of this ancient astronomical arrangement, and why would they have seen it as having religious significance? The precession of the equinoxes was unknown for most of ancient times. It was discovered in about 125 B.C. by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, only a few decades before the initial rise of Mithraism. His careful observations showed the celestial equator was in fact gradually shifting backward through the zodiac. His calculations also made clear which constellations would have lain along the celestial equator when the equinox was in Taurus (its most recent position before the Greco-Roman period).

From the geocentric perspective, the precession (a movement of the earth) appears to be a movement of the entire cosmic sphere. For people who held both a geocentric worldview and the belief that the movements of the stars influenced human fates, the discovery of the precession would have been literally world-shaking: the stable sphere of the fixed stars was being unseated by some force apparently larger than the cosmos itself. Ancient intellectuals, accustomed as they were to seeing the work of the gods reflected in the works of nature, could easily have taken this great movement as evidence for the existence of a powerful, hitherto unsuspected deity.

The meaning of the tauroctony now becomes clear: the death of the bull aptly symbolized the end of the reign of Taurus as the constellation of the spring equinox and the beginning of the most recent era. The other figures in the tauroctony all represent constellations whose special position in the sky was also ended by the force of the precession.

By killing the bull-- causing the precession of the equinoxes-- Mithras was in effect moving the entire universe. A god capable of performing such a tremendous deed would be eminently deserving of worship. Furthermore, the ability to move the cosmos would be seen as endowing Mithras with other powers as well, such as the ability to overcome the forces of fate residing in the stars and to guarantee the soul a safe passage through the planetary spheres after death.

Other Mithraic images indicate that Mithras was in fact believed to embody such cosmic power; there are scenes that show Mithras bearing on his shoulder the sphere of the universe or in which a youthful Mithras holds the cosmic sphere in one hand while with his other he rotates the zodiac. In several tauroctonies, the starry sky is shown contained beneath Mithras's cloak.

The status of Mithras as the motive force behind the precession of the equinox could also explain the secretive nature of the Mithraic mysteries. Adherents could well have believed that their knowledge constituted a powerful secret best kept to themselves and among selected initiates. For those chosen, an understanding of the complex astronomical structure underlying the nature of Mithras would have required a lengthy period of indoctrination. Only after acquiring the requisite knowledge could initiates properly appreciate this new god.

An important question remains: If all the figures in the tauroctony represent constellations, then what constellation does Mithras represent? In the tauroctony, Mithras is located directly above the bull and is always depicted as a young man carrying a dagger and wearing a distinctive conical hat known as a Phrygian cap. The sky directly above Taurus, in fact, contains a constellation typically represented as a young man carrying a dagger and wearing a Phrygian cap: the Greek hero Perseus. Moreover, Perseus was worshipped as a god in Cilicia--precisely the region to which Plutarch traces the origins of Mithraism.

Tarsus, the capital city of Cilicia, was the home of one of the most important intellectual communities in the Mediterranean. This community was dominated by Stoic philosophers who were famous not only for their fatalism (which led them to be firm believers in astrology) but also for their tradition of personifying natural forces in the form of gods and heroes. Most likely, Mithraism arose as intellectuals in Tarsus, speculating about the force responsible for the newly discovered precession of the equinoxes, personified that power in the local Cilician god Perseus. Perseus, after all, was already identified as a constellation, and the message of his position in the sky was clear to read.

But if Mithras was originally in some sense Perseus, how did his name come to be Mithras? First, of course, it would make sense for a mystery religion to conceal the true name of its deity. Second, because of the sound of his name, Perseus was believed in antiquity to have been the founder of Persia (Iran) and thus could easily have become linked mythologically with the Iranian god of light and truth, Mithra. Third, around the time of the origins of Mithraism, most of Asia Minor came under the control of King Mithridates of Pontus, who formed a strong alliance with the Cilician pirates. Mithridates belonged to a dynasty named after Mithra; in addition, he and his ancestors believed that they were descended from Perseus. It was probably in the circles around King Mithridates-- who fancied himself an intellectual and took a special interest in Greek religious beliefs-- that the link was formed between Perseus and Mithra that eventually led to the adoption of the name Mithras (the Greek form of the name Mithra).

Today Christianity is one of the world's dominant religions; Mithraism (along with any number of other cults) died out. Why?

One crucial difference between the two is that from its beginning Christianity sought to make as many converts as possible. The author of the gospel of Matthew, for example, ends by having Jesus say, "Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations." Mithraism, in contrast, was based on a secret, and secrets lose their appeal in direct proportion to the numbers of people who know them.

In addition, Mithraism took hold mostly among groups of people-- soldiers, bureaucrats, merchants-- who were intimately bound up with the existing social order of the empire, and the cult's hierarchical structure fitted that order in a way that early Christianity, with its apocalyptic doctrine of the return of the messiah and disregard of earthly matters, did not. Early Christians (who were typically people whose social status was problematic in one way or another) possessed a revolutionary zeal that was completely absent in Mithraism.

While early Christians sought to enlighten the world, then, adherents of the Mithraic mysteries sought individual enlightenment and advancement within the existing culture. As a result, Mithraists had no hesitation in adopting practices that would necessarily limit the size of the cult's membership, such as excluding women from the cult, constructing temples as small underground cavities and establishing a complex series of initiation rites.

The heart of the matter, then, is not so much why Mithraism did not grow as Christianity did but rather how Christianity achieved the spectacular success that it sought: by the end of the fourth century it had led to the almost total elimination of competing religions in the Mediterranean world.

The precise reasons for Christianity's success are, of course, a matter of intense scholarly debate. There is a general consensus, however, that one of the most important factors was exclusivity. Becoming a Christian required that a convert give up all other forms of religious worship. Other religions of the times demanded no such single-mindedness: one could be an initiate of Mithras as well as of Isis, participate in sacrifices to Jupiter and at the same time venerate the spirit of a dead emperor. In a time when many people were experiencing the collapse of their traditional sources of meaning, the radical exlusivity of Christianity exercised a powerful appeal: it gave prospective converts the opportunity to make a truly decisive choice; those who did convert could believe that their lives had gained a real purpose and significance. In an age of confusion, Christianity offered its adherents a clear sense of identity.

It is particularly interesting to note that Christianity appealed to some of the same astral-religious conceptions that lay behind Mithraism and other cults. Jesus was frequently described as having a power over the world of the stars. The author of the gospel of Mark (the earliest of the Christian gospels), for example, begins his story by describing how Jesus, at the moment of his baptism, "saw the heavens torn open." Through this image the author seems to have been attempting to convey the idea that the life of Jesus constituted a rupture of the cosmic order, the expression of a power greater than that of the heavens.

The same author also presents Jesus as saying, "In those days... the stars will fall from the sky.... Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Paul's letter to the Galatians reads in part: "When we were children, we were enslaved to the elemental forces of the cosmos, but when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his son.. .to free [us]." Just as Mithras, by shifting the celestial sphere, upset the order of the universe, so the coming of Jesus was believed to have produced a rupture in the fabric of the cosmos.

Not only early Christianity and Mithraism but also many other religions and philosophical movements of that period expressed this same yearning for identification with a force that could break the boundaries of the cosmos and provide access to realms outside the limits of ordinary experience. Such a yearning was spurred by the upheavals of the time: as the local foundations of culture were undermined, individual horizons could expand. At the same time, scientists' imaginations suddenly stretched out to encompass a grand vision of the celestial spheres. Today's world, with its increasingly global culture and a science that in a single generation has leaped past the farthest galaxies, shows striking parallels with that ancient Mediterranean age.

For a summary of my book The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 1989) click here.

To return to Home of David Ulansey click here.