NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 13.4
For Australian readers of Catholica who happened to watch the documentary on the religious affairs program Compass last night Tom Lee's commentary today might be particularly valuable. He's exploring the Pagan Mystery Religions that posed a threat to Christianity and in particular Mythraism which has many similarities to Christianity in rituals, beliefs and the mythic and other stories that formed the basis of the belief system.
The Third Century of Christianity – Part 13.4
From layman to bishop in one round…
After Pontian, Bishop Anteros reigned for only forty-four days before his own martyrdom. A layman at the time of his election, Fabian had a dove alight on his head at the electoral meeting of the congregation which was taken as a sign from the Holy Spirit. He was processed through the various grades of ordination, from deacon to priest and priest to bishop in one round. He must have been somewhat more cautious than his predecessors, managing to survive as Bishop of Rome for fourteen years. He was no doubt aided by the confusion in the empire which enjoyed the rule of eight emperors in that short space of time, as the legions elected, then deposed their appointees, three of them named Gordian; creating knotty problems for historians.
The main factor fueling the intermittent but increasingly bitter persecution of the Christians was undoubtedly their growing numerical strength and influence. Pagans felt threatened and gradually the various pagan sects fused into a united front against the common enemy.
Pagan cults opposed to Christianity...
The most important of these were the cults of Isis, the Egyptian mother-goddess; Mithras, the god of light; and the grim Anatolian cult of Attis and Cybele with its castrated clergy. Of these the most militant in both reaction and the composition of its membership was Mithraism; not least because the Mithraic and Christian Fathers were equally startled and alarmed at the discovery of many superficial similarities in their creeds and liturgies.
They both taught the worship of One who came from the Most High, redeemed the world by the shedding of blood, and returned to sit on the right hand of the Father. Small wonder that the Christians could only account for it by imagining the pagan Christ to have been a devil who anticipated the real Christ in order to discredit him; while the Mithraists believed that Christianity was a flagrant plagiarism of their own faith.
The particular tension between Mithraism and Christianity...
Mithraic worshippers assembled in groups or brotherhoods, addressed each other as brother, and were initiated by Fathers, the chief of whom, Pater Patrum, Father of Fathers, was seated at Rome, and was, according to Tertullian, limited, like Christian bishops, to one wife.
Mithras was conceived of as a youth of divine origin who, by slaying a sacred bull, first created life upon earth. He was creator and orderer of the universe, a manifestation of the creative Logos or Word. Seeing mankind afflicted by Ahriman, the cosmic power of darkness, he incarnated on earth. His birth on December 25 was witnessed by shepherds. After many deeds he held a last supper with his disciples and returned to heaven. At the end of the world he will come again to judge resurrected mankind and after the last battle, he will lead the chosen ones through a river of fire to blessed immortality.
In astrological terms, it was the faith of the age of Aries (second-first millennia BCE), the sign of the Sun's exaltation and rulership of the god of war, Mars/Ares; so Mithras, the solar warrior, is re-enacting the close of the previous Age of Taurus (fourth-third millennia BCE) by slaying the cosmic Bull. His killing of the bull symbolized his supreme power, the power to move the universe in such a way that the spring equinox moved.
By contrast, Jesus terminated the age of war by sacrificing himself as the Ram or Lamb of God, ushering in the Age of Pisces — the fish, used as a symbol of Christ (second-first millennia CE), the era of ideal devotion and love.
The worshippers of Mithras passed through several grades of initiation — known as the Tortures, superficially similar to those of Freemasonry, before they could take part in the Mysteries. These included many painful austerities and trials by fire, water, cold, hunger, scourging, branding, bleeding, and even the menace of death, the sort of hardening-up process that has to be undergone by commandos. The process was a long one taking anything from fifteen to forty-eight days.
The worthiness of the Initiate had to be proven step by step, his interest being sustained by promises of ever-higher attainment of virtue and occult knowledge. Animal masks and skins were worn to denote the various degrees and it was these anthropomorphic beings that were depicted in the Mithraeums as sharing the Last Supper of the god of light before he ascended into heaven. Only after the aspirants had proven their worth by surviving these trials could they partake of the Baptism from which they emerged as full-fledged Soldiers of Mithras.
The lower grades could be conferred on young boys. The third grade, Soldier, was the watershed between those who were fully in communion and those in the higher orders. The mystics in the advanced grade partook communion with bread, water and wine. Tertullian was impressed with the sincerity of this sacramental ritual.
Differences in the meaning of Baptism...
The Baptism differed from that of Christians, whose total immersion in running water was originally intended to be an outward and visible sign of a complete and final purification of mind and Spirit, a unique occasion in the life of the Initiate. For the Mithraist it was a means in itself of washing away the stains of the soul, and as such had frequently to be undergone, for, as in the case of absolution bestowed by the Catholic confessional, the stains continually reappeared.
In Mithraism there were three distinct forms of baptism known to us, that of sprinkling with water and making the mark of the cross on the neophyte's head, possibly symbolizing either the sword of Mithras, or the sun; that of total immersion in running water, and finally, the regenerative bath in the blood of a bull, the apparently popular ceremony of the Taurobolium, a rite that the worshippers of Cybele also used.
The worshipper entered a pit beneath a grid, upon which the ox was slaughtered. The blood from the severed arteries streamed through the holes over the devotee, who rubbed it into every part of his body, even swallowing it, and came forth scarlet, "horrible to see", said the Christian poet Prudentius (348-410).
By washing themselves in the blood of the bull the Mithraists believed themselves born again for eternity. One could celebrate a taurobolium, like a Mass, either for one's own benefit or for that of another, especially the Emperor. In the worship of Cybele, poorer people made do with a criobolium, in which a ram was killed, and thus were washed in the blood of the Lamb. In Mithraism, loyalty and fidelity were regarded as the ultimate virtues and it held out a hope of a life hereafter in union with the Godhead in return for pure and noble lives.
The Seven Deadly Sins were a Mithraic formulation...
The Seven Deadly Sins, appropriated by the Christians, were a Mithraic formulation, highlighting the mystic significance of the number seven. They believed that as the dead soul rose through the gate of Capricorn, it passed through the seven heavenly spheres, shedding in each the appropriate vice, the Sun - Pride, the Moon - Envy, Mars - Anger, Mercury - Greed, Jupiter - Ambition, Venus - Lust, and Saturn - Sloth.
A Persian Mithraic text, amazingly reminiscent of words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, states that "he who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation". The initiates of Cybele and Attis also had some form of communion. A surviving text states: "I have eaten from the tambourine: I have drunk from the cymbal", the instruments sacred to them, but what they ate and drank we do not know.
Mithraism was regarded as a highly moral religion strictly limited to men, though it did develop a strong working relationship with the cult of Isis. The profound emotions evoked by the initiation into the exotic mysteries of Isis, the mother nursing her holy child like the Madonna, can be read in The Golden Ass by Apuleius (c.150), which dates from this period.
Apuleius moved in fashionable circles, was a noted poet and chief priest of the imperial cults in Carthage. In Apuleius' novel the hero, Lucius, recounts his mystical experience: "I approached the limits of the dead; I trod upon the threshold of Proserpina (the goddess of death) and I was carried beyond the spheres of the elements. I saw the sun shining brightly at midnight, and approached the Gods of the Underworld, and those from On High; and I worshipped them face to face..."
Isis' answer to Lucius' prayer runs in part: "...though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me ... Mother of the Gods; the Athenians call me ...Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am ... Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians ... Proserpine; and for the Eleusians their ancient Mother of Corn, Demeter. Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Aethiopians, whose lands the morning sun shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name ... Queen Isis."
Sex and Sexuality...
Tertullian could hold up the chastity of real initiates and priests of Isis as a model to Christians. But surviving documents indicate that the goddess was not hostile to sex; in fact, sexuality itself was revered.
In some cities women who lived in the sacred precincts of her temples had sexual relations with men who came there to do her honor. The women were often married. Some returned at different times during their lives to live within the temple complex and to practice its ancient sexual customs. These women were known as sanctified women or holy women. They did not consider themselves as temple prostitutes as they are generally thought of nowadays.
One inscription from Tralles in Western Asia Minor carved as late as 200 by a woman named Aurelia Amilias proudly announced that she had served in the temple by taking part in the sexual customs, as had her mother and all her female ancestors before her. Both the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus are said to have spent at least one night in the Temple of Isis. The priests of Isis heard confessions and gave absolution, but we cannot be sure what they considered sinful..
The Pater Patrum of Mithraism was a mystic who was responsible for the direction of the cult for the rest of his life and some of those initiated to the higher degrees are said to have lived totally celibate lives. But this may not have excluded monogamous homosexual relationships such as are extolled among the ancient warrior heroes. Heterosexual marriage was in any case forbidden to regular soldiers in the lower ranks. It is believed that anal penetration was shunned as effeminate and suitable only with slaves or prostitutes. For heroic men, mutual masturbation or penis-to-penis rubbing while lying in an embrace, known as frottage, was the norm, or thrusting to ejaculation between each other's thighs. The love of the Greek heroes such as Achilles and Patroclus and Alexander and Hephaestion were extolled as role models.
Until at least the third century CE, despite some shadowy legislation that may have survived from republican times, imperial Rome took no legal measures against adult homosexuality. The Emperor's, had they disapproved, would have been in a difficult position. To legislate against homosexuality would have meant alienating the soldiers, the very men who were responsible for making and breaking emperors.
Mithras, the soldier's god, traveled with the legions all over the empire. The cult was particularly successful in Germany, making, as it did, a religious virtue of their favorite inclination — warfare. Their mysticism was channeled into action, rating strength higher than gentleness. Mithraism formed a rallying point for dying paganism in the empire.
Since earthly life was so short, it is not surprising that the Mystery religions were largely concerned with what happens afterwards. They attempted to impart foreknowledge of the posthumous state, in order to save souls from the confusion the spirit would otherwise face following physical death. They gave instructions for the journey. Like the Christians they tried to chart the unknown, praising each other for pretending to know things they could not know.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 13.4
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
©2009 Tom Lee (Star Concepts LLC) 15633 N. 17* Drive, Phoenix, AZ 85023-3409