The Worship of the Sun Among the Ancient Romans
Sir James Frazer
|The traces of a native worship
of the Sun are even fewer and fainter among the ancient Romans than among
the ancient Greeks. In Latin calendars of the Augustan age, there is recorded,
under the date of August the ninth, a public sacrifice to the Sun (Sol
Indiges) on the Quirinal Hill. The meaning of the epithet "Indiges" here
applied to the Sun is ambiguous and has been variously interpreted by modern
scholars. If it implies that the Sun was reckoned among the ancient native
gods known as Di indigetes, which we may render as Indigenous Gods, it
proves that among the Romans the worship of the Sun was of immemorial antiquity,
for the Di indigetes belong to the oldest stratum of Roman religion. On
this interpretation, which is the most obvious and natural one, the Indigenous
Sun (Sol Indiges) is analogous to the Indigenous Jupiter (Jupiter Indiges),
who had a sacred grove in Latium near the river Numicius, and whom Roman
mythologists afterwards identified with the deified Aeneas.
The view of the great antiquity of the worship of the Sun at Rome has the support of the learned Roman antiquary Varro, who tells us that the Roman annals recorded the dedication of altars to the Sun and Moon by the old Sabine King Titus Tatius, the adversary and afterwards the colleague of Romulus. Moreover, the ancient Roman family of the Aurelii, who were said to be of Sabine origin, were believed by the ancients to take their name from the sun, which in the Sabine language appears to have been called "ausel": hence the original name of the family was not Aurelii but Auselii. On account of their worship of the Sun the family were granted by the Roman State a place in which they could sacrifice to the luminary.
We have seen that the worship of the Sun was shared by other great branches of the Aryan stock, the Vedic Indians, the ancient Persians, and the ancient Greeks, and it appears to have been common to their northern kinsfolk in Europe, the Lithuanians and the Germans; hence we may reasonably infer that Sun-worship was part, though apparently a subordinate part, of the original Aryan religion, which the various branches of the family after their dispersal carried with them to their new homes.
Hence we need not suppose, with some modern mythologists, that the Romans were reduced to borrowing the worship from the Greeks, in whose religion it had never played an important part. It is more probable, as Franz Cumont has rightly observed, that the adoration of the heavenly bodies, which serve to mark the seasons and exert so great an influence on agriculture, existed from the beginning in the rustic population of Italy, as in the other branches of the Indo-European family. In favour of this view it may be noted that Varro, an eminent authority on agriculture as well as on mythology, at the outset of his book on farming tells us that he will invoke the twelve gods, not the city gods, male and female, whose gilded images stand in the Forum at Rome, but the twelve gods who are the best guides of husbandmen, and among them he mentions the Sun and Moon, "whose seasons are observed at seed-time and harvest," immediately after Father Jupiter and Mother Earth, and immediately before such genuine Italian deities as Ceres, Liber, Flora, and Robigus, the god of Mildew. So learned an antiquary was not likely to interpolate new-fangled Greek gods in the list of the divinities who were to serve as guides to the Italian farmer.
On the Quirinal Hill there was a temple or shrine of the Sun, in which couches were decked out for the accommodation of the god and his divine colleagues who feasted with him; on these sacred couches a place was reserved for the Evening Star under his genuine old Latin name of Vesperug. The name does not savour of Greek influence, and the temple or shrine stood near the temple of the good old Sabine god Quirinus. It may well have been the shrine which in bygone days the Roman State had assigned to the Sabine family of the Aurelii or Auselii as a place where they could sacrifice to the Sun, from whom they took their name. Further, there was an ancient temple of the Sun in or near the Circus Maximus. When a plot to assassinate Nero in the Circus had been detected, special honours were paid to the Sun in this his old sanctuary, because he was supposed to have revealed the designs of the conspirators. On the gable of the temple there was an image of the Sun, for it was not thought right that the image of the god who traverses the open sky should be placed under a roof. In the topographical descriptions of Rome dating from the reign of Constantine the temple is called the temple of the Sun and Moon.
When Augustus conquered Egypt he brought two obelisks away from Heliopolis to Rome, where he set them up, one of them in the Circus Maximus, the other in the Field of Mars. The obelisks still stand in Rome, though not in their original positions; the one which Augustus placed in the Circus Maximus is now in the Piazza del Popolo; the other, which graced the Field of Mars, now stands in the Piazza di Monte Citorio. Each of them bears an inscription which records that, after reducing Egypt to the condition of a Roman province, Augustus in his eleventh consulship (10 B.C.) dedicated the obelisk as a gift to the Sun. Thus these monuments of Egyptian piety, which in their original home at Heliopolis had been consecrated to the Sun, continued in Rome to be sacred to the solar deity.
Indeed, the one which Augustus set up in the Field of Mars was turned to appropriate use, being converted into the gnomon of a colossal sun-dial, the face of which consisted of a pavement with lines inlaid in bronze and radiating from the obelisk as a centre, which was crowned with a gilt ball. The hieroglyphic inscription on the obelisk proves that it was originally set up by King Psammetichus (not, as Pliny thought, by Sesostris) about the middle of the seventh century before our era. In Pliny's time the gigantic gnomon had ceased to mark the true solar time, which the philosopher attributed to a slight displacement of the obelisk either by an earthquake or by floods.
If the worship of the Sun played but an insignificant part in the genuine old Roman religion, it was far otherwise in later times when, under the Empire, at the height of its power or hastening to its fall, the ancient Italian gods were driven into the background by an invading host of foreign and especially of Oriental deities, among whom the Sun-god was one of the most popular. The missionaries of the foreign faiths which, in the decline of paganism, the masses of mankind eagerly embraced as substitutes for the outworn creeds and faded gods of Greece and Rome, were in great measure merchants and soldiers travelling about in pursuit of trade or shifted in regiments on military duty from one end of the Empire to the other. These men brought with them, so to say, in their bales and knapsacks the religious beliefs and practices which they had picked up in distant lands, and which they now unfolded to eager listeners as a new gospel, the latest message to poor trembling mortals from the world beyond the grave.
A striking instance of Sun-worship imported by soldiers into Italy from the East was witnessed at the second battle of Bedriacum, fought in 69 A.D. between the forces of the rival Emperors Vitellius and Vespasian. The two armies met and grappled in the darkness of the night. For hours the combat swayed to and fro, and still the issue hung in suspense. At last the moon rose and turned the trembling balance in favour of the army of Vespasian; for shining behind them and full on the faces of the enemy it confused the sight of the one side and presented them as a visible target to the missiles of the other. The commander of the army of Vespasian seized the opportune moment to urge his men, and especially the Guards, to a desperate charge. Just then, by a fortunate coincidence, the sun rose; and the men of the third legion, who had their backs to the east, at once faced round and saluted it; for having recently served in Syria they had learned the habit of thus greeting the rising orb of day. The effect was instantaneous and decisive; for the enemy, believing that they were saluting reinforcements coming, like the Prussians at Waterloo, to turn the tide of battle, wavered, broke, and fled. Thus the Sun-god crowned with victory the arms of Vespasian.
The cool-headed Vespasian so far yielded to popular superstition as to consult the oracle of God on Mount Carmel and to heal a blind man by spitting on his eyes; but he never seems to have testified his gratitude to the Sun-god for his opportune help at the most critical moment of his career. However, if he failed in respect for the solar deity, several of his successors on the throne made ample amends for his deficiency. At Emesa in Syria there was a large black conical stone which was said to have fallen from the sky and bore the Phoenician name of Elagabalus. It was popularly supposed to be an image of the Sun, and was lodged in a great temple resplendent with gold and silver and precious stones. The god received the homage not only of the natives but of distant peoples, whose governors and kings sent costly offerings every year to the shrine. Among the rest the soldiers of a great Roman camp pitched in the neighbourhood used to visit the temple and admire the handsome young priest when, wearing a jewelled crown and arrayed in gorgeous robes of purple and gold, he tripped gracefully in the dance round the altar to the melody of pipes and flutes and other musical instruments.
This dainty priest of the Sun, then in the full bloom of youth and beauty, and resembling, we are told, the ideal portraits of the youthful Bacchus, was the future Emperor Elagabalus, the most abandoned reprobate who ever sat upon a throne. On being elevated, at age fourteen, to the imperial dignity by the intrigues of his artful grandmother and the favour of the soldiers, the stripling, whose original name was Bassianus, assumed the style of his barbarous god Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, as the name was also pronounced in order to suggest to Greek ears the name of the Sun (Helios). Further, the young fanatic caused the rude fetish of the deity to be transported from Emesa to Rome, where he built a great and stately temple for it on the Palatine beside the imperial palace. The site had formerly been occupied by the genuine old Roman god Orcus. Round about the temple were set up many altars, on which every morning hecatombs of bulls and sheep were slaughtered, incense of all sorts was piled, and jars of the oldest and finest wines were poured, so that streams of mingled blood and wine flooded the pavement. And round the altar on the ensanguined pavement danced the emperor and a choir of Syrian damsels with clashing cymbals and droning drums, while the knights and senators stood looking on in a great circle, and the entrails of the sacrificed victims and the perfumes were carried in golden jars on the heads, not of menials and servitors, but of captains of armies and ministers of state, arrayed in the long loose-sleeved robes and linen shoes of Syrian prophets; for among these degenerate nobles it was deemed the highest honour to be allowed to participate in the sacrifice.
And in the height of summer, lest the Sun-god should suffer from the excess of his own heat, the considerate emperor escorted him to an agreeable suburb, where he had built another vast and costly temple in which the deity might while away the sultry months till the refreshing coolness of autumn should permit of his return to Rome. On these annual excursions to and from the country the god, or rather the stone, was conveyed in a chariot glittering with gold and jewels and drawn by six superb white horses, themselves resplendent in trappings of gold. No man might share the sacred chariot with the deity. But the emperor himself held the reins and went before, walking the whole way backward out of respect for the god, upon whom he kept his eyes fixed, and supported on either side by his guards lest he should stumble and fall. The whole road was thickly strewed with gold dust, and on either side ran crowds waving torches and flinging garlands and flowers on the path. On reaching the summer quarters of his deity the emperor used to ascend certain towers which he had erected for the purpose, and from which he showered on the multitude largess in the shape of golden and silver cups, fine raiment, and all sorts of beasts, both wild and tame, except pigs, for by a law of the Phoenician religion the pious Phoenician emperor was bound to refrain from contact with these unclean animals. In the wild struggle of the crowd to profit by the imperial bounty many persons perished, either trampled under foot by their fellows or pushed by them on the levelled spears of the guards.
It was the intention of this eminently religious but crack-brained despot to supersede the worship of all the gods, not only at Rome but throughout the world, by the single worship of Elagabalus or the Sun. In particular he aimed, we are told, at concentrating the religion of the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Christians in his new temple on the Palatine, which was to be the Zion of the future. In pursuance apparently of this policy he began operations, after a truly Puritanical fashion, by defiling the temple of Vesta and attempting to extinguish her eternal fire. But this religious reformer and champion of monotheism, whose infamous orgies far outdid the wildest excesses of Caligula and Nero, was no believer in celibacy even for the Supreme Being, who could not, in his opinion, reasonably be expected to do without a wife. It was at once the duty and the pleasure of the emperor to select a consort for the deity, and to this delicate task he devoted as much thought and attention as it was in his nature to devote to anything.
His first choice fell on Minerva, whose sacred image, known as the Palladium, was popularly supposed to have been rescued by Aeneas from the flames of Troy and transplanted to Rome, where the goddess was established in a temple, from which she had never since stirred except on a single occasion when she had been forced temporarily to quit the building by a fire. But the emperor was not a man to stand on ceremony. The hallowed image was transported to the palace and the divine wedding was about to be celebrated, when it occurred to the imperial lunatic that his soft Syrian god might be frightened in the nuptial bower by the formidable aspect of a bride in armour; for Minerva could not be expected to lay aside her shield and spear even for the honeymoon. So on second thoughts he sent to Africa for the image of Astarte, the great goddess of love, which Dido was said to have set up in Carthage when she founded the city of old, and which was held in great reverence by the Libyans as well as by the Carthaginians. Her Phoenician worshippers identified her with the Moon, from which, as well as from her affectionate nature, the emperor concluded that she would be a most suitable mate for his Sun-god. So she came, and much treasure with her, and all the subjects of the empire were bidden to contribute to the dowry of the bride. The divine union was consummated, and all Rome and Italy were compelled to hold high revelry in honour of the wedding.
But even the patience of the degenerate Romans, long schooled to submission, could not for ever put up with the freaks and follies, the extravagances and outrages of their dissolute and crazy emperor. They rose in rebellion, slew him in the sordid den in which he had sought to conceal himself from their fury, dragged his body through the streets, and flung it into a sewer; and when it choked the sewer they fished it out and carried it, dripping and stinking, to the Tiber, where they heaved it into the river, weighted with a stone, that the vile body might never come to the surface and never receive the rites of burial. Such was the miserable end of the religious reformer who would have established solar monotheism throughout the Roman empire. Monuments of the attempted reformation and of the ill-starred reformer are extant in the shape of contemporary inscriptions which record dedications to the Sun-god Elagabalus, and make mention of the emperor in his capacity of priest of that deity. As for the sacred black stone, of which so much had been made, on the death of its namesake the emperor it was expelled from the city, and found its way back to Emesa; for there the Emperor Aurelian saw it in the temple when he entered the city after his victory over Zenobia.
Some fifty years after the disastrous attempt of Elagabalus to establish the worship of the Sun at Rome on a new and more solid basis, the scheme was revived by the Emperor Aurelian, a man of a very different character, in whom the stern inflexible temper and military genius of ancient Rome shone bright for a brief time, like the flicker of an expiring candle, in the gloomy evening of the Roman empire. From his youth fortune would seem to have marked him out as the natural champion of the Sun-god. His family name linked him with the Aurelii, the noble old Roman house who bore the name of the Sun and may have deemed themselves his offspring. His mother is said to have been a priestess of the temple of the Sun in the village where he was born. Being sent on a mission to Persia, he received from the Persian king the gift of a cup on which the Sun was represented in the familiar garb and attitude which the future Emperor of Rome had so often beheld in the temple where his mother ministered. When Zenobia, the rebel Queen of the East, was defeated and captured, her people massacred, and Palmyra, her once stately and beautiful capital, reduced to a heap of bloodstained ruins, the temple of the Sun in the city shared the fate of the other buildings; but Aurelian ordered that it should be completely restored. The despatch in which he conveyed the order to the officer commanding the troops at Palmyra has been preserved by the emperor's biographer; it runs as follows:
Aurelian Augustus to Cerronius Bassus: The swords of the soldiers must be stayed. Enough of the people of Palmyra have been slain and cut to pieces. We spared not the women we killed the children: we slaughtered the old men: we destroyed the peasants. To whom shall we leave hereafter the country and the city? The survivors are to be spared. For we think that so few have been sufficiently chastised by the condign punishment of so many. As for the temple of the Sun in Palmyra, which was sacked by the eagle-bearers of the third legion, along with the standard bearers, the dragon-bearer, the hornblowers, and the trumpeters, it is my will that it be restored to its original state. You have three hundred pounds of gold from the coffers of Zenobia: you have eighteen hundred pounds of silver from the plunder of Palmyra: you have the royal jewels. Out of all these see that the temple is beautified: in doing so you will oblige me and the immortal gods. I will write to the Senate requesting them to send a pontiff to dedicate the temple.Not content with restoring the temple of the Sun among the ruins of Palmyra, the conqueror built a magnificent temple of the Sun at Rome and adorned it with the spoil of the captured city. In it he set up images of the Sun and of Bel, of whom no doubt the latter was the Semitic Baal. Among the votive offerings which it contained were masses of gold and jewellery and fine robes studded with gems. A silver statue and a painted portrait of Aurelian himself were afterwards to be seen within the walls. The splendour of the temple was enhanced by colonnades, in which wines belonging to the imperial treasury were stored. The service of the temple was entrusted to a new college of priests called Pontiffs of the Sun, or Pontiffs of the Sun-god, or Pontiffs of the Unconquered Sun-God, but of the ritual observed in the temple we know nothing.
The coins of Aurelian also attest his devotion to the solar deity. On one of them the Sun is seen offering to the emperor a globe as a symbol of the empire of the world, with a captive lying at their feet; some of the inscriptions on the coins proclaim the Sun-god to be the Preserver or Restorer of the World or even Lord of the Roman Empire. Such legends seem to announce the intention of the emperor to set the Sun-god at the head of the pantheon. It is remarkable that on all these coins the type of the god, in spite of his Oriental origin, is purely Greek, being clearly derived from that of Apollo. On some we see a young man wearing a crown with the solar rays and carrying in his left hand a globe or a whip; his right hand is raised; he is naked except for a light cloak which floats on his back. Sometimes he is represented driving a four-horse car. In the reign of Probus the intimate relation of the emperor to the Sun was signified by a legend on the coins, "To the Unconquered Sun, the Companion of Augustus," and the reorganization of the empire by Diocletian did not affect the now traditional types and inscriptions on the coins which referred to the solar worship. An inscription found at Aquileia records a dedication to the Sun-god by the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. The armies of Licinius marched to fight the armies of Constantine under the protection of the Sun-god, and a curious inscription informs us that Licinius established in his camp at Salvosia in Moesia an annual sacrifice in honour of the Sun on the eighteenth of November, which was the first day of the year according to the calendar of Antioch. Constantine himself, during the first quarter of his reign, struck many pieces with figures or busts of the Sun-god and legends, "The Unconquered Sun," "To the Unconquered Sun, the Companion of Our Augustus," and so forth.
The imperial patronage thus accorded to Sun-worship for at least half a century before the establishment of Christianity was little more than an official recognition of a universal solar religion which had long been spreading in the empire under the combined influences of philosophic thought, astrological speculation, and Oriental mysteries. Among these mysteries none were more popular, none proved more dangerous rivals to Christianity, than the worship of the old Persian god Mithra, who was now definitely identified with the Sun-god under the title of the Unconquered Sun. About the beginning of our era Strabo affirms without hesitation or ambiguity that the Persian deity Mithra was the Sun. Yet in the opinion of some good modern scholars Mithra originally personified the light, not of the Sun, but of the luminous heaven in general. As to the mode, place, and date of the process which transformed him from a god of light in general into a god of the Sun in particular we have no information. The change perhaps took place in Babylonia, where, under the powerful influence of Chaldean theology and astrology, the Iranian deities were assimilated to their nearest Semitic counterparts, the Supreme God Ahura Mazda being identified with the Sky-god Bel, while the goddess Anahita was confused with Ishtar (Astarte), the goddess of the planet Venus, and Mithra was equated with the Sun-god Shamash.
But Babylonia was only a stage in the triumphal march of Mithra westward. Even under the early kings of the Achemenidian dynasty Persian colonists seem to have settled in Armenia, where, according to Strabo, all the Persian deities were worshipped. It is said that the governor of Armenia used to send no less than twenty thousand colts a year to the Persian king for use at the Mithrakana or festival of Mithra. Of the mode of celebrating the festival at the Persian court we know little or nothing except that the only day on which the king was allowed to be drunk was the day on which sacrifices were offered to Mithra, and on that day he also danced a Persian dance. But the wave of Persian colonization rolled westward beyond the boundaries of Armenia. In its climate, as in its natural products, the tableland of Anatolia resembles that of Iran, and lent itself particularly to the breeding of horses, and hence to the formation of a native cavalry, the arm in which the Persians always excelled. Under the sway of Persia the nobility who owned the land appear to have belonged to the conquering race in Cappadocia and Pontus as well as in Armenia, and despite all the changes of government which followed the death of Alexander these noble lords remained the real masters of the country, ruling each the particular canton in which his domains were situated and, on the borders of Armenia at least, preserving through all political vicissitudes down to the time of Justinian the hereditary title of satrap which recalled their Iranian origin.
This military and feudal aristocracy furnished Mithridates Eupator with many of the officers, by whose help he was so long able to set the power of Rome at defiance, and still later it offered a stout resistance to the efforts of the Roman emperors to subjugate Armenia. Now these warlike grandees worshipped Mithra as the patron-saint of chivalry; hence it was natural enough that even in the Latin world Mithra always passed for the "Invincible," the guardian of armies, the soldier's god. In the time of Strabo the Magians were still to be found in large numbers, scattered over Cappadocia, where they maintained the perpetual fires in their chapels, intoning the liturgy with the regular Persian ritual. A century and a half later the same sacred fires still blazed to the drone of the same liturgy in certain cities in Lydia: for Pausanias tells us that:
the Lydians have sanctuaries of the Persian goddess, as she is called, in the cities of Hierocaesarea and Hypaepa, and in each of the sanctuaries is a chapel, and in the chapel there are ashes on an altar, but the colour of the ashes is not that of ordinary ashes. A magician, after entering the chapel and piling dry wood on the altar, first claps a tiara on his head, and next chants an invocation of some god in a barbarous and, to a Greek, utterly unintelligible tongue: he chants the words from a book. Then without the application of fire the wood must needs kindle and a bright blaze shoot up from it.Outside of the Anatolian tableland the first to observe the rites of Mithra are said to have been the Cilician pirates. During the civil wars which distracted the attention and absorbed the energies of the Romans in the first century [B.C.], these daring rovers seized the opportunity to issue from the secret creeks and winding rivers of Cilicia and scour the seas, landing from time to time, harrying islands, holding cities to ransom, and carrying off from some of the most famous sanctuaries the wealth which had been accumulated there by the piety of ages. Gorged with plunder and elated by the impunity which they long enjoyed, the corsairs rose to an extraordinary pitch of audacity and effrontery, marching up the highroads of Italy, plundering villas, and abducting Roman magistrates in their robes of office; while at sea they displayed a pomp and pageantry proportioned to the riches which they had amassed by their successful forays. Their galleys flaunted gilded sails and purple awnings, and glided along to the measured plash of silver oars, while the sounds of music and revelry, wafted across the water, told to the trembling inhabitants of the neighbouring coasts the riot and debauchery of the buccaneers. The worship of Mithra, which these sanctified ruffians practised in their fastnesses among the wild Cilician mountains, may have been learned by them from Mithridates Eupator, King of Pontus, whom they assisted in his wars with the Romans.
By the end of the first century of our era the worship of Mithra and his identification with the Sun appear to have been familiar to the Romans; for in an address to Apollo the poet Statius, enumerating the titles by which that deity was called, suggests that the god might prefer to be known as "Mithra, who under the rocks of the Persian cave twists the bull's struggling horns." The allusion is plainly to the most widespread and familiar monument of Mithraism, the sculpture which represents Mithra in a cave, kneeling on the back of a bull and twisting its head back with one hand, while with the other he plunges a knife into its flank. [Above: Mithras Tauroctonos ("Mithra the Bull-Slayer")]
The ancient scholiast Lactantius Placidus, commenting on this passage of Statius, not only explains Mithra as the Sun whom the Persians worhipped in caves, but completes the solar interpretation by adding that the horned bull is the horned Moon, and that the scene is laid in a cave to signify an eclipse of the sun by the interposition of the moon. In the group of Mithra and the bull, as the scholiast correctly observes, Mithra is regularly portrayed in Persian costume wearing the usual tiara or peaked Phrygian cap; but the scholiast proceeds to say that Mithra was also represented with the head of a lion, and he explains this representation either with reference to the constellation of the Lion which the Sun enters in his course through the zodiac, or as a symbol of the superiority of the Sun-god over all the other gods, like the superiority of the lion over all the other beasts. In this interpretation the scholiast appears to have erred. The figure of a lion-headed god, standing with a serpent twined round his body and holding one or two keys in his hands, is explained with greater probability as a personification of Time, answering to the Persian divinity Zervan Akarana, Infinite Time, which from the period of the Achemenides was deemed by a Magian sect to be the origin of all things and the begetter both of Ormuzd and Ahriman.
Compared to the other Oriental deities, such as the Phrygian Great Mother, the Carthaginian Astarte, and the Egyptian Isis and Serapis, the Phrygian god Mithra was a late arrival in Rome. The nature of the Anatolian plateau explains in some measure the long seclusion of the deity from the western world. It is a bleak upland region of steppes and forests and precipices, which offers few attractions to the stranger; and there, in the solitude of the mountains or the dreary expanse of the unending plains, Mithra remained for ages isolated amid natural surroundings which formed a not unsuitable setting for his stern and soldierly religion. Even during the Alexandrian age, after the victorious Greek armies had swept over the country, Mithra never descended from his highland home to the soft skies and blue seas of Ionia. A single late dedication to the Sun Mithra, found at the Piraeus, is the only monument of his worship on the coasts of the Aegean. The Greeks never welcomed this god of their ancient enemies to their hospitable pantheon.
But no sooner was the Anatolian tableland overrun by Roman armies and annexed to the Roman empire than the worship of Mithra spread like wildfire to the remotest regions of the west and south. The soldiers adopted it with enthusiasm, and from about the end of the first century of our era they carried it with them to their distant camps on the Danube and the Rhine, on the coast of France, among the mountains of Wales and Scotland, in the valleys of the Asturias, and even on the edge of the Sahara, where a line of military posts guarded the southern frontier of the empire. In all these widely separated quarters of the globe they left memorials of their devotion to Mithra in the shape of monuments dedicated to his worship. At the same time merchants of Asia introduced the religion into the ports of the Mediterranean and carried it far into the interior by waterways or roadways to all the important trading cities and marts of commerce. In our own country Mithraic monuments have been found in London, York and Chester. Finally, among the apostles of the new faith must be reckoned the Oriental slaves, who were everywhere and had a hand in everything, being employed in the public service as well as in private families, whether they toiled as labourers in the fields and the mines, or as clerks and bookkeepers in counting-houses and government offices, where their number was legion.
At last the foreign deity wormed his way into the favour of the high officials and even of the emperor. Towards the close of the second century of our era an immense impulse was given to the propagation of the religion by the attention bestowed on it by the Emperor Commodus, who, in keeping with his brutal and cruel character, is said to have polluted the rites by human sacrifice. The dedications, "to The Unconquered Sun Mithra for the safety of Commodus Antoninus Augustus, our Lord," and numerous other Mithraic dedications dating from the reign of Commodus, attest the popularity which the worship attained in the sunshine of imperial favour. From the early years of the third century the religion was served by a domestic chaplain in the palace of the Caesars, and inscriptions record the vows and offerings of its devotees for the prosperity of the Emperors Septimius and Alexander Severus, and afterwards of Philip. Still later the Emperor Aurelian, who, as we have seen, established an official cult of the Sun at Rome, could not but sympathize with Mithra, the god who was himself now regularly identified with the Sun.
By the beginning of the fourth century the Mithraic faith had spread so widely and struck its roots so deep, that for a moment it seemed as if it would overshadow all its rivals and dominate the Roman world from end to end. In the year 307 A. D., Diocletian, Galerius, and Licinius had a solemn meeting at Carnuntum on the Danube, and there consecrated together a sanctuary "to the Unconquered Sun-god Mithra, the favourer of their empire." So near did Mithra come to being the Supreme God of the Roman empire. Yet a few years later and that same empire bowed its neck to the yoke of another Oriental god, and the Sun, the Unconquered Sun, of Mithra set forever.
The popular identification of Mithra with the Sun in the later times of classical antiquity is placed beyond the reach of doubt by a multitude of inscriptions, found in all parts of the Roman empire, which directly qualify Mithra as the Sun or more usually as Mithra the Unconquered Sun. Nevertheless on many monuments of the worship Mithra and the Sun are represented by separate figures as if they were distinct deities. In one scene we see Mithra standing in his usual Oriental costume opposite a young man, naked or clad in a simple cloak, who is either standing or kneeling at the feet of Mithra. In some reliefs Mithra is putting on his companion's head or removing from it a large curved object which sometimes resembles a horn or a deflated leathern bottle. The kneeling personage is usually passive, but sometimes he lifts his arms, whether in supplication or to put aside or retain the mysterious object which is being placed on his head or removed from it. In some reliefs the scene is more complicated: Mithra is displacing the enigmatical object with his right hand, while with his left he places on his companion's head a radiant crown. In one scene of a great relief found at Osterburken we see Mithra holding the same object over the head of the kneeling figure with his right hand, while he puts his left hand to the hilt of his sword at his belt, and the radiant crown lies on the ground between them.
The exact significance of the scene is uncertain, but the standing or kneeling figure who receives or loses the radiant crown is interpreted as the Sun, towards whom Mithra seems to adopt an attitude of superiority by conferring upon him or removing from him the crown of rays which is the emblem of his solar character. Perhaps the scene refers to a contest between the two deities in which Mithra remained the victor. It has also been suggested that Mithra is pouring oil or other liquid from a horn on the head of the Sun as a solemn form of baptism or investiture in sign of the powers which that deity will wield when he is crowned with the diadem of rays. In another scene of a great relief found at Heddernheim we see Mithra holding out his hand to the kneeling Sun as if helping him to rise: the head of the Sun is surrounded by a nimbus.
On several monuments the two gods are represented standing opposite each other and shaking hands. Mithra wears his usual costume: the Sun is either naked with a nimbus round his head, or he wears a cloak and the radiant crown and carries a whip. The meaning of the scene is obvious. The two deities have concluded a treaty of alliance, and peace and harmony will henceforth reign between them. In the relief at Osterburken, as if to give a religious consecration to the union of the two gods, they are represented shaking hands over an altar. Further, the peace between Mithra and the Sun is sealed by a banquet, at which they are portrayed reclining side by side at the festive board and holding up goblets in their right hands, while about the table are gathered a number of guests as partakers of the sacred feast. The importance attached to this divine banquet is attested both by the number of the monuments on which it is figured and by the important place assigned to it in the series of subsidiary scenes arranged around the central piece, the sacrifice of the bull by Mithra. Often, especially in the great sculptured reliefs which have been found in the valley of the Rhine, the relief representing the banquet is the last of the whole series, as if it formed the concluding act in the history of the god's exploits, the Last Supper of which he partook before quitting the scene of his earthly labours.
Remembering that according to the Christian Fathers a sort of communion was celebrated in the Mithraic mysteries, we can understand why the devotees of the religion set so high a value on this last feast of Mithra and his companions, or should we say his disciples? The sacramental act which the liturgy appears to have prescribed was accomplished in memory of the example set by the Divine Master. This relation between a legend and the ritual is established by a fragmentary relief discovered in Bosnia. It represents two devotees reclining at a table on which loaves are set out: one of them holds a drinking horn: both are in the attitude in which Mithra and the Sun are regularly represented on the other monuments. Round about the two devotees, or rather communicants, are grouped the initiated of various grades in the mystic hierarchy, including the Raven, the Persian, the Soldier, and the Lion, wearing the masks which are appropriate to their names and which they are known from other sources to have worn in the sacred rites. A text of St. Jerome, confirmed by a series of inscriptions, informs us that there were seven degrees of initiation in the Mithraic mysteries, and that the initiated took successively the names of the Raven, the Occult, the Soldier, the Lion, the Persian, the Courier of the Sun (heliodromus), and the Father.
These strange names were not simply honorary titles. On certain occasions the officiants disguised themselves in costumes appropriate to the names they bore. These sacred masquerades were variously interpreted by the ancients with reference either to the signs of the zodiac or to the theory of transmigration. Such differences of opinion only prove that the original meaning of the disguises was forgotten. Probably the masquerade was a survival from a time when the gods were supposed to wear or assume the form of animals, and when the worshipper attempted to identify himself with his deity by dressing in the skin and other trappings of the divine creature. Similar survivals in ritual are common in many religions.
To complete the history of Mithra we must notice the monuments on which the Sun is represented driving his chariot, which is drawn by four horses at full gallop. With the left hand he grasps the reins, while he holds out his right hand to Mithra, who approaches to take his place beside the Sun in the chariot: sometimes, indeed, Mithra clings to the arm of the Sun-god as if preparing to leap into the whirling car. Sometimes the Ocean, into which the Sun's chariot descends at night, is indicated by the figure of a bearded man reclining on the ground and leaning on an urn or holding a reed. Yet the daily disappearance of the Sun setting in the sea does not suffice to explain this scene nor the part which Mithra plays in it.
To understand it we must compare the scenes carved on some Christian sarcophaguses, which present so striking a resemblance to the Mithraic sculptures that the two series can hardly be independent of each other. On the Christian sarcophaguses it is the prophet Elijah who stands erect in his car drawn by four galloping steeds. He grasps the reins with his left hand, while with his right he holds out his mantle to the prophet Elisha, who stands on the ground behind the car. In front of the car, and beneath the rearing steeds, the figure of a bearded man is stretched, leaning with his left arm on an urn from which water is flowing. The reclining figure represents the Jordan, from whose banks the prophet Elijah was swept away to heaven on the chariot and horses of fire. In the light of this parallel we may suppose that Mithra, like the prophet of Israel, his earthly labours over, was believed to have ascended up to heaven in the Sun's bright chariot, though doubtless he was thought still to look down upon and protect the faithful worshippers whom he left behind him on earth. Sic itur ad astra.
It remains to mention among the Mithraic sculptures two figures which are commonly supposed to be connected with the solar character of Mithra. The great scene of the sacrifice of the bull, which occupied the central place in Mithraic art and probably in Mithraic religion, is regularly flanked by two youthful male figures dressed like Mithra and wearing the usual peaked Phrygian cap. Each of them grasps a burning torch, but one of them holds the burning end of the torch up, while the other turns it down towards the earth. Though they are most commonly represented in the scene of the sacrifice, where they are in a sense the acolytes or satellites of Mithra, yet they also occur in large numbers as detached sculptures.
For example, they are found in couples as votive offerings in the usual subterranean sanctuaries. In the scene of the sacrifice they are portrayed as smaller than Mithra, but not disproportionately so, and they are always dressed exactly like him. For the most part they take no part in the sacrifice, but stand motionless as statues, gazing into space or absorbed in the contemplation of the flame of their torch. Sometimes, however, the torch-bearer who stands behind the bull grips the animal's tale below the bunch of ears of corn in which the tail terminates: the gestures seems to indicate that he is about to detach the bunch of ears from the tail. Two pairs of statues of these torch-bearers are accompanied by inscriptions, from which we learn that the one who held up his torch was called Cautes, and that the one who held down his torch was called Cautopates. Elsewhere the same names have been found on inscribed pairs of pedestals, though the statues which stood on the pedestals are lost. The addition of the words "deus" ("god") to the names in some of the inscriptions proves that both Cautes and Cautopates were regarded as divine.
The meaning and etymology of these two barbarous names are uncertain, attempts to derive them from the Persian appear to have hitherto failed; but from some of the inscriptions in which they occur it seems indubitable that both names are merely epithets of Mithra himself. One of these inscriptions reads, "d(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae) Cautopati," that is, "To the Unconquered god Mithra Cautopates," and a certain number of dedications ought to be read similarly. Another inscription runs, "deo M(ithrae) C(autopati) S(oli) i(nvicto)," that is, "To the god Mithra Cautopates, the Unconquered Sun." Hence it would seem that in the great scene of the sacrifice of the bull, which occurs so often in Mithraic art, Mithra is represented thrice over. Now we are told by the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite that the Magians celebrated a festival of the Triple Mithra; and this statement, which has been much discussed, is illustrated by the monuments in question, which represent Mithra in three distinct forms, namely, the central figure of Mithra slaying the bull, flanked by two torch-bearers Cautes and Cautopates. Hence apparently we are driven to conclude that the sculptor meant to portray a triune god or a single deity at three different moments of his existence.
This Mithraic trinity has nothing to correspond to it in the religion of Zoroaster, but it may well be of Babylonian origin. Now according to Semitic astrology Mithra is a solar god; hence the two torch-bearers must also be the Sun, but they must represent him under different aspects or at different moments of his course. Perhaps the two youths stand for the brightening or the fading glow of the morning or evening twilight, while the god stabbing the bull between them may represent the splendour of noon. Long ago the learned French antiquary Montfaucon interpreted the three figures of these reliefs as the rising sun, the mid-day sun, and the setting sun. This would explain why in many reliefs the figure of Cautes, who holds up his torch, is accompanied by a cock, the herald of the dawn. So in Greek mythology the cock was regarded as the herald of the Sun and was accounted sacred to him; and Plutarch speaks of an image of Apollo holding a cock in his hand, which he naturally interprets as a symbol of the dawn and sunrise. Similarly in two Mithraic monuments the torch-bearer who holds up his torch in one hand supports a cock on the other. Hence we infer that this youth, named Cautes, was regarded as an emblem of the rising sun, and we may suppose that in the daily liturgy Cautes was invoked at sunrise, the bull-slaying god at noon, and Cautopates at sunset.
A more recondite theory would explain the two torch-bearers as symbols of the vernal and the autumnal sun respectively, the one waxing and the other waning in power and splendour. In favour of this interpretation it is pointed out that Cautes and Cautopates are sometimes represented holding in their hands, the one the head of a bull, and the other a scorpion; or a bull is seen browsing or resting beside Cautes, while a scorpion crawls at the feet of Cautopates. Now at a very remote date the Bull and the Scorpion were the signs of the zodiac which the sun occupied at the vernal and the autumnal equinoxes respectively, although in classical times, as a consequence of the precession of the equinoxes, the sun had long retrograded to the signs of the Ram and the Balance. It is tempting to conjecture that the traditional emblems of the constellations which once marked the beginning of spring and the beginning of autumn were transmitted from Chaldea to the west and preserved in the symbolism of the mysteries long after they had ceased to correspond with the facts of astronomy.
Be that as it may, we may be fairly certain as to the general significance of the two torch-bearers in Mithraic art. The one who lifts his torch is a personification either of the matutinal or of the vernal sun which mounts higher and higher in the sky and by its growing light and strength imparts fertility to the earth. The other who depresses his torch personifies the declining sun, whether the great luminary appears to haste at evening to his setting, or to sink day by day lower and lower in the autumnal and wintry sky.
Far more obscure and difficult to interpret is the scene of the sacrifice of the bull, which, as we have seen, occupies the central place in Mithraic art, as the sacrifice itself doubtless formed the supreme act in the Mithraic religion. In the crypts, which constituted the Mithraic temples, a sculptured group representing Mithra in the act of slaying the bull was regularly placed at the far end, facing the entrance, in a position corresponding to that which is occupied by the altar in Christian churches. Not only so, but reduced copies of the group were placed, like crucifixes with Christians, in domestic oratories and no doubt in the private apartments of the faithful. The number of reproductions of it which have come down to us is enormous, comparable to the number of crucifixes which would be found in the ruins of Europe by the hordes of infidel and iconoclastic invaders which may one day lay the whole fabric of western civilization in the dust.
A possible clue to the meaning of the mysterious sacrifice is furnished by certain curious details of the sculptures which represent it. On almost all the monuments the tail of the dying bull ends in a bunch of ears of corn, and on the most ancient of the Italian monuments three ears of corn are distinctly represented issuing instead of blood from the wound in the bull's side. The inference seems inevitable that the bull was supposed to contain in itself certain powers of vegetable fertility, which were liberated by its death.
Now according to the ancient Avestan system of cosmogony the primeval ox, created by the Supreme God Ahura Mazda, contained in itself the seeds of all plants and of all animals except man; it was slain by the evil demon Ahriman, but in its death it gave birth to the whole vegetable and animal creation, always with the exception of the human species, which was supposed to have had a different origin. Thus in the Bundahish, an ancient Pahlavi work on cosmology, mythology, and legendary history, we read:
On the nature of the five classes of animals it says in revelation that, when the primeval ox passed away, there where the marrow came out grain grew up of fifty and five species, and twelve species of medicinal plants grew; as it says that out of the marrow is every separate creature, every single thing whose lodgment is in the marrow. From the horns arose peas, from the nose the leek, from the blood the grape-vine from which they make wine -- on this account wine abounds with blood -- from the lungs the rue-like herbs, from the middle of the heart thyme for keeping away stench, and every one of the others as revealed in the Avesta. The seed of the ox was carried up to the moon station; there it was thoroughly purified, and produced the manifold species of animals. First, two oxen, one male and one female, and, afterwards, one pair of every single species was let go into the earth.Again, in another passage of the same treatise we read:
As it (the primeval ox) passed away, owing to the vegetable principle proceeding from every limb of the ox, fifty and five species of grain and twelve species of medicinal plants grew forth from the earth, and their splendour and strength were the seminal energy of the ox. Delivered to the moon station, that seed was thoroughly purified by the light of the moon, fully prepared in every way, and produced life in a body. Thence arose two oxen, one male and one female; and, afterwards, two hundred and eighty-two species of each kind became manifest upon the earth.Hence it seems highly probable that the Mithraic sculpture of the sacrifice of the bull represents the slaughter of the primeval ox, which in dying produced from the various parts of its body the whole vegetable and animal creation, always with the exception of mankind. We can now understand why, in the Mithraic group of the slaughter of the bull, the animal is always represented fallen with its head to the right, never to the left. The reason is given in the Bundahish, which tells us that "when the primeval ox passed away it fell to the right hand." Thus we may fairly conclude that in the belief of the Mithraic devotees the slaughter of the primeval ox was a creative act to which plants and animals alike owed their origin. We can therefore understand why the priests should have transferred that beneficent, though painful, act from Ahriman, the evil spirit, to Mithra, the good and beneficent god. In this way Mithra apparently came to be deemed the creator and source of life, as indeed he is described in a passage of Porphyry. Thus the sad and solemn scene which always met the eyes of Mithraic worshippers in the apse at the far end of their temples commemorated the consummation of the great sacrifice which in ages gone by had given life and fertility to the world.
But perhaps the sight of the tragic group in the religious gloom of the vaulted temple awakened in the minds of the worshippers other thoughts which moved them still more deeply. For it is possible, we are told, that in the Mithraic religion the cosmogonic myths were correlated with the ideas entertained by the Magians as to the end of the world. In fact, the two sets of beliefs present a resemblance which is naturally explained by the identity of their origin, if we suppose that both narratives are variants of a single primitive theme.
We know, both from Greek writers and the Mazdean scriptures, that the ancient Persians believed in a resurrection of the dead at the end of this present world. Thus the Greek historian Theopompus recorded that according to the Magians men would come to life again and be immortal. According to Aeneas of Gaza, in his treatise on the immortality of the soul, "Zoroaster predicts that a time will come in which there will be a resurrection of all the dead." The statements of these Greek writers are amply confirmed by the sacred books of the ancient Persian religion, which explicitly teach the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, good and bad alike, at the end of the present dispensation. They predict that in these last days there will rise a Redeemer or Saviour named Soshyans or Saoshyant, who will be the agent of the resurrection. He it is, we are told, "who makes the evil spirit impotent, and causes the resurrection and future existence." In the task of bringing the dead to life the Redeemer will be assisted by fifteen men and fifteen damsels, and their labours will last for seven and fifty years.
Now the way in which they will bring about the resurrection is this. They will slay an ox called Hadhayos, and from the fat of that ox and the sacred white "hom" or "haoma" (the equivalent of the Sanscrit "soma") they will prepare ambrosia ("hush"), and they will give it to all the men, and all men will drink of it and become immortal forever and ever. Then will all men stand up, the righteous and the wicked alike. Every human creature will arise, each on the spot where he died. The souls of the dead will resume their former bodies and they will gather in one place, and they will know those whom they knew formerly in life. They will say, "This is my father, and this is mother, and this is my brother, and this is my wife, and these are some other of my nearest relations." They will come together with the greatest affection, father and son and brother and friend, and they will ask one another, saying, "Where hast thou been these many years? and what was the judgment upon thy soul? hast thou been righteous or wicked?" And all will join with one voice and praise aloud the Lord God Almighty (Ahura Mazda) and the archangels. There in that assembly, which no man can number, all men will stand together, and every man will see his own good deeds and his own evil deeds, and in that assembly a wicked man will be as plain to see as a white sheep among black. In that day the wicked man who was a friend of a righteous man will make his moan, saying, "Why, when he was in the world, did he not make me acquainted with the good deeds which he practised himself?" Afterwards they will separate the righteous from the wicked, and the righteous will be carried up to heaven, but the wicked will be cast down into hell. For at the bidding of the Lord God Almighty (Ahura Mazda), the Redeemer and his assistants will give to every man the reward and recompense of his deeds.
Hence it would seem that Mithra succeeded to the place which in the old Persian religion had been occupied by Soshyans or Saoshyant, the Redeemer or Saviour. Thus in the belief of his worshippers "the sacrifice of the divine bull was in truth the great event in the history of the world, the event which stands alike at the beginning of the ages and at the consummation of time, the event which is the source at once of the earthly life and of the life eternal. We can therefore understand why among all the sacred imagery of the mysteries the place of honour was reserved for the representation of this supreme sacrifice, and why always and everywhere it was exposed in the apse of the temples to the adoration of the worshippers." [F. Cumont, "Textes et Monuments," i. 188.] On the minds of worshippers, seated in the religious gloom of the subterranean temple, the mournful scene of the slaughter of the bull, dimly discerned at the far end of the sanctuary, was doubtless well fitted to impress solemn thoughts, not only of the great sacrifice which in days long gone by had been the source of life on earth, but also of that other great sacrifice, still to come, on which depended all their hopes of a blissful immortality.
A rite which presents a superficial resemblance to the sacrifice of the bull in the Mithraic religion was the ceremony known as a "taurobolium." This strange sacrament consisted essentially in a baptism or bath of bull's blood, which was believed to wash away sin, and from which the devotee was supposed to emerge born again to eternal life. Crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, the candidates for the new birth descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead plastered with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there slaughtered with a sacred spear. Its hot reeking blood poured through the grating on the worshipper in the pit, who received it with devout eagerness on every part of his person and garments, till at last he emerged gory from head to foot, and received the homage, nay, the adoration, of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull. It does not appear that this baptism of blood ever formed part of the regular Mithraic ritual. The many inscriptions which mention it, with the exception of one which appears to be forged, explicitly refer the rite to the worship of the Great Mother and Attis.
Yet worshippers of Mithra are known to have sometimes submitted to the repulsive rite; for we possess the dedication of an altar to the Mother of the Gods and Attis by a certain Sextilius Agesilaus Aedesius, who describes himself as Father of Fathers in the religion of the Unconquered Sun-god Mithra, and at the same time claims to have been "born again to eternal life by the sacrifices of a bull and a ram." But the Father of Fathers ranked as the highest dignitary, a sort of little pope, in the Mithraic hierarchy; accordingly we can hardly doubt that the example set by so exalted a prelate was often followed by the inferior clergy. In fact, we hear of another Father of Fathers who boasted, with honest pride, that not only he himself but his wife also, with whom he lived for forty years, had been washed in the blood of the bull.
Another high dignitary of the Mithraic church was the Father of the Sacred Rites, though presumably he ranked below the supreme pontiff, the Father of Fathers. Two of these Fathers of Sacred Rites similarly bragged of having been regenerated by the application of bull's blood. Again, one of the inferior clergy, a simple Father and Sacred Herald of the Unconquered Sun-god Mithra, records that he too had partaken of the sacrament of the bull. This last prelate would seem to have mixed up his religions in a very liberal spirit, for, apart from the preferments which he held in the Mithraic communion, he informs us that he was priest of Isis, hierophant of Hecate, and arch-cowkeeper of the god Liber, who apparently laid himself out for cattle-breeding. And far from being ashamed of having been drenched with the blood of the slaughtered bull, this reverend pluralist prayed that he might live to repeat the performance twenty years later; for though in theory the blood was supposed to regenerate the votary forever, it seems that in practice its saving efficacy could not safely be trusted to last longer than twenty years at the most, after which the sacrament had to be repeated. Thus we may conclude that the worshippers of Mithra were often glad to practise a barbarous rite which, though it formed no part of their own religious service, yet served to remind them of that supreme sacrifice to which they attached the deepest importance as being nothing less than the great central fact in the history of the world.
The striking similarities which may be traced in certain points between Mithraism and Christianity were clearly perceived by the Christian Fathers; indeed we are indebted to their writings for our knowledge of some of the parallels which otherwise might have been forgotten. In accordance with their general theory of the world, they explained the resemblances as wiles of the devil, who sought to beguile poor souls by a spurious imitation of the true faith. Thus Justin Martyr tells us that in the mysteries of Mithra the evil spirits mimicked the eucharist by setting before the initiates a loaf of bread and a cup of water with certain forms of words.
But the Father who appears to have possessed the most intimate knowledge of Satan and the greatest skill in unmasking him under all his disguises, was Tertullian, and to his ruthless exposure of the great Enemy of Mankind we are indebted for certain particulars which, but for his scathing denunciation, might long have been consigned to the peaceful limbo of oblivion. Thus in his essay on "The Soldier's Crown" he reveals some points in the curious ritual observed when a Mithraic votary was promoted to the rank of soldier in the sacred hierarchy, for Mithraism had its Salvation Army. The ceremony took place in one of the crypts which formed the regular Mithraic temples. There a crown was offered to the candidate on the point of a sword, and a pretence was made of placing it on his head; but he was instructed to wave it aside and to say that his crown was Mithra. Thus was his constancy put to the proof, and he was counted a true soldier of Mithra if he cast down the crown and said that his crown was his god.
This, according to Tertullian, was a diabolic counterfeit of the conduct of a true Christian who should learn to despise the glories of this frail fleeting world in the prospect of a better world that will last forever. "What hast thou to do," asks the Father in a glow of religious emotion, "what hast thou to do with flowers that fade? Thou hast a flower from the rod of Jesse, a flower on which hath rested the whole grace of the Holy Spirit, a flower incorruptible, unfading, eternal." He reminds the Christian soldier of the Spirit's promise: "Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life"; and he recalls the boast of the great Apostle of the Gentiles uttered when the time of his departure was at hand: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing."
Further, we learn from Tertullian that among the Mithraic rites there was a species of baptism at which remission of sins was promised to the initiate at the baptismal font. This also, according to Tertullian, was a device of Satan, whose cue it is to invert the truth by aping the holy sacraments in the mysteries of idols. In further proof of the craft and subtlety of the devil Tertullian adds: "And if I remember aright, Mithra marks his soldiers on their foreheads: he celebrates the offering of bread: he enacts a parody of the resurrection; and he redeems the crown at the point of the sword. Nay more, he enacts that his high priest shall marry but once, and he has his virgins and celibates." Here "the offering of bread" obviously refers to the same sacrament of bread and water which Justin Martyr stigmatizes as a diabolic imitation of the eucharist. The virgins and celibates of Mithra appear to have anticipated the nuns and monks of Christianity. It is not so certain what "the parody of the resurrection" alludes to. But from the words which Lampridius uses in describing the profanation of the mysteries by Commodus, it seems clearly to follow that the death of a man by violence was dramatically represented in the mysteries. For the historian says that Commodus "polluted the Mithraic rites with real homicide, whereas the custom in them is only to say or to pretend something that creates an appearance of fright."
Again, Zacharias the Scholiast, in a life of the Patriarch Severus of Antioch, which must have been written about 514 A.D., asks, "Why in the mysteries of the Sun do the pretended gods reveal themselves to the initiates only at the moment when the priest produces a sword stained with the blood of a man who has died by violence? It is because they only consent to impart their revelations when they see a man violently put to death by their machinations." The mysteries of the Sun here referred to are probably those of Mithra, but the writer appears to be mistaken in supposing that human sacrifices ever formed part of the Mithraic ritual. All that we can safely infer from his testimony, confirmed by that of Lampridius, is that one of the scenes acted in the mysteries was the pretended killing of a man, and that a bloody sword was produced in proof that the slaughter had actually been perpetrated. We may conjecture that the supposed dead man was afterwards brought to life, and that this was the parody of the resurrection which Tertullian denounced as a device of the devil.
If the Mithraic mysteries were indeed a Satanic copy of a divine original, we are driven to conclude that Christianity took a leaf out of the devil's book when it fixed the birth of the Saviour on the twenty-fifth of December; for there can be no doubt that the day in question was celebrated as the birthday of the Sun by the heathen before the Church, by an afterthought, arbitrarily transferred the Nativity of its Founder from the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December. From the calendar of Philocalus, which was drawn up at Rome about 354 A.D., we learn that the twenty-fifth of December was celebrated as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun by games in the circus. These games are mentioned by the Emperor Julian, who tells us that they were performed with great magnificence in honour of the Unconquered Sun immediately after the end of the Saturnalia in December. The motives which induced the ecclesiastical authorities to transfer the festival of Christmas from the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December are explained with great frankness by a Syrian scholiast on Bar Salibi. He says:
The reason why the fathers transferred the celebration of the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December was this. It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivals the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth of January. Accordingly, along with this custom, the practice has prevailed of kindling fires until the sixth.The custom of holding a festival of the Sun on the twenty-fifth of December persisted in Syria among the pagans down at least to the first half of the sixth century, for a Syriac writer of that period, Thomas of Edessa, in a treatise on the Nativity of Christ, informs us that at the winter solstice "the heathen, the worshippers of the elements, to this day everywhere celebrate annually a great festival, for the reason that then the sun begins to conquer and to extend his kingdom." But the pious writer adds that, though the power of the Sun waxes from that day, it will afterwards wane again; whereas, "Holy Church celebrates the festival of the Nativity of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who begins to conquer error and Satan, and will never wane." This opposition between the natural Sun of the heathen and the metaphorical Sun of Righteousness of the Christians is a rhetorical commonplace of ecclesiastical writers, who make use of it particularly with reference to the Nativity. The pagan origin of Christmas is plainly hinted at, if not exactly admitted by St. Augustine in a sermon wherein he exorts his Christian brethren not to solemnize that day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of Him who made the sun. Similarly Leo the Great rebuked the pestilent belief of those who thought that Christmas was to be observed for the sake of the birth of the new sun, as it was called, and not for the sake of the Nativity of Christ.
The last stand for the worship of the Sun in antiquity was made by the Emperor Julian. In a rhapsody addressed to the orb of day, the grave and philosophic emperor professes himself a follower of King Sun. He declares that the Sun is the common Father of all men, since he begat us and feeds us and gives us all good things; there is no single blessing in our lives which we do not receive from him alone, or at the hand of the other gods perfected by him. And Julian concludes his enthusiastic panegyric with a prayer that the Sun, the King of the Universe, would be gracious to him, granting him, as a reward for his pious zeal, a virtuous life and more perfect wisdom, and in due time an easy and peaceful departure from this life, that he might ascend to his God in heaven, there to dwell with him for ever. However the deity to whom he prayed may have granted him a virtuous life, he withheld from his worshipper the boon of an easy and peaceful end. It was in the press of battle that this last imperial votary of the Sun received his mortal wound and met a most painful death with the fortitude of a hero and the serenity of a saint. With him the sun of pagan and imperial Rome set not ingloriously.
From J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, 1911ff).