Why Cumontian Mithras studies are dead

Like most people online, I first encountered references to Mithras in the kind of rather crude atheist polemic that goes, “Jesus is really Mithras! Har har!”.  A correspondent has written to me about this, and it turns out that he has been reading into the scholarly literature as I have.  An interesting paper by a late Cumontian, Geo Widengren, Reflections on the origin of the Mithraic mysteries, has come my way, and I spent some time yesterday reading this.

It’s becoming clear to me why the old Cumontian view has dropped out of favour.  It is, simply, insufficiently rigorous in its analysis and classification of sources.  Widengren mixes together a stew of references and sources, consisting of snippets of ancient texts, bits of Iranian literature, and even interviews with Caucasian peasants in the present day, in order to tell a narrative story.  But the weakness of this approach is evident — the story does not arise from a careful analysis of the data, but instead the data is stuck onto the story.

Widengren’s paper is quite interesting, but he is handicapped by this eclectic approach that all the Cumontians take.  It is, simply, confused and confusing, and dreadfully unsystematic.  I learn from it that the first query about the Cumontian approach, and the proposal for separation, came from a volume by S. Wikander, Etudes sur les mysteres de Mithras, I, Lund, 1951.  His theory involved a proposal that Mithres and Mithras were distinct deities, labelled as such in the sources, one Roman and one Iranian.  Widengren correctly indicates that the manuscripts do not support this, and indeed we would not expect it.  But it provoked thought, it seems.  It is, after all, much easier to analyse the material once you split it down into distinct areas, Iranian Mithra and Roman Mithras, and treat them as distinct but possibly related.  Then you can discuss with some precision all the material and the links.   This is not possible under the Cumontian approach.

It is still possible that Roman Mithras was derived somehow from Persian Mitra.  But I can see that there will be no going back to the rambling style of Cumont.  The way forward must be with fewer generalisations, and much more care and precision.

6 Responses to “Why Cumontian Mithras studies are dead”


  1. Jona

    In my view, the relation between Iranian Mithra and Roman Mithras in Cumontian Mithraism is essentially based on the relation between Jewish and Christian monotheism: a pretty strong continuity. As it seems to turn out, the debate is about weak or very weak Mithraic continuity.

    The interesting point is, in my view, that Cumont could only conceptualize the relation between the two Mithraic cults by using a model from another religion. This raises an interesting theoretical question: can we actually imagine things for which we do not have a model?

  2. Roger Pearse

    An interesting view, and perhaps correct. Hard to prove, unfortunately.

    Possibly, tho, our minds are simply wired to see connections. I have sometimes wondered, if Mithras had been called “Freddius”, whether anyone would have identified him with Mitra.

    Your second point is very valid, and, when our culture only allows certain ways of thinking about things, it makes it very hard for us to see that other ways may be quite natural.

  3. bjvl

    When analyzing connections between two religious figures, one of whom is Roman, we really cannot discard ancient Rome’s habit and tradition of syncretism. Rome had already displayed behaviours that indicated they freely co-opted or claimed the power inherent within a deity by welcoming it, in an acceptable Roman form, to The City.

  4. Maureen

    And of course, evidence indicates that probably plenty of people in ancient Rome were just as knowledgeable about foreign gods as a modern videogame — ie, not necessarily too worried about being authentic to the foreign customs, unless some bad omen obtruded and stopped them, or some charismatic leader or interesting story made it sound like a good idea to stick to the original. The sort of Roman who was interested in following “new religions” also was interested in stretching the gods like Play-Doh, as far as I can see.

    And if your Mithras dinner club doesn’t include any actual-factual Persians, there’s really nobody to criticize what you do.

  5. The difficulty of orientation: trying to learn about Isis at Roger Pearse

    [...] thinking about Mithras and Mithra, Roman and Persian.  Some of the comments on my recent post, Why Cumontian Mithras studies are dead, suggested that Roman syncretism could not be left out of account, and that any eastern cult that [...]

  6. Jona

    “if Mithras had been called “Freddius”, whether anyone would have identified him with Mitra”

    Very good point.