Mithras: how scholarship really should be done

John R. Hinnells begins his paper on Cautes and Cautopates[1] by articulating precisely what he is going to do and how he is going to do it.   It’s a massive step forward from the random theorising of the Cumont era.

Instead of starting with a mess of factoids and assembling them into a theory, Hinnells is determined to start with cold, hard, facts.  He’s not going to waste time on theories about what things might mean — too often presented as facts themselves —  but instead intends to catalogue precisely what is actually known.

Just listen to this!

This study is an attempt to apply to the study of Cautes and Cautopates principles of method in the interpretation of Mithraic iconography for which I have argued previously. I wrote: ‘the proper place to begin a study of Mithraism is with the Roman material, then and only then may one begin to consider which, if any, are the appropriate traditions with which to compare one’s data‘ (1975b: 343). Studies of Mithraism have generally proceeded from the basis of external parallels. In the case of the torchbearers, attention has been given to the search for the Iranian origins of their names. That search is ignored in this article in a deliberate attempt to analyse the Mithraic iconography with as few presuppositions as possible. To that end all previous studies of the iconography are left out of consideration. The article has a clearly defined and limited aim — to collect and analyse the Roman Mithraic iconography of the torchbearers. A subsequent article will attempt to interpret that inconography and will consider the various theories which have been advanced. Here the only subject of discussion is the iconography of the monuments.

Emphasis mine.

I have a feeling that those words could usefully appear on the wall of any scholar tasked with analysing a subject based on scanty and confusing sources.   Any paper assembled on these principles cannot avoid being of permanent value.

Cumont’s work was excellent in its day.  But the analysis of the data was always subjective, and never resolved anything, and never provided a methodology by which anything could be further examined.

By contrast Hinnells shows the way in which scholarship had developed, and had devised methods to ensure objectivity.

Distinguishing between data and deduction, basing oneself conservatively on the data, and ignoring the woolliness of older and less careful scholarship in favour of precise, measurable facts … that is what scholarship means.  Any fool can write an essay that is really merely decorated with facts.

  1. [1] John R. Hinnells, The iconography of Cautes and Cautopates I: the data, Journal of Mithraic Studies 1 (1976), p.36-67 plus plates.

3 Responses to “Mithras: how scholarship really should be done”


  1. Geoff Carter

    Sadly, I can’t contribute much on the subject of Mithras, what I think know, I would have a problem referencing, and does not relate to primary sources.

    However, I am constantly finding myself in opposition to ‘scholarship’ in my own field. As an archaeologist I always address the data at the the most ‘primary’ level I can find, usually archaeological reports, where I am careful to distinguish between the evidence found and the conclusions drawn. ‘Scholarship’ too often revolves around the writing of other scholars rather than the evidence itself. As a result, scholarship takes on a inertia of it’s own and far greater significance than the evidence, and takes you into the area of ‘belief’ – which is often allowed to overrule more logical approaches. Too much scholarship is simply repeating and synthesizing the views of others creating and sustaining what is little more than well referenced myths.
    My favorite examples are the fires in the center of Celtic roundhouses, and the description of The Vallum as a boundary ditch, both ideas lying well beyond the nature of the evidence, and the latter with a history of scholarship and references dating back to the Venerable Bede.
    Thus, I love your last paragraph, and naturally see myself on the right side of that statement!

  2. Steve Perisho

    Roger: the plates fall within pp. 36-67 (I forget between which numbered pages, but fairly early), just in case you thought otherwise (above).

  3. Roger Pearse

    Ah, thank you — I had not spotted that.



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