Archive for December, 2012

From my diary

I’ve spent some time working on the security of the Mithras site.  This now seems to be working, but we will see.  On Saturday I logged out and made sure that every page had some kind of security check.  No vandalism occurred yesterday, therefore.  Today I added a login page and password.

The vandal made two more attempts to edit today, one from an IP address supposedly in Sweden, the other using an IP address supposedly in Germany.  Clearly the IP addresses have been spoofed, and tell us nothing, therefore.

I’ve now started to think once more about how best to display the CIMRM data for monuments, inscriptions, etc.  Probably the thing to do is to experiment with one or two downloadable solutions, and see if these can be adapted.  I have a dreadful cold, however, so I may just go back to bed!

Vandalism already at the Mithras pages!

I was doing a little work on the scripts, and happened to open an obsolete page on the site.  To my horror I found that it had been vandalised, with crummy html for some car insurance.  The vandal had edited it a couple of times, first inserting his muck into a footnote, and then, growing bolder, erasing all the content and pasting in his rubbish.  The IP address responsible was from the United Arab Emirates.

I have it all backed up, so nothing was lost and I have reverted the changes.  What worries me, tho, is how he managed to edit it at all.  Only I have access, as far as I know.  He did edit it through the front-end system, as there are traces in the logs.

It’s a sad change from the last time I made pages available online for online editing.  Back in 2006, people just didn’t do this kind of thing.  Now every two-bit criminal is online.  I shall have to implement some better form of security, and waste useful time on so doing.

How I curse the selfish morons who hire nobodies in places like the UAE to damage the interests of everyone else!

Wonder how the swine found his way in.  It’s not particularly secure, but it shouldn’t be possible for anyone else to edit.

Life at the court of Lysimachus

Athenaeus has preserved a jest from the court of Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals:

King Lysimachus, who was somewhat stingy, once put a wooden scorpion into the dress of a parasite, for the purpose of frightening him. “I will frighten you, sir,” he said; “give me … two hundred pounds!”

– Athenaeus, book vi. p. 246. E.

The rewards of the flatterer may be considerable, but the service is grim all the same.

Unbinding the Codex Alexandrinus to photograph it

A marvellous post at the British Library manuscripts blog.  It begins with the encouraging statement:

The British Library is committed to making available online as many of its medieval manuscripts as possible.

And then it goes on to discuss how the ancient Codex Alexandrinus of the bible, currently bound in 4 volumes, had to be taken apart to be photographed.  Nor is this surprising, as anyone who has handled the British Library’s manuscripts will know.  The bindings are frequently like iron.

In the case of Codex Alexandrinus, the opening of the manuscript was heavily compromised by the last re-binding, which jeopardised our ability to photograph properly each page in its entirety. Bound books are very complex structures: they are made of many different materials and the interaction between the writing support and the mechanics of the sewing structure is vital to their survival. Unfortunately, it had been the practice in recent centuries to attach too-heavy spine linings (made of layers of stiff paper and weak fabric) to the back of book blocks, which in many cases has only served to compromise their opening. This was found to be the case when Codex Alexandrinus was examined prior to digitisation.

The first requirement was to reach the back of the book block, which entailed removal of the cover. Next, the parchment book block was gently cleaned by removing the different layers of unsuitable materials, releasing the pressure on the folds of individual sections, and improving considerably the opening of the manuscript. A new reinforcement made of archival suitable materials was then placed onto the spine to support the opening of the book, and to increase the strength of the connection between the book block and the cover. Finally, the cover was re-adhered to this volume of Codex Alexandrinus. By doing this, the manuscript could be opened sufficiently to image its pages.

What is encouraging is that the library had the wisdom to do this.  In ancient times manuscript bindings were detachable.  If the modern bindings are unserviceable, and not of historical importance, then there is no reason not to adjust them.

Ephraim Syrus, Hymns 23 and 24 against heresies now online in English

Adam McCollum has kindly translated for us hymns 23 and 24 from the collection of Hymns against heresies by Ephraim Syrus, and I have placed them in the public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.

I’ve uploaded the PDF and RTF files to

I will do an HTML version when I get to it.

Update on the Rollston saga

I learn from Paleojudaica that epigraphist Christopher Rollston has resigned from his post at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.  In this he has acted quite properly; the views he espoused cannot be compatible with the post he held.

Instead he has accepted a post at George Washington University.  When I opened the website for this institution, I was confronted with a large picture of a demonstration (poster: “four more years” and an Obama campaign logo) and the text, “At GW, politics is not a spectator sport”.  I fear that it must be very politically correct, and pretty intolerant of any deviation from orthodoxy. But of course everyone must earn a living, and GWU has done rightly to offer him a post.

Let us wish Dr Rollston all the best at what must be a more congenial, if less tolerant, location.  In particular he states:

During my time at George Washington University, I will also be completing my monograph (tentatively) entitled “Forging History: A History of Epigraphic Forgeries from Antiquity to the Modern Period,” …

Such a work should be of wide interest!

From my diary

I’ve continued to add a few photographs of Mithraic monuments, with their entry in the CIMRM, to the new Mithras site, The Roman cult of Mithras.  It’s become increasingly clear that the approach that I have been following with these is not quite right.  What I have at the moment is one web-page per monument.

You have to attempt some things before you really understand what you’re trying to do.  It’s become clear to me, for instance, that much of what I do when I add a photograph is repetitive, and the process of generating the page for the CIMRM entry is one that could be automated, and therefore should be.  I need to write a wizard to do the uploads, much like that in Wikimedia Commons, but targeted at my special process.  That will help.

But one page per monument doesn’t work.  The value of having this material is the ability to skim over it easily, to get an overview, to understand common features between dozens of images.  With a click per image, and a couple of thousand entries, this isn’t going to work.

Obviously I need some kind of image gallery, like that in Wikimedia Commons, or Google Images.  I was thinking of generating a thumbnail (using ImageMagick) as part of the upload wizard, and then using the wizard, not only to create the web page, but also to add an entry to the gallery.  That still seems like a good idea.

But it occurred to me just now … image gallery scripts must already exist.  Can’t I adapt one somehow?  It’s worth looking into.  A task for tomorrow, perhaps.

The material must be accessible.  We see so many academic sites where it is quite clear that the designer never stopped for a moment, imagined what a user might want to do on the site, and then reflected on how to make that easiest to do.  I don’t want to do this myself.

One other thing that I need to fix on the site.  I’ve got to make it easier to add Greek text!

BBC Radio 4 on Mithras

A correspondent writes that the BBC Radio 4 has devoted 45 minutes to a discussion of the cult of Mithras.  You can find the programme here.  It was broadcast on Thursday 27 December 2012, as part of the series In our time, presented by Melvyn Bragg.

The Cult of Mithras

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the cult of Mithras, a mystery religion that existed in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD. Also known as the Mysteries of Mithras, its origins are uncertain. Academics have suggested a link with the ancient Vedic god Mitra and the Iranian Zoroastrian deity Mithra, but the extent and nature of the connection is a matter of controversy.

Followers of Mithras are thought to have taken part in various rituals, most notably communal meals and a complex seven-stage initiation system. Typical depictions of Mithras show him being born from a rock, enjoying food with the sun god Sol and stabbing a bull. Mithraic places of worship have been found throughout the Roman world, including an impressive example in London. However, Mithraism went into decline in the 4th century AD with the rise of Christianity and eventually completely disappeared. In recent decades, many aspects of the cult have provoked debate, especially as there are no written accounts by its members. As a result, archaeology has been of great importance in the study of Mithraism and has provided new insights into the religion and its adherents.


Greg Woolf, Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews

Almut Hintze, Zartoshty Professor of Zoroastrianism at SOAS, University of London

John North, Acting Director of the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.

Producer: Victoria Brignell.


Jaime Alvar, ‘Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras’ (Brill, 2008)

Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, ‘Religions of Rome’ vol 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Roger Beck, ‘The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun’ (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Roger Beck, ‘Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works with New Essays’ (Ashgate, 2004)

M. Boyce and F. Grenet, ‘A History of Zoroastrianism’ vol 3 (Brill, 1991)

Manfred Clauss, ‘The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries’ (Edinburgh University Press, 2000)

Franz Cumont, ‘The Mysteries of Mithra’ (1st 1903, Forgotten Books, 2012)

Richard Gordon, ‘Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World: Studies in Mithraism and Religious Art’ (Variorum, 1996)

John Hinnells, ‘Persian Mythology’ (P. Bedrick Books, 1985)

J. Rupke (ed.), ‘A Companion to Roman Religion’ (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) which includes R. L. Gordon, ‘Institutionalised Religious Options: Mithraism’

Robert Turcan, ‘The Cults of the Roman Empire’ (Wiley-Blackwell, 1997)

I don’t have 45 minutes to spare in order to listen to it, but the reading list suggests that the research has been done properly.

The programme can be downloaded as an MP3, and will be available until next Christmas, apparently.

From my diary

It’s remarkable how much one can achieve in a few dedicated days.  I’ve managed to get my new Mithras site up and functional, although far from complete.  It may be found here.

I don’t think that there is very much more to do to the PHP scripts, which is nice.  The content needs to be reviewed, checked, and worked over, but that can happen in slow time.

One of the drivers for the new site was that I want to make use of all the photographs of statues of Mithras (etc) that are online.  The printed literature tends to have few photographs, and all of those black and white.  But there are very many colour images of statues, inscriptions, frescos, and so on, online.  These convey information … if, if, we know what we are looking at, and can get an overview of more than one of them.

The first thing that might be done is to link as many as possible to their entry in Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentum Religionis Mithriacae.  These descriptions are very useful, in that they explain much of what we are looking at.  Without this information, the images by themselves are little more than decoration.

I’ve created a few pages in the new site for individual images, but I’m not happy with how that is going.  I’m looking at the moment at how Wikimedia Commons handles images, and galleries of images.  This will require some thought, some design and some special scripting.  Since I don’t quite know what I am trying to achieve, I will put that to one side this evening.

Instead I shall review translations of Ephraim the Syrian’s Hymns against Heresies, nos. 23 and 24.  Adam McCollum has sent these in, and I need to read over them for glitches of any sort.  Once I am sure that they are complete, I will post them online and announce them.

Mithras the free-mason?

Yesterday I showed the new Mithras pages to a correspondent.  He commented that a great deal of what we know about Mithras corresponds to what we know about Free-masonry.  An all-male group that got together in a closed room for secret rituals, had grades of initiation and titles, with a special handshake … well, the parallels have not escaped the lunatic fringe, as an article from 1923 shows.[1]

We hear a great deal online from the ignorant about supposed parallels with Christianity.  Yet the parallels, if such they are, with Masonic practises seem much closer.  Yet there is no actual link.

I suppose that it shows the weakness of any “parallels” argument, that it tends to give false positives.  Human beings tend to carry out the same kinds of activities in many lands, ages and cultures.  That a group of men have a strange handshake, as a mark of membership, is not enough to indicate connection, or derivation; neither it nor a great many trivial links of the same kind.

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