Wiki-nonsense – material about Mithras of very dubious standing

I have been looking at a section of the article at the new Mithras pages on the initiation process into the cult.  This section is copied from the Wikipedia Mithras article as it was at the start of 2011, before the article was deliberately poisoned.  But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it is sound.  I’ve been looking at some of the material, and getting ever more suspicious.

Elsewhere, as at Dura Europos, Mithraic graffiti survive giving membership lists, in which initiates of a Mithraeum are named with their Mithraic grades. At Virunum, the membership list or album sacratorum was maintained as an inscribed plaque, updated year by year as new members were initiated.  By cross-referencing these lists it is sometimes possible to track initiates from one Mithraeum to another; and also speculatively to identify Mithraic initiates with persons on other contemporary lists – such as military service rolls, of lists of devotees of non-Mithraic religious sanctuaries.

These are authoritative-sounding claims.  But … there isn’t a single reference for any of them.  Continuing…

Names of initiates are also found in the dedication inscriptions of altars and other cult objects.  Clauss noted in 1990 that overall, only about 14% of Mithriac names inscribed before 250 identify the initiates’ grade – and hence questioned that the traditional view that all initiates belonged to one of the seven grades. [=Manfred Clauss, “Die sieben Grade des Mithras-Kultes”, ZPE 82, 1990, p.183-194]

That’s the only reference.  The paragraph continues:

Clauss argues that the grades represented a distinct class of priests, sacerdotes.  Gordon maintains the former theory of Merkelbach and others, especially noting such examples as Dura where all names are associated with a Mithraic grade.  Some scholars maintain that practice may have differed over time, or from one Mithraea to another.

And there it ends, again without a reference.

Now doesn’t that all sound authoritative?  It does, even to someone like myself who has read a lot of Mithras material.  But … I have been looking at this stuff, and getting less and less happy.

Firstly, Clauss’ article from the ZPE is actually accessible online here, although the Wikipedia article quietly fails to link to it.   Now German is not one of my better languages, but even I can find the numeral “14 %” in a PDF file.  And it occurs, not as above, but in this context:

Umgekehrt stammen aus den Provinzen, die 66% des Gesamtmaterials der Namen beisteuern, lediglich 29% der Inhaber von Graden. Besonders kraß ist das Mißverhältnis in den Donauprovinzen, aus denen über 43% aller Kult-Anhänger bekannt sind, aber nicht einmal 14% der in die Grade Eingeweihten.

Conversely from the provinces, which account for 66% of the total material with names, come only 29% of the holders of grades of initiation.  The disproportion is particularly glaring in the Danube provinces, from which around 43% of all cult followers are known, but less than 14% of the known initiates.

That’s not what Wikipedia says.  In fact a few pages further on I find this summary of the epigraphic evidence:

Damit ergibt die Auswertung des epigraphischen Materials folgendes Bild: Innerhalb der Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes gab es zwei Gruppierungen. Die überwiegende Mehrzahl der Mitglieder begnügte sich mit einer Einweihung in den Kult, engagierte sich darüber hinaus finanziell an dem Bau der Heiligtümer wie an ihrer Ausgestaltung durch Altäre, Reliefs und Statuen. Wie bei vielen uns unbekannten Kult-Anhängern werden sie sich auch an der Beschaffung der Verbrauchsmaterialien wie Kerzen, Weihrauch, Pinienzapfen und vor allem an den Lebensmitteln für die Kultmahle beteiligt haben.

Von dieser großen Gruppe läßt sich eine Minderheit abheben. Sie brachte das Engagement auf, sich der sicherlich langwierigen Prozedur der stufenweisen Initiation in die sieben Grade zu unterziehen, um dann die Opfer, den Kultvollzug und die Deutung der Kultlegende durchführen zu können. Dieses Engagement war vor allem dort vorhanden, wo der Mithras-Kult länger verankert war, also in Rom und Italien.

Thus the evaluation of the epigraphic material gives us the following picture: Within the followers of Mithras cult, there were two groups. The vast majority of the members were content with an initiation into the cult, were involved also in funding the construction of sanctuaries and their design, with altars, statues and reliefs. Like many cult followers unknown to us, they were also involved in the procurement of supplies such as candles, incense, pine cones and especially the food for the cult feast.

Out of this large group a minority sought elevation. They had the commitment to undergo the certainly lengthy procedure of the gradual initiation into seven grades, in order to perform the sacrifice, the cult implementation and interpretation of the cult legend. This commitment mainly existed where the Mithras cult was longer established, so in Rome and Italy.

There’s nothing in there about cult members who were not initiates.  Am I blind?  Or is this material really complete rubbish?

Secondly, what’s this about an album sacratorum at Virunum?  I’ve looked at the Virunum entries in the CIMRM.  There’s no such item there.  The only use of the term, indeed, is CIMRM 325, a marble tablet from Portus in Italy, reprinted from the CIL and obviously long lost.  This does indeed give a list of names, and mentions a “pater” and a “leo” (and that’s all).

What about Dura Europos?  I find a graffito in CIMRM 54, which gives names.  But the CIMRM entry doesn’t describe it in these terms.  It reads: “On behalf of the victory of our Imperial Lord, NAMA THEO MITHRAI, NAMA to the fathers Libeianos and Theodorus, NAMA also to Marinus the PETITOR, NAMA to all the SYNDEXIOI in the presence of the god.”[1]  Is that what most of us would understand from the Wikipedia article?

I don’t know who wrote this stuff, why, or when.  Yet, if it fails these simple tests of verification, this very authoritative-looking stuff has to be considered as rubbish.  All that stuff about cross-referencing lists of members … erm, how?  What lists?

Wikipedia has no mechanism to detect rubbish of this sort.  Nor can such a mechanism be devised.  It is only possible to fix this, through sheer human effort.  It is likely, therefore, that much of the material in the site is similarly dubious, and impossible to detect.  I certainly never was moved to check any of this, in the two years that I worked on that article.  The troll who currently owns it wouldn’t dream of doing such a task as verifying anything unless he disagreed with it.  So … whoever could do so?

  1. [1] Leroy A. Campbell, Mithraic iconography and ideology, Brill, 1969.  He adds, “Here Mithras is still Theos Mithras, as on the Zenobios relief of A. D. 170/171 (40*), and not Helios Mithras.”

3 thoughts on “Wiki-nonsense – material about Mithras of very dubious standing”

  1. Hello Roger,
    I’m just rattling off an article about Mithraism for “Ancient Warfare” magazine, so I’ve been using your handy list of CIMRM entries (to save me hogging the library copy).
    I just came across this post today. As you may, by now, have discovered, there is indeed an album from Virunum, discovered in 1992 (whence AE 1994, 1334). However, it doesn’t substantially alter your case, that the entire passage quoted is speculative in the extreme.
    By the way, thanks for maintaining a very useful site.

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