Mithras scholar Vermaseren on the Mithras cranks

wynne-tyson_mithras_the_fellow_in_the_capThere are endless crank books about Mithras, usually with an anti-Christian twist.  They go unnoticed by scholars, as a rule.

A correspondent drew my attention to some remarks made by Maarten Vermaseren on one of them.  The title is Mithras: the fellow in the cap, by a certain Mrs Wynne-Tyson, back in 1958 (but reprinted since).

The title is a reference to a curious passage in St. Augustine, in his  Tractatus in Joh. Evang. VII, 6.  This reads, in the ANF translation, thus:

“And this is a great thing to see in the whole world, the lion vanquished by  the blood of the Lamb: members of Christ delivered from the teeth of the  lions, and joined to the body of Christ.

“Therefore some spirit or other  contrived the counterfeit that His image should be bought for blood, because  he knew that the human race was at some time to be redeemed by the precious  blood.

“For evil spirits counterfeit certain shadows of honor to themselves,  that they may deceive those who follow Christ. So much so, my brethren, that  those who seduce by means of amulets, by incantations, by the devices of the  enemy, mingle the name of Christ with their incantations: because they are not  now able to seduce Christians, so as to give them poison they add some honey,  that by means of the sweet the bitter may be concealed, and be drunk to ruin.

“So much so, that I know that the priest of that Pilleatus was sometimes in the  habit of saying, ‘Pilleatus himself also is a Christian’. Why so, brethren,  unless that they were not able otherwise to seduce Christians?”

The word “pilleatus” is of less than certain meaning – it means the “god wearing a mitre” or wearing a peaked cap.  It could mean Mithras, but also Attis, and apparently a number of other gods accustomed to appear with a cap.[1]

Mrs Wynne-Tyson has chosen to render “pilleatus” as “the fellow in the cap”, which is fair enough.  But let us now see what professional Mithras scholar and archaeologist M. Vermaseren says, after himself referring to Mithras as “the fellow in the cap”[2].  (I will split this footnote into sections for easier reading).

4.  This is the dreadful title of a book by Mrs Wynne-Tyson published in 1972. The Times Literary Supplement said of this work : “The argument of this book, showing that the facts about Mithras reveal the basic pattern of Western civilisation and throw light into many of the darker comers of history, points disturbing conclusions for Christian orthodoxy”.

But reading the astonishing lines “To the Christian and others outside the Mithraic fold, Mithraism, with its bull-slaying God who was also identifiable as the Bull, in whose regenerative blood the Faithful bathed; with its animal masks of Lion and Bull, Horse, Eagle and Gryphon, and its eschatological teachings of metempsychosis, evidently seemed to be the worship of the Beast, even as Pure Christianity has always been the worship of the Perfect Man” etc., one would be tempted to think that Franz Cumont and his successors had all written in vain. I wonder what Stevie Smith in the Observer really meant when writing about this book “Most fascinating and apt to our times.”

Mithraism as the introduction to the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner is preached by Alfred Schütze, Mithras, Mysterien und Urchristentum, Stuttgart 1972(2). The petitio principii already is wrong.

The wildest opinions as well as unadulterated twaddle about the revealing excavations in the Mithraeum of Sa Prisca (M. J. Vermaseren – C. C. van Essen, The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, Leiden 1965) can be found in the book by Father Geremia Sangiorgi O.S.A., S. Prisca e it suo Mitreo (Le Chiese di Roma illustrate 101), Roma 1968, which is now the official guide for visitors!

It becomes each year more necessary for scholars to waste their precious time in refuting the many pseudo-scholars = anti- scholars: read, for example, the exemplary review by Theodor Klauser in JAC 11/12, 1968/1969, 215-224 who rightly emphasizes:

“Wer die Wissenschaft wirklich fördern will, darf sich nicht damit begnügen, Einfälle und Lesefrüchte unkontrolliert zu einer verführerischen Synthese zu vereinigen und diese in gefälliger Form vorzutragen, die leiseste kritische Berührung bringt solche Konstruktionen zum Einsturz. Die bewährten Regeln der wissenschaftlichen Methode lassen sich nicht ungestraft ignorieren; auch der Begabteste kann langwierige Arbeitsprozesse, wenn sie nötig sind, nicht nach Belieben überspringen”.

A rough translation of Klauser’s words:

“Anyone who really wants to promote scholarship may not content themselves with uniting uncontrolled ideas and research into a seductive synthesis, written in an attractive form, for the slightest critical touch causes such constructs to collapse.  The established rules of scholarly method cannot be ignored with impunity; even the most gifted may not skip over the necessarily lengthy process.”

I think perhaps those words sound more impressive in German!

  1. [1] A.S. Geden states that Cumont believes this refers to Attis, and the blood to the criobolium.
  2. [2] M. Vermaseren, The Mithraeum at Ponza, Brill, 1974, p.12-13.  Google books preview here.

7 Responses to “Mithras scholar Vermaseren on the Mithras cranks”


  1. David Wilmshurst

    I rather like the title ‘Mithras: The Fellow in the Cap’! It has the great virtue of being memorable. In fact, that’s a very attractive book cover all round. The typography and jacket design (Faber?) remind me of the covers of some of the early Mary Renault novels.

  2. Roger Pearse

    I agree about the title.

    The cover design is characteristic of the period.

  3. David Wilmshurst

    I suppose the scholars are right to remind us that Mithras was not the only god to wear a Phrygian bonnet; but in the context of the passage you quote, ‘pilleatus’ seems to me to point unmistakably to Mithras. The implication is that Mithraic iconography was so well known that an allusion like this would be instantly recognisable.

    Which raises the question: did pagans return the compliment? Do we have any pagan references to Jesus as ‘the bloke on the cross’? I can imagine pagan slaves chatting to one another. ‘Do somebody a good turn for nothing, just out of the goodness of your heart? Are you crazy? You’ve been listening to the bloke on the cross again!’

    Just a thought …

  4. Roger Pearse

    I agree about the “so well known”. Just running with this, tho …. is a secretive mystery cult like Mithras likely to be the one referenced? How well known *was* their iconography? On the other hand, Attis, part of the state cult of the Magna Mater, is going to be very well known, and his eunuch priests could be seen in the street. So … this argument might work the other way.

    The nearest I can think of, for casual pagan allusion, is the Alaxamenos graffiti from the Palatine slave barracks. Good thought tho. I bet they did.

  5. David Wilmshurst

    I too had the Alaxamenos cartoon in mind.

    I take your point about Mithraism being a secretive cult. You could very well be right that Atthis is meant. On the other hand, we all know nowadays that Satanists, who used to be equally secretive in their rituals, celebrate Black Masses with virgins and babies, group sex and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards; so perhaps, mystery cult or not, there was a popular awareness of Mithraic iconography. Hmm, let me think some more about this issue …

  6. Roger Pearse

    We have enough literary mentions to suggest that there was some knowledge of the cult. After all, if legionaries could avoid wearing the military crown when donatives were being distributed by saying “Mithras is my crown” then there must have been general knowledge in the senior military ranks of the cult and its teachings.

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