Two Pannonian monuments connecting Mithras with 25 Dec.?

The Hungarian scholar Istvan Toth died this year.  I learn this from his page at Academia.edu, where may be found all his papers and books in electronic form.  This is no small thing, for many are quite inaccessible in the west, even in major research libraries.  Well done, Dr Toth, for making all this mass of information available.

Among the papers one caught my eye: 2004 Mithras kultusz és a Karácsony Poetovioban = Cult of Mithras and the Christmas in Poetovio.  This paper is in Hungarian, but very sensibly provided with an English translation at the back.  The translation is imperfect, but this is of small importance; the point is that the article is readable by the world.

We all know that Franz Cumont, in his rather slack way, supposed that there was a festival of Mithras on 25 Dec., by presuming that the cultists of Mithras ‘must’ have participated in the Natalis Solis Invicti, attested only after 354 AD.  No evidence of this exists, of course.  But this carelessness has created a modern myth, often expressed in the unpleasant jeer “Mithras is the reason for the season.”

So what does Toth say? (I shall correct the English, for readability)

It is a fact that, although scholarship connected the festival of natalis Invicti with one of Mithras (too) since F. Cumont(2), until now there was nothing to show this from epigraphical evidence collected for the Cult of Mithras (3). This situation changed because of the epigraph from Poetovio which was found in 1970, and this epigraphical evidence has since been published in several publications (4).

The epigraphical evidence was found at Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia) in the immediate vicinity of so-called Mithraeum IV (5), at the same place as the other epigraphical evidence listed for this sanctuary (6). The lead prong, on the top face of the undecorated marble base (7), shows that the object was originally the pedestal of a statue, probably a statue of a figure being born out of a rock. The first line of the inscription is lost. The remaining lines of the text are as follows:

[— ] | M Gong(ius) | Aquilei|ensis pro | salute | sua suor|umq(ue) om|nium v(otum)
s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) | d(e)d(icavit) VIIII K(alendas) Ian(uarias) | p(osuit) p(ater)
p(ientissimus) Florentiu[s]
.

The damaged first line, according to J. Sasel, should be read: [D(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae)] accounting this: “verisimiliter colligendum est, cum in vicinia vestigia quarti Mithraei reperta sint”(8), and this is all respects acceptable.

Unquestionably the most important element of the inscription is the date on the 9th readable line: 24th December, that is, vigil of natalis Invicti (the “Christmas Eve”), which appears here for the first time in epigraphical evidence related to the cult of Mithras.

The dating of relic can fairly certainly be given as the first half of the third century A.D., possibly about the middle of the third century. J. Sasel pointed that another bearer of this nomen was a certain Gongius Nestorianus who, between 198-211 was procurator of publicum portorium Illyrici and resided in Poetovio; then between 213-217 he was a praefectus classis Ravennatis(9). Considering that the nomen gentilicum of Gongius may be unique(10), it seems very likely that the person who dedicated the inscribed monument under discussion had some relationship to this man of high standing, for example he was his libertus.(11)

All this is interesting; but why a dedication of a monument on what is now 24 Dec. ‘must’ be connected to what is today Christmas Eve is not made clear.  The fact that, in 354 AD, there would be a festival of the sun on the following day is not necessarily relevant.  Any monument must be dedicated on some date; what the inscription does not show is that the date here was in any way significant.

The article then continues with material of no great relevance, until we reach this section:

It is absolutely certain, that every class of society was imbued with the need to have knowledge of the ceremonies and articles of the cult of Mithras. That social stratum was the one from which was descended Victorinus, the martyred bishop of Poetovio, the first exegete who wrote in Latin (22). However Victorinus of Poetovio – who was executed at the latest in the time of the great persecution of Christians under the reign of Diocletian – in the 260s would have been already adult, and meditating on religious matters as a young man.

The theological interest of Victorinus was exceptionally wide-ranging. He examined besides his exegesis, works on heterodoxies, the origin of world, apocalyptical doctrines(23) and there remains a fragment of his chronological work too(24). In this fragment he concluded the following inferences referring to document of a certain Alexander of Jerusalem: “VIII. Kal Ian. natus est Dominus noster Iesus Christus… etc.” (That is Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December) – The latest research places the origin of this fragment in the years after 260 (25).

Amongst the monuments of Mithras of Poetovio there are presented in remarkably great strength of those, that which relating to the birth of the god. … One of the representative stone monuments (30) of the Mithraeum founded by Flavius Aper and his officers represented the figure of Mithras being born out from a rock: in the background of the scene appears the figure of Saturn, wreathed by Victoria; to all intents and purposes showing, that in dedication named of god to D(eus) S(ol) i(nvictus) M(ithras) was born on 25 December, and the birth of god means that beginning of the new epoch of world.

We expect so: if we are not mistaken, that in this chronological fragment of Victorinus of Poetovio, indicating the date of natalis Invicti, we can recognise the inner history of the reference to the birth of Jesus and we recognize the events from the history of religion in the native town of the martyred bishop, which happened in his youth, and in our opinion that the Christian exegetist who wrote in Latin earliest and in all probability he was among the first (31) who connected the one of the central ideas of cult of Mithras of Poetovio with the articles of Christian faith.

I think something may have dropped out of the argument here.  For it is quite unclear to me just why the presence of Saturn in a Mithraic monument of the rock birth must connect the monument to 25 Dec. – Saturnalia, after all, finished on 23rd Dec.  Otherwise a monument of the rock birth is just nothing.

The material about Victorinus is likewise very loosely argued (allowing, always, for the translation difficulties).

It all falls apart, once you look closely, sadly.

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the workhouse…

It is now Christmas Eve.  A minority of people will be sat at home, in a traditional Dickensian family circle, waiting for Christmas.  In rather more households there will be excited children rushing around, and all blessing to them and their harried parents.

But for a great many people, including most people who spend their lives online, this evening will be spent on their own, as will tomorrow and many more days.  We need not be surprised.  In our age this is normal.  Let us never regret that we do not enjoy the kind of Christmas that the TV advertisers tell us that we all should.  The reality of this world in these days is that a great number of people will be on their own.

It is traditional for bloggers to wish their readers a happy Christmas, and I shall not omit this courtesy.  I wish everyone reading these words a merry Christmas, and every blessing.

I include in these words those who I count as my friends, and those who have worked with me during the year.

I include in these words those who have written to me, those who have encouraged me, those who have shared in this work of education and learning.

I include everyone who intends to do good to his fellow man; and I include those who are simply trying to get by.

I include those who disagree with me.  I hope that disagreement may be generous, at least on our own side.

I also include, this Christmas time, one poor unhappy soul far away.  I don’t know his name, for he has taken pains to be anonymous.  I include him because I believe that this poor soul has little to enjoy at Christmas, and is an unhappy man.  I infer this because last year he had nothing better to do on Christmas day, the best of days, than to go online and attempt to cause me an injury.  Pathetically, he failed, in that I did not even learn of his deed until months later, and didn’t care even then.  I suspect that he reads this blog occasionally.  If so, I wish him a happy Christmas, and a prosperous New Year.

This Christmas I will be blogging away, and will try to provide something for people to read.  I’m still busy with the Mithras pages, which are beginning to assume a form which is not altogether horrible.  I hope to have a couple of Hymns by St. Ephraim the Syrian, newly translated into English, for you tomorrow.

Merry Christmas to you all!

More on the “birth of the sun” at Chronicon blog

Tom Schmidt is still excerpting material from ancient sources on this mysterious “birth of the sun” on 25 Dec.  And he’s translating some untranslated material himself!  He’s got a bit from Hephaistio of Thebes on Antiochus of Athens.  Read it here.

The sun as a child at the winter solstice

I’ve been reading the article in which Franz Boll published the calendar of Antiochus of Athens, with special reference to the entry on 25th December.

It is good to have a publication of the calendar, although the lack of a translation for the Greek is irksome.  But I haven’t read many articles which are less satisfactory when it came to discussing this particular entry.  It waffles.  It wanders.  It suggests.  But the logic is tenuous.

Boll is keen to suggest that the calendar is Egyptian in origin.  This he fails to show adequately, as far as I can make out.  The most I can find is an assertion that the dates given to various astronomical phenomena require that it was composed in Alexandria.  He also asserts that there are commonalities with the calendar of Ptolemy; but of course any astrological calendar is likely to have certain similarities — they all deal with the stars, after all.

Let’s look at an extract of the calendar for December:

κβ’. τροπὲ χειμερινὴ.
κγ’. Προκύων ἑῷος δύνει.
κε’. Ἡλίου γενέθλιον · αὔξει φῶς.

The first entry (for the 22nd) tells us that it is the winter solstice.  The 23rd relates to the star Procyon, and the last entry for the 25th reads “Birthday of the sun: the light increases”.  The solstice entry is apparently also found in the calendar of Ptolemy, but not the birthday of the sun. 

Why are there two entries?  I.e. why is the day of the sun later than the solstice?  This is explained by Julian the Apostate, in his Oration 4, whom I quoted at more length here:

 And that our forefathers, because they comprehended this correctly, thus established the beginning of the year, one may perceive from the following. For it was not, I think, the time when the god turns, but the time when he becomes visible to all men, as he travels from south to north,that they appointed for the festival. For still unknown to them was the nicety of those laws which the Chaldaeans and Egyptians discovered, and which Hipparchus and Ptolemy perfected : but they judged simply by sense-perception, and were limited to what they could actually see. 

The idea that 25 Dec. is the “new sun” is found in Latin sources as we have seen in the past.  Boll references

Pliny NH 18, 221; Columella I, 9; Servius, Aen. 7, 720.  (Proprie sol novus est VIII. Kal. Jan.)

But he also mentions something which is new to me:

Greek and Roman writers tell us about something called the Egyptian doctrine, according to which the sun appears on the Winter solstice like a child, at the spring equinox as a youth, at the summer solstice as a man and in the autumn the same as an old man. The well-known witness, already cited by Th. Gale in Iamblichos de mysteriis p. 289, is Macrobius in his solar theology, in Saturnalia I 1 &, 9:

item Liberi patris simulacra partim puerili aetate partim iuvenis fingunt.  praeterea barbata specie, seniIi quoque . . . hae autem aetatum diversitates ad Solem referuntur, ut parvulus qualem Aegyptii proferunf ex adyto die certa, quod tunc brevissimo die veluti parvus et infans videatur. exinde autem procedentibus augmentis (vgl.  αὔξει φῶς here in Antiochus and in Catal. codd. astr. I 144, 13) aequinoctio vernali similiter atque adulescentis adipiscitur vires figuraque iuvenis ornatur. postea statuitur eius aetas plenissima effigie barbae solstitio aestivo quo tempore summum sui consequitur augmentum. exinde per diminutiones veluti senescentis quarta formum deus figuratur.

The “solar theology” is a speech by Praetextatus in book 1.  I wish I had the English translation of Macrobius to hand, so I could give a translation here.  But he is making the point that when the days are shortest, the sun seems small and like an infant; likewise at the spring equinox like a youth, at the summer solstice as a grown man.  Then by dimunition it becomes an old man.

Boll would like us to associate this with his calendar entry.

But is Macrobius telling us about the same thing?  There is also the issue that Macrobius writes very late indeed, after the fall of paganism at the end of the 4th century.  His paganism would seem to be influenced by the prevailing monotheism of Christianity, when he asserts that all the gods are merely aspects of a single deity, the sun god.  Considering the Christian polemic against the multitude of provincial gods, such a rationalisation was inevitable.  But it can’t be used as evidence of earlier pagan views, I would have thought.

He then writes at some length speculative material about the possibility that Antiochus is basing his entry for 25 Dec. on an ancient Egyptian source.  From the idea that “birth of the sun”, he goes on to say:

Brugsch, who follows Jablonski Panth. Aegypt. lib. II cap. VI, p. 254 on the first place, suggests that these ideas are really Egyptian in origin, and, the monuments of the latest periods of Egyptian history at least very clearly represent the sun at the time of the winter solstice under the name of the child sun, at the Spring time as a “boy” or “youth”, during the summer solstice as “the great (adult) Sun” and at sunset as “the old man.” In an inscription (22) the “new born Sun” is mentioned, and in two others (23) as the “little sun”. (24)

The tenuous connection of this with the calendar will be immediately apparent!  But the idea is interesting, and I spent some time trying to work out what the references were, and looking at them.  One advantage of Boll’s work is that it is so old that his references are all online.

Brugsch, thus, is H. Brugsch, Die Ägyptologie  (p.327), who writes:

Den 12 Sonnenbildern in den 12 Stunden des Tages verlieh man in der ptolemäisch-römischen Epoche eigenthumliche Bildersymbole in Gestalten von Göttern oder heiligen Thieren (s. Thes. S. 57). wobei die Sonne in der Frühe der ersten Stunde als neugeborenes Kind (Harphrad) in einer Scheibe erscheint. Die den einzelnen Verzeichnissen beigeschriebenen Namen (s. Thes. 58) benennen die Sonne der ersten Tagesstunde das Kind (nhn), der 3. den Knaben, Jüngling (hwn), der 12. den Greis (nhh wer). Die Vergleichung der zunehmenden und abnehmenden Sonne mit den Lebensaltern des Menschen tritt auch inschriftlich gelegentlich hervor.  In einem der Texte von Dendera (Thes. 55) heisst es von dem Sonnengotte: „ein Kind in der Frühe, ein Jungling zur Mittagszeit … ist er Gott ‚Atum am Abend“.  Statt des ‚Atum-Names findet sich als Variante eines der agyptischen Wörter zur Bezeichnung eines greisen Mannes (Thes. S. 511).

The 12 solar images in the 12 hours of the day in the Ptolemaic and Roman era became special symbols in depictions of gods or sacred animals (see Thes. p. 57), where the sun appears in the morning of the first hour as a newborn child (Harphrad) on a disk. The various lists (see Thes. 58) name the sun at the first hour of the day the “child” (nhn), in the 3rd “boy, young man” (hwn), in the 12th “old man” (nhh wer).  The comparison of increasing and decreasing sun with the ages of man also occurs occasionally in earlier inscriptions. In one of the texts of Dendera (Thes. 55) it is said of the sun god: “a child in the morning, a young man for lunch … he is god, Atum in the evening “. Instead of the ‘Atum-name found as a variant of the Egyptian words for the description of an old man (Thes. p. 511).

‘Thes.’ is his own Thesaurus, a publication of inscriptions, for Brugsch was one of the early genuine Egyptologists.  So we’re dealing with some real sources here.

Boll also mentions:

The famous oracle of the Clarian Apollo that Macrobius cites Sat. I 18, 20 from Cornelius Labeos’ book de Oraculo Apollinis Clarii, mentions four names of gods that seem to befrom the the same association of ideas out for the four figures of Helios set in the season when it also is contrary to the Jewish God.

Jablonski Pantheon Aegyptiorum lib. II cap. VI, p. 254 (p.254 in the PDF) is also online, in Latin, and dates to the 18th century!  It is in Latin.  Fortunately there is a lengthy translation into English of a chunk of it in John William Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua (1865). p.305.  Appendix III, translated and abridged.  The p.319 has a translation of the Pantheon Aeg. p.254.  P.305 of Colenso gives us the Oracle and a translation.  The Oracle of Apollo at Claros was asked who the god Iao was.  It replied:

It was right that those knowing should hide the ineffable orgies ; for in a little deceit there is prudence and an adroit mind. Explain that IAO is the Most High God of all,in winter Aides, and Zeus in commencing spring, and Helios in summer, and at the end of autumn tender Iao.

The name appears in Gnostic texts, and in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, book 1.  There is speculation that it really represents the Jewish YHWH.

Using Colenso’s translation, we find that Jablonski treated this oracle as derived from gnostic sources, and “reconstructed” what he believed the “original” text of the gnostic oracle was.    This Brugsch treated in his next paragraph as if it was actually an ancient source — there are perils to writing in Latin! — and made the association with Harpocrates.  But this is just a misunderstanding.

What are we left with, that is solid and real, in all this sea of factoids strung together without much connection?

We learn that the calendar contains “birth of the new sun” on Dec. 25.  We learn that the four stages of the sun during the day was compared in Ancient Egyptian, and more commonly in Ptolemaic and Roman sources, to the four ages of man, one of which was the sun-as-child at dawn.  We are invited by Boll to presume the latter has some connection with the former. 

But the fallacy of “this looks like that, therefore this is connected to that, or even this is derived from that” is one we encounter all the time.  We must regard the connection as unevidenced.

The calendar of Antiochus and the new birth of the sun

Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun, Oxford University Press, 2006, makes the following interesting remark on p.209-10:

… the nominal solstice on 25 December, becomes the Sun’s birthday, the ‘Natalis Invicti’, as the Calendar of Filocalus famously notes—to which phrase in Greek (heliou genethlion) the less well-known Calendar of Antiochus appends ‘light increases’ (auxei phos).[16]  According to Macrobius (Sat. 1.18.10), not only was the Sun’s birthday celebrated at the winter solstice but he was also displayed as a baby on that day: 

These diverences in age [in the representations of various gods] relate to the Sun, who is made to appear very small (parvulus) at the winter solstice. In this form the Egyptians bring him forth from the shrine on the set date to appear like a tiny infant (veluti parvus et infans) on the shortest day of the year.

16. Calendar of Filocalus, Salzman 1990: 149–53; Calendar of Antiochus, Boll 1910: 16, 40–4.

Boll, F. 1910. Griechische Kalender: 1. Das Kalendarium des Antiochos, Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, philos.-hist. Klasse, Jahrgang 1910, 16. Abhandlung (Heidelberg). 

The “Calendar of Filocalus” is our familiar Chronography of 354, part 6, which I placed online long ago here.  As we all know, for 25 Dec. it has “Natalis Invicti” against the day.  But the Calendar of Antiochus is not known to me.  I wonder if it is online?  Beck also tells us that this is Antiochus of Athens, an astrologer, whose works must exist — Beck references them as CCAG 4, etc, which turns out to be Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum.  The CCAG turns out to be an old work, and some of it is online at Archive.org.

The only real reference to the calendar that I could find online was in D.M.Murdock (Acharya S), Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus connection, p.89, online in preview here (and I know we all wince at the standards of this source, but this new book is much better referenced).  This tells me that the calendar was published indeed by Boll in 1910; that it records the solstice on 22nd December, and dates to ca. 200 AD.

Gifts at Christmas, “strenae” on 1st January

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the Romans gave gifts on 1st January (the Kalends of January), called strenae

Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas. Tiele (Yule and Christmas, London, 1899) has collected many interesting examples. The strenae (étrennes) of the Roman 1 January (bitterly condemned by Tertullian, de Idol., xiv and x, and by Maximus of Turin, Hom. ciii, de Kal. gentil., in P.L., LVII, 492, etc.) survive as Christmas presents, cards, boxes.

Tertullian says:

By us, to whom Sabbaths are strange, and the new moons and festivals formerly beloved by God, the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented — presents come and go — New-year’s gifts (strenae) — games join their noise-banquets join their din! (ch. 14) … New-year’s gifts likewise must be caught at, and the Septimontium kept (ch. 10).

A google search reveals that “Tiele” is Tille, and on Google books here.  I will have to read this, as it seems copiously referenced.  Not sure whether the text is quite sensible, but it does contain interesting snippets.

But I can see at once, on p.84 n.3, a reference to Plautus, Stichus, iii. 2, 6; v. 2. 24; Ovid, Fasti, i. 187; Martial, viii.33, xiii.37; Seneca, Letters, 87.  There are two unreferenced claims; that money took the place of New Year’s gifts under Augustus, and that the custom persisted to the time of Honorius and Arcadius.

There is a reference to the Kalends and the celebration of Janus in the Acts of the Council of Turin in 567 AD. (p.87 n.1), which calls him a king, not a god.  In the capitula of Martin of Braga, chapter 73, we read:

Non liceat iniquas observationes agere Kalendarum, et otiis vacare gentilibus, neque lauro aut viridate arborum cingere domos.

Hanging up green boughs seems to be the custom.  It would be interesting to know more about this.

Legends about what the Chronicon Pascale says

After Eusebius invented the idea of the “Chronicle of World History”, subsequent writers produced considerable numbers of these.  As a rule these start with Adam, using the Bible and Eusebius to cover stuff up to Constantine, and then whatever continuations and paraphrases were available.

The Chronicon Pascale is an example of this genre.  It’s a Greek World Chronicle, composed around 630 AD in the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius, just half a dozen years before the Arabs charge out of the desert and find no-one in any shape to resist them.  No translation of the whole thing exists, apart from the renaissance Latin version printed in the Patrologia Graeca 92.  Whitby and Whitby made an English translation of the portion from 284 AD onwards.

Bill Thayer of Lacus Curtius forwarded me an email in which someone raised an interesting query:

…in “The Story of Religious Controversy”, a book written in 1929 by Joseph McCabe. In the chapter entitled “Morals in Ancient Egypt,” he is speaking of the son of the goddess Isis–Horus–and says: “An early Christian work, the ‘Paschal Chronicle’ (Migne ed. xcii. col 385), tells us that every year the temples of Horus presented to worshippers, in mid-winter (or about December 25th), a scenic model of the birth of Horus. He was represented as a babe born in a stable, his mother Isis standing by.”

I hope we all know better than to believe the crude falsehoods about Christian origins circulated by bitter atheists online.  But does the CP say any such thing?  I went off to look.

Skimming over the Latin side , I find a discussion of Jeremiah’s prediction of Christ, starting in col. 383, “De Jeremia”.  This starts with one of the messianic passages, mirrored in Matthew – which he quotes – and then says is also in Hebrews.  Then he goes on (my own rough translation of key points):

“Jeremiah was from Anathoth, and was killed in Taphais in Egypt by being stoned by the people, and sleeps in the place where Pharaoh’s palace is, (..because he was very respected..) because when they were infested with the aquatic animals, called Menephoth in Egyptian and crocodiles in Greek. Even today those faithful to God who take some of the dust of that place can drive crocodiles away”

One may hope that no-one actually experimented with live crocodiles to verify this.

Then follows a story that Alexander, when he came to Egypt, and heard about the “arcana” which he had predicted, removed the prophet’s relics to Alexandria, for some other similar magic which I can’t quite make out.  It then continues:

“This sign Jeremiah gave to the priests of Aegypt, predicting the future, that their idols would be destroyed and ? by a boy saviour born of a virgin, and laid in a manger.” 

It goes on:

“Quapropter etiamvero ut deam colunt virginem puerperam, et infantem in praesepi adorant.

For which reason (?) they honour a pregnant virgin goddess and worship an infant in a manger.

When king Ptolemy asked why, they told him that they received this secret from the holy prophet handed down by their fathers. The same prophet Jeremiah, before the destruction of the temple, …”  (more stuff about prophecy).

Migne quotes a note by DuCange (25) which says that this bit about a virgin comes from Epiphanius and Simon Logothetes (who?).  No reference is given, unfortunately, and I was unable to find it in the Panarion.

This last bit is probably the kernel of the story that we see in highly embroidered form above.