“Persia and the Bible” … and Mithras?

Review: E. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, Baker publishing (1990).  Paperback ISBN: 9780801021084. Available from: Amazon.com.

Dr Yamauchi attended the second conference on Mithras studies in Tehran, back in the 1970s.  Coming across my pages on Mithras, which referenced a couple of his papers, he kindly sent me a copy of this 1990 volume which includes a chapter on Mithras.

The volume itself is a survey aimed at Old Testament students in the USA.  It provides an overview of Persian history, religion, archaeology and culture, but not as a standalone, but rather from where it impinges on the history of the bible.  I have not read most of this, but at points it has to descend to e.g. explaining the events of the battle of Marathon – sure sign of students being the audience!  But I did skim the chapter on Zoroastrianism, about which I know a little.  This was really very well done, in a short compass, and laid out the literary sources and the key doctrines more clearly in a short compass than any source that I have seen so far.  The footnoting is copious, and well done.

The chapter on Mithras is almost an annex, really.  I think perhaps it reflects the need of the teaching environment, and functions as a round-up of “Persian” related stuff that students may enquire about, including Sol Invictus.  It starts with the assumption of the great Franz Cumont, that Roman Mithras and Persian Mithra were in fact the same deity; but then reviews the scholarship, and indicates how this has changed in what was then the recent past.  The overview of Mithra is solid, as is the material treating Mithras, and the student comes away equipped to deal with whatever is necessary.  So … useful to have.

The book is now more than 25 years old, so the bibliography is doubtless a little dated.   The prose style is quite dense, and I found it hard going.  But there is quite a lot of useful information in a relatively small compass.

A new Mithras inscription from Dacia

Csaba Szabo writes to say that a new Mithraic inscription was recovered by the police in Romania in 2015.  His blog post about it is here.  He has published the inscription at Academia.edu here,[1] which is very useful as otherwise it might be very difficult to get hold of.

The inscription is on a half-column, which reminds one rather of the item in the museum at Caerleon.

 The inscription reads:

rus ° Marci (s. or f.)
v(otum) ° s(olvit) ° l(ibens) ° m(erito)

I.e. To the unconquered Mithras, Dioscorus of Marcus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.  The “of Marcus” probably indicates servus (i.e. slave of Marcus) but possibly filius (i.e. son of Marcus).

The text is identical with that of an altar found at Apulum in 1852 (CIMRM 1943), and even the paleographic features.

Invicto / Mythrae / Diosco/rus Marci (servus) / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)

So there can’t be much doubt that they were erected by the same person, and perhaps at the same place.  Unfortunately the find-spot of the new inscription was not disclosed by – or perhaps known by – the collector.

  1. [1]Csaba Szabó, Imola Boda, Victor Bunoiu, Călin Timoc, “Notes on a new Mithraic inscription from Dacia”, in: Mensa rotunda epigraphica Napocensis, Cluj-Napoca 2016, p. 91–104.

Temple of Mithras discovered at Mariana in Corsica

A previously unknown temple of Mithras has been discovered in Corsica, in Lucciana, on the site of the Roman colony of Mariana.

Tauroctony. From the Mariana Mithraeum.

French website l’Express carries the story with more care than most, from which I learn of the following details.

Mariana, a Roman colony founded around 100 BC, reached its peak in the 3rd or 4th century.  The excavations are in the peripheral area of the city, according to the Inrap (National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research) communique.  The sanctuary consists of a Mithraeum and its antechamber.

The main cult chamber as usual consists of a central aisle, dug out, with two raised benches on either side, surrounded by a lime-coated wall.  Two vaulted brick niches are present in the thickness of the benches.  One still contained three intact oil lamps.

Oil lamps from Mariana Mithraeum

At the top of the corridor was the bas-relief of Mithras, of which three fragments were found.  Other marble elements were found, including the head of a woman.  Two bronze bells, many broken lamps, and some jars of fine paste could be liturgical furniture.

Mariana Mithraeum – bronze bell

A plaque of bronze and another of lead bear inscriptions which remain to be decyphered.  The exact causes of the destruction of the sanctuary are unknown.

There is more stuff at the Inrap site here.

Temple of Mithras discovered at Diyarbekir in SE Turkey?

A news report in Turkish newspapers suggests that a Mithraeum may have been discovered.


Dec. 27, 2016: Excavations at Zerzevan Kalesi in the Cinar district of Diyarbekir suggest that there is an underground temple of Mithras, a mysterious cult of the Roman period.

Excavations were started in 2014 at Zerzevan castle, located on a hill near the Mardin Road in the Cinar district of Diyarbekir.  The excavations conducted by the Dicle University Archaeology Faculty revealed underground churches, secret passages, shelters, soldiers’ houses, rock tombs, altars, water cisterns, jewelery, bronze coins and much military and medical equipment.

It is thought that the fortress, located on the eastern border of the Roman empire, was built to protect the trade and military route passing close by, known to the Persians as the Way of Kings and used originally by the Assyrians.  The fortress was built in the 3rd century AD and continued in use until 639 when it was taken by the Islamic armies under the leadership of Khalid bin Walid.

Zerzevan castle is the first Roman-period excavation in the region, and the excavator, Assoc. Dr. Aytac Coskun, thinks that the studies carried out over a large area will answer many questions about the Roman presence in the area…

“Zerzevan has an underground church, altar, hidden passages and cisterns, as well as a new structure which we have discovered.  We have not yet fully examined this.  We are only looking at a small section.  We think that it is very likely a Mithras temple because of its structure and some features.  Our excavation period has ended because of winter.  We will start again in February.  Then we will find out.  It will be the first temple of Mithras in this region.”

Very interesting indeed.  There is a tendency for any underground structure to be labelled a “temple of Mithras”; but Dr Coskun sounds as if he knows what he is doing.

Mithras in “Mythes fondateurs. D’Hercule à Dark Vador”

I learn via Twitter that there is an exhibition doing the rounds in France, called “Mythes fondateurs” (=foundation myths).  It seems to be largely aimed at children, which of course is one of the genuine functions of public museums.

Among the items in the exhibition is this:

Now this is plainly two figures from the cult of Mithras; Cautes, with his torch uplifted, and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.  The names of these figures are referred to in no literary text, but we know them thanks to inscriptions.

Cautes is accompanied by the dog, and Cautopates by the snake.

I was intending to add this photograph to my catalogue of Mithras photographs; but of course that is useless unless I can identify the item.  It looks as if  most of the items are from the Louvre, but some from the museum in Vienne, at which Dimitri Tilloi, the photographer, saw the exhibition.

Looking in the CIMRM, I find that a pair of torchbearers was found in Vienne in 1835, but are since “lost”.  However it is clear from the text that Vermaseren, the editor, received no cooperation at all from the museum in Vienne.  Are these the “lost” items? (CIMRM 901)  or are they from the Louvre?  But I can find no indication of a pair of torchbearers in the Louvre in the CIMRM.

It is frustrating not to know!  If by any chance any reader of this blog visits this exhibition, please photograph the card which explains the item and send me the details!

UPDATE: I have written to both museums to ask.

A supposed Mithraic mosaic, with zodiac, unearthed in Bursa / Prusa

A news report from the Turkish website, the Daily Sabah, on 19th August 2016, contains a photo and a curious story:

A Roman-era “Mithras Mosaic,” dating back nearly two millennia and depicting solar and astrological signs from the Roman zodiac has been discovered during archeological excavations in the Hisar region of the ancient province of Bursa.


A statement by the Osmangazi Municipality says the excavations, initiated as a part of the “Hisar Archeopark Project” in an attempt to shed light on Bursa’s ancient history, resulted in the discovery of artifacts from the Roman, Byzantine and early Ottoman periods.

The mosaic is from the 2nd century and depicts zodiac signs indicating seasonal changes: the movement of the sun, known to the Mithras cult as the “Invincible Sun” (or “Sol Invictus” in Latin) through the 12 months or zodiacal houses of the solar calendar, as well as depicting the solstice and equinox. …

The archeologists encountered the remains of walls believed to be a part of either a public bath or marketplace. Osmangazi Municipality mayor Mustafa Dündar said they will enlarge the area being investigated as the excavations unearth further discoveries. Dündar emphasized that Hisar Archeopark will encourage the extension of the knowledge of the history of Bursa, adding: “We first discovered water pipes belonging to the Ottoman era, and then marbles belonging to the Byzantine Empire. Underneath them all, we unearthed Roman era mosaics.”

The location is in the modern Turkish town of Bursa, which stands atop ancient Prusa.  Osmangazi is the district of Bursa.  I have myself passed through Bursa, on a tourist coach, not that long ago.

But what is Mithraic about a mosaic of the zodiac?  The zodiac appears in depictions all across the ancient world.

Sadly there is only the one photograph.  No other information seems to be available, which is annoying.

One can only wish the town of Bursa success in their Archeopark Project and excavations – it is a worthy project.  But how irritating that so little information is available!

UPDATE: Commenter “suburbanbanshee” has located a couple more sources.

First there is a book out there, for which a table of contents and order details exists here (local copy AIEMAconferencevolume11 PDF).  I don’t know if the Bursa find is discussed, but the PDF contains an extra picture:


There are some interesting pictures in a very nice little magazine/newspaper from March 2015, called “This Is Bursa.” Unfortunately it was uploaded in a horrible Adobe Flash viewer, which doesn’t work in IE, and won’t work at all in a few years (for Flash is doomed).  The authors would be well advised to repost it as a PDF.  I must admit that, for promotional material, it is really rather charming.  Perhaps the fact that few of us know anything about Bursa is a factor.

I’ll post the contents here, as best I can, in case it all vanishes.

On p.9 the following images appear:




The text reads:

Osmangazi municipality focuses on historical and cultural heritage of Bursa.

Hisar archeopark excavation project underway.

Mustafa Dundar. Mayor of Osmangazi Municipality has recently pointed out that a series of excavation and restoration works on  historical and cultural heritage and riches of Bursa are underway  within the framework of Hisar Archcopark archaeological project.

According to Mayor Mustafa Dundar, Hisar District of Osmangazi  possesses diverse range of historical riches dating back to 2700  years ago. Cooperating with Bursa Museum Directorate, the project includes an area of 7000 square meters.

The district has been shaped by several civilizations such as the  Bythinia, Rome, Byzantium, Seljuqians, and Ottomans. The first  marks of the Ottoman Empire exist within Osmangazi where it  extended from the foot of Uludag to the plain of Bursa. Within the  boundaries of Osmangazi, approximately 1800 registered historical  buildings exist.

Bursa was seized by Osman Bey in 1307 and conquered by Orhan  Bey, the son of Osman Bey, on 6 April 1335. The capital of the  empire was moved to Bursa in 1335 and new development movements were initiated. When Bursa was conquered, the city consisted of the inner castle, but Orhan Gazi had the Orhan Gazi Complex built out of the town. Public buildings such as mosques, baths,  soup houses, hospitals, madrasahs were built out of the walls,
where new settlements had been initiated, hence a new tradition  of settling area had been established.

As known, Osmangazi is the largest and central municipality of  Bursa Province. It also makes up a district of Bursa Province. On  its own, it would be the 8th largest city in Turkey.

Osmangazi, the center of social and economic relations for years,  is in the crossroad of roads to Izmir, Istanbul and Eskisehir.  Osmangazi is the biggest district of Bursa that is on the southwest  coast of Marmara Sea. Gokdere River on the cast, Nilufer River  and Mudanya Road on the west, Katirh Mountains on the north,  Uludag and Kirazh Plateau are the natural and artificial boundaries of the district.

There is also a rather nice photo of what I assume is the mayor and his colleagues visiting the site.

My sincere thanks to suburbanbanshee for ferreting this out!

UPDATE: @suburbanbanshee has been busy.  These notes from the comments.

Lee I. Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity, Yale (2012), in chapter 16 (p.317-336), “The zodiac and other Greco-Roman motifs in Jewish art”, a draft PDF of which is online here, on p.326, n.36 states:

In the summer of 2009, a full zodiac motif similar to Palestinian models was found in Bursa, Turkey, in a purportedly third-to-fourth century building that has not yet been identified…

The author in fact is discussing the appearance of zodiacs, with the seasons, in Jewish synagogues.  He states on p.316:

By far the most stunning Hellenistic-Roman depiction to appear in Jewish art of Late Antiquity is that of the zodiac signs, the figure of the sun god Helios, and the four seasons (all hereafter referred to as the zodiac motif ). Indeed, no single motif in all of ancient Jewish art has aroused more surprise and scholarly attention than that of the zodiac appearing in a number of synagogues from Byzantine Palestine; indeed, this interest is reflected in scores of books and articles on the subject.

The chapter is extremely interesting, and I recommend a read.  He lists with literature all the examples, and discusses the degree to which this is a “pagan” item, and whether in fact the pagan aspects had disappeared in a depiction of the son, the months and the seasons.  It does raise the question, then, of whether the Bursa discovery might be of a synagogue!

The two figures in the corners do appear to be the seasons.  The female with the wheat stalks on one side and a sickle on the other looks like Autumn.  This figure is portrayed with autumn and winter constellations (Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn).

 The other figure, in a hood with a pink colour is portrayed with spring constellations (Aries, Taurus, and Gemini):

So she could be Eiar or Thallo, but I don’t see much in the way of Spring wearing a hood. (Not that that means much, since it seems like the Seasons are depicted any way the artist fancies.) She is carrying a raised torch, I think now, and that can be associated with the return of light.

I guess they are hoping it’s Cautes [the follower of Mithras], because some material online says Cautes is associated with the beginning of Spring.

Ah… found something… Eirene (Peace) was often used as Spring (possibly because Spring was both planting season and the beginning of campaign season, and people were hoping to be able to plant before any fighting started).

And Eirene can be depicted carrying a torch. So it’s probably Eirene as Spring. She probably would have had something in her other hand, like Baby Plutus (wealth, because peace allows prosperity), a cornucopia horn (because peace allows abundant crops), or a rhyton for libations.

The figure in the hood is not Cautes, who is not depicted, as far as I am aware, in a hood.  But @suburbanbanshee is probably right to suggest that the combination of the sun at the centre (if it is), and a figure with an upraised object that could be a torch, is probably why someone suggested Mithras.

There is a rather confusing article here at Perseus, which makes clear how indistinct these figures were, although it is referenced to primary sources.  The Wikipedia article is no better and of course is not referenced.  Its statements appear in fact to derive from this wretched source.[1]  I could find no good discussion online of the Greek seasons.  I think we may leave it here, tho.

  1. [1]Patricia Della-Piana, Witch Days: a perennial pagan calendar, self-published, 2010, p.137.  Google books preview of page here: “Greece: Feast of the Horae: literally. Feast of the Hours, personifying the twelve hours, as tutelary goddesses of the times of day. The hours run from just before sunrise to just after sunset, thus winter hours are short, summer hours are long, and they include Auge, for first light; Anatole or Anatolia, for sunrise; Mousika or Musica, for the morning hour of music and study; Gymnastika, Gymnastica or Gymnasia, for the morning hour of gymnastics/exercise; Nymphe, for the morning hour of ablutions  (bathing, washing); Mescmbria. for noon; Sponde, for libations poured after lunch; Flete, for prayer, the first of the afternoon  work hours; Akte, Acte or Cypris, for eating and pleasure, the second of the afternoon work hours; Hesperis. for evening; Dysis, for sunset; and Arktos, for the night sky. constellation. There are also the Horae of Life, which are comprised of three generations. The first generation consisted of Thallo, Auxo, and Carpo, who were the goddesses of the seasons (the Greeks only recognized spring, summer and autumn). The second generation comprised Eunomia, Dike, and Eirene, who were law and order goddesses that maintained the stability of society. They were worshiped primarily in the cities of Athens. Argos and Olympia.  Some authors recognize a third set of Horae, in Pherusa (or Pherousa, goddess of substance and farm estates). Euporie (or Euporia. goddess of abundance), and Orthosie (goddess of prosperity). Also,  Nonnus in his Dionysiaca mentions a set of four Horae: Eiar, Theros, Cheimon and Phthinoporon, the Greek words for spring, summer, winter and autumn respectively.”  In view of the tendency of modern “pagans” to invent the stories they tell, one would be reluctant to rely on any of this.

That old bull again! – the recent international conference on Mithras in Italy

vulci_csaba_1I must have missed the announcement, but Csaba Szabo kindly drew my attention to his report on an international conference on Mithraic studies in Italy.  About 50 people attended.  Sadly the long-exploded Cumont theory was in evidence in some papers.  But it sounds as if it was an interesting event.

The main impression that I gained from Dr S.’s report, was that the sub-discipline is in limbo.  The field is too small to support a regular journal, as the ill-fated Journal of Mithraic Studies discovered.  Likewise those studying Mithras are invariably drawn to look at related cults.  It is troubling that at such a conference there was limited discussion of recent archaeology; for it is from archaeology that progress in understanding will be made.

vulci_csaba_13Dr S. also put on his blog some nice photos of the Mithraeum of Vulci.  I am deeply envious – it is impossible to get hold of any printed material about this place – all in Italian – and even a google search on the booklet he mentions, Vulci e i misteri di Mitra: Culti orientali in Etruria, will quickly reveal … no hits!  Oh well.  It’s good to see some interesting pots, tho.  It also clarified that the tauroctony in place in the Mithraeum is clearly a restored copy.  Pity they got the head wrong – Mithras always looks back over his shoulder!

Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony. The head is wrong, tho.
Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony. The head is wrong, tho.

Photographs online about Mithras by Michael Fuller

Archaeologist Michael Fuller, who has worked at Dura Europos, has been collecting photographs of Mithraic monuments.  He modestly writes to say:

Here are a few of my webpages with images of Mithraic reliefs, altars, etc… Most of these duplicate images you already have, but a few maybe new to you.


You are welcome to add any of my images to your data base as long as I am given credit. I am pretty sure that I have some more images of Mithraic reliefs and will look. I might also be able to track down images of the lamps from the Dura mithraeum.

I shall be delighted to make use of some of these, and it is a very generous offer.

New Mithraeum at Kempraten in Switzerland

A correspondent Csaba Szabó has kindly written to tell us about a new discovery of what seems likely to be a Mithraeum in Switzerland, at Kempraten near Zurich.  Interestingly the site is by a lake.  Somewhat ominously, the remains of three large lime kilns were also discovered nearby.

The newspaper article in Zurichsee Zeitung is here.  An exhibition of finds is planned for November here.

Neben den drei in den letzten Wochen auf einem privaten Areal bei Kempraten, direkt am See gefundenen Kalköfen, fanden die erstaunten Archäologinnen und Archäologen Mauerreste, die sich nach ersten Grabungen als Teile eines Kultraumes entpuppten. Hier wurde nach ersten, noch ungesicherten Erkenntnissen dem Gott Mithras im Rahmen einer Mysterienreligion gehuldigt. Der Raum, 7,5 Meter Mal 20 Meter gross, war nur für Männer bestimmt. Funde von Bergkristallen deuten auf den Gott Mithras hin. Als Bestätigung für die religiöse Bestimmung des Raumes gilt ein Sandsteinfragment, das ein Antlitz zeigt. Daneben wurden viele Knochen von Jungtieren gefunden, was auf kultische Opferungen hinweist.

Ein rekonstruiertes Bild zeigte eine vage Vorstellung dieses Kultraumes, der sich vom Fels zum Wasser hinzog. Eine Konstellation, die für die Kultausübung wichtig war. Noch ist Vieles nicht erforscht. Man weiss nur, dass in Martigny und Orbe ähnliche Bauten gefunden wurden.

My translation, which is probably a bit wonky:

In addition to three lime kilns, found right next to the lake in recent weeks on private land at Kempraten, the astonished archaeologists found the remains of walls, which on excavation turned out to be part of a temple. The first indications are that the god Mithras was worshiped here as part of a mystery religion. The room, 7.5 meters by 20 meters in size, was intended only for men. Finds of rock crystals indicate the god Mithras. A sandstone fragment showing a face is treated as confirmation of the religious use of the site. In addition, many bones of young animals were found, suggesting ritual sacrifices.

A picture of a reconstruction gives a general idea of this cult space, which ran from the waterside to the rock. There is a constellation, which was important for the cult myth. Most of the site is still unexcavated. It is only known that similar buildings were found in Martigny and Orbe.

I’ve added a page on this at the Mithras site here.  The details are very vague, and mainly concerned with the bunch of 100 dignitaries who were shown over the site.  But this may be a picture of the Mithraeum – the article leaves it unclear:

Kempraten - new Mithraeum?
Kempraten – new Mithraeum?

From my diary

I’m trying to push forward a couple of projects.  I’ve written to the translator for the Encomium on St Nicholas of Myra by Andrew of Crete, to see if the sample is available yet.

I have also changed my plans slightly for the translation of Methodius from Old Slavonic.  The lady who was to do the Greek fragments is overcommitted elsewhere, with the result that nothing ever appeared of the Severian translation that I set as a sample.  So I will ask Andrew Eastbourne to handle that side of the work.  Indeed I had always intended to use him in some capacity if I could, because of his vast philological knowledge.

In some ways this simplifies the grant application process, since I now know who I am dealing with.  I can also upload the Methodius De Lepra translation as part of the application, as evidence that I know what I am about.  But I need to replan.  Some kind correspondents have been supplying me with parallels and sources, which may well be useful.

Most of the grant bodies will only give around 50% of a project; so I shall try to find another source of funding for translations.  I suspect, rightly or wrongly, that this is merely bureaucrats trying to cover their own backsides.  After all, if it isn’t just them who gave the grant, then how can they be blamed?  But it is tiresome.  I also realise that I need to understand what the unstated rules of the game are.  So I need to telephone and talk to someone.

It all reminds me why I just pay for translations out of my own pocket.  There seems to be a whole industry that has grown up, merely to get funding.  It is a quite daunting process to the amateur.

I have been adding a few more photos to the Mithras site.  Most of these I encountered on Twitter, and wondered to what they related.  I’ve just seen one of a Vatican tauroctony, photographed by Carole Raddato, that is really quite good.  This is no small praise; the location of the monument in the museum makes photography almost impossible.  I’ve seen it myself, tried to get useful pictures, and failed!