Mithras in the Greek Magical Papyri

A chance query led me to Betz’ English translation of the Greek magical papyri.  This is a collection of magical texts in multiple volumes discovered at Thebes in the early 19th century.  The best known of these is the so-called Mithras liturgy, which is in reality just a spell like the rest.  The reason it is called the Mithras liturgy is that it contains a mention of “Helios Mithras”.

Anyway, I got the PDF of Betz’ translations and did a search on “Mithr”.  To my astonishment, I started getting results in some of the other magical texts in the collection.  Here are some excerpts from the spells:

From PGM III, 1-164; lines 71-85:

“I conjure you, the powerful and mighty angel of this animal in this place; rouse yourself for me, and perform the NN [deed] both on this very day and in every hour and day; rouse yourself for me against my enemies, NN, and perform NN deed” (add the usual), “for I conjure you by IAO SABAOTH ADONAI ABRASAX, and by the great god, IAEO” (formula), “AEEIOYW WYOIEEA CHABRAX PHNESKER PHIKO PHNYRO PHWCHW BWCH / ABLANATHANALBA ARRAMMACHAMARI SESENGENBARPHARANGES MITHRA NAMAZAR ANAMARIA DAMNAMENEU CHEU CHTHO[NIE] THORTOEI, holy king, the Sailor, [who steers] the tiller of the lord god, rouse [yourself] for me, great cat-faced one, steerer of the tiller [of God], perform the NN deed (add the usual), from this very day, immediately, immediately; quickly, quickly. …

The footnote indicates that the portion that I have placed in italics, which is repeated on line 100, may be garbled Greek for Damnameneu, Zeu cthonie, identifying Helios-Mithras with Hades.  Note the Jewish names of power somewhat earlier, and the invocation of the Greek vowels, first in one direction, then the other.

And lines 99-104 of the same:

“Halt, halt the sacred boat,” steersman of the sacred boat! Even you, Meliouchos, / I will bind to your moorings, until I hold converse with sacred Helios. Yea, greatest Mithra, NAMAZAR ANAMARIA DAMNAMENEU CHEU CHTHONIE THONTOEI, holy king, the sailor, he who controls the tiller of the lord god,”

In PGM III, 424-466, a spell for knowledge, on line 439 we find the following interesting remark, mentioning the historian Manetho who helped create the Serapis cult:

[For] the lord [god] speaks. A procedure greater than this one does not exist. It has been tested by Manetho, [who] received [it] as a gift from god Osiris the greatest. Perform it, perform it successfully and silently.

Followed by:

pray to him. But . . I . but a swallow of this comes . . . this your formula repeat seven times . . . formula, which you say: “Hail, Helios, Mithras. . . .”

Then there is the passage in PGM IV 475-829:

… for an only child I request immortality, O initiates of this our power (furthermore, it is necessary for you, O daughter, to take / the juices of herbs and spices, which will [be made known] to you at the end of my holy treatise), which the great god Helios Mithras ordered to be revealed to me by his archangel, so that I alone may ascend into heaven as an inquirer / and behold the universe.

Again, this is surely a spell, not a liturgy?

PGM V. 1-53 begins:

“Oracle of Sarapis, [by means of] a boy, by means of a lamp, saucer and bench: “I call upon you, Zeus, Helios, Mithra, Sarapis, / unconquered one, Meliouchos, Melikertes, Meligenetor, ABRAAL BACHAMBECHI BAIBEIZOTH (EBAI BEBOTH)…

Finally in the glossary on pp.336-7 I found this note:

Mithras: The Persian god is mentioned only a few times in PGM (note III. 100, 462; IV. 482) and each time as being identical with Helios or with Zeus-Helios-Sarapis (see PGM V. 4). See Nilsson, GGR II,668-72; Dieterich, Mithrasliturgie 67ff. Vermaseren,”Mithras in der Romerzeit,” in M. J. Vermaseren, ed., Die orientalischen Religionen in Romerreich, EPRO 93 (Leiden: Brill, 1981) 96-120, with bibliography.

It’s permissible to wonder why Mithras appears at all, except that plainly it was a “name of power”, just like the others with which the texts are studded.   This led me to a review of Betz, The Mithras Liturgy: Text, Translation and Commentary (2003), by John Gee in the RBL here.  Gee points out that the papyri are all often in the same hand, an Egyptian who writes both Greek and Demotic, and evidently is part of a temple.  He adds:


Egyptian deities, whether under Greek or Egyptian names, appear sixteen times more frequently in the text than deities from any other pantheon. It is probably significant that the only mention of Mithras is of Helios-Mithras, where Mithras is syncretized with the Egyptian deity Re under the Greek name Helios. Betz himself notes that usually Mithras was identified with Saturn rather than the sun (p. 137). If we consider that there is evidence of the Egyptian co-opting Iao as early as the Persian period, then we have the strange situation where all the deities mentioned in the so-called “Mithras Liturgy” are Egyptian.

Interesting indeed.  The references to Iao and Adonai and Sabaoth are also telling.

I suspect that the “Mithras liturgy” is about as much a Mithraic liturgy as it is a Psalm of David.

UPDATE: I also went through Preisendanz’ two volume collection of all the texts with German translation.  I didn’t find any more instances, except for an ostracon at the end of vol. 2, which had a series of names such as Baal, Mithreu, Mithra, etc.


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