Reading Ulansey’s “Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries”

I got David Ulansey’s book on the Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries from the library this morning, and I’m reading through it.  I’ll probably do a review once I’ve read the whole thing, but here’s some thoughts so far.   This is the first time that I have really sat down with it and tried to read it cover to cover, but I dipped into it before.

Firstly it’s a better piece of work than I recalled. The opening chapters are well done, and well referenced, and very clearly written.  The suggestion that the god in the secret cult of “Mithras” turns out to be Perseus is by no means impossible.  I was quite struck by his exegesis of the passage in Statius, the earliest literary reference to the cult:

717 ……  seu te roseum Titana vocari
Gentis Achaemeniae ritu, seu praestat Osirim
Frugiferum, seu Persei sub rupibus antri
Indignata sequi torquentem cornua Mithram.

Whether it please thee to bear the name of ruddy Titan
after the manner of the Achaemenian race, or Osiris
lord of the crops, or Mithra as beneath the rocks of the Persian cave
he presses back the horns that resist his control.

This latter passage is given by Manfred Clauss as:

Mithras ‘twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave’.

Ulansey points out correctly that Persei is not the correct form of “Persian” but rather means “Persean” or “Of Perseus”; and “antri persei” could be “the cave of Perseus”.

Likewise pointing out that the 5th grade of initiation is “Perses”, which is not merely “Persian”, but also the name of the son of Perseus, and that this idea — meaning “son” — would give point to the 7th grade, “Pater”, i.e. “Father”, meaning Mithras / Perseus himself.

The “Persian” bit, then, was eyewash for outsiders; the real truth was that the cult was “Persean”.  Mithras was the “Persean god”.  I can quite imagine that this sort of pun would appeal.  The members could talk about the cult, safe in the knowledge that they were telling the truth, and that they would be totally misunderstood, and laugh about it among themselves.  The real teachings of the cult would then be based on astrology.

It’s all possible, although a certain degree of scepticism seems appropriate.  We don’t know any of this for sure, after all.  It’s just a theory to explain some of the data.

But when I got to chapter 6, I was starting to lose confidence.  It all got a bit von Daniken for me.

The Swiss maestro and former hotel-keeper used to write his books about Chariots of the Gods according to a set pattern.  He would think up his theory, and then hunt around for bits of data that could decorate them.  He would propose his theory, as a theory; and then he would introduce some bit of information; and then another, and then he would exclaim at the coincidence as proving he was right.  The fact that he had selected this material precisely because it fit the theory — there was no coincidence — was quietly ignored.

Throughout chapters 5 and 6 this old trick appeared again and again, and indeed I have just lost patience and stomped off to have a bath.  I’ll return to the book later.  It’s just speculation, not interpretation.  Not that I accuse Ulansey of deception; it’s quite likely to be self-deception.

But the problem is simply that the contortions that he gets into, to try to fit the stars in the sky into his theory, get worse and worse and worse.  You can feel the man straining.  There is not the slightest chance, in my humble opinion, that anyone devising a cult ca. 50 AD decided to represent in stone the configuration of the constellations in 2000 BC.  The fact that the precession of the equinoxes had been discovered is irrelevant; you just wouldn’t do that.  You’d make your cult myth fit what people could see up in the sky.

But it’s better than I had thought.

6 thoughts on “Reading Ulansey’s “Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries”

  1. To associate Perseus with Persians is quite common. Compare the famous oracle, quoted by Herodotus 7.220, that “descendants of Perseus” will either destroy Sparta or kill its king.

  2. Interesting — thanks! Yes, THAT bit of Ulansey’s book doesn’t seem impossible at all. It just gets a bit daft later on.

    I’ll probably do a detailed review of his book sometime soon.

  3. Edward,

    Thank you: the material is interesting, and I shall have to look at this. I wonder what the literary source is for the “Mithra slaying the bull” item he refers to?

    All the best,

    Roger Pearse

  4. I’ve written an email and asked. I had thought that I knew the relevant Zoroastrian sources for Mithra, but it’s easily possible that I don’t. It’s remarkably hard to get a handle on.

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