Mithras in the papyri

Few people can be aware that the papyrus discoveries of the last century have included references to Mithras.  I do not refer here to the use of the name of Mithras in the Greek Magical Papyri, in PGM IV,[1] where one of the incantations was even given the name of the Mithras Liturgy by its unfortunate early editor, Dieterich.[2]  The luckless Dieterich dedicated the book to the great Franz Cumont, but Cumont declined to agree with Dieterich that the text was Mithraic.

Rather I refer to two papyri, which seem unavoidably connected with the initiation rituals of the cult.  Rather amazingly, I find transcriptions and even translations of both online here.

The first of the papyri is P. Berol. 21196, a scrap of papyrus probably found at Ashmounein in Egypt in 1906, and the property of the Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Berlin State Museum.  It dates from the 4th century AD, and consists of fragments of a single papyrus sheet from a codex.  It was published in 1992 by the late William Brashear.[3]

The document seems to involve questions and answers, and is perhaps a preparatory catechism for an initiation.  There is mention of a pater — the 7th grade of initiation in the mysteries; of night as the time for some ceremony, putting on a girdle or belt with 4 tassels, wearing linen, dealing with something sharp, and something hot or cold, and the mention of a meal.  Line 9 of the second side refers to “becoming a lion” (ἐγένου λέων).  The grade of Leo is found only in the cult of Mithras, and this ties the papyrus squarely to that cult.[4]

The second papyrus belongs to the 3rd century AD.  I know no more about this than I can find in the webpage mentioned earlier: that it was published by Vittorio Bartoletti in two sections.[5].  There is reference to ἀστέρων, indicating astral or astrological elements — rather relevant this, considering that I’ve been looking at David Ulansey’s book — and there is also the word καυτοπαυ (= Καυτοπάτου?)  or Cautopates, the name of the ancillary deity in the temples of Mithras.  There is also a reference to Serapis, interestingly.  The suggestion is that this is an oath.

This all left me wondering whether there were any Mithraea in Egypt, and if so, where.

  1. [1]Paris Bibliothèque Nationale Suppl. gr. 574.
  2. [2]Albrecht Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, Leipzig: Teubner, 2nd enlarged edn. 1910
  3. [3]William M. Brashear, A Mithraic Catechism from Egypt. <P. Berol. 21196> (Tyche Supplementband, I.) Pp. 70; 2 plates. Vienna: Holzhausen, 1992.  There is a review of the publication by J. Gwyn Griffiths, in The Classical Review, N.S. 44.1 (1994), p.181-2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/712295
  4. [4]Griffiths adds, p.182: “It is true that Plutarch in Ch. 38 of his De Iside et Osiride says that the Egyptians honoured the constellation of the Lion and adorned the doors of temples with lions’ jaws — an allusion perhaps to the lion-shaped bolts found in late temples. While this might relate to the term λεοντίον in the papyrus, it does not suit the idea of becoming a Lion.”
  5. [5]V. Bartoletti, Papiri, Greci e Latini (= PSI) vol. X, no. 1162; and V. Bartoletti, “Frammenti di un rituale d’iniziazione ai misteri” in Annali della R. Scuoli Normale Superiore de Pisa (Pisa: 1937) 143-152.

2 thoughts on “Mithras in the papyri

  1. Interesting post , that has led me into several hours of reading, and reflection about my prejudices about Mithras, there is just so much evidence to consider.
    I have always thought of it terms of a solar cult, and looked to ‘traditional astrology’ and classical as an explanation for its iconography.
    For example I was going to point out that the sign Leo traditionally was associated with the sun [its’ruling planet’].
    I have not found any Mithreum in Egypt for you.
    Perhaps the issue I find most interesting is it relationship with early Christianity, which would appear to share some of the same components of religious practice – which is not to imply any theological connection – only that religion in any period was expected to cover certain bases;[there are only a limited number of ways God/Gods can be worshiped].

  2. I’m hoping to get access to Vermaseren’s CIMRM and then I should be able to determine if he lists anything in Egypt.

    On Christianity, Manfred Clauss puts it well, I think (p.168-9):

    Ever since the middle of the second century AD Christian writers had commented, often enough in harsh terms, on the remarkable similarities between their own religion and the cult of Mithras. From their point of view, all these resemblances were clever ruses on the part of the Devil.

    Mithras and Christ actually compose a fascinating chapter in the rich history of the religious movements of the Principate. From the late nineteenth century, that is, with the work of Franz Cumont, there has been an occasionally lively debate over the nature of the relationship between the cult of Mithras and Christianity. This long controversy was sparked off by a stimulating remark of Ernest Renan, in his book on the cultural history of the later Principate: ‘If Christianity had been arrested in its growth by some fatal malady, the world would have become Mithraist.’177 This rather pointed way of putting the claim naturally raised numerous voices for and against.

    Yet the entire discussion is largely unhistorical. To raise the issue of a competition between the two religions is to assume that Christians and Mithraists had the same aims. Such a view exaggerates the missionary zeal – itself a Christian idea – of the other mystery cults. None of them aimed to become the sole legitimate religion of the Roman empire, because they all offered an entirely individual and personal salvation. The alternative ‘Mithras or Christ?’ is wrongly framed, because it postulates a competitive situation which, in the eyes of Mithraists, simply did not exist. The only people who could imagine a conflict between two religions were those who believed that their religion, their God, would eventually be victorious, and worked towards that end in whatever way they could. We should not simply transpose Christian views and terms in this area onto other mystery cults. Most of the parallels between Mithraism and Christianity are part of the common currency of all mystery cults or can be traced back to common origins in the Graeco-oriental culture of the Hellenistic world. The similarities do not at all suggest mutual influence. The Church Fathers themselves must have had an inkling of this when they blamed the imitation not on the Mithraists but on the Devil.

    I confess that I have heard so many headbangers chirping “Jesus is really Mithras” that it only provokes irritation now.

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