Ulansey’s “Origins of the Mithraic mysteries” – reviewed

I have now finished my book review of David Ulansey’s much read book.  It is here.

Ulansey’s ideas are interesting, but ultimately quite improbable.  His star-map stuff just does not work.  The tauroctony is a star-map of the sky as it was in 2,000 BC?  I don’t think so, somehow.

I don’t see anything that disproves his theory that Mithras is really a code-name for Perseus.  That bit of the book had some actual evidence for it, which most of his book did not.  The problem is that the actual evidence for this idea is pretty thin; a case-ending in Statius, a scholion on Statius in Lactantius Placidus, plus a lot of speculation.

R. L. Gordon’s dismissal of the book as speculation heaped upon speculation is by and large correct.  Ulansey is making bricks without straw.

7 thoughts on “Ulansey’s “Origins of the Mithraic mysteries” – reviewed

  1. Thanks for the review Roger. Your questions about the star map are valid; I ought to have raised them myself when I read Beck.

    The picture you include in the review, BTW, is not visible (over here in Holland).

  2. I felt that it was time to go through Ulansey properly and, in a fair-minded way, work out what his thesis was, precisely, and whether it worked or not. It’s better than I remember it being, but ultimately unsound.

    I was amused to see that the headbangers quote him, not in support of his own theory, but instead prefer to use incidental remarks he makes along the way, while ignoring his rebuttal of Cumont!

    I’ve fixed the picture — sorry about that.

  3. It seems to me that his star-map explanation also fails to engage with two of the most striking Mithraic characteristics, its strong association with the military and its complete exclusion of women. So even if his arguments were better it wouldn’t be very helpful.

  4. Well, I could see military guys seeing themselves as worshippers of heroes like Perseus, and anything that starts in the military often stays in the military. There might also be a connection to the historic site of the legend or of Perseus’ alleged bones, which were probably somewhere in the Roman legion’s and auxiliaries’ range.

    Given that Danae, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, the Graiae, and Medusa all come into the legend, it would seem a bit difficult to keep women out. But there seem to be plenty of male clubs in this world with various legendary themes which could simultaneously honor the women in those legends while not inviting any particular woman to join up. And since there were never any Roman military women in either the legions or the auxiliaries, as far as we know, but only camp followers of various types, making a cult military-only would necessarily make it male-only.

    It was not that long ago that the Baker Street Irregulars would regularly toast the ladies and write papers about the ladies, but only invited one woman representing The Woman (ie, Irene Adler) to the dinner each year, and she was never an Irregular herself.

  5. I agree with you about the readability of Ulansey’s book. I enjoyed it too. Mithraism definitely seemed to be associated with the army. That it was first connected with the regions about Cilicia makes me wonder if anyone has associated the Taurus Mountains with the bull. The Romans were desperate to get extended into the east. The bull of the tauroctony is sometimes depicted with a tail that resembles a wheat shaft and with blood flowing from his wounded neck. If the bull represented the Taurus Mountains, the tail would be in the west which IIRC is the Turkish Lakes region (fertile ?). The streams of blood flowing from the bulls neck could represent the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In his fastii Ovid associates the snake, raven and cup together (February 14th) and the moral of the story seems to be about duty above pleasure – fitting for a soldier. So to my mind perhaps the imagery of the tauroctany can be explained from something as simple as a pictorially represented goal for the army – having originated in a specific context and thereafter just used as a type.

  6. @Maureen: well, that sounds right and proper to me! Those were more civilised times.

    @g.l.: it could be so. But … it’s easy enough to form these links in our minds and create narratives thus. But we have to resist. There are just so many possible links of this kind.

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