A gem with a Mithraic tauroctony of the 1st century BC?

An email from a correspondent pointed me to an image in Wikipedia Commons, itself from the Walters Art Gallery, of an intaglio ring, and enquired about the date of the item. 

The item consists of an ancient gold ring, with a depiction of the killing of the bull by Mithras cut into a gem of sard.  It is catalogued by Vermaseren as CIMRM 2367, who gives no date for it.  

Note that the image to left is rather magnified: the item is 2.2 x 2.3 cms. 

Standard elements in the scene appear.  At top right is the sun, Sol, identifiable by the rayed crown.  A face opposite, top left, is presumably Luna, although nothing can be seen that indicates this.

The action takes place in the cavern, whose rocks form a roof to the scene.  Two individuals appear on either side, who would usually be Cautes and Cautopates, the torch bearers.  But these seem a little unusual.  Each is supporting his chin with one arm.  And where are the torches? 

But there is something more which is a little unusual about this.  Notice the position of Mithras’ head.  He is looking forwards and down, towards the dagger.  But Mithras is nearly always depicted looking back over his shoulder — why, we do not know. 

The provenance of the item is nothing.  It was bought by the Walters from a previous collection, owned by one A. Evans — not the great Arthur Evans of Knossus? –, and appears in the catalogue of his sale in 1938.  The find location is “said to be from Nemea” in Greece.  So there is no archaeological provenance for the ring. 

The date given by the cataloguer of the Walters collection is “late 1st century BC (Augustan)”, although no explanation is offered for this date. 

Such a date would precede all the archaeology for Mithras by more than a century, and, if correct, would be of the highest interest for Mithraic studies.

But it is difficult to know why we should give it any such date.  If we assume that the item is authentic, why should we not presume, what we would otherwise suppose, which is a date of the 2-3rd century AD? 

Items of this kind can only be dated from three considerations, as far as I can tell.  They may have an inscription, which tells us when they were made.  They may be found in an archaeological context where the stratigraphy tells us the date.  Or they may be dated by comparison with similar securely dated items, where the change of style identifies the period to which an unknown item should be assigned.

Yet which of this is available for this ring?  It has no inscription.  It was bought on the art market.  And not a single one of the gems published by Vermaseren has a date attached to it.

The text on the Walters’ page reflects the usual hearsay, that Mithras was a Persian deity adopted by the Romans.  This has not been the consensus of the academy since 1971.  The archaeological evidence makes clear that Mithras as we know it originated in Rome, whatever the pre-history of the cult.  So … I don’t think we need pay any attention to the date on the page.

It is, all the same, an interesting item.  I wish we could have a colour picture of it.

And I wonder whether someone might like to ask the Walters if they would consider placing an image of their other Mithraic gem, CIMRM 2364, accession no 42.868, on the web?

The gems, in general, are not numerous.  They are, however, remarkably syncretistic in nature.  Some contain magical inscriptions.  Others depict other gods, such as Iao.  I would infer from this, although I have not the slightest qualification to have an opinion, that all these items are late, and belong to the decay of paganism.  Perhaps someone who knows about gems will tell us.

2 thoughts on “A gem with a Mithraic tauroctony of the 1st century BC?

  1. This comment comes only six years late, but still. In my view, the gem is probably an early-modern “Supplement” to the corpus of antique rings. Roger Pearse rightly comments on the oddity of the way the torchbearers are represented, though it is not so much their ‘mourning’ attitude (taken from the grieving Attis type), which is found occasionally on Mithraic items, as the strange manner in which their clothing is indicated. But there are (at least) two other striking oddities: one is the fact that Mithras is using his right arm/hand to wrench back the bull’s head, into a position that is far more extreme than normal, and he is using his left Hand to stab it. Offhand, I know no parallel to this stance: Mithras invariably uses his left Hand to pull the head back and stabs the bull with his Right. Moreover, as the recent flurry of empty speculation about it being “impossible to kill a bull by stabbing it there” reminds us, Mithras does not cut the bull’s throat, as he is shown doing here. This is rather the stance of Nike tauroktonos, or of the pre-battle sphagia, not of Mithras. The second oddity is that the head of Helios/Sol is in the wrong place: in 99.99% of cases, Helios/Sol is on the left, Selene/ Luna on the Right. Moreover this three-qurter view of the face is extremely suspect for a supposedly ancient gem. A final Point that makes it almost certain that is item is modern is the odd object in the field below the bull’s Right foreleg: it seems to be the head of a snake, but the remainder of the Body is not shown, so that it appears to be emerging out of the earth – i.e. it is an Interpretation of the ancient Scene, not a reproduction of it. Since there is a well-known series from Rome and its environs in which Mithras is naturalistically looking down at what he is supposed to be doing, and in which the head of the bull is pulled far back, I take it that the gem was copied from a wood-cut or engraving of such an item but fancifully embellished. I conclude that the item should be removed from the Corpus.

  2. Thank you so much for this detailed comment! This is really useful, especially to amateurs like myself who grope in the dark on matters of iconography. It’s very interesting to hear that it might be a modern item! (My apologies for the delay – your comment went into the spam box for some unknown reason).

Leave a Reply