That old bull again! – the recent international conference on Mithras in Italy

vulci_csaba_1I must have missed the announcement, but Csaba Szabo kindly drew my attention to his report on an international conference on Mithraic studies in Italy.  About 50 people attended.  Sadly the long-exploded Cumont theory was in evidence in some papers.  But it sounds as if it was an interesting event.

The main impression that I gained from Dr S.’s report, was that the sub-discipline is in limbo.  The field is too small to support a regular journal, as the ill-fated Journal of Mithraic Studies discovered.  Likewise those studying Mithras are invariably drawn to look at related cults.  It is troubling that at such a conference there was limited discussion of recent archaeology; for it is from archaeology that progress in understanding will be made.

vulci_csaba_13Dr S. also put on his blog some nice photos of the Mithraeum of Vulci.  I am deeply envious – it is impossible to get hold of any printed material about this place – all in Italian – and even a google search on the booklet he mentions, Vulci e i misteri di Mitra: Culti orientali in Etruria, will quickly reveal … no hits!  Oh well.  It’s good to see some interesting pots, tho.  It also clarified that the tauroctony in place in the Mithraeum is clearly a restored copy.  Pity they got the head wrong – Mithras always looks back over his shoulder!

Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony. The head is wrong, tho.
Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony. The head is wrong, tho.

6 thoughts on “That old bull again! – the recent international conference on Mithras in Italy

  1. Hi Roger,
    First, thanks very much, for this post. Well done.

    Nit picking: You wrote: “Pity they got the head wrong – Mithras always looks back over his shoulder!”

    Sorry to contest this perspective. I disagree.

    Here’s the image invoked by Roger’s quote:
    http://www.whatisacult.com/mithraism.html
    Take a gander at the costume worn by this Roman soldier. Yes, he is gazing backward, over his right shoulder, exactly as noted by Roger.

    Now take a look at the Mithraeum, excavated at Dura Europos, in the early 1930’s, currently housed at Yale University:
    http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/6746

    At higher magnification, after downloading the image, one can easily observe the Parthian garments on the Persian soldier. The Parthian costumes and Ebony stick held by the Magi, are persuasive, for me–at least this singular sculpture, if no other, betrays the notion that Mithraic traditions originated with Roman soldiers, who had imported their faith to the Eastern Mediterranean. It is contrarily, the other way around: Roman Soldiers, exposed at Palmyra and Dura Europos, brought back the ancient Persian tradition, to Italy and other parts of the Empire.

    The point though, is that the Mithra portrayed (apparently called Mehr in Avesta)–see the oldest extant Mithraeum here:

    http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Archaeology/Ashkanian/verjuy_mithra_temple.htm

    at the Yale exhibit, is looking directly at the “camera”, i.e. the person viewing the sculpture, not over his right shoulder, as we do observe in the Roman Mithraea.

    In my opinion, the Yale exhibit errs in stating, without providing a source, that this sculpture was created in Dura Europos, in CE 168 by the Palmyrene archers, a unit affiliated with the Roman Army. Why would not the temple have been created under the aegis of Seleucius Necator, the general of Alexander who inherited the Tigris Euphrates region, upon the death of the Macedonian? Seleucia on the Tigris, Necator’s famous new capital, upstream from Ctesiphon, is famous for having had Jews, Zoroastrians, and Greek temples co-existing, along a famous branch of the Silk route. Absent definitive dating, I believe that the temple was created early in the Parthian governance of the outpost on the Euphrates, circa 200 BCE.

  2. Wasn’t there some sort of big dig in England on the site of a famous temple of Mirthas?
    I was pretty sure the Times– or maybe the Daily Mail– even had a big cut-out of a bull and didn’t even mention any possible connection.
    (I think because it was estimated to be too old, but you’d think there’d be some kind of a fuss.)

  3. @S.Levin:

    I’m not clear which image you are looking at in the Dura Mithraeum, but in both of the tauroctonies, Mithras – not Mithra – is looking back over his shoulder. You can see this more easily in the copies that I have here. Cautes and Cautopates, on either side of the arch, are looking at the viewer.

    Now the structure at Verjuy (I have notes on it here). The claim that this is a temple of Mithras is one that I can’t find in any scholarly literature. I am unclear whether the site has ever been excavated professionally. The link that you give, for instance, is to an Iranian newspaper article. In fact it seems very unclear just what this place is. Nothing about it says to me “Mithras”; nor even the Persian deity Mithra.

    Unfortunately in Iran, Iranian nationalists promulgated the (exploded) idea, that Persian Mithra spread to the Roman empire as Mithras, for nationalistic reasons. Iranian muslims also liked the (obscurantist) claims that Christianity borrowed from Mithras. None of these claims are true.

    The archaeology of Mithras is very distinctive. No of the very distinctive temples of Mithras are known from outside the Roman empire. The earliest archaeology is all from Rome. Beyond the name, nothing about Mithras seems to be Zoroastrian (just like the pseudo-Zoroaster literature in Greek is not Zoroastrian, but a Greek confection). The connection with Zoroastrianism collapses, simply because the evidence is otherwise. This was the conclusion in the 1971 conference on Mithraic studies, and unless hard evidence to the contrary emerges, we cannot state what the data does not contain. What the data does contain is nothing definitely Mithraic before 80 AD.

    A word about the Dura site. Dura Europos was professionally excavated. The dates of the monuments were established by the archaeologists using modern archaeological methods. I don’t think we can simply decide to ignore these, and redate part of the site 4 centuries earlier.

  4. The story that I recall recently is connected to the London Mithraeum, which was excavated in the 50s. There’s been press stories about this. The temple remains were relocated at the time; but the site is now being redeveloped, and they are being moved back to the original site.

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