Today marks an important milestone for me. It’s been officially a year I’ve been writing about Lebanon. With this in mind, I would like to celebrate it with this post that took me months in research and led me to some amazing findings. If you are a lover of history and lost stories, this post is for you. Today’s post has nothing less then a Dan Brown plot to it. Art and history have a way of travelling around the world, hiding, and then reappearing out of nowhere. It is for those who adore it to seek it and trace it back to its origins. So please bear with me this long post.
With all my love, from this land of many mysteries…
The ancient Roman religion known as the Mithraic mysteries has captivated the imaginations of scholars for generations. There are two reasons for this fascination. First, like the other ancient “mystery religions,” Mithraism maintained strict secrecy about its teachings and practices, revealing them only to initiates. As a result, reconstructing the beliefs of the Mithraic devotees has posed an enormously intriguing challenge to scholarly ingenuity. Second, Mithraism arose in the Mediterranean world at exactly the same time as did Christianity, and thus the study of the cult holds the promise of shedding vital light on the cultural dynamics that led to the rise of Christianity. According to other proponents, the tauroctony is not, as some have claimed, a pictorial representation of an Iranian myth, but is rather something utterly different: namely, an astronomical star map!
The cult of Mithra survived in Sidon even after Constantine the Great sought to wipe out paganism. The Mithraeum of Sidon escaped destruction because the followers of Mithra walled off the entrance to the underground sanctuary. Evidence supports the belief that the sanctuary may have been beneath the foundations of the present Greek Catholic Archbishopric. According to the seleucid era the Mithraeum must have existed in the second century, assuming, however, the autonomic era of the city itself, the sanctuary existed in the fourth one.
Mithra, also spelled Mithras, Sanskrit Mitra, in ancient Indo-Iranian mythology, the god of light, whose cult spread from India in the east to as far west as Spain, Great Britain, and Germany. The first written mention of the Vedic Mitra dates to 1400 BC. His worship spread to Persia and, after the defeat of the Persians by Alexander the Great, throughout the Hellenic world. In the 3rd and 4th centuries ad, the cult of Mithra, carried and supported by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, was the chief rival to the newly developing religion of Christianity. The Roman emperors Commodus and Julian were initiates of Mithraism, and in 307 Diocletian consecrated a temple on the Danube River to Mithra, “Protector of the Empire.”
According to myth, Mithra was born, bearing a torch and armed with a knife, beside a sacred stream and under a sacred tree, a child of the earth itself. He soon rode, and later killed, the life-giving cosmic bull, whose blood fertilizes all vegetation. Mithra’s slaying of the bull was a popular subject of Hellenic art and became the prototype for a bull-slaying ritual of fertility in the Mithraic cult. As god of light, Mithra was associated with the Greek sun god, Helios, and the Roman Sol Invictus. He is often paired with Anahita, goddess of the fertilizing waters.
Now fast forward to 2016. In the Louvre in the New Galleries, The Roman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, lie beautiful marble sculptures from the Mithraeum (place of worship of Mirtha) at Sidon dating back to 389 AD. On the plate stands Mithras, sacrificing the bull surrounded by the figures of his cult, Cautes and Cautopates with their torches, the double axe of thunder, etc. The winged figure with a lion’s head represents Kronos. The Mithraeum was discovered in 1887 by Edmond Durighello, an eccentric antique dealer who did not reveal its exact whereabouts. The collection of sculptures was bought by de Clercq in Paris in 1882 and is said to have been deposited with Comte Louis de Boisgelin who lived on 5 Rue Masseran, Paris (VII).
The cult was all male. There were seven degrees of initiation. Different ritual meals were associated with each stage. The temples of Mithras were always an underground cave, featuring a relief of Mithras killing the bull. This tauroctony, as it is known today, appears in the same format everywhere, but with minor variations.
The architecture of a temple of Mithras is very distinctive. Porphyry, quoting the lost handbook of Eubolus states that Mithras was worshipped in a rock cave. The Mithraeum reproduces this cave, in which Mithras killed the bull. The format of the room involved a central aisle, with a raised podium on either side. Mithraea are commonly located close to springs or streams; fresh water appears to have been required for some Mithraic rituals, and a basin is often incorporated into the structure. There is usually an antechamber at the entrance, and often other ancillary rooms for storage and the preparation of food.
It is certain that Mithras is born from a rock. He is depicted in his temples hunting down and slaying a bull. He then meets with the sun, who kneels to him. The two then shake hands, and dine on bull parts. Little is known about the beliefs associated with this. Some monuments show additional episodes of the myth.
The astronomical explanation of the tauroctony is based on two facts. First, every figure found in the standard tauroctony has a parallel among a group of constellations located along a continuous band in the sky: the bull is paralleled by Taurus, the dog by Canis Minor, the snake by Hydra, the raven by Corvus, and the scorpion by Scorpio. Second, Mithraic iconography in general is pervaded by explicit astronomical imagery: the zodiac, planets, sun, moon, and stars are often portrayed in Mithraic art (note for example the stars around the head of Mithras in the carving of the tauroctony illustrated above); in addition, numerous ancient authors speak about astronomical subjects in connection with Mithraism. In the writings of the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, for example, we find recorded a tradition that the cave which is depicted in the tauroctony and which the underground Mithraic temples were designed to imitate was intended to be “an image of the cosmos.” Given the general presence of astronomical motifs in Mithraic art and ideology, the parallel noted above between the tauroctony-figures and constellations is unlikely to be coincidence.
In the years before the introduction of the Christian religion, Mithraism was regarded as the primary closing religion of the Roman Empire, and later eventually becoming the principal ranked competing rival to Christianity after its uprising. It is still regarded as one of the most universal religions and greatest mystery cults in the Western World. Its mysteries that spread by the Romans likewise had a large significant importance on the development of early Christianity during its first four centuries.
Both Roman Mithraism, like Iranian Mithraism (were cults of loyalty toward its king. Many prominent Roman figures were among its initiates, and were encouraged by various Roman emperors, such as Commodus, Aurelian, Diocletian, Galerius and Licinius.
In 307, a temple was even dedicated to Mithra and he officially became the “Protector of the Empire”. The birthday of Mithra furthermore occurred during the Winter Solstice that celebrated the Natalis Solis Invicti on December 25th. This large celebration was known for signaling the birth of a young Sun god who sprang from a rock or a cave in the form of a newborn infant.
His triumph and ascension was celebrated at Easter, and as being the god of light, he also preformed the usual assortment of miracles; such as raising the dead, healing the sick, and casting out devils. Before returning to heaven, he celebrated a last supper with his 12 disciples on the zodiac. In memory of this, his worshippers partook in a sacramental meal of bread marked with a cross. It was called mizd, Latin missa, Greek maza, English mass. In 313 CE, the official birthday of Jesus in alignment with Mithra also became December 25th. In the year 375 CE, Pope Julius I likewise declared the Nativity of the birth of Jesus as December 25th to align followers of the Sun god Mithra. This event became the very motivation as to why Jesus received his official birth anniversary on December 25th in accordance of the ancient pagan resurrecting solar godman in the Roman Empire, as before that, no one knew of his historical birth. St. Augustine even went as far as declaring that the priests of Mithra worshipped the same deity as he did.
Eventually though, this festival of “Christmas” became a civic holiday by the emperor Justinian where the events became so customary that it begun marking the beginning of the ceremonial year for Christians. The use of giving gifts, holly, mistletoe, yule logs, fruitcake, ringing bells, candles, wassail bowls, and decorating a tree however all derived from early pagan customs.
The beautifully cut marble relief found in Sidon with a tauroctony surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac has two details that are quite remarkable since they attest to the presence of astrological lore in this Mithraic community:
1) A scorpion encircling bull’s genitalia is identical with the astrological sign of Scorpio;
2) The animals symbolizing the constellations of Taurus and Aries are depicted leaping up at the busts of Luna and Sun, which could be, at least according to one specialist in ancient astrology, an allusion to the fact that the exaltation of these planets occurs in these particular zodiacal signs.
Secondly, there are two statues representing Mithraic torchbearers, Cautes and Cautopates. These are quite customary except for one extraordinary detail. It is the only known instance when these followers of Mithras are holding double edged battle axes in addition to the usual torches.
Underneath the many layers of Saida today, hidden or destroyed is a pagan temple dedicated to the worship of a sun god, whose origins go back to India and date back to the 2nd century BC. The artifacts of this temple lie behind glass walls in Paris located around the Cour Visconti in the Louvre away from home, lost forever to Lebanon.
And now that you know a little about it, look at its details and see how mesmerizing this cut marble is!