Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sol Invictus

Sitting alone on a beach at daybreak makes one think about the world a little differently, far away from the cold and snow, far from the world. I think the older I get the more I dislike the cold, and therefore the more I tend to vocalize my prefered tastes in weather. To anyone that will listen. Anyone. Even if I were in Moscow, the snow covering the onion domes like something from a fairytale or in Venice when the winter sea mist drifts through the piazzas and the silvery rustle of the gondola bells shiver the veiled canals, it would require more than a mere muff to keep me quiet.
Now I am wondering where all the seashells are, I mean, um, it is a beach after all...
As I dig around in the sand, with my feet, I muse about our strange world and our strange customs, the ones that we practice without question, the ones that help us make sense of all of this. I think about how, to ancient Christians and pilgrims, seashells were the symbol of St. James the Greater and how the Victorians used to prize seashells for their natural beauty, one that conjured up exotic places far away from the December cold, making gifts from them and hanging them on their Christmas trees. Ancient Indian epics describe how each hero carried a mighty white conch shell, whose triumphant blast brought terror to the enemy. It was an emblem of power, authority and sovereignty whose blast is believed to banish evil spirits, avert natural disasters, and scare away poisonous creatures. Buddhists also associate the conch shell with Buddha‘s melodious voice, sweet with the tenor of his uplifting message, today this is why the conch is used in Tibetan Buddhism to call together religious assemblies. In New Orleans it is an old Voodoo custom to leave a sea shell outside your door, if a spirits not at rest comes to visit it will remind them that they are indeed dead and to move on, as it is the belief that one has to pass over the ocean to reach the afterlife.
We all have held a shell up to our ears, to hear the sea, but did you know that if you hold a drinking glass up to your ear, you can hear the dishwasher? I know, it's uncanny...

Christmas Day (also is the fourth day of Hanukkah, and the day before Kwanzaa, also the day before Boxing day in Canada, and the fourth day before the first day of Muharram) is also the birthday of Mithras.

Mithra was born on December 25th as an offspring of the Sun. Next to the gods Ormuzd and Ahrimanes, Mithra held the highest rank among the gods of ancient Persia. He was represented as a beautiful youth and a Mediator. Reverend J. W. Lake states: "Mithras is spiritual light contending with spiritual darkness, and through his labors the kingdom of darkness shall be lit with heaven's own light; the Eternal will receive all things back into his favor, the world will be redeemed to God. The impure are to be purified, and the evil made good, through the mediation of Mithras, the reconciler of Ormuzd and Ahriman. Mithras is the Good, his name is Love. In relation to the Eternal he is the source of grace, in relation to man he is the life-giver and mediator" (Plato, Philo, and Paul, p. 15).

Eclipsed as it was in later centuries by the faith of Christ, Mithraism – or rather, its Romanised form Sol Invictus – was the first ‘universal religion’ of the Greco-Roman world.
Mithraism anticipated Christianity in all major respects bar one, and enjoyed a ‘reign’ of at least five centuries. It peaked around the year 300 AD when it became the official religion of the empire. At that time, in every town and city, in every military garrison and outpost from Syria to the Scottish frontier, was to be found a Mithraeum and officiating priests of the cult.
Mithraism was the ‘religion of choice’ of fishermen, merchants, and in particular, the military who adopted Mithras rather like latter-day soldiers would adopt St. Michael or St. George – Mithras slew bulls, St George slew dragons! Mithraism waged – and lost – a two-hundred year battle with the upstart religion of Christ, into which much of its ritual, and many of its practitioners, were subsumed.
Fatally, Mithraism had excluded women entirely, causing well-heeled Roman matrons with a pious frame of mind to explore first Judaism, and then Christianity. Also, unlike Christianity, it made no special overtures towards the uneducated, downtrodden and marginal elements of society. It was a religion chosen by emperors, not slaves.

Mithras Goes to Rome
The cult of Mithras was actually of very ancient lineage, traceable in one form or another through at least two thousand years. In origin it was the primordial sun-worship – the father of all religion. Iconography showed Mithras, in Phrygian cap and cloak, riding his fiery chariot across the sky. But it was also an eastern religion, reaching the Roman world from India via Persia. Traditional hostility with Persia did not favour Rome adopting a religion of its enemies. This changed however in the 60s BC when Pompey’s legions first entered Syria. Mithraism had so well established itself in the Commagene, Armenia and eastern Anatolia that whole dynasties of kings had called themselves ‘Mithradates’ (‘justice of Mithra’)

Rome’s troops took to the ‘machismo’ faith, with its ceremonies of male-bonding and triumph over death, of self-control and resistance to sensuality. Acolytes were required to descend into a pit, which was then covered by boards filled with holes, and the blood of a sacrificial bull above would shower onto them. Thus sanctified they could re-emerge from the pit ‘reborn’ in Mithras. This sacrament, the ‘taurobolia,’ was the Mithraic forerunner of the Christian baptism. Mithras’ rock tomb (and place of re-birth) – the ‘petra’ – was central to each Mithraeum. The rock connection was later re-worked into the legend of Saint Peter.
Legionaries took the cult with them into Palestine and back to Rome itself. Several hundred Mithraic monuments have been found in Rome (Coarelli, 1979). Adapted for Roman taste, the most popular Romanised form of Mithraism was Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, whose re-birth was celebrated as the climax of the mid-winter Saturnalia, on 25th December (Celsus tells us that in the Mithraic mysteries the soul moved through seven heavenly spheres, beginning with the leaden Saturn and ending with the golden Sun).
Precursor of Christianity
The theology of Mithraism was centred upon the dying/rising Mithra, emerging fully grown from the ‘virgin dawn’ or rock. The association of gods with rocks or stones is not surprising: fiery rocks falling from the sky (meteorites) and even sparks released by colliding stones would equally strike the simple mind as ‘evidence’ of a godly presence. Holy stones were anointed with oil. Mithra was fathered by the creator god Ahura-Mazda.

Mithras’s supposed creation had occurred in a ‘time before men’, a cosmic creation in a celestial heaven. At no time was it believed that he had lived as a mere mortal and trod the earth. Mithraism's failure to have anthropomorphised its god into a man – something which was to be accomplished so successfully by Christianity – weakened the cult's appeal to the uneducated and opened the door to the competition.
In all other major respects the theology of the two cults were all but identical.
Mithras had had twelve followers with whom he had shared a last sacramental meal. The evidence from a mithraeum at Dura Europus suggests members of the congregation and thiasos (sacred company) held a banquet in which eating, drinking and musical performances featured as well as religious ceremonial.
"A third-century account for the mithraeum at Dura Europus lists the prices of materials required for a ritual banquet:'Meat, 19 denarii; sauce, 1 denarius; paper, 1 obol; water, 1 denarius; wood, 1 denarius; jar of wine, 28 denarii 11 obols; total 51 denarii 11 obols.' "
– K. Butcher, Roman Syria, p213.

Prof. Franz Cumont, of the University of Ghent, writes as follows concerning the religion of Mithra and the religion of Christ: "The sectaries of the Persian god, like the Christians', purified themselves by baptism, received by a species of confirmation the power necessary to combat the spirit of evil; and expected from a Lord's supper salvation of body and soul. Like the latter, they also held Sunday sacred, and celebrated the birth of the Sun on the 25th of December.... They both preached a categorical system of ethics, regarded asceticism as meritorious and counted among their principal virtues abstinence and continence, renunciation and self-control. Their conceptions of the world and of the destiny of man were similar. They both admitted the existence of a Heaven inhabited by beatified ones, situated in the upper regions, and of a Hell, peopled by demons, situated in the bowels of the Earth. They both placed a flood at the beginning of history; they both assigned as the source of their condition, a primitive revelation; they both, finally, believed in the immortality of the soul, in a last judgment, and in a resurrection of the dead, consequent upon a final conflagration of the universe"

He had sacrificed himself to redeem mankind. Descending into the underworld, he had conquered death and had risen to life again on the third day. The holy day for this sun god was, of course, Sunday (Christians continued to follow the Jewish Sabbath until the fourth century). His many titles included ‘the Truth,’ ‘the Light,’ and ‘the Good Shepherd.’ For those who worshipped him, invoking the name of Mithras healed the sick and worked miracles. Mithras could dispense mercy and grant immortality; to his devotees he offered hope. By drinking his blood and eating his flesh (by proxy, from a slain bull) they too could conquer death. On a Day of Judgement those already dead would be raised back to life.

Popular Motifs
All this may surprise modern Christians but it was very familiar to the Church Fathers [See e.g. Justin, Origen, Tertullian], who filled their ‘Apologies’ with dubious rationales as to how Mithraism had anticipated the whole nine yards of Christianity centuries before the supposed arrival of Jesus – ‘diabolic mimicry by a prescient Satan’ being the standard explanation. Pagan critics were not slow to point to the truth: Christianity had simply copied the popular motifs of a competitive faith.
Mithras was proclaimed the principal patron of the empire by Aurelian in 274 AD (on December 25th he dedicated a temple to the sun-god in the Campus Martius). Mithraism was adopted by Diocletian in 307 AD and by Julian as late as 362 AD. The cult was driven from the scene over the next hundred years by furious and sustained attacks from Christianity.
Who would defend Mithras?
Mithraism lacked a professional clergy; it had no hierarchical organisation disciplined by common rules. Though popular throughout the empire, the cult's ceremonials had remained heavily dependent upon state patronage and support. When state funding was transferred to the Church by Constantine and his successors, Mithraism's fate was sealed.
Fatally, during the reign of Emperor Gratian (367-383 AD), its sanctuaries were sacked of their wealth and closed. Thirty years later, Theodosius made worship of Mithras punishable by death. The god had fallen – but the imagery and iconography of Mithras were expropriated wholesale by the more comprehensive and favoured cult of Christ. Onto Jesus’s head fell Mithras’s sun disc. (Hello Halo!)
Christian bishops assumed his headdress and mitre.
‘Today the Vatican stands where the last sacrament of the Phrygian taurobolium was celebrated.’ ( S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, p235)

Faint echoes of the fallen god were to be heard in later Manichaeism.
In the 4th century, ordinary Christians had not yet acquired the abject humility and submissive behaviour that would characterise the brethren of later centuries. In church, they sang, danced and clapped.
Mithra was called "the good shepherd,” "the way, the truth and the light,” “redeemer,” “savior,” “Messiah." He was identified with both the lion and the lamb.
The International Encyclopedia states: "Mithras seems to have owed his prominence to the belief that he was the source of life, and could also redeem the souls of the dead into the better world ... The ceremonies included a sort of baptism to remove sins, anointing, and a sacred meal of bread and water, while a consecrated wine, believed to possess wonderful power, played a prominent part."

Chambers Encyclopedia says: "The most important of his many festivals was his birthday, celebrated on the 25th of December, the day subsequently fixed -- against all evidence -- as the birthday of Christ. The worship of Mithras early found its way into Rome, and the mysteries of Mithras, which fell in the spring equinox, were famous even among the many Roman festivals. The ceremonies observed in the initiation to these mysteries -- symbolical of the struggle between Ahriman and Ormuzd (the Good and the Evil) -- were of the most extraordinary and to a certain degree even dangerous character. Baptism and the partaking of a mystical liquid, consisting of flour and water, to be drunk with the utterance of sacred formulas, were among the inauguration acts."
Reverend Charles Biggs stated: "The disciples of Mithra formed an organized church, with a developed hierarchy. They possessed the ideas of Mediation, Atonement, and a Savior, who is human and yet divine, and not only the idea, but a doctrine of the future life. They had a Eucharist, and a Baptism, and other curious analogies might be pointed out between their system and the church of Christ (The Christian Platonists, p. 240).

In the catacombs at Rome was preserved a relic of the old Mithraic worship. It was a picture of the infant Mithra seated in the lap of his virgin mother, while on their knees before him were Persian Magi adoring him and offering gifts.

He was buried in a tomb and after three days he rose again. His resurrection was celebrated every year.
Mclintock and Strong wrote: "In modern times Christian writers have been induced to look favorably upon the assertion that some of our ecclesiastical usages (e.g., the institution of the Christmas festival) originated in the cultus of Mithraism. Some writers who refuse to accept the Christian religion as of supernatural origin, have even gone so far as to institute a close comparison with the founder of Christianity; and Dupuis and others, going even beyond this, have not hesitated to pronounce the Gospel simply a branch of Mithraism"

Mithra had his principal festival on what was later to become Easter, at which time he was resurrected. His sacred day was Sunday, "the Lord's Day." The Mithra religion had a Eucharist or "Lord's Supper."

The Christian Father Manes, founder of the heretical sect known as Manicheans, believed that Christ and Mithra were one. His teaching, according to Mosheim, was as follows: "Christ is that glorious intelligence which the Persians called Mithras ... His residence is in the sun"
"I am a star which goes with thee and shines out of the depths." - Mithraic saying
"I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright morning star." - Jesus, (Rev. 22:16)
And when they prayed it was facing to the East, with hands held wide and with face held up, not down – to greet their sun-god...
I'm just sayin'....
Cheers!

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1/2 oz Everclear® alcohol
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