Sunday, July 5, 2009

Theos ek Petras

Shush! That's the password. Theos ek Petras, or "God from the Rock." Of course, if you were living in Rome or in a cosmopolitan city within the empire you might use the Latin, Deus ex Silicis. After uttering the password, you would be permitted to participate in the rites of honoring the god, Mithras. After entering the cave or cave-like structure, you would be seated on one of the raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal. At the far end was the sanctuary, often in a recess, before which the pedestal-like altar stood. Early Christian Churches used these 'mithraeum' for their services, especially after the year 391 when emperor Flavius Theodosius banned all pagan rites in the empire.

Dating from around the 15th century BC, Mithraism emerged in ancient Persia. 'Mihr' (the Persian form of Mithras) was the word not only for the Sun but also for a friend; and that seems to be how this pagan god was originally worshipped - as both supreme sun god and god of love.

Roman soldiers were especially enamored by Mithras and often carried small statues of this god with them to all the corners of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists have uncovered many of these statues especially along the ancient Roman roads that crisscrossed the empire. Beyond the soldiers, traders and slaves became interested in the cult as well. Mithraism first appealed to slaves and freedmen but with Mithras's title Invictus, the cult's emphasis on truth, honour and courage, and its demand for discipline soon led to Mithras becoming a god of soldiers and traders.

Artifacts of this cult have been found as far north as Hadrian's Wall in northern England as well as in recent excavations in London itself. Other discoveries have been along the Danube in Romania and the Rhine River valley, into present day Iran and as far south as North Africa. Naturally, most archaeological discoveries have been made in Rome, itself, including a well-preserved late second-century mithraeum, with its altar and built-in stone benches, originally built beneath a Roman house (as was a common practice, the religion being a "secret" one), survives in the crypt over which has been built the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome.

Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges of France into the fifth century after it was outlawed by the emperor, but the epicenter of Mithras worship was in the city of Tarsus.

In 128 B.C.E, the noted Greek astronomer Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes - a wobble in the axis of the earth's rotation which causes the celestial equator to intersect a new constellation of the Zodiac every 2,160 years. The discovery of "precession" by Hipparchus in 128 B.C. and the precessional displacement of the entire cosmos implied the existence of a powerful, unseen god who resided beyond the stars and moved the entire universe according to his own timetable. A very radical concept at that time, to be sure. This became the Age of Taurus, the bull.

The carving above, called Tauroctony, depicts this mythical 'savior' Mithras slaying that bull. The scene it depicts Mithra's control of the precession of the equinoxes, thus bestowing great power over the heavens and that 'unseen god' who resided there. Scholars have noted that the symbols in this carving all represent the signs of the zodiac: the dog, the bull, the scorpion, the lion. Mithra's power over the stars was set, especially as he slew taurus, the bull.

Christianity was attempting to get a foothold in the Roman Empire at this same time. Its most staunch opponent was the cult Mithra. If the Mithraism had had an earlier beginning among the Roman soldiers, it might have suffocated the early Christian movement. The contest was neck-and-neck until Constantine wagered that Christianity would be a better bet for his military ambitions than Mithraism. We might not have ever heard anything about a man named Jesus from Nazareth had Constantine decided differently.

In fact, up until this time, Christian apologists knew that they needed to make their man/god more attractive than Mithras. They needed to portray Jesus as a strong and powerful deity with 'powers and abilities far beyond mortal man,' to quote Superman. It was nothing short of a 3rd century advertising blitz. Whichever deity seemed more heroic, more powerful, more attractive would win the hearts and minds of the 'faithful.'
The competion was at full speed.

In the earliest and most original Gospel, Mark, he purposely included a reference to Mithras as he portrays Jesus, at the moment of his baptism, having a vision of 'the heavens torn open.' Just as Mithras is revealed as a being from beyond the universe capable of altering the cosmic spheres, so here we find Jesus linked with a rupture of the heavens, an opening into the numinous realms beyond the furthest cosmic boundaries. Mark wanted to level the playing field with this statement lest his Jesus possess less grand powers.

Author David Ulancy, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford University Press, 1991), said, "There, at the beginning of the foundation story of Christianity, we find Jesus, at the moment of his baptism, having a vision of "the heavens torn open." Just as Mithras is revealed as a being from beyond the universe capable of altering the cosmic spheres, so here we find Jesus linked with a rupture of the heavens, an opening into the numinous realms beyond the furthest cosmic boundaries. Perhaps, then, the figures of Jesus and Mithras are to some extent both manifestations of a single deep longing in the human spirit for a sense of contact with the ultimate mystery."

Paul [Saul] of Tarsus was not only aware of a christ-like figure who had lived and preached near Jerusalem, but of course of Mithras too as it was in his city of Tarsus that the Mysteries of Mithras had originated. It was in Tarsus where, according to Plutarch [46-125CE], the Mithraic Mysteries were being practiced as early as 67 BCE. Therefore, it would have been unthinkable that Paul would have been unaware of the remarkable similarities between Christian doctrines and the teachings of Mithraism. He must have often confused the two 'men' as well as their teachings and symbols.

In that culture, the bull was seen as a symbol of Spring, of rebirth, and many carvings of Mithras cleansing himself in the blood of a bull have been found. The ritual killing of bulls and washing in its blood was believed to be necessary for cleansing, eternal life and salvation. This was followed by a meal of the bulls flesh. Life anew could be created from the flesh and blood of the sacrificed bull. If a bull was not available a substitute was used by poorer congregations, such as a ram, bread or fish. It is interesting to note that adherents of Mithras believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again, just as life itself has been created anew from the blood of the bull. Participation in this rite would give not only physical strength but lead to the immortality of the soul and to eternal light. The similarity between the Mithras ritual and the Eucharist could not be more obvious.

In one of the grandest schemes ever concocted and perhaps the most egregious lie ever told by a member of a church body was done by an early Father of the Church, Tertullian [160CE-240CE]. He stated that this ritual of the Mithras folowers was a 'devilish imitation of the Eucharist'. He claimed that those who worshipped Mithra copied the Jesus mythology into their own religious practices when, clearly, it was exactly the opposite. That grand spin of the truth is equal to that of many modern day politicians.

Other interesting plageristic maneuvers included the fact that in 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine declared December 25th to be the birthday of Jesus (December 25th was prescribed earlier as the birthday of Mithras, by emperor Aurelian). Sabbath day, which is literally Saturday (as the Jews still maintain), became Sunday as it was the day of the Sun, another element from the Mithra worship.

It is interesting, in this battle of the prevailing deities, just how much told of Jesus is that of Mithras. Jesus was the son of the Hebrew sky God, and Mithras was son of Ormuzd, the good deity of the Zoroastrian religion. They are both the same myth. The rituals of Christianity coincide with the earlier rituals of Mithraism, including the Eucharist and the Communion. The language used by Mithraism was the language used by Christians. St Paul as the first "Christian" bears much of the responsibility for merging the two in his preaching and teaching, and he also comes from Tarsus, a major Mithraist center.

Clearly our fundamentalist and/or evangelical christian apologists will want to 'set the record straight', but it is all-too clear that the christian myth and the mithras myth are permanently entangled with each other. The battle for the minds and hearts of the Roman Empire remained a virtual tie until Constantine, like the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, stepped in and declared 'the winner.'

Lefty Blogs