Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations
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H: Roman Constellations
17: Mithraic uranography
Mithras bull slaying scene from Mithraic Temple at Heddernheim, Germany. Since January 1826, there have been 4 Mithraea found at Nida-Heddernheim which is located in a section of the city of Frankfurt am Main.
A Mithraic tauroctony 'bull slaying' scene (Museo Nationale Roma). (The representation of Mithras slaying a bull is known as a tauroctony.) The central image in all Mithraea (an underground chamber where the cult was practiced) is the tauroctony. The tauroctony takes a very similar form in all surviving examples. Astronomical interpretations of Mithraism have been around at least since the 19th-century. However, they are not all the same, especially the astronomical interpretation of the tauroctony. Interestingly, a Mithraic type of depiction appears on a Seleucid (Persian) period astronomical tablet from Uruk. It depicts a bearded humanoid, with a weapon in hand, slaying an animal. The humanoid is enclosed within a circle with the Moon and Pleiades on the left side and the constellation Taurus is depicted on the right side.
Mithraism was a mystery religion that originated in Persia and developed in the Roman Empire. Contemporaries described Mithraism as a Persian cult. The exact origin and nature of Roman Mithraism has been largely a mystery to classical scholars. It was one of the most successful mystery cults pervading the Roman Empire. The name of Mithra/Mithras is the Latinized equivalent of Mitra, an important deity in Persian Zoroastrianism. The exact origins of the cult devoted to the Persian deity Mithras, which came to be known in the Roman world as the Mithraic mysteries or Mithraism, are unknown. The god Mithra/Mithras was worshipped in remote antiquity by the ancestors of the Persians and Indians alike. The mystery cult was a distinctively Mediterranean form of religious worship in which esoteric beliefs withheld from the general population were taught and secret rites performed.
There were 3 "Mithrases" in antiquity. (1) Indo-Aryan circa 2000 BCE. There was a god Mitra in the Hindu pantheon. In the Vedic Hymns of ancient India, he is known as Mitra, 'the friend.' (2) Zoroastrian in the 6th-century BCE. There was a god Mithra in the Zoroastrian Yashts (hymns to Ahura Mazda) forming part of the Avesta collection of the sacred texts of the Zoroastrian religion. To the Persians, Mithra was the god of oaths and covenants. (3) Imported into Rome (from Asia Minor) or created in Rome circa 60 BCE. In the Roman cult Mithra was transformed into a god of mysteries.
The earliest known occurrence of the name Mitra is in a peace treaty inscription, dating circa 1400 BCE, between the Hittites and the Hurrian-speaking kingdom of the Mitanni (Upper Mesopotamia). A number of Indo-Aryan gods (i.e., Mitra, Varuna, Indra, Nāsatya) are mentioned in Mitanni texts. Their belief systems contained many Indo-European elements. (It is also known that Mitra and other gods were written before the cultural/gepgraphic separation of Indo-Aryan/Indo-European peoples i.e., Indian and Iranian people.)
The Roman mystery cult of Mithras emerged in the 1st-century CE, attained its peak in the 3rd-century CE, and disappeared by the end of the 4th-century CE (wiped out by Christianity). We know very little for certain about the Roman cult of Mithras. There is almost a complete lack of written evidence to tell us what the archaeological finds mean. No clear account has come down to us describing what Mithraism is about. The more frequent Christian sources are simply biased and distorted (derogatory). In the syncretised religious period of the Commagne/Commagene kingdom (a short-lived Hellenised Armenian kingdom in Eastern Anatolia) during the 1st-century BCE the god Mithras had multiple identifications.
The foundation of modern Mithraic studies was established by Franz Cumont in his magisterial 2-volume work Texte monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra (1896-1899). In it he extensively analysed monuments, inscriptions, and testimonia. Included was an essay on the history, doctrines, and rituals of the cult. It was the first truly historical account of Mithraism.
Roman Mithraism was a mystery-religion that had a unique development that was quite separate from its earlier history in Iran, India, and Upper Mesopotamia. It gained a widespread following in the Roman Empire during the first four centuries of the present era, especially in the Roman army. In addition to military devotees, wealthy merchants and educated laymen were also Mithraists. On the social profile of Mithraists in the Roman Empire, Roger Beck wrote (Encyclopædia Iranica): "...social profile. They were the most conformist of men - and men indeed they were in the limited gender sense of the word, a factor which itself would add to their respectability or at least not detract from it (compare the charge against Christianity that it subverted the family by proselytizing the womenfolk). Mithraism drew its initiates disproportionately from the military, from the Empire's petty bureaucracy, and from moderately successful freedmen (i.e., ex-slaves), in fact from the retainer classes, the very people who had a stake in the current sociopolitical dispensation."
The Roman cult of Mithras appears to have begun in the Roman military, eventually becoming a cult not only of Roman legionaries, but of merchants and government officials as well. Because of a lack of literary evidence all theories of the origin of Mithraism remain uncertain. Mithraic temples have been discovered in sites as wide spread as England (Hadrian's Wall), North Africa, Germany, and Syria (at the ancient town of Dura Europus on the Euphrates River).
The Cilician theory of the origin of Mithraism in the Roman Empire is controversial. In summary outline: Circa 75 BCE in Cilicia (a region along the coast of southwestern Asia Minor) the Cilician pirates surrendered to the Roman general Pompey (later styled Pompeius Magnus). His successful lightning-swift campaign against the Cilician pirates, and unconditional clemency for all pirates who surrendered to him in person, meant the Cilicians were admitted to the Roman Empire. They were resettled in various parts of the Roman dominion, bringing their families and possessions with them. According to Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-circa122 CE), influential Greek philosopher and author (who became a Roman citizen), the Cilicians also brought with them a peculiar system of religious beliefs and practices. This is believed by some scholars to be Mithraism.
Both Roger Beck and Reinhold Merkelbach (both Mithraic scholars) believe the Mithraic cult was created in Rome by a person or persons who had knowledge of both Greek and Oriental religion (i.e., who knew the Iranian myths in detail). Beck specifically identifies them as belonging to the Dynasty of Commangene. The Kingdom of Commangene was part of Roman Asia.
The aristocracy of the Persian military worshipped Mithras as the guardian of their military arms. This concept endured in the Latin military world with Mithras as the patron-in-chief of Roman soldiers and armies.
Mithraic monuments in Europe have been excavated and described since the Renaissance. The archaeological record shows that Mithraism was becoming widespread in the Roman Empire by the end of the 1st-century CE. The earliest Mithraic temples, or Mithraea, of which we have knowledge date from roughly 90 CE to 110 CE, in the German provinces. The mysteries of Mithras would have been well-established by that time in the Roman heartland, the Italian peninsula. By the middle of the 2nd-century CE the cult had spread throughout Roman territory, from the Middle East to the British Isles. It was exclusively a male cult and highly popular amongst legionaries.
Mithraism apparently enjoyed a measure of tolerance from the Roman government from its inception. From the time of the administration of the emperor Commodus (who reigned from 180 CE to 190 CE) onward it appears that nearly every Roman emperor was associated with the cult of Mithras in some way. The demise of Mithraism, like its origins, is also shrouded in obscurity. After the death of Julian the Apostate (absolute ruler of the Roman Empire) in 363 CE, during his unsuccessful campaign in Persia, the mysteries of Mithras were swiftly suppressed.
In the Roman empire Mithraism was a secret religious society to which only men were admitted. However, despite the abundant archaeological evidence we know very little about the beliefs and rituals of Mithraism, Mithraism has left us no substantial religious texts. We know from the Contra Celsum (6:22) of the early Christian scholar Origen, whose interests included astral religion and Hellenistic astronomy, that the Mithraic mysteries relate to fixed stars and the visible planets (including Sun and Moon). According to the later voluminous Christian writer St. Jerome (4th-century CE), there were 7 initiatory grades in Mithraism, beginning with Corax (raven). The others, from lowest to highest, were Nymphus (bridegroom), Miles (soldier), Leo (lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (sun-runner), and Pater (father). Of these the first two appear to have been preparatory levels, and induction into the rank of Miles was the real starting point for progression within the Mithraic hierarchy.
During the last several hundred years scholars have proposed a number of interesting but also contradictory explanations regarding the reconstruction of the astral imagery in Mithraism.
Astronomical-astrological interpretations of Mithraic motifs have been especially popular since circa 1975. The main proponents of different models of astronomical-astrological interpretations have been: Roger Beck, Richard Gordon, David Ulansey, and Michael Speidel.
Mithraism appears to have been heavily engaged with cosmological imagery. Preserved Mithraic sites are extremely rich sources of astronomical iconography (artwork). However because of the secrecy requirements of members the cosmically inspired artwork is especially difficult to decipher. The abundance of astronomy-inspired statuary, the Dioscuri, Aion, Phanes, and the unnamed lion-headed god with the signs of the zodiac on its body have been frequently excavated in preserved Mithraic temples. However, the most dominant artwork is an enigmatic cult image called the Tauroctony. It is present, with only slight variations, in every Mithraic temple and apparently was an essential part of Mithraic religious activities. The abundance of excavated artifacts displaying cosmological images indicates that the Mithraic cult had an astronomical-astrological focus.
Mithraism, like much else in late antiquity, was permeated by the imagery of Hellenistic astrology. Mithraism had a belief system (whether cultic or religious is not known) - described by modern historians - as characterized by vivid myths and maddeningly obscure symbolism.
The Mithraic cult was practiced in Mithraea. A typical Mithraeum, an underground house of worship used by devotees of Mithras, was constructed to resemble a world-cavern, a metaphor of the cosmos favored in the ancient Middle East. The Mithraeum was a complex symbol of the cosmos. Roger Beck has pointed out the similarities among all Mithraeums has to come from the pivotal fact that the worship of Mithras could only take place in cavernous temples. The design of each Mithraeum had to be exactly the same, so that each temple resembled the cosmos in as much detail as possible. Without this form, worship could not have taken place. The ceilings of the caves or subterranean temples were designed to simulate the night sky. The majority of Mithraic temples are designed on an east-west axis with a single entrance from the west leading the participants to the focal point of the room - a carved or painted relief of Mithras slaying the bull. The cult icon consists of an image of Mithras astride a massive Bull. Depicted with the god Mithras are a snake, a dog, a raven, a cup, a scorpion, and occasionally a lion. The dog and snake are pictured striving for the sacred blood flowing from the knife wound on the sacrificed bull, the scorpion appears near the bulls genitals, and signs of the zodiac usually surround the whole scene. The central figure, Mithras, is always clad in Eastern garb, his wind-blown cape decorated with stars, and his exotic costume topped off with a Phrygian cap.
The dominant feature of every Mithraeum was a depiction, usually carved in stone, of the central myth of Mithras: the Tauroctony or slaying of the bull of heaven. The zodiac almost always accompanies carved Tauroctony scenes. Mithras is depicted as a youthful hero wearing a characteristic Phrygian cap, killing the bull with a dagger. Surrounding and harassing the hapless bull are a dog, scorpion, raven, and snake, while flanking the scene stand two other youths holding torches (dadophori), Cautes and Cautopates, of whom the latter holds his torch with the tip pointed earthward. Several surviving tauroctonies also include a circle (or sometimes a different shape) with the signs of the zodiac. A tauroctony from Rome also includes 7 stars and 7 altars (representing the 7 planets).
The bull slaying scene was the fundamental iconography of Western Mithraism. Within the Roman cult of Mithras this depiction held the place of honour in every Mithraeum (temple). In its various depictions throughout the Roman Empire it retained a striking sameness. Only minor variations are evident in over 500 representations of the bull slaying scene that have been found. The Roman Mithraic mysteries are likely the product of the syncretistic tendency of late antiquity. The meaning of the Mithraic tauroctonies (and frescoes) has continued to remain a puzzle to scholars.
The dominant art work of Mithraism is the enigmatic cult image called the Tauroctony. It was apparently an essential part of their devotional activities and was present with slight variation in every Mithraic temple.
There is no clear or agreed understanding amongst scholars of the meaning of the Mithraic tauroctony (or other Mithraic iconography). Interpretations remain speculative. This is because there is no extant literary source that can provide help to clarify the meaning of the complex symbolism inherent in Mithraic art. The usual interpretation of the tauroctony has been that it depicts an animal sacrifice scene. Inscriptions identify Mithras with the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus). Mithras is also frequently depicted wearing a star-studded cloak. Figures of Sol (Sun) and Luna (Moon) frequently appear at the two upper corners of the tauroctone scene. Also frequently depicted are the four winds, the twelve planetary gods, and/or the twelve zodiacal signs. The two torchbearers flanking the figure of Mithras to the left and right (Cautes and Cautopates) frequently correspond to the anthropomorphic figures of Sol (Sun) and Luna (Moon) at the upper left and right corners. As such one possibility is that Cautes may symbolise light and Cautopates may symbolise darkness.
The prominent zodiac of a high artistic standard in the decorated vault of the mithraeum of (the island of) Ponza, along with decorations from the Sette Sfere and the Sette Porte mithraea in the ancient Roman port of Ostia, shows a clear preference for astronomical-astrological motifs in Mithraism in central Italy.
Three of the earliest European scholars (all French) to propose an astronomical interpretation of Mithraic iconography (i.e., an identification of its depictions with constellations (signs)) were Charles Dupuis (Origine des tous les cultes: ou, Religion universelle, 1795), Georg Zoega (Abhandlungen (edited by F. Welcker), 1817), and Félix Lajard (Recherches sur le Culte Public et les Mystères de Mithra, 1867). Lajard, and later Cumont, both maintained that stellar ideas in Mithraism were of secondary importance. Regarding the Mithraic tauroctony: Dupuis held that the depictions of a dog, a serpent, a scorpion, and a raven represented zodiacal signs and constellations. Zoega held that the snake is the constellation Draco, the dog is the star Sirius, the scorpion is the constellation (sign) Scorpius, and the bull represents the earth or moon. Lajard held that the tauroctony is a representation of the sky when the vernal equinox fell in the constellation (sign) Aries.
Hugh Bowden (Mystery Cults in the Ancient World (2010, Page 187)) writes: "... Mithras himself is not a mere constellation but the sun itself: the god's title is Deus Sol Invictus Mithras, 'The Unconquered Sun God Mithras". And because the constellation at the centre of this section of the ecliptic is Leo, and Mithras is at the centre of the tauroctony, it follows that the tauroctony shows events when the sun is in the constellation Leo, that is, from late July to late August. In other words, the heavens in daytime in the hottest time of the year show Mithras killing the bull: when the sun is at its height, the constellation Taurus is sinking below the western horizon. All this would be invisible to ordinary mortals, since the brightness of the daytime sun makes the stars invisible, but the initiate of Mithras, looking at the tauroctony in his Mithraic cave, can see the event made comprehensible."
However, since 1836 (Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker by Georg Creuzer (4 volumes, 3rd revised edition, 1836-1842)), a number of scholars began to propose detailed arguments that the tauroctony is actually a star map - a symbolic representation of particular equatorial constellations. Within the star map interpretation Mithras has a celestial persona and is either identified with Perseus located above Taurus the bull or Orion which is located beside Taurus the bull. (The suggestion that Mithras is the constellation Perseus dates from Charles Dupuis (1742-1809, a French savant) who proposed it in 1781 and 1795, and Joseph Lalande (1732-1807, a French astronomer) who proposed it in 1792. The other figures present on tauroctonies are also given a celestial identification. The bull is Taurus, the dog is Canis Minor (or possibly represents both Canis Major and Canis Minor), the snake is Hydra, the scorpion is Scorpio, the raven is Corvus, the ear of wheat (depicted on the bull's tail) is Spica (= Alpha Virginis, a proxy for Virgo), the twins Cautes and Cautopates are Gemini, the lion is Leo, cup is Crater (or possibly represents Aquarius, the constellation opposite Leo), Sol is the Sun, Luna is the Moon, and the cave is the Universe. Quite often Corvus, Spica, Leo, and Crater are missing from tauroctonies. Mithras' sword is Aries. It is clear that the elements comprising the Mithraic bull-slaying scene were intentionally chosen to symbolise particular celestial phenomena in an organised manner. It is thought, however, that many of the elements in the tauroctony represented more than one thing.
Hugh Bowden (Mystery Cults in the Ancient World (2010, Page 187)) writes: "All the elements in the tauroctony correspond to constellations in a specific region of the night sky. This is a section of the zodiac running from Taurus to Scorpio (Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio), including also the constellations between that band and the horizon (Crater, Corvus, Hydra, Canis Major and Canis Minor)." According to Roger Beck, the 2 torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates represent the extreme borders of the constellations Taurus and Scorpio; the 2 constellations among which all the constellations represented in the tauroctony are located. Furthermore, according to Beck, the 2 torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates represent the 2 solstices (the summer solstice and the winter solstice.
Note: For a succinct history of astronomical interpretations of Mithraism see: Chapman-Rietschi, P.A.L. (1997). "Astronomical Concepts in Mithraic Iconography." (Journal of the Royal Society of Canada, Volume 91, June, Pages 133-134). Though I have known of the article since 2001 I only accessed it in 2016.
Appendix 1: The Lion-headed Figure
The lion-headed figure with signs of the zodiac on his body in Mithraism is generally believed by scholars to represent the god Zurvan, but some scholars identify the statue as the god Ahriman.
Appendix 2: David Ulansey on Mithraism
David Ulansey's book is exclusively concerned with an astral interpretation of Mithraism. David Ulansey's attempt (The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (1989)) to substantiate his assumption that knowledge of precession is the central secret of the Roman Mithraic mysteries, and such is discoverable in Mithraic iconography, lacks any credible evidence or argument and is nothing more than fanciful speculation. In Ulansey's radical interpretation, the tauroctony is a star map depicting the precession of the equinoxes and the position of the constellations circa 4000 BCE.
David Ulansey has been criticised for ignoring relevant sources of evidence. Ulansey denies any genuine connection between Western Mithraism and Iran's Zoroastrianism. I think he remains alone in denying the cult has historical links to Persia. Ulansey essentially holds that Mithraism was a new cult that originated in Tarsus in the 1st-century BCE. According to Ulansey Mithraism originated among the 20,000 strong pirates of Cicilia (Asia Minor = Turkey), the capital city of which was Tarsus. For Ulansey, Mithraism is the product of an intellectual exercise by a small group of Tarsian Stoics. That astronomical knowledge now known as the precession of the equinoxes, known only to a few highly sophisticated astronomers in antiquity, was readily appropriated (despite the explanation requiring the intellectual demands of mathematical astronomy) by Stoics residing in Tarsus for incorporation into the foundation of their new religion known as Mithraism is unlikely and simply implausible.
In the summer of 88 BCE Mithridates ordered the killing of all Roman citizens living in Asia Minor. In one single night about 80,000 Romans were slaughtered. A few years later Mitraic mysteries were celebrated by the Cilician pirates, allies of Mithridates and sworn enemies of Rome and her legions. The problem is this: How then could Perseus, alias Mitras (Mitra being the namegiver of the worst enemy of Rome), become so popular and specifically so among Roman legionnaires?
The author's astronomical ideas concerning Mithraism originated during a 1977 brain-storming session, on a picture of the Mithraic myth of the bull slaying, conducted in a graduate class on the Mystery Religions by Professor John Gager. (Ulansey is an amateur astronomer.) This information by Ulansy has now been removed from the internet. This immediate conclusion of Ulansey's has been kept by him and forms the basis for his continuing rejection of the theories of recognized Mithraic scholars. For the story of the 1977 brain-storming session see also the retelling in: The Mind of Mithraists by Luther Martin (2014, Page 5).
Ulansey speculates that Mithras was derived from the constellation of Perseus (Mithras = Perseus (the Greek hero who slew the monster Medusa). According to Ulansey the Cilician pirates took the name Mithra from their ally king Mithridates VI who, on coinage, compared himself with the god/constellation Perseus. The name of Perseus was changed into Mithra in honour of king Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysius (to give him his full name), the ruler of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia. (Mithridates VI was a formidable threat to Roman superiority and led the sustained (and successful) resistance of the Hellenistic East against Roman expansion in the 1st-century BCE. He was finally defeated circa 66 BCE by the army led by the Roman general Pompeius. The Cilician pirates were allies of Mithridates VI against Rome.) However, this ignores the numerous difficulties in convincingly finding a constellation counterpart for Mithras. (For example see the discussions in: Hinnells, John. (1994). (Editor). Studies in Mithraism: Papers associated with the Mithraic Panel organized on the occasion of the XVIth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions.)
According to David Ulansey, Mithraism originated with a group of Stoic scholars in Tarsus who made a religion out of knowledge of precession. David Ulansey holds (or rather speculates) that, in the late 2nd-century BCE, a group of Stoics in the city of Tarsus originated Mithraism. The impetus and foundation doctrine is held by Ulansey to be the recent discovery by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of the precession of the equinoxes. The group of Stoics are further asserted by Ulansey to have carried out the painstaking effort for the precise reconstruction of the equinoxes at past epochs and the bull-killing scene represents the end of the spring equinox falling in the "Age of Taurus" circa 4000-2000 BCE. The hypothetical group of Stoics at Tarsus appropriated the precession to the god Mithras. Mithras is the god they identified as responsible for precession through his power to shift the axis of the universe. The constellation of Perseus is identified with the god of precession (Mithras) by Ulansey. In Ulansey's speculative reconstruction the core meaning of the tauroctony is based on the assumptions: (1) Mithras is the constellation Perseus, and (2) the bull-killing encodes his cosmic victory as the power who shifts the world axis by means of precession of the equinoxes.
According to Ulansey the hero killing the bull symbolises the precessional movement of the spring equinox from the constellation of the Bull to the constellation of the Ram. There is no evidence of a concept of precessional world ages at this early period.
"Recently, another theory of the origin of Mithraism has been set forth by David Ulansey. Ulansey theorizes that Mithraism arose in the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor. He believes it was devised and propagated by a group of Stoic philosophers who thought they had discovered astronomical evidence to prove the existence of a new and powerful god. They identified this god with Perseus, one of the hero gods of Tarsus. Since the constellation of Perseus was directly above the constellation of Tarsus the bull, the philosophers believed that Perseus dominated the bull. This new religion became popular with the Cilician pirates who had close ties to the intellectual circles of Tarsus and who were interested in astral religion. They changed the name of the hero god from Perseus to Mithra in honor of Mithridates VI Eupator, the last of the dynasty of rulers of Pontus before Roman rule. It was this group of pirate sailors who gave Mithraism its form and spread the religion to the Roman world. … All theories of the origin of Mithraism acknowledge a connection, however vague, to the Mithra/Mitra figure of ancient Aryan religion. They all point to Persian influence in Asia Minor during the Hellenistic era and to the religious ferment of that period. All see the city of Tarsus as a starting point of Roman Mithraism. Plutarch's single statement about the Cilician pirates carries enormous weight, and as a result, all theorists accept them as the missionaries who carried the new religion to Rome. The theories of the origin of Mithraism from Cumont to Ulansey remain only theories. Because of a dearth of literary evidence, we cannot be certain that Mithraism developed in a certain place or a certain time. However, the weight of scholarly opinion has clearly moved away from the long-held theory that Mithraism began in Persia and moved westward across Babylon, Syria, Asia Minor, and into Rome. ("Archaelogical Indications on the Origins of Roman Mithraism." by Lewis Hopf in: Uncovering Ancient Stones, edited by Lewis Hopfe (1994,.Pages 17-18).)"
A key incredible conjecture by Ulansey is a group of Stoics in Tarsus obtained knowledge of Hipparchus' discovery of precession and accepted it, not scientifically but mythically, and used it to create the astral myth that Mithras was the god of precession who turned the cosmic axis. There is no direct evidence at all for the group of Tarsian intellectuals proposed by Ulansey. (Also not explained by Ulansey is why this supposed group never pursued precession purely scientifically.) Not explained by Ulansey is how a little-known and little-understood astronomical discovery by Hipparchus was swiftly transmitted from the Greek island of Rhodes to a group of Stoics (who were not astronomers) in the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor and correctly understood by them. (Tarsus was the capital of Cicilia (Asia Minor = present-day Turkey.) Very few ancient astronomers knew of the discovery and were capable of understanding Hipparchus' discovery of precession. Also, several scholars who knew of it did not believe it and rejected the notion. Ptolemy (2nd-century CE) is the first astronomer known to have continued Hipparchus' work on precession. The Almagest is the principal ancient source for the discussion of precession. Ptolemy's account (Almagest 3.1, and 7. 1-3) of Hipparchus' discovery of precession describes that Hipparchus' description of what his observations showed and ideas (Hipparchus offered several explanations) were tentative and uncertain. It was Ptolemy, working some 3 centuries after Hipparchus made his discovery, who confirmed the precession involved a motion of the entire sphere of the fixed stars with respect to the equinoxes. Ptolemy deﬁned precession as the uniform increase in the longitudes of the ﬁxed stars. Furthermore, nowhere in the ancient world did the Stoics, whose doctrines embraced cosmology and astronomy, show any awareness of precession at all. (Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy. It was founded by Zeno of Citium (a city on the island of Cyprus) in 322 BCE, and flourished until the closing of the Athenian schools in 429 CE.) The underlying astronomy behind Ulansey's theory was at that period so obscure, known to and understood by only a few people, that the theory (encompassing doctrine and doctrine holders) is quite implausible.
It is indicated that knowledge of precession after Hipparchus' discovery was the preserve of a very small number/group of specialised scholars. The existence of a processional doctrine and a group of doctrine-holders of an arcane astronomical knowledge of precession is wholly implausuble.
The history of Ulansey's method can be traced back to Charles Dupuis in his multi-volume Origine tous les cultes, ou religion universalle (1795, 6 text volumes in 3 with separate Atlas). The original conclusions made by Ulansey in his 1989 book has been kept by him and forms the basis for his continuing rejection of the theories of recognized Mithraic scholars. From Ulansey's ongoing involvement in web discussions it is clear that he does not admit any requirement to modify his original position set out in his 1989 book. To my knowledge David Ulansey has never engaged in any archaeological work regarding Mithraism.
Importantly, David Ulansey (The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (1989)) has never provided any evidence that 'zodiacal ages/astrological ages' as developed by 19th-century theosophy and early 20th-century astrology was also a concept understood anywhere at all in the ancient Greco-Roman world. (The concept of precessional "world ages" can be traced back to Origine des tous les cultes: ou, Religion universelle by Charles Dupuis (1794).)
Regarding astronomical claims for the tauroctony. With some levity Ulansey describes (Hastro-L, 12 May 2001) the "snake, goblet, and bird under the bull (Taurus) are Hydra, Crater, and Corvus." However, Hydra, Crater, and Corvus span out under Leo and Virgo. Taurus is some distance away from these 3 sub-zodiacal constellations. On page 62 of his review article Swerdlow states: "Nothing is known of the meaning of the tauroctony ...." Within Mithraic scholarship the meaning of the tauroctony remains in a dynamic state.
According to Ulansey the core of the imagery of the tauroctony is precession; specifically the "after-the-fact" - realisation of the movement of the spring equinox from Taurus to Aries. The identification by Ulansey of the torchbearers in the tauroctony with the equinoxes requires the precession to be invoked, in order to place the equinoxes in Taurus and Scorpio, as was the case case 4000-2000 BCE., and justify the identification of Mithras with the constellation Perseus, located just above Taurus in the sky. That people devising a cult circa 50 CE would decide to represent in stone the arrangement of the constellations circa 2000 BCE - not what people could actually see in the sky - lacks credibility. The fact that the precession of the equinoxes had been discovered is not relevant. I am not aware of any Mithraic scholar who support's Ulansey's idea that the key to understanding Mithraism is to believe its symbolic imagery is founded upon the precession of the equinoxes.
The tauroctony is likely to be an elaborate star-map. Various authors remain open to the star-map theory, but with different interpretations to Ulansey (due to how Ulansey argues his case). (Interestingly, the Mithraic expert Manfred Clauss does not support this idea.) The idea that the tauroctony might be a kind of star-map goes back ultimately to the late-antique scholiast Lactantius Placidus (late 4th-century commentator) in his work on Statius (Publius Papinius Statius was a Roman poet born circa 45 CE in Naples – died circa 96 CE in Naples; see Placidus' commentary on the Thebaid 1.717-1.720; which is a Latin epic in 12 books written in dactylic hexameter). However, Ulansey speculates further and claims that the tauroctony is an expression of the celestial phenomenon of precession and signifies the lordship of the god Mithras over precession. The German scholar Karl Stark (1824-1879) in his Systematik und Geschichte der Archäologie der Kunst (published posthumously in 1880) suggested a detailed astral interpretation of the 3 fragmentary Mithraic reliefs found at Dormagen on the Rhine. Earlier, in 1869 (at an International Congress?), Karl Stark suggested that the tauroctony could be interpreted as a star map, with Mithras being identified with the constellation named after Perseus (who was commonly associated with Persia, and the bull). Stark's idea was rejected by Franz Cumont. I think it was Roger Beck (Studies in Mithraism edited by John Hinnells (1994, Pages 29-50).) who suggested that the tauroctony was a route map for the celestial journey of the soul. James North ("Astronomical Symbolism in the Mithraic Religion", Centaurus, Volume 33, Issue 2, 1991, Pages 115-148) connects the tauroctony with eastern astronomical practice. Interestingly, John Hinnells, in his book The World's Religions [?] believes the tauroctony is to be understood in astrological terms and is a star map showing the path of the soul's journey to salvation. If this is so then Mithraism is similar to emanationism.
Ulansey invokes the ideas of Willy Hartner on early constellations to buttress his arguments. However, Hartner's speculative arguments have numerous problems. Whilst his ideas on early Near Eastern constellations are still discussed by some people they have not been widely accepted.
Ulansey's widely publicised and extravagant theory, though not convincing, is certainly ingenious. It has been commented that Ulansey's interpretation of Mithraism is "well-imagined, though not true." Mithraic experts who are opponents of David Ulansey's ideas on the origin of Mithraism include Roger Beck, Manfred Clauss and Helmut Waldmann. See also: Mithraic Iconography and Ideology by Leroy Campbell (1968). It has useful discussions of Mithraic iconography but is to be used with caution. The author attempts to show that basic Iranian concepts were preserved in Mithraism. The author believes that Zoroastrian theology lies behind Mithraism but does not establish an early date for such.
Copyright © 2006-2018 by Gary D. Thompson
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