Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Cult of Mithras

When my parents gave me a copy of David Ulansey's Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, I devoured the entire book in a single weekend. While I may be a somewhat extreme case, the subject matter is certainly riveting and the presentation clear, direct, and well illustrated.

Below is a book review I wrote of his text on Amazon:

David Ulansey's Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries is a clear articulation of a new and radically different analysis of Mithraism from the theory that had pertained for about seventy years when Ulansey and others began to question its assumptions.

Professor Ulansey's work has important implications that go beyond the Cult of Mithras, because the celestial phenomena that he convincingly demonstrates are present in the Mithraic symbology turn out to be centrally important to an examination of other ancient myths and symbols.

I have written a book which examines these issues using additional evidence from geology and mythology, and devote a chapter to a discussion of Mithraic archaeological evidence, and Professor Ulansey's theory was absolutely foundational to my own analysis and "corollary"(The Mathisen Corollary).

Professor Ulansey's examination of the evidence and explication of the celestial mechanics of precession are extremely valuable and belong in the library of every student of this phenomenon and its impact on the mythologies of ancient civilizations. The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book.

Further, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries is extremely readable and Professor Ulansey has a clear and lucid writing style. His discussion of the Stoics and the connection between their observation of the astronomical mechanics and their fortitude in the face of the vicissitudes of this life is similarly worth the price of the book all by itself.

I wholeheartedly recommend Mr. Ulansey's book for its detailed and rigorous yet very readable examination of the ancient Cult of Mithras.

The Cult of Mithras (also commonly referred to as the "Persian Mysteries" at the time) was an important mystery religion in the Roman Empire between the first century BC and the fourth century AD. Because it was a mystery religion and none of its secrets were entrusted to writing, modern scholars have had to deduce what they could about its beliefs and practices from the surviving mithraea, underground temples (or above-ground temples designed to look like underground temples to those inside), and particularly from the prominent scene found in every mithraeum, the so-called "tauroctony" scene of Mithras slaying a bull.

Professor Ulansey's argument is that the symbology of the tauroctony is celestial, and that it represents the world-altering discovery of the phenomenon of precession by Hipparchus in the second century BC.

While I believe there is extensive evidence that the phenomenon of precession was understood over a thousand years before Hipparchus (and that it was understood to a degree of precision that Hipparchus never achieved), I am in agreement with Professor Ulansey that the symbology of the tauroctony is celestial and precessional in nature.

I am somewhat skeptical of his idea that the discovery of precession by Hipparchus could have spread so rapidly and resulted in the popular Cult of Mithras with all its attendant symbology by the first century BC. I think it is more likely that the knowledge of precession demonstrated in the symbology that Ulansey describes came from previous initiates who preserved this ancient understanding.

Nevertheless, Professor Ulansey has done a valuable service in elucidating his arguments for the celestial and precessional content of the Persian Mysteries, and students of the precessional codes that ancient civilizations embedded in their mythologies and monuments should not be without this text and its excellent collection of photographs and illustrations.

The presence of precessional imagery and numerology in the cultural heritage of many widespread ancient civilizations (as well as remote people groups whose cultural heritage was preserved into the nineteenth or even twentieth centuries) is an absolutely critical source of evidence arguing for the existence of ancient contact across even the mightiest oceans.

If precession was initiated by the events surrounding a cataclysmic global flood, as Dr. Walt Brown argues in his hydroplate theory, then this evidence also supports the conclusion that this catastrophic event took place within human memory, and that those who observed its effect on the heavens took great care to record their knowledge of precession in the myths and legends that they passed on, often through secret societies and mystery cults.