The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun / Edition 1 by Roger Beck | 9780199216130 | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun / Edition 1

The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun / Edition 1

by Roger Beck

ISBN-10: 0199216134

ISBN-13: 9780199216130

Pub. Date: 05/17/2007

Publisher: Oxford University Press

As the capstone of thirty years of research and publication on the cult and its religion, Roger Beck puts forward a radically new description of the 'Mysteries of Mithras'. The Mysteries are presented from the perspective of the initiate as a complex system of symbols created, apprehended, and transmitted not only in the extraordinarily rich and detailed iconography,


As the capstone of thirty years of research and publication on the cult and its religion, Roger Beck puts forward a radically new description of the 'Mysteries of Mithras'. The Mysteries are presented from the perspective of the initiate as a complex system of symbols created, apprehended, and transmitted not only in the extraordinarily rich and detailed iconography, but also in ritual action and language, in cult life and hierarchy, and in the design of meeting places (mithraea).

After a programmatic introductory chapter, the next three chapters constitute a detailed critique of the current view of Mithraism as a belief system with an esoteric doctrine. Chapter 5 discusses Mithraism as a symbol system in the manner of the symbolist anthropologists, particularly Clifford Geertz. Comparisons are made between Mithraic culture and the culture of the Chamulas of southern Mexico.

In Chapter 6 Beck introduces the methods of the new cognitive science of religion to explore the making of representations in the Mysteries and the cognitive processes by which the initiate apprehends the system of symbols. In the following chapter these methods are applied to the initiate's recognition of his mithraeum as (in Porphyry's words), 'an image of the cosmos for induction into a mystery of the descent and return of souls'. Ritual action is emphasized rather than teaching. The final two chapters are devoted to Mithraism's rich astral symbolism and to a discussion on whether, on both ancient and modern semiotic criteria, it might function as a quasi-language. The symbols of the tauroctony (the icon of the bull-killing Mithras) are explicated as signs with multiple meanings in a multi-layered textrather than as simple identifiers of particular constellations.

About the Author:
Roger Beck is Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

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Oxford University Press
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New Edition
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9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Table of Contents

List of Figures     xiv
Abbreviations     xv
Introduction to Interpreting the Mysteries: Old Ways, New Ways     1
An agenda     1
A word on ontology     8
Template for a re-description of the Mithraic mysteries     10
On comparisons     12
On cognition     13
Synchronic versus diachronic; structure and meaning versus historic cause and effect; interpretation versus explanation     14
Conclusion     15
Old Ways: The Reconstruction of Mithraic Doctrine from Iconography     16
A gateway to an interpretation of the mysteries: Porphyry, De antro nympharum 6, on the form and function of the mithraeum     16
The traditional route: from the iconography of the monuments to the myth of Mithras to the beliefs of Mithraists     17
The merits and achievements of the traditional heuristic procedure     20
The shortcomings of the traditional heuristic procedure     22
Some remaining methodological problems for the explication of the Mithras myth as represented on the figured monuments     25
The Problem of Referents: Interpretation with Reference to What?     26
Iconography and the problem of referents     26
Referents in the surrounding culture?     26
Iranian referents?     28
Celestial (astronomical/astrological) referents?     30
Conclusion     39
Doctrine Redefined     41
Back to Porphyry, De antro 6     41
'Induction into a mystery': the doctrinal misconstruction of De antro 6     41
Teaching versus enacting the 'descent and departure of souls': the commonsensical answer     42
An expectation of appropriate behaviour     43
'Reason for the wise, symbols for the vulgar'     44
Mithraic doctrine and its stakeholders: various views     50
Doctrine and belief: the Christian 'faith' paradigm     53
Mithraic doctrine: three main issues     56
(i) Generalizing about Mithraic doctrine from unusual monuments     57
(ii) What do we mean by 'doctrine' in the context of the Mithraic mysteries? An array of answers     59
(iii) Doctrine and the ordinary initiate     63
Conclusion     63
Transition: from old ways to new ways     65
The Mithraic Mysteries as Symbol System: I. Introduction and Comparisons     67
Religion as a system of symbols: an anthropological approach     67
Are Geertzian description and interpretation applicable to the symbol system of the Mithraic mysteries?     69
Yes, Geertzian description and interpretation are possible, provided we begin not with the tauroctony but with the mithraeum and the grade structure     70
A culture within a culture: Mithraism as a subsystem within the cultural system of Graeco-Roman paganism. The hermeneutic implications     71
The symbol complex of the grade hierarchy     72
A modern comparator: the symbol system of the Chamulas     74
The construction of space in Mithraic and Chamula cultures     77
Mithraism's second axiom: 'Harmony of Tension in Opposition'     81
On Porphyry's De antro nympharum as a reliable source of data on the Mithraic mysteries     85
Cognition and Representation     88
The cognitive approach: ontogenetic/phylogenetic versus cultural     88
Gods in mind: cognition and the representation of supernatural beings     93
Negotiating representations     94
Reintegrating the wise and the vulgar     96
Comprehending the pantomime: Lucian, On the dance     99
The Mithraic Mysteries as Symbol System: II. The Mithraeum     102
The symbol complex of the mithraeum as 'image of the universe'     102
The blueprint for the mithraeum     103
To represent is to be     112
The blueprint continued: the planets     113
An improved reconstruction      115
Symbols, representations, and star-talk     116
The view from the benches: analogies of world view and ethos to 'Scipio's dream'     117
The Chamula church     119
Other 'images of the universe' in antiquity: (i) the Pantheon, Nero's Domus Aurea, Varro's aviary, the circus     120
Other 'images of the universe' in antiquity: (ii) orreries and the Antikythera Mechanism, the sundial     123
The mithraeum as symbolic instrument for 'inducting the initiates into a mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again'-with some modern comparisons     128
To 'experience', to 'surmise', and to 'represent': Dio's Twelfth (Olympic) Oration     133
Religious experience as modelled by biogenetic structuralism and 'neurotheology'     136
The 'cognized environment': the mithraeum as material representation of the initiate's cognized universe     141
The cognized universe and celestial navigation: the case of the Indigo Bunting     149
Conclusion     150
Star-Talk: The Symbols of the Mithraic Mysteries as Language Signs     153
Introduction: 'star-talk'     153
Mithraic iconography as 'un langage a dechiffrer' (R. Turcan)     154
Can symbols function as language signs? The question as posed in cultural anthropology     155
Crossing Sperber's bar: the case for Mithraic astral symbols as language signs     157
Star-talk: ancient views concerning its speakers, discourses, semiotics, and semantics     164
Origen's view: 'heavenly writings' and their angelic readers     166
Augustine's view: star-talk as a demonic language contract     167
Origen again: the demonic misconstruction of star-talk     169
Stars talking theology: the 'heretical' interpreters of Aratus as reported by Hippolytus (Refutatio 4.46-50)     170
Make-believe star-talk: Zeno of Verona's baptismal interpretation of the zodiac     175
'Rolling up the scroll': Maximus Confessor and the end of history     177
Pagan views (astronomers, astrologers, philosophers); stars as both speakers and signs     178
The divinity and rationality of celestial bodies: Ptolemy and Plato     179
The Platonist view of how the stars communicate and how we understand them; implications of the cosmology of the Timaeus     183
The celestial location of meaning     186
Conclusion     188
The Mithraic Mysteries as Symbol System: III. The Tauroctony     190
Introduction: the exegesis and interpretation of star-talk discourse     190
The exegesis of star-talk in the tauroctony: A. The constellation signs     194
Exegesis (continued): B. Sun, Moon, Mithras, bull (again), cave      197
Exegesis (continued): C. Map and view; boundaries and orientation; time and motion. Similar structures: the augural templum and the anaphoric clock     200
Exegesis (continued): D. Further meanings of the torchbearers: the lunar nodes; celestial north and celestial south; heavenward and earthward. Meanings of the 'typical' and 'untypical' locations (Cautes left and Cautopates right versus Cautopates left and Cautes right)     206
Exegesis (continued): E. Being in the north/above or in the south/below versus going northward/up or southward/down. The solstices, the equinoxes, and yet further meanings of the torchbearers     209
Exegesis (continued): F. Two paradoxes: (1) cold north and hot south versus hot north and cold south; (2) descending from heaven and growing up on earth versus dying down on earth and ascending to heaven. Terrestrial meanings of the torchbearers     212
Exegesis (continued): G. Where and when? 'Mithras the bull-killer' means 'Sun-in-Leo'     214
From exegesis to interpretation. An esoteric quartering of the heavens     216
The implications of Sun-in-Leo and the esoteric quartering. Conjunctions and eclipses; victories and defeats     222
The origins of the esoteric quartering and the definition of an ideal month     227
Excursus: the esoteric quartering, a lost helicoidal model of lunar motion, and the origin of the 'winds' and 'steps' of the Moon. The identity of 'Antiochus the Athenian'     240
Conclusions: a new basis for interpreting the mysteries     257
References     261
Index of Mithraic Monuments     273
Index of Ancient Authors     274
General Index     278

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