J. W. Barlament
Book Review: “Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God”
Anybody with some baseline knowledge on the Roman Cult of Mithras will know that the central problem in the study of the cult today concerns the identity of Mithras himself. And yet, for several decades from the start of the 20th century, this problem was thought to have been firmly put away by the first Mithraic scholar Franz Cumont. He and his successors assumed that the Roman cult could be properly thought of as a continuation of the earlier Persian worship of Mithra, god of truth, light and treaty. But then, in Tehran, in the year 1975, at the Second International Congress of Mithraic Studies, this theory was by academic consensus discredited. It was decided that what was a mostly Western Roman cult evidently only founded in the mid-2nd century could not be equated with the original eastern cult not referenced in Roman literature for 70 years at that point. Thus, the decision was made to consider only the evidence from the Roman cult on its own merit. In addition, the suggestion was made, based on the huge amount of astronomical symbolism present everywhere in the Roman cult imagery, that we should view the cult’s ideology as primarily astronomical, and crucially, that we should the assume the identity of the bull who Mithras stabs in the cult’s most famous scene to be the constellation Taurus. Our author, working just five years later, took this one step further and declared we could identify the Roman Mithras with the constellation and the corresponding Greek hero of Orion. Michael P. Speidel is a high-profile Roman military historian, whose 1980 book, Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God has become the authoritative text on what’s still one of the most popular theories in Mithraic studies today. For its renown, it was surprisingly short; 56 pages, all told, but these few pages effectively communicate a clear, if not as comprehensive as I’d hoped, theory. To Speidel, in short, the character of the Roman Cult of Mithras is unmistakably Hellenic, rather than Persian, and its astronomical symbolism signifies to us that the deepest secrets revealed to the cult’s initiates must have been based in this basic astronomical truth. In his own words: “Mithras is the constellation Orion, the resplendent leader under whom the constellations wheel through the whole of heaven, and under whom soldiers are born” (page 3). The majority of the book is therefore spent with one of two aims in mind; proving the tauroctony scene (that of Mithras leaping over and stabbing the bull) as being undeniably astronomical in nature, and proving beyond the scope of the obvious that Orion, both as a constellation and as a mythic hero, is the proper identity of Mithras. With regards to the first, Speidel seeks to demonstrate, accounting for the differences in the position of the equator due to precession and the differences in the definitions of constellations from classical antiquity to now, that the main figures of the tauroctony represent the equatorial summer constellations of the time. These, the raven (perched above), snake (coiled below), scorpion (pinching the bull’s genitals) and dog (licking blood from the bull’s stab wound), to Speidel using the Farnese Atlas for reference, correspond to the classical constellations of Corvus, Hydra, Scorpius-Libra, and Canis Major, themselves corresponding to the constellations straddling the celestial equator. Occasional depictions of a lion and/or a cup beside the raven and snake are identified as Crater-Leo. The only constellations left unaccounted for, in this model, are Taurus and Orion, and to Speidel, the fact that “Orion is the one constellation that closes the gap between Taurus and the other equatorial summer constellations” (page 19) serves as proof by astronomical placement that this must be the identity of Mithras. He relies on an art analysis of a number of examples of surviving tauroctony scenes from the CIMRM (Catalog of Images and Monuments Relating to Mithras) to further prove his point. In CIMRM 75 out of Sidon, the scorpion actually reaches out from its place in a zodiacal border (where all twelve zodiacal figures surround the tauroctony) to pinch the bull’s genitals, solidifying the identification of it with Scorpius. And in CIMRM 1083 from Heddernheim, this arrangement of a lion and a snake beside a cup or goblet appears again, corresponding to the classical conception of Leo-Crater (the latter being the cup) and Hydra as a single cosmic scene.
Speidel’s reliance on this sort of analysis can be said to have been his downfall in writing this, for not only did he miss some crucial details in his analysis, but these details may actually point us to some radically different interpretations. In CIMRM 1083, as in many tauroctony scenes, what struck me more was the fact that the end of the bull’s tail is depicted as being made up of three ears of wheat. For does this, in combination with the dog licking its blood and the scorpion pinching its genitals, not imply generative or life-giving properties possessed by this cosmic bull? And does this, in junction with Mithras’ stabbing the bull, not imply that what we’re seeing is in fact a depiction of a sacrifice; considering its astral setting and the known world-mythic usage of a cosmic bull’s body being used to create the world, maybe the sacrifice by which the world was made? Is that not worthy of note? Another criticism here is that Speidel ignores other recurring characters in the tauroctony, such as the opposite torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates and the sun god Sol. The latter is particularly confounding in Mithraic studies, owing to the fact that perhaps the most popular theory of the identity of Mithras is still of him representing the path of the sun across the sky. But why, if Mithras is the sun, could he be so often depicted beside (even dining with) Sol? And what could this connection mean in the context of Mithras being Orion? Speidel prefers to ignore such larger questions completely in favor of brevity in explaining his own. This kind of specificity in art analysis, too, where every little difference is symbolically significant, is strange in the context of the tauroctony scene known for its flexibility in depiction. Speidel cites CIMRM 479 from Ostia and several from modern Bulgaria at the start of the second half of his argument (that we may prove Mithras’ identity as Orion by proving that attributes traditionally associated with Orion were depicted on Mithras in Greek-speaking parts of the empire) on the basis that, in these, Mithras raises his right arm rather than his left in the fashion that Orion would in the night sky. This, combined with his depiction in Greek rather than any ‘oriental’ dress, Speidel asserts as evidence that the initiates of the cult in these regions sought to consciously emphasize Mithras’ ‘Greekness’.
However, while Speidel cites hand positions as important divergences, it’s important to note that Mithras in CIMRM 479 is raising his dagger but has not yet stabbed the bull; a severe and surely more important divergence. In addition to this, a huge statue of the god Oceanus reclines in front of the entire scene, but you’d never know only by reading Speidel’s account. These things considered, wouldn’t it be more reasonable of us to chalk up the hands and the Greek dress to artistic license? Maybe most confounding, though, is Speidel’s refusal to use sources other than art analysis to prove his point. For a military historian, there’s almost no mention of the fact that the Roman cult was primarily army-based and that all of its initiates were men. He does mention in the quote I shared above the vague sense that Mithras may have some role in the afterlife, and specifically in the afterlife of Roman soldiers. I assumed this to be related to that traditional world-mythological association of Orion with a psychopomp due to his upraised right arm dipping into the Milky Way which in so many cultures has been thought of as the road taken by souls to and from the afterlife. Perhaps the explicit association with soldiers’ souls is simply due to Orion’s militaristic appearance with weapons drawn and a sword at his hip. Speidel doesn’t say. In fact, there’s no consensus at all that either the Greeks or Romans ever even worshiped Orion (constellation or hero) as a god. Speidel does mention this, and he attempts to reconcile it by claiming that “within the cult to call Mithras Orion would have meant to deprive the god of his true name, while outside the cult there was a certain reluctance to reveal religious secrets” (page 26). So, in this view, Orion was the secret identity of Mithras, and the central mystery of the cult was the revelation of their sameness. But why, then, do all of these tauroctonies place Mithras in the most obvious place possible for Orion to be? What kind of a secret would that be? We must assume the average Roman had better knowledge of constellations than people today and would immediately recognize the constellations represented in the tauroctony. We must assume, even if Mithras was understood to be Orion the constellation, this was but a surface-level association with a deeper mystery to be revealed to initiates. He does bring in some, if frustratingly little, interesting literary evidence. He cites Statius as the earliest Roman source thought to refer to a Romanized Mithras, saying that “Mithras twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave” at the tail end of Book I of his Thebaid written in the 90s AD. Speidel also, damningly to his detractors (and maybe even himself), cites 3rd century author Porphyry as saying “to Mithras they assigned his proper seat on the equinoxes … like the bull a demiurge and lord of genesis, he is placed on the equator.” So that, while trying to prove his point about Orion, Speidel accidentally gives much more credence to the theory that the tauroctony is a scene depicting the creation of the world by a figure perhaps represented by Orion in the night sky now but certainly representing much more as the agent by which the cosmic bull is sacrificed to create the world. His conclusions about the equator, at least, seem to have been onto something, but they are unfortunately muddied by his later claims.
I feel it isn’t unfair to say that Speidel’s primarily military-historical background might have been more of a hindrance than a help here. He’s obviously aware that the matter at hand is more art-historical than anything, and his artistic cross-analysis of these Mithraic artifacts, as demonstrated prior, contains a number of holes that can be chalked up to either; one, this work just appearing early in the modern study of Mithras, or two, his preference to conduct flawed art analyses over the sociological tilt advertised as his specialty. But I digress: instead of criticizing Speidel’s finer details too heavily, we should see his work as representing a turning point in the history of Mithraic studies away from the dominance of Cumont, and we should see it in heading in the right direction with its emphasis on the problem of identifying Mithras and the assertion of the cult’s ultimately astronomical nature. But there has been a wealth of speculation in the decades since, both for and against Speidel’s conclusion, and still the jury is out. Perhaps, then, with the question of Mithras’ role to play in this starry drama so hard to answer, we may ask a different question first: what happened in the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, when the name and the idea of Mithras migrated from Persia to Armenia, Syria and Anatolia on his way to becoming a Roman phenom? We know from the literature that the kingdoms of Armenia and Commagene, at least were involved in the worship of some kind of god they called Mithra or Mithras. So what in those formative years turned this perennial Persian idea into a cohesive Roman system centered on cosmic intrigue? Where does Mithra end and Mithras begin?
Michael P. Speidel. Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980.
Porphyrius. De Antro Nympharum, 24. Translated by Johann A. Nauck. Leipzig: Teubner, 1886.
Statius, Thebaid, Book I: verses 719–20. Translated by J. H. Mozley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928.