Searching for Mani’s Picture Book in Textual and Pictorial Sources

The article below Searching for Mani’s Picture Book in Textual and Pictorial Sources” is written by Zsuzsanna Gulácsi (Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff) and published on-line in Journal of Transcultural Studies (number 1, 2011).

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Abstract

This paper is a based on an extensive study of the available textual and visual data on a collection of didactic paintings employed by the Manichaeans throughout the 1400-year history of their religion. Known as Mani’s Picture or Picture-Book, these paintings were originally created in mid-third century Mesopotamia with direct involvement from Mani (216-276 CE) and remained preserved by being adapted to a wide variety of artistic and cultural norms as the religion spread across the Asian continent. The evidence on Manichaean didactic art fits well with the pan-Asiatic phenomenon of, what Victor Mair calls in his 1998 monograph, “picture-recitation,” or “story-telling with images.” Nevertheless, more than any other religion, the Manichaeans made use of images by attributing canonical status to them. This assured their preservation. By situating the Manichaean data in a broader art historical context, this lecture brings together evidence on the same phenomenon by other contemporaneous religious traditions (such as Eastern Christianity, Judaism, and most importantly Buddhism) in third-eighth century West Asia, eighth-twelfth century Central Asia and eighth-seventeenth century East Asia.

The use of didactic paintings to illustrate orally delivered religious teachings was a practice maintained throughout the 1400-year history of Manichaeism. Known as Mani’s Picture in the earlier sources and as Mani’s Picture-Book in later records, a collection of images that depicted the basic tenets of Mani are at the center of this study. These paintings were created first in mid-third century Mesopotamia with direct involvement from Mani (216-276 CE) and were later preserved by being copied and adapted to a wide variety of artistic and cultural norms, as the religion spread across the Asian continent. The surviving textual and pictorial evidence of Manichaean didactic art has never been collated and analyzed before, nor has it been assessed in light of non-Manichaean comparative examples. While the Manichaean practice of teaching with images is similar to the pan-Asiatic phenomenon of “picture-recitation” or “storytelling with images” studied by Victor Mair in 1988, more than any other religion, the Manichaeans institutionalized the use of their didactic images by attributing a canonical status to them. This aspect contributed to their preservation, albeit in slowly changing artistic forms.

Already in its original vision, Mani’s religion is intended to be universal and thus “transcultural.” From its very start the Manichaean mission relied on multifaceted (oral, textual, and pictorial) means of communication that were meant to be adapted to a variety of distinct cultural contexts. Due to their nature, most oral means of communication remain undocumented, leaving us no chance to contemplate the culturally distinct verbal characteristics of religious speech acts. Rare exceptions to this are transcribed sermons or debates, in which the words of performances became texts and are studied as such. The transcultural nature of Manichaean texts is recognized today. As such, parts of Mani’s original third-century Mesopotamian Syriac (Eastern Aramaic) prose is preserved in Coptic translations from fourth-century Egypt, just as it is in Parthian, Middle Persian, Sogdian, and Uygur translations from tenth-century East Central Asia. While the language (vocabulary, grammar, and syntax) of Mani’s writings  naturally changed in the course of the translation process, – the content was intended to be preserved -.as accurately as possible. I see analogous traits reflected among the remains of Mani’s Picture-Book surviving from ca. tenth-century East Central Asia and ca. twelfth- to fourteenth-century southern China. Although these paintings have just started to be identified and studied, it seems clear that, in course of their historical transmission originally from Mesopotamia to Central Asia and later from Central Asia to China, their subject matter (i.e. the core theme of this art) is conservatively preserved, while the pictorial language expressing that content is often visually “translated” in order to make the image comprehensible to the culture of its intended viewers.[1]I believe that a newly gained comprehension of the phases of cultural transmission in Manichaean didactic art across the Asian continent will contribute an important model to our overall understanding of how religious art travels across cultures.

My current goal is to report on my research into Mani’s Picture-Book, the results of which form the basis of a monograph scheduled to be published in the Nag Hammadi, and Manichaean Studies series published by Brill.[2] My overall project is three-fold. It includes the study of the Manichaean textual sources, the identification and analysis of Manichaean pictorial sources, and the contextualized assessment of the findings under consideration of non-Manichaean comparative examples. By situating the Manichaean data in a broader context, my study brings together evidence of the practice of teaching with images in other contemporaneous religious traditions (such as Eastern Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and most importantly Buddhism) in third- to eighth-century West Asia, eighth- to twelfth-century Central Asia and eighth- to seventeenth-century East Asia. – Before discussing these three approaches, it may be useful to note some basic facts about the history of the Manichaean religion and its surviving artistic remains.

Map 1: Phases of Manichaean history (3rd-17th centuries CE) (Source: Transcultural Studies).

The overall history of Manichaeism is better understood today in light of research published in hundreds of articles and books during the past century.[3] An overview of the major phases that make up the history of Manichaeism can be illustrated in a map (Map 1). This religion originated in mid-third-century Mesopotamia from the teachings of Mani. From there it immediately spread to the west, where it was persecuted to extinction by the sixth and seventh centuries. Manichaean communities existed in Iran and West Central Asia between the third and tenth centuries. Spreading further east along the Silk Road, Mani’s teaching reached the realm of the Uygurs, whose ruling elite adopted it as their imperial religion between the mid eighth and early eleventh centuries. Appearing in China during the seventh century, Manichaeism was present in the major cities during the Tang dynasty (618–907), surfacing in the historical records as monijiao (“Religion of Mani”). For a brief period, which corresponded to the zenith of Uygur military might and political influence on the Tang, Manichaeism enjoyed imperial tolerance and was propagated among the Chinese inhabitants of the major urban area.[4] The fall of the Uygur Steppe Empire (840/841) was followed by- the persecution of all foreign religions in 843–845. As a consequence, Manichaeism disappeared from northern China. Its Chinese converts fled westwards to the territories of the Sedentary Uygur Empire (841–1213) in the region of Dunhuang and the Tarim Basin, and towards the southern part of China, where a fully sinicized version of the religion, referred to in Chinese sources as mingjiao (lit. “Religion of Light”), existed until the early seventeenth century.[5]

During the twentieth century, Manichaean artistic remains were known to have come almost exclusively from East Central Asia, from the region of the oasis city of Kocho, which was a trading and agricultural center along the northern Silk Routes. For  approximately three centuries, it also functioned as the winter capital of the Sedentary Uygur Empire. German expeditions excavated Kocho prior to World War I and rescued about 5000 Manichaean manuscript fragments and a cache of artistic remains. The resulting publications lead to the scholarly début of the topic of Manichaean art in art history during the 1910s and 1920s.[6] During the past twenty-five years, a new understanding of Uygur Manichaean art emerged based on the identification of an Uygur Manichaean artistic corpus: the classification and scientific dating of its painting styles, the analytical study of its book medium (i.e., codicology), and the continued research of its iconography. Criteria for identifying a corpus, which doubled the number of Manichaean remains to 108, were put forward in 1997, and formed the basis for a 2001 catalogue featuring color facsimiles and critical editions of all associated texts.[7] A survey of this corpus revealed that the pictorial remains exhibit two locally produced painting styles: one with Western roots, dubbed “the West Asian style of Uygur Manichaean art,” which appears almost exclusively on remnants of illuminated books in codex and scroll formats; the other with Eastern roots, designated “the Chinese style of Uygur Manichaean art,” which was found mainly on temple banners, textile displays, and wall paintings. Contrary to previous assumptions -, carbon dating combined with stylistic analysis and historical dating reveal that both styles existed during the tenth century. This insight confirms that artists working with distinct techniques and media were employed simultaneously in Kocho.[8] The most numerous component of this corpus, the fragments of illuminated manuscripts, were subjected to a codicological analysis in a 2005 monograph that assessed the formal aspects, as well as the contextual cohesion of text and image.[9] Although a monograph on Manichaean iconography  has yet to be completed, a series of insightful studies have been appearing since the early 1980s.[10]

Recently, an exquisitely well-preserved group of Manichaean paintings that originated in southern China have been identified in Japanese art collections.[11] As a result, a growing corpus of seven Chinese Manichaean paintings is known today. They are silk hanging scrolls that portray explicitly Manichaean subjects conveyed in a contemporaneous local artistic style. They were made and used in southern China sometime between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries and subsequently taken to Japan, mostly due to Japanese interest in collecting Chinese pictorial art. The ongoing studies of these paintings will undoubtedly reveal a wealth of new information and thus improve our current understanding of the overall history of Manichaean art, specifically Chinese Manichaean art, as well as that of Mani’s Picture-Book.

Manichaean textual sources on the use of didactic art

The comprehensive critical analysis of the known Manichaean textual sources provides the foundation of this study. Currently eighteen textual sources are known that refer to Mani’s Picture-Book (Map 2). Each of these texts is about a paragraph in length and originated in divergent contexts from throughout the Manichaean world. Although many of them have been noted in previous scholarship, they have never been studied as a group, nor have they been subjected to a systematic analysis that allows us to collect and assess their data as a whole in order to better understand the history of these unique Manichaean works of art.

Map 2: Existence of Mani’s Picture-Book as documented in eighteen textual sources (Geographical distribution and dates) (Source: Transcultural Studies).

Even the most basic statistical assessment of the distribution of these texts reveals important facts about the history of Mani’s Picture-Book (Map 2). In terms of their religious contexts of origin, 50% are primary Manichaean texts —surviving from the deserts of Northeast Africa (3 texts) and East Central Asia (6+1 texts),—which confirms the continued use of the Picture-Book among the followers of Mani. The other 50% of the texts derive from polemical accounts, including Christian texts in West Asia (1 text), Persian Islamic texts from West and Central Asia (2+5 texts), and an official government report from southern China (1 text), suggesting that this Manichaean collection of didactic paintings was of interest to rival religious and secular authorities alike. Regarding their geographical and chronological distribution, over 40% of these texts (8 texts) discuss the use of Mani’s Picture-Book in third-century Mesopotamia, and among the Uygurs between the eighth and early eleventh centuries. With decreasing significance, Chinese use is also confirmed initially in the North, in the capital cities of the Tang dynasty, and later in the South, in the coastal Fujian province between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries (2 texts). Persian sources that specifically mention  Mani’s Picture-Book and not merely “Mani the painter” are also included in this survey. Starting from the eleventh century, these sources reflect a Persian (non-Manichaean) admiration for Mani’s Picture-Book (2 texts). More recent Persian accounts, dating from the past 300 years, preserve the memory of Mani’s Picture-Book in various literary genres (5 texts). Through their temporal and geographical distribution, these eighteen texts reflect the gradually diminishing use of the Picture-Book, confirming its strong presence in West Asia (4 texts) and East Central Asia (5+1 texts) during the early and the middle era of Manichaean history, and a lessened prominence during the late era of this religion in East Asia (1 text).

An example of what the critical analysis of each text entails can be illustrated with one of the most informative early sources on the Picture-Book, written by Ephrem Syrus (d. 373 CE). Ephrem mentions the Manichaeans’ use of didactic images in Syro-Mesopotamia in a passage of his Prose Refutations.[12] Dating from sometime in the middle of the fourth century, Ephrem composed this text to refute Marcion, Bardaisan, and Mani  who propagated their rivaling version of Christianity in West Asia. Despite its polemical tone, the Prose Refutations are especially relevant, since Ephrem lived within a century of Mani and shared with him a common language and cultural background. Equally significant is that Ephrem quotes directly from a Manichaean text and credits Mani’s disciples as his source of information. Specifically on the practice of teaching with images, he writes:

“According to some of his disciples, Mani also illustrated (the) figures of the godless doctrine, which he fabricated out of his own mind, using pigments on a scroll (Syr. megillah). He labeled the odious (figures) ‘sons of Darkness’ in order to declare to his disciples the hideousness of Darkness, so that they might loathe it; and he labeled the lovely (figures) ‘sons of Light’ in order to declare to them ‘its beauty so that they might desire it.’ He accordingly states: ‘I have written them (the teachings) in books and illustrated them in colors. Let the one who hears about them verbally also see them in visual forms (Syr. yuqnâ, ‘image’ or ‘picture’), and the one who is unable to learn them (the teachings) from [words] learn them from picture(s) (Syr. tzwrt, ‘picture’ or ‘illustration’).”[13]

Ephrem records here that the Manichaeans had a collection of images to illustrate their teachings from the very beginning of their history. He credits Mani with its authorship. Further, he also confirms the doctrinal content of these paintings by stating that they capture Mani’s “doctrine” and “the teachings.” He refers to the latter with plural pronouns,  because Mani’s doctrine consisted of a collection of teachings. Ephrem also conveys that the teachings were “illustrated” “in pigment,” “in colors,” “in a visual form,” and that they were “pictures.” The Syriac tzwrt (“picture”, “illustration”) is used here as a collective noun that John Reeves translates as “picture(s)” in his 1997 edition of the text. The use of the plural in English is justified by the Syriac context. The terms “doctrine” and “picture” both function as collective nouns. Just as we cannot imagine Mani’s doctrine to be one teaching, but rather a collection of teachings, the art that captured Mani’s doctrine was most certainly not a single image, but a collection of images, which Ephrem knew as a scroll (Syr. megillah), the format of which is well suited for storing a collection of individual scenes.[14]

With Ephrem’s passage in mind, it would be wrong to assume that Mani aimed his paintings specifically at an illiterate audience while his texts were meant for the literate members of his community. The vast majority of people listening to any religious teaching in late ancient Mesopotamia were illiterate. Illiteracy, however, does not seem to be the point here. Instead, Ephrem states that these images supplemented oral teachings, which were an intrinsic part of Manichaean instruction to any and all audiences. The paintings were designed to be seen by those “who hear the teachings verbally” and who are “unable to learn them just from the words.” Such teachings were delivered orally in an environment where the paintings played an essential role. They captured the content of the teaching in a medium different from that of the spoken word, by visual means, in order to make comprehension easier for the audience.[15] In other words, these paintings were didactic pictorial displays and the Manichaean tradition of using them began with Mani himself in mid-third-century southern Mesopotamia. Other texts confirm its continued use throughout the history of this religion.

As a group, the eighteen texts on the Picture-Book constitute a rich documentary source regarding the names, formats, and materials of this work of art, which understandably changed over time.Regarding the history of the name of the collection,early textual sources record it as the Picture (Syr. tzwrt and yukna, Copt. hikon, Gr. eikon, Parth. ārdahang, and MPers. nigar), while later texts from China and Islamic Persia call it the Picture-Book (Chin. tu-ching and Pers. nigarname). Until recently, the latter term dominated modern scholarship. I prefer to use it myself, because it better conveys the idea of a “collection of paintings” and thus avoids the misleading “single image” connotation. In regard to its formats and materials, the texts document that Mani’s Picture-Book existed in both book and textile formats. “Picture-books” are noted in both scroll and codex formats, suggesting a horizontal scroll most likely made of parchment in late ancient West Asia (containing a series of individual scenes painted next to one another) and a horizontal codex that was probably made of paper in mediaeval Central Asia (with full page images on folia bound along their shorter side). In addition to such book formats, there are also documented those that we may call “pictorial cloth displays”. It seems that they were portable didactic tableaux (that featured images on the surface of a cloth hanging scroll). Examples survived in both painted and embroidered formats among the Uygur and Chinese Manichaean artistic remains.

Some of the texts convey that Mani’s Picture-Book was listed among the canonical works of the Manichaean religion. They state that in addition to books written by Mani, the Manichaean canon includes a solely pictorial doctrinal work—a collection of didactic paintings attributed to Mani.[16] None of the canonical Manichaean books survive intact, not even in later copies. Only smaller fragments that were produced as translations are known today. As the two most important records of Mani’s teachings, the Picture-Book is frequently singled out with the Gospel in West Asian sources. These two works from the Manichaean canon are used as symbols for the textual and visual records that Mani created specifically to prevent the corruption of his teachings. Accordingly, theses two books are named in a ten-point list of claims for Manichaean superiority in Kephalaion 151, where Mani states:

“My church is superior in the wisdom and [the secrets?], which I have revealed to you in it. As for this [immeasurable] wisdom I have written it in the holy books–in the great [Gospel] and the other writings – so that it not be altered [after] me. Just as I have written it in books, so [I have] also ordered it (keleuein) to be drawn (zōgraphein). For all the [apostles], my brothers, who have come before me, [have not written] their wisdom in the books as I have written it. [Neither have] they drawn their wisdom in the Picture (hikōn) as [I have drawn] it. My church surpasses the earlier churches [also in this point].”[17]

The survey of the textual sources confirms that, in addition to writing, painting was employed as a tool by Mani to clearly communicate and at the same time avoid any adulteration of his teachings. No other religious prophets, including Zoroaster, Shakyamuni, and Jesus (“my brothers, who have come before me” – as Mani calls them in Kephalaion 151), wrote down, let alone painted their teachings. Mani saw this as an important distinction between him and these predecessors. Just as in canonical texts, copies of Mani’s collection of didactic paintings were also routinely made, assuring its preservation across the phases of Manichaean history, a point that I will revisit below.[18]

Manichaean Pictorial Art with Didactic Themes

A total of twenty-five Manichaean paintings can be identified today from East Central Asia and southern China that feature didactic subjects depicting core Manichaean teachings. I argue that the pictorial themes of these scenes were originally part of the collection of images known as Mani’s Picture-Book. These twenty-five pictorial sources constitute two distinct groups. The primary group is formed of actual paintings of Mani’s Picture-Book. Some of these are intact, while others are fragmentary scenes (large enough to be identified) conveyed either in picture-book formats (pictorial scroll and pictorial horizontal codex) or textile display formats (painted or embroidered silk hanging scrolls). The second group consists of copies of the Picture-Book‘s scenes preserved as illuminations in Manichaean hymnbooks and sub-scenes painted onto Manichaean funerary banners.

Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation Chinese Manichaean silk painting, complete hanging scroll, 142 cm x 59,2 cm, colors on silk, ca. 13th century, Yamato Bunkakan Museum, Nara, Japan (Source: Transcultural Studies). Note the Five registers from top to bottom: Register 1. The Light Maiden’s Visit to Heaven. The Stages of the Visit: 1. Greetings by the host upon arrival, 2. Meeting with the host in the Palace, 3. Farewell to the host; Register 2. Sermon Performed Around the Statue of a Manichaean Deity (Mani); Register 3. The States of Good Reincarnation. Four Classes of Chinese Society: 1. Itinerant workers, 2. Craftsmen, 3. Farmers, 4. Aristocrats; Register 4. The Light Maiden’s Intervention in the Judgment after Death; Register 5. States of Bad Reincarnation. The Tortures of Hell: 1. Person shot with arrows, 2. Person sawed in two, 3. Person crushed by a fiery wheel, 4. Demons waiting for their prisoner.

An example of a well-preserved scene from the Picture-Book has been recently identified. It is a Chinese silk painting in the collection of the Yamato Bunkakan, in Nara, Japan, dating sometime between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Figure 1). The Manichaean origin of this painting was first suggested by Takeo Izumi on the basis of a comparison with the Mani statue, and later affirmed by Yutaka Yoshida.[19] This 142 centimeter tall hanging scroll is accompanied by a dedicatory inscription with an illegible date that offers this painting “to a temple of vegetarians.”[20] The painting itself consists of five clearly demarcated registers of varying heights that together convey a subject that we may call Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation.[21] At the top, the first register depicts heaven as a palatial building that forms the focus of a narration of events with the repeated images of a few mythological beings. Using continuous narration, this composition shows how the Light Maiden and her entourage conduct their business: arriving on the left while being greeted by an unidentified female host; visiting the host while seated inside the palace (center); and then departing on the right while being seen off by the host. The scene may be titled The Light Maiden’s Visit to Heaven. The second register depicts a sermon performed around the statue of a Manichaean deity (most likely Mani) by two Manichaean elects, shown on the right.[22]The elect giving the sermon is seated, while his assistant is standing. A layman and his attendant, seen on the left, listen to the sermon. Therefore, the scene may be titled Sermon around a Statue of Mani. The third register is divided into four small squares, each devoted to one of four classes of Chinese society in order to capture what seems to be the daily life of the Chinese Manichaean laity (known as “auditors”). In succession from left to right, the first scene represents itinerant laborers; the second—craftsmen; the third—farmers, and the fourth—aristocrats.[23] This set of scenes may be titled States of Good Reincarnation. The fourth register depicts the Manichaean view of judgment after death. It shows a judge seated behind a desk surrounded by his aides in a pavilion on an elevated platform, to the front of which two pairs of demons lead their captives to hear their fates, either positive or negative. In the upper left corner, the Light Maiden arrives on her usual cloud formation with two attendants, to intervene on behalf of the man about to be judged. This scene may be titled The Light Maiden’s Intervention in a Judgment. The fifth register concludes the hanging scroll by portraying four fearful images of hell that include from right to left: arrows being shot at a person suspended from a red frame, dismemberment, a fiery wheel rolled over a person, and lastly a group of demon torturers waiting for their victim. This scene may be titled States of Bad Reincarnation. Clearly influenced by the iconography of local Buddhist artistic themes, all but one of the scenes look analogous to contemporaneous Buddhist works of art, including heaven on top and judgment and hell on the bottom. Nevertheless, the reoccurring figure of the Light Maiden in these scenes, as well as the uniquely Manichaean, centrally located, and largest Sermon Scene, makes this a readily identifiable Manichaean work of art.

Scroll Fragment (MIK III 4947 & III 5d) with an image of the Buddha, Museum of Indian Art, Berlin (Source: Transcultural Studies).

Fragmentary scenes that nevertheless preserve enough data to identify their actual didactic contents, may also be identified as examples of Mani’s Picture-Book. One such scene is found on a paper handscroll depicting the Primary Prophets from Kocho (MIK III 4974 & III 5d) in the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Figure 2).[24] This fragment was identified as Manichaean based on the correlation with specific motifs and technical details of Manichaean art.[25] This torn piece of lavishly painted paper retains parts of the central being’s mandorla and one of the original four prophets, the historical Buddha (Figure 2a). Shakyamuni is shown in authentic Buddhist iconography and is identified by the word “Buddha” written vertically on his chest in the Parthian language (“B-U-T”) and the Sogdian script.[26] This Buddha figure belonged to the upper right section of a scene that was originally painted on a horizontal scroll (Figure 2b). The original composition was organized around the still-intact large central figure (Mani)beneath a canopy. It probably involved, in the section now lost, the other three of the four figures (forerunners to Mani), including Jesus. This fragment derives from a pictorial didactic diagram with a uniquely Manichaean theme, whichwe may call the Primary Prophets. It was based on Manichaean texts from West and East Central Asia discussing this topic. In these texts, Mani is mentioned along with the founders of other religions whose teachings were relevant to Manichaeism. The East Central Asian versions of the texts name four other prophets, all of whom are considered to be of a lesser rank than Mani. They include the antediluvian prophet, Seth; the Buddhist prophet, Shakyamuni; the Zoroastrian prophet, Zarathustra; and the Christian prophet, Jesus. Analogously, the two pictorial fragments from Kocho feature five figures arranged in a symmetrical composition that uses centrality and scale to communicate hierarchy—the four somewhat smaller figures, symbolizing the forerunners, surround a larger central figure, most likely Mani.[27]

During the East Central Asian (Uygur) phase of Manichaean history, some scenes of the Picture-Book were copied to other media and thus survived as scenes on temple banners or illuminated manuscripts discovered in Kocho. I argue that such scenes can be identified based on their didactic pictorial contents, since they depict core Manichaean teachings that are well documented from textual (often canonical) sources. In the case of book paintings, the lack of contextual cohesion (i.e., the lack of harmonized content between the texts and image) and the sideways orientation of the painting in relation to the writing suggest that the paintings originally had a solely pictorial didactic context (such as a “picture-book”). Their scenes developed independently from the illuminated “text-book” during the early, West Asian phase of this religion.

The Work of the Religion Scene (MIK III 4794 recto, detail), before reconstruction (at Left, Gulasci, 2009) and after digital reconstruction (6.6 cm x 6.1 cm) (at Right, Gulasci, 2009) (Source: Transcultural Studies).

An example of a scene that, I suggest, originated as part of Mani’s Picture-Book, is the “Work of the Religion” scene preserved on the recto of a torn codex folio (MIK III 4974) from the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Figure 3). The surviving content of the painting (Figure 3a) becomes more understandable with a digital, non-interpretive, reconstruction of the same scene (Figure 3b). The steps of this reconstruction were discussed in a recent publication.[28] This painting is a didactic diagram that explains the goal of Manichaean practice: The Freeing of the Light from the Captivity of the Darkness.(1) Laypeople donate vegetarian food (that is believed to have a high concentration of light particles) to the elect (the priesthood).(2) After consuming this food, the bodies of the elect free the ight.(3) Through the singing of hymns, light departs from the bodies of the elect and heads towards to the Realm of Light. (4) The moon and sun act as vessels of the light, transporting the freed light particles back to God (to the Realm of Light). (5) God, i.e., “the Father of Greatness” (symbolized here by his right hand) reaches into the scene from above to receive the shipment.Even when viewing the original painting without the reconstruction, all details of this iconography can be identified in Manichaean texts that discuss “The Work of the Religion.” This scene depicts a core teaching and is free from East Central Asian (Buddhist) influence. Therefore, it is most likely that this pictorial subject originated among the scenes of Mani’s Picture-Book.

Turfan Manichaean Illuminated codex Folio, MIK III 4974, (Gulacsi, 2005, Fig. 5/8)(Source: Transcultural Studies); recto of paper fragment (at left) and verso of fragment (at Right).

In addition to the didactic theme of this painting (i.e., the liberation of light from the captivity of darkness), distinct from the text of the folio (benediction on the leaders of the local Uygur community), it is the physical context of the image that preserves codicological clues that suggest a solely pictorial source of origin. I hypothesize that the painting survived as a replica of a picture-book scene, copied onto a manuscript folio with a Middle-Persian language text, which is a benediction of the sacred meal and the leadership of the local community. The benediction text continues on the verso. The layout of this folio (like that of many other Manichaean fragments) can be fully reconstructed. As this reconstructed page layout shows, the writing utilizes the codex page vertically, while the painting utilizes the same page horizontally. The text does not comment on the painting and, vice-versa, the image does not make a visual reference to the text. I can only interpret this dual discrepancy by suggesting that they were not developed together within the illuminated book, but were instead derived from two independent sources: the texts came from a Manichaean textual tradition, while the images from Manichaean pictorial art.

Teaching Manichaean doctrine with the aid of both texts and images takes us back to Mani himself, who was active in a multicultural part of the world under Sasanid rule in southern Mesopotamia. Regarding the texts left behind by Mani, it is known that he was highly literate in several languages and composed and committed himself to writing a significant portion of the Manichaean canon. Mani viewed his literacy as an important point of distinction between him and the founder of other religions. In regards to the paintings, a variety of textual sources note that Mani commissioned or painted images himself that captured his teaching in a visual form. The two originally separate means of communication (textual and pictorial) remained important in later Manichaeism and in some cases became combined in a third, new medium (illuminated manuscripts adorned with —horizontally arranged images), which the Manichaeans seemed to employ only during the East Central Asian phases of their history.[29]

Comparative Sources on Teaching Religion with Images across the Asian Continent

Manichaean communities were not the only religious traditions active across the Asian continent and known to have illustrated the oral instructions of their teachings with didactic art. In 1988, Victor Mair from the University of Pennsylvania devoted a monograph to what he called “picture recitation” or “story telling with pictures”; the book features both secular and religious examples of the practice.[30] The starting point of Mair’s research was a genre of popular Chinese literature, known as bian-wen (transformation texts). Dating from the Tang period, transformation texts represent the first extended vernacular narratives in China. The earliest examples discovered from Dunhuang included textual manuscripts, as well as painted hand scrolls, sometimes with no texts, just images, which contributed to a confusion regarding the interpretation of their function and origin. According to a popular explanation, they were promptbooks for monks’ sermons and lectures. At the same time, evidence suggested that pien-storytellers were primarily lay entertainers (sometimes women). Mair argued that the genre of transformation texts derived from the tradition of chuan-pien, a type of oral storytelling with pictures, i.e., picture recitation, which as a folk tradition in China was poorly documented in historical accounts. Since relatively little Chinese data was available on picture recitation, Mair considered analogous genres from a variety of countries across the Asian continent, including India and southeast Asia, Iran and Central Asia, as well as Japan. Through his survey Mair could point to the historical depth of the tradition, as well as its diverse religious application, not only among Buddhist, but also Hindu, Jain, Islamic, and Manichaean communities.

Teaching with pictorial scrolls in Etoki performances of contemporary Japan; Pointing to scenes of a hanging scroll, Etoki performance at Saiko-ji, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, (Kaminishi, 2006, Fig. 5/2)  (Source: Transcultural Studies).

The best contemporary examples of the use of images to illustrate oral instructions of religious teachings are found in Japanese Pure Land Buddhist temples. With the spread of Buddhism from China to the rest of East Asia, the practice of picture recitation was transmitted to Japan, where it still exists today in the form of etoki performances. The fist monograph in English on the Japanese etoki appeared in 2006. The author, Ikumi Kaminishi, presented a contextualized study that focused on both textual and visual documentary sources, some dating as early as the 10th century.

Teaching with pictorial scrolls in Etoki performances of contemporary Japan; Moving between scenes of hand scroll. Etoki performance at Dojo-ji, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, (Mair, 1988, color plate 6) (Source: Transcultural Studies).

Since etoki is still offered today in about two dozen Buddhist temples, Kaminishi is able to introduce data based on documentary textual and visual sources, actual paintings currently used for the practice, and participant observation. The latter allows the reader to see the survival of specific didactic techniques that utilize pictorial hanging scrolls (vertical textile paintings) and handscrolls (rolled picture-books) as visual displays.[31] Japanese Buddhist sources of picture recitation may help the interpretation of the surviving, fragmentary data provided by Manichaean sources from southern China and East Central Asia. On the one hand, the Buddhist analogies document that teaching with images can be done either in a folk setting by laymen, or in the institutional setting of an organized religion by monks for the benefit of the laity. On the other hand, they allow us to see that both pictorial handscrolls (rolled picture-books) and hanging scrolls (vertical textile paintings) are suitable formats for didactic visual displays. The vertical format of the hanging scroll allows the viewer to see a large number of scenes at the same time, the viewing order of which is given by the instructor, who points to the individual scenes as the instruction progresses. The horizontal format— of the hand scroll—prevents the viewer from seeing the entire roll surface simultaneously. Instead, it is customary to view only a couple of scenes at the time. In this case, the viewing sequence is defined by the horizontal layout of the scenes, which is right to left in East Asia.

Wall painting depicting the showing of a cloth with the Four Major Events, Kizil, ca. 7th century, Museum of Asian Art, Berlin, (Mair, 1988, Plate IV) (Source: Transcultural Studies).

The use of these two formats (i.e., vertical hanging scroll and horizontal handscroll), like the two materials (i.e., painted silk and painted paper) are documented for the Buddhist communities of medieval East Central Asia, who also employed them for conveying didactic pictorial subjects. A version of a vertical textile display depicts the four major events from the Life of the Historical Buddha, which is preserved on a wall painting from the caves of Kizil, dating from the 8th century CE (Figure 6a). A solely pictorial paper roll depicting the Ten Kings of Hell is preserved in Cave 17 at Dunhuang, dating from tenth-century, and housed today in the collection of the British Museum (Figure 6b).

Pictorial paper scroll depicting the Ten Kings of Hell (details), Dunhuang, ca. 10th century, British Museum, London, (Whitfield, 1988, Fig. 26) (Source: Transcultural Studies).

These Buddhist examples are particularly noteworthy, because they derive from a time and place where the Manichaeans were also known to have rendered the images of their Picture-Book in analogous pictorial formats and materials, in order to illustrate the most important teachings of their tradition. The use of paper in Buddhist and Manichaean art is first documented in East Central Asia. While a few illuminated Manichaean parchment fragments do survive from Kocho,[32] paper clearly dominated the productions of books and picture-books in both codex and scroll formats. East Central Asia is known for religious and artistic innovations that defined the subsequent formation of these two traditions. The existence of didactic pictorial art and the employment of oral instruction are already confirmed for the pre-East Central Asian phase of their history.

The earliest surviving remains of Buddhist didactic art derive from the area of the Kushan Empire, when much of Central Asia and Northern India were encompassed under the rule of an Indo-European speaking nomadic people between the 1st and 3rd centuries (Map 3). The era of the Kushan Empire is especially relevant for this study, not only because during its reign the first narrative images of the Buddha’s life were created, but also because the last century of Kushan rule is contemporaneous with Mani, who had ties with northern India. Although Mani spent most of his life within the western regions of Sasanid Iran, he is known to have led a mission along the eastern frontiers of Iran into what  today is northwest India (just south of what belonged to the Kushan realm), where he encountered Buddhist and Jain communities.[33]

One of the most important subjects of Buddhist art, the narration of the life of the historical Buddha, is first documented in the Kushan era. Extensive stone relief carvings of the life of the Buddha that survived from the region of Gandhara (today Pakistan and Afghanistan) from the second and third centuries CE, preserve a rich artistic tradition, which conveys a didactic narrative cycle. Examples are known in both the vertical and horizontal formats. A set of vertically displayed scenes can be seen on a stele in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Scenes from the “Life of the Buddha”, Gandhara, Pakistan, Kushan period, between the 1st century and 322 CE, grey schist, courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art (Source: Transcultural Studies).

At the top of this relief carving, the narration begins with the Birth scene, and what appears to be the scene of the Great Departure with the Buddha on a house leaving behind his princely life, concludes the set on the bottom. A horizontal arrangement is used on the relief at the Sackler Gallery . The two scenes illustrated here (from the original set of four) show Birth, as well as Enlightenment. Together they constitute the first two scenes of the four major events from the Buddha’s life. Since organic materials rarely survive from this time, these stone reliefs suggest that portable versions of analogous compositions, most likely rendered primarily on cotton, were also used to visually narrate the events of the Buddha’s life during this period.

Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Gandhara, Pakistan, Kushan period, between the 1st century and 322 A.D, schist, courtesy of Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington DC. (Source: Transcultural Studies).

Further west, across the Asian continent in third-century Mesopotamia, the use of images for religious teachings is also documented in both Jewish and Christian contexts, suggesting that the Manichaeans were not the only ones in the region who employed didactic art in service of their mission. About ten days walking distance (ca. 270 miles=430 km) north of where Mani lived, on the Roman side of the Sasanid border, the archeological remains (discovered at Dura from the mid-third-century) preserved didactic paintings in Mesopotamian Jewish and Christian settings. The Synagogue at Dura offers a strong comparative example.

Painted Baptistery, Dura-Europos, Syria, 244-45 CE, model copy, tempera on plaster, Yale University Art Gallery (Source: Transcultural Studies).

Its mostly narrative scenes are large enough to be seen by a gathered congregation. The meeting hall is framed by built-in benches, orienting the community towards the center, which allows for a relatively comfortable view of all four walls. The pictorial program of such a visual library does not have to mimic the sequence of stories in the Hebrew Bible. The rabbi brings the images up as he sees fit. He may verbally refer or physically point to them when necessary. The Baptistery at Dura seems to document an analogous case with scenes such as Healing the Paralytic, Walking on Water, Woman at the Well, and Finding the Empty Tomb.

Painted Synagogue, Dura-Europos, Syria, 244-45 CE, rebuilt original, tempera on plaster, Damascus National Museum (Source: Transcultural Studies).

At this early era of Christianity, baptism was performed mostly for adults and, thus, it is conceivable that the ritual included a didactic component. In this small chapel, the scenes seem to be selected for their appropriateness for a baptism ritual. At the same time, they constitute part of a didactic visual library.

During this time in West Asia, the itinerant Manichaean priesthood employed a portable medium (a scroll, according to Ephrem), but they also had a collection of didactic paintings during the mid-third-century, analogously  similar to the Christian and Jewish communities of Mesopotamia. Textual sources confirm that the Manichaeans found their collection of didactic painting important enough to be added to their canon in a solely pictorial volume, which they labeled Mani’s Picture and later, Mani’s Picture-Book. While it is possible that the idea of using didactic art as a visual aid to oral instruction came to Mani as a result of seeing portable pictorial tableaus in India, it is also possible that using portable art in the context of oral performances was a broader, regional, West Asiatic, artistic phenomenon widely employed in both secular and religious settings in this primarily Iranian part of the late ancient world. This line of reasoning would also present an explanation as to why the collection of Manichaean didactic paintings featured so prominently during the fourth century in both Ephrem’s Mesopotamian Syriac polemical accounts, and the Coptic translations of Mesopotamian Manichaean literature, but was unknown to Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) only a century later in Roman North Africa. Despite being a lay follower of Mani for about twelve years, Augustine never mentions Mani’s Picture-Book and specifically states in his Contra Faustum that the Manicheans that Augustine knew did not illustrate their teachings nor depict their gods in any visual form.[34]

Conclusion

Displaying and explaining images in the course of oral instructions of religious teachings is a phenomenon best known today from the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist practice called etoki.  In the course of etoki, a priest or a learned layperson stands next to a large hanging or hand scroll that contains a variety of scenes and points to the images as her elucidation proceeds. This phenomenon is documented among a variety of historical Buddhist communities, not only in East Asia, but in Central and South Asia, too. The earliest known use of such didactic art in Buddhist context is from the second and third centuries CE, when in Kushan Empire, especially in the region of Gandhara (today’s Kandahar region of Afghanistan and Peshawar region of Pakistan), narrative images on the Buddha’s life were first portrayed in art and recorded in writing.

From their earliest history in mid third-century Sasanid Mesopotamia, Manichaean communities also employed didactic images that were displayed for a group of devotees as part of orally delivered teachings. They covered themes such as the duality of light and darkness, Manichaean prophets and deities, and visions of a religious universe and human salvation. Future research may reveal evidence on an analogous use of didactic art in late ancient Mesopotamia by Jewish and Christian communities. However, compared to all other religions that employed didactic images to accompany instruction, the Manichaeans  were unique in three ways: (1) they consciously used such didactic art as part of their mission from the earliest days of their tradition, (2) they collected these paintings in a solely pictorial “volume” that they attributed to the founder of their religion (calling it Mani’s Picture or Picture-Book), and (3) they added this solely pictorial work to their official canon. The canonical status contributed to the preservation of Manichaean didactic art and to the custom of teaching with them throughout most of this religion’s 1400-year history. As Mani’s teachings began to be disseminated outside southern Mesopotamia across the Asian continent (already by Mani himself), it became necessary to communicate transculturally with the aid of various means of missionary adaptation. Not unlike the translation of Manichaean texts, the paintings also underwent certain changes in their format, style, and iconography in order to efficiently convey Mani’s message to its intended new audience. Accordingly, while the overall repertoire of Manichaean didactic paintings looked different from one another in Sassanid Iran, Byzantine West Asia, Uygur Central Asia, and Song- or Yuan-dynasty China, it did preserve a distinctly Manichaean religious content. Maintaining a Manichaean version of etoki required clearly comprehensible pictorial communication that was suitable as a visual aid to illustrate the religion’s teachings in distinct cultural settings.

Because Manichaeism endured much persecution and is now an extinct world religion, only bits and pieces of information about its historical practices survive today. Thus, the study of Manichaean texts and art requires painstaking scholarly work in order to uncover, analyze, and interpret the available sources. The attempt to understand the artistic and textual data on the Manichaeans’ illustrated instruction, and the pictorial tools employed for it, is no exception. The ongoing research project that I was invited to report on in the above study relies on both textual and pictorial Manichaean data that are contextualized in light of comparative non-Manichaean examples in order to uncover for the first time a prominent tradition that motivated the creation, use, and preservation of pictorial art as a distinct component of religious life.

Footnotes

[1] Zsuzsanna Gulacsi, “The Central Asian Roots of a Chinese Manichaean Silk Painting in the Collection of the Yamato Bunkakan, Nara, Japan,” in In Search of Truth. Augustine, Manichaeism and other Gnosticism: Studies for Johannes van Oort at Sixty, edited by Jacob Albert van den Berg, Annemaré Kotzé, Tobias Nicklas and Madeleine Scopello. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies Series 74 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 315-337 + pls. 5.
[2] Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, Mani’s Picture-Book: Canonical Didactic Images of the Manichaeans from Mesopotamia to China, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies (Leiden: E. J. Brill,forthcoming).
[3] A comprehensive bibliography of Manichaean studies published in European, West Asian, and East Asian languages up to 1996 consists of 3,606 entries. See Gunner B. Mikkelsen, Bibliographia Manichaica: A Comprehensive Bibliography of Manichaeism through 1996 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997).
[4] See Colin Mackerras, The Uighur Empire According to the T’ang Dynastic Histories: A Study in Sino-Uighur Relations, 744–840 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973); and “The Uighurs,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 317–42. For a map indicating the locations of the Manichaean, Nestorian, and Zoroastrian temples of Chang’an, see Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), 117.
[5] For a book on Manichaean history, see Samuel Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China,2nd ed. (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992).
[6] See Albert von Le Coq, Chotscho: Facsimile-Wiedergabe der Wichtigeren Funde der ersten Königlich Preussischen Expedition nach Turfan in Ost-Turkistan (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1913; reprint, Graz: Akademie Druck, 1973); and Die manichäischen Miniaturen, Die buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien 2 (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1923; reprint, Graz: Akademie Druck, 1978).
[7] Besides the two collections in Berlin that formed the focus of my studies on canon formation (Gulácsi, “Identifying the Corpus,” 177–215; and Manichaean Art in Berlin Collections, 267–68), a few fragments of Manichaean illuminated books are known from collections in London, St. Petersburg, Kyoto, and China. They were studied together with the Berlin remains in Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art: A Codicological Study of Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments from 8th–11th Century East Central Asia (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 15-38. New identifications of Manichaean textiles have been made in Chayya Bhattacharya-Haesner, Central Asian Temple Banners in the Turfan Collection of the Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2003), 372, 377–79.
[8] In his entry in the Encyclopedia on World Art, Louis Hambis (“Manichaean Art,” 442–43) was the first to question the assumed chronology of the Manichaean painting styles, which led me to date the remains in light of scientific, artistic, and textual evidence. See Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, “Dating the ‘Persian’ and Chinese Style Remains of Uygur Manichaean Art: A New Radiocarbon Date and Its Implications for Central Asian Art History,” Arts Asiatiques 58 (2003): 5–33.
[9] Gulácsi, Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art.
[10] For iconographic studies on the Four Heavenly Kings, the Bema Festival, the Judgement after Death, the Work of the Religion, and Mani, see publications by Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Jorinde Ebert, Yutaka Yoshida, and Zsuzsana Gulácsi.
[11] Yoshida, “A newly recognized Manichaean painting: Manichaean Daēnā from Japan,” in Pensée grecque et sagesse d’Orient: Hommage à Michel Tardieu, edited by Mohammed-Ali Amir-Moezzi et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 697-714; and “A Manichaean Painting from Ningbo: On the Religious Affiliation of the so-called Rokudōzu of the Museum Yamato Bunkakan,” Yamato Bunka 119 (2009): 1-35 (in Japanese); Jorinde Ebert, “Some Remarks Concerning a Recently Identified Manichaean Painting of the Museum Yamato Bunkakan,” Yamato Bunka 119 (2009): 35-47 (in Japanese); and Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, “A Manichaean Portrait of the Buddha Jesus: Identifying a Twelfth- or Thirteenth-century Chinese Painting from the Collection of Seiun-ji Zen Temple,” Artibus Asiae 69/1 (2009): 91-145.
[12] Siegmor Dopp and Wilhelm Geerlings, eds., Dictionary of Early Christian Literature (New York: Crossroad, 2000), 195-198.
[13] Ephrem, Refutations 126.31-127.11 in John Reeves, “Manichaean Citations from the Prose Refutations of Ephrem,” in Emerging from Darkness: Studies in the Recovery of Manichaean Sources, edited by Paul Mirecki and Jason BeDuhn (Leiden, Brill, 1997), 262-263.
[14] Personal communication with John Reeves. In his discussion of Mani’s Picture, Hans-Joachim Klimkeit also emphasizes that it contained numerous scenes, pointing to a quotation from the 18th chapter of the Coptic Manichaean Homilies, in which Mani laments foreseeing the destruction of his church and all the books of his canon: “I weep over the paintings of my Picture” (Manichaean Art and Calligraphy, 15-16).
[15] A similar understanding of the passage is expressed by Albert Heinrichs , who writes: “As a missionary of his own creed, Mani liked to appeal not only to the ears but also to the eyes of his largely illiterate audiences; so he painted a picture book, which illustrated his religious beliefs in colorful and graphic detail. When depicting the primeval battle between the forces of Light and Darkness in his book-paintings, Mani will have set stark white against pitch-black colors; and to speculate further about Mani’s Biblia Pauperum, I suggest that on its pages red blood was dripping from the fresh cuts in green plants” (“ ‘Thou shalt not Kill a Tree’: Greek, Manichaean and Indian Tales,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 16, no. 1-2 (1979): 94).
[16] A list of what belonged to the Manichaean Canon in fourth-century Egypt is preserved in the Coptic Manichaean text known as the Homilies, where the following twelve works are named: (1) Gospel, (2) Treasury of Life, (3) Pragmateia, (4) Book of Mysteries, (5) Book of Giants, (6) Epistles, (7) Psalms, (8) Prayers, (9) Picture (Hikōn), (10) Revelations, (11) Parables, and (12) Mysteries (Homilies: 25.1-25.6 in Nils Arne Pedersen, Manichaean Homilies:with a Number of Hitherto Unpublished Fragments (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), 25).
[17] Kephalaion 151, lines 20-30 (Wolf-Peter Funk, Kephalaia I (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2000), 372-373. Carl Schmidt  and Hans Jacob Polotsky (“Ein Mani-Fund in Ägypten. Originalschriften des Mani und seiner Schüler,” Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Academie der Wissenschaften, 1933, 41-43) had incorrectly cited the passage as Kephalaion 154, which is how it has been cited in scholarship prior to Funk’s edition. The English translation of the Coptic passage quoted above is after Jason BeDuhn (personal communication), who published parts of the passage in his “Eucharist or Yasna?: Antecedents of Manichaean Food Ritual,” in Studia Manichaica: IV. International Congress of Manichaean Studies, edited by W. Sundermann (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2000), 14, note 2. In addition to the Coptic, there are Middle Persian and Sogdian versions of this subject preserved on two Turfan fragments: M 5794 (Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 216) and Ch. 5554 (Werner Sundermann, Ein manichäisch-sogdisches Parabelbuch (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1985), 27-28, lines 125-135), respectively.
[18] “I have made another (copy of the Book of the) Giants and the Ārdahanag in Merv” (M 5815 lines 112-223, see Klimkeit 1993, 260). For a detailed discussion of this Parthian letter’s translation, see Boyce 1975, 48-49.
[19] Izumi raises the possibility that the main figure could be Mani, due to its similarity to the iconography of the Mani statue near Quanzhou. He also considers previous interpretations of the painting, which include the themes of the “Six Buddhist Realms” for the overall composition and the “Meeting of the Three Religions” (i.e., Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism) for the main scene, but refrains from giving a new interpretation; Izumi, “A Possible Nestorian Christian Image,” 10–12. Yutaka Yoshida identifies the main figure as Mani and the repeated image of the female figure standing on a cloud with her attendants as the Light Maiden (Sogdian Daênâ). Regarding the complete image, Yoshida suggests that it is an illustration of the Manichaean doctrine on individual eschatology and for this reason inspired by a subject depicted in Mani’s Picture-Book. See Yutaka Yoshida, “A Manichaean Painting from Ningbo,” 5-8. For the previously accepted Buddhist interpretation of the image, including the “Six Buddhist Realms” and the “Meeting of the Three Religions,” see Seinosuke Ide, Nihon no Sôgen butsuga, 71–73.
[20] This important inscription is discussed by Yoshida (“A Manichaean Painting from Ningbo,” 8), who provides a Japanese translation by T. Moriyasu, the English equivalent of which is as follows (Yoshida, personal communication): “Zhang Siyi from a parish (?) called Dongzheng, who is a leader of the disciples, together with his wife Xinniang [from] the family of Zheng make a donation and present respectfully a sacred painting of Hades to a temple of vegetarians located on the Baoshan mountain. They wish to provide it as their eternal offering. Accordingly, peace may be kept. [In the year . . . and in the . . . -th month].” The characters for the date are illegible.
[21] For a further study on the Manichaean iconography of this painting, see Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, “The Central Asian Roots of a Chinese Manichaean Silk Painting in the Collection of the Yamato Bunkakan, Nara, Japan” (in Japanese), Yamato Bunka / Biannual Journal of Eastern Arts 118 (2009): 17–34; regarding its didactic context of use, see Gulácsi, “A Visual Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation: A Contextualized Reading of a Chinese Manichaean Silk Painting in the Collection of the Yamato Bunkakan in Nara, Japan,” Studies on the Inner Asian Languages 23 (2008):1–16.
[22] I agree with Yoshida, who also identifies the deity as Mani in “A Manichaean Painting from Ningbo” 4–5. My interpretation of the subject of the main scene as a Manichaean Sermon Scene is based on depictions of sermons in East Central Asian Manichaean art. The best preserved example of a Sermon Scene can be seen on an intracolumnar book painting (MIK III 8259 folio 1[?] recto) showing a central altar and seated elects, who display communicative hand gestures and hold a book as they deliver their teachings to seated royalty; Gulácsi, Manichaean Art in Berlin Collections, no. 28. In general, rituals were favored pictorial subjects in Manichaean art, as suggested by a survey of the illuminated book fragments confirming eleven ritual scenes that divide into five distinct types (Alms Service, Sermon, Hymnody, Bema Festival, and Conversion). In many of these scenes, actual members of the Manichaean community are named and Uygur royalty are shown. See Gulácsi, Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art, 203–6.
[23] Yoshida, “A Manichaean Painting from Ningbo,” 3-4.
[24] This fragment was matched from two individual pieces. For the color facsimile and a detailed discussion, see Gulácsi, Manichaean Art in Berlin Collections, 146–48, 240, 250. For a study of the codicological characteristics of illuminated scroll fragments and the interpretation of the original layout of this fragment, see Gulácsi, Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art, 88–93 and 185–188, respectively.
[25] The motif of a gold disk is used with such frequency in Uygur Manichaean art that it has been considered a token motif for identification of this fragment, which is thought to be Manichaean on other grounds, too (Gulácsi, “Identifying the Corpus,” 197). Technical details in the depiction of the Buddha correspond to details seen in the execution of other Manichaean works of art in the fully painted version of the “West Asian style of Uygur Manichaean art,” which favored the use of an ultramarine-blue background and large quantities of gold in addition to a five-stage execution that concluded with the drawing of delicate details in red line onto the gold- and white-covered surfaces. For a detailed discussion, including the execution of the nose, the right hand, and the vine motif, see Gulácsi, “Dating the ‘Persian’ and Chinese Style Remains of Uygur Manichaean Art,” 12–15, 21–22, and figs 9c, 9d, 16d.
[26] Larry Clark suggests that both the script and the language of the three-letter text are Sogdian (see Appendix I, no. 66, in Gulácsi, Manichaean Art in Berlin Collections, 240). This reading requires a minor correction. While the script is undoubtedly Sogdian, the language cannot be Sogdian, as was pointed out to me by Yutaka Yoshida (personal communication), because the noun pwt- is always supplemented with a –y in its nominative form, i.e., pwty “Buddha”; B. Gharib, Sogdian Dictionary (Teheran: Farhangan Publications, 1995), 115, line 2929. Although this eliminates Sogdian as the language, it does not mean that the connotation that Clark assigns to the word is wrong. The Sogdian script was used in East Central Asia from the eighth to the eleventh century to write Manichaean texts in a variety of other languages, including Parthian, Middle Persian, and Old Turkic (i.e., Old Uygur). The language of the inscription on the Buddha’s chest is likely one of these, since the noun “Buddha” is pwt in Parthian and Middle Persian (Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst, Dictionary of Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004) 118), as well as in Old Turkic(Sir Gerard Clauson, An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Turkish (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) 297).
[27] This interpretation is based in part on the Uygur Manichaean Pothi-Book, which mentions Mani and the four prophets: “You (Mani) descended after the four prophets (Uyg. tört burkhan).” See Clark, “Manichaean Turkic Pothi-Book,” 183, lines 66, 188, 260–62.
[28] Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, “An Experiment in Digital Reconstruction with a Manichaean Book Painting.” In New Light on Manichaeism: Proceedings of the 6th International Congress of Manichaean Studies, Aug. 1-5, 2005, Flagstaff, Arizona, edited by J. BeDuhn (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 145-168 + 12 plates.
[29] For a codicological study of horizontally-oriented images in Manichaean manuscript illumination, see Gulácsi, Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art, 133-193.
[30] Victor H. Mair, Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1988; reprint, Warren: Floating World Editions, 2009).
[31] Mair 1988, 1-16; and Ikumi Kaminishi, Explaining Pictures: Buddhist Propaganda and Etoki Storytelling in Japan (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 2006), 103-108.
[32] See, Ursula Sims-Williams, Werner Sundermann and Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, “An illustrated parchment folio from a Middle Persian Manichaean codex in the collection of the British Library, Or. 12452D/3 (Kao.0111),” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 1 (2006), 139-142.
[33] Northwest India was visited by Mani during the 230s. Specifically Jain influence is noted in Manichaean attitudes towards non-injury (Stanley F. Johns, “Jain Elements in Manichaeism,” paper presented at the Manichaean Studies Seminar, Society of Biblical Literature, Annual Conference, 2004). For an overview of Mani’s missions, see Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China, 86-107.
[34] Augustine writes: “These and countless other absurdities are not represented in painting, or sculpture, or in any explanation”(Contra Faustum 20:9) and  “Indeed, your gods have innumerable occupations, according to your fabulous descriptions, which you neither explain, nor represent in a visible form” (Contra Faustum 20:9 and 20:10, respectively.)

Ancient Zoroastrian Temple discovered in Northern Turkey

The News report Ancient Persian temple discovered in northern Turkey could rewrite Religious History” was originally provided on November 6, 2017 by the Daily Sabah News outlet based in Istanbul, Turkey. The text of the Daily Sabah report has been reproduced below with a number of edits. Included in the text below are also translated portions of the Turkish language Ana Haber Gazete News outlet. Kindly note that excepting one photo, all other images and captions do not appear in the original Daily Sabah report.

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Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Persian temple from the fifth century B.C. in Turkey’s northern Amasya province that could rewrite the history of the region. Istanbul University Archaeology Professor Şevket Dönmez has noted that the discoveries at the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük settlement in Toklucak village have the potential to change long-held notions of religion and culture in Anatolia.

Artifacts uncovered at the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük settlement in Toklucak village, Amasya province, Turkey (Daily Sabah & AA Photo).

As noted by Dönmez during a press conference regarding his excavations at Amasya (as cited/translated from the Turkish language Ana Haber News outlet):

“The excavations proceeded to explore the Persian (Achaemenid) time period (c. 425-300 BCE) at Asmaya… Oluz tumulus, where cella with sacred fire burned, living quarters, stone pavilions, and potholes where unusable temple goods were buried were discovered … the history of Anatolian religion now has to be revised … Portable fire burning vessels (fire) and skulls used in the temples were destroyed in the course of Alexander the Great’s Asian campaign (300 BCE). Shovels and pots pointing to Haoma (holy drink) were discovered. It is the first time that the ruins of Oluz mound, which reflects the formation and development periods of the Zoroastrian religion which are understood to have come to Anatolia with the Medes and the Persians. these finds are notably unique as he richness of these finds have yet to be found in Iran itself which is the Zoroastrian religion‘s  geographical source.”

 Professor Şevket Dönmez of Istanbul University presents his findings at Asmaya, Turkey in a news conference followed by questions by Turkish academics and reporters (Source: Ana Haber). Note the Zoroastrian artifacts also on display at the lower right of the photo.

In 11 seasons of excavations, the team uncovered thousands of artifacts, as well as temple structure. In respone to questions by the Anadolu news agency Dönmez noted:

“In this settlement from the fifth century B.C., we discovered a temple complex which is related to a fire culture, more precisely to the early Zoroastrian religion, or to the very original religious life of Anatolian people … They built a massive religion system here [Asmaya]… No 2,500-year-old artifacts have been found in Iran, yet they appeared in Anatolia. [With this discovery] Anatolia has entered the sacred geography of today’s Zoroastrians” 

Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest extant religions, is believed to have originated from the prophet Zoroaster in present-day Iran. The discovery of a temple for fire worship suggests the religion may also have had roots in Anatolia, as well.

Professor Şevket Dönmez of Istanbul University provides the architectural layout of the Zoroastrian temple that he and his archaeological team have excavated at Asmaya (Source: Ana Haber),

Describing the temple, Dönmez said it includes a holy room for burning fires and other stone-paved areas with many goods used in worship practices. Dönmez also said Oluz Höyük is the only known Persian settlement in the region.

Excavations at Oluz Höyük started in 2007, after the site was first discovered during surface research near Tokluca village in 1999.

Dönmez and his team plan to continue research work at the site, possibly working on restoring the temple area in the future.

Remains of ancient Zoroastrian urns at Gonnur Tappeh which were once filled with the sacred drink known as “Soma/Haoma” (Source: Balkh and Shambhala). Gonnur Tappeh is situated  at approximately  sixty kilometers north of Mary in modern-day Turkmenistan.

Cyrus the Great and the Founding Fathers of the United States

The Founding fathers of the United States, especially Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), John Adams (1735-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) were strongly influenced by Cyrus the Great’s (approx. 600-530 BCE) legacy of governance.

John Trumbull’s 1819 painting of the Declaration of Independence (Public Domain with original painting in the Capitol Building of Washington DC). This depicts the Committee of Five presenting their document to Congress on June 28, 1776. Less known is the fact that the Founding fathers of the United States  admired and consulted Cyrus’ legacy of governance as described in the Cyropaedia (Greek: Kúrou Paideía = The Education of Cyrus).

Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, entered the city of Babylon on October 29, 543 CE, a full 17 days after his ally Babylonian General Gubaru had arrived at the Metropolis. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle (III, 12-22), Cyrus was welcomed as a liberator by the local citizenry:

In the month of Arahsamah, the third day, Cyrus entered Babylon, green twigs, doubtless reeds or rushes to smooth out the path of his chariot … The state of peace was imposed on all the city. Cyrus sent messages of greetings to all of Babylon

A depiction of Cyrus the Great in his (ceremonial?) chariot as he enters Babylon City with his retinue on October 29, 543 CE (Source: El Palacia De Las Nueve Lunas). The Nabonidus Chronicle states that as Cyrus entered the city, twigs and reeds were laid by local citizens along the path of his chariot.

Cyrus’ conduct in Babylon is later corroborated by Greek historian and soldier Xenophon (c.430-354 CE) in his “Education of Cyrus” or Cyropaedia (VII, 5, 20-26).

Xenophon (431-355 BC) wrote a compendium of Cyrus, known as the Cyropaedia. The Cyropaedia has been consulted as a standard reference of statesmanship by a number of prominent leaders in world history. Readers can access the Cyropaedia translated by H.G. Dakyns by clicking here …

One example of Cyrus’ statesmanship was his respect for the diversity of theology, languages and cultures. Upon his arrival into Babylon, Cyrus proclaimed his humility and respect for the Babylonian God Marduk. As noted in the Cyrus Cylinder (discovered in March 1879 by excavation work for by the British Museum):

Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny the great magnanimity of one who loves Babylon, and I every day sought him out in awe.” [Translation of Cyrus Cylinder, British Museum, 2009]

The Cyrus Cylinder (The British Museum)

For more articles on Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder see here:

کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great & the Cyrus Cylinder

Perhaps most remarkable is how little is known today of the influence of Cyrus’ legacy upon the Founding Fathers of the United States. This is because Cyrus was well known to Greco-Roman civilization, thanks to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. The Roman statesman Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE) had a copy of the Cyropaedia.

Scipio Africanus of Rome as depicted in a mid 1st century BCE Roman bust of bronze, currently housed at the Naples National Archaeological Museum (Inv. No. 5634) (Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta in Public Domain). Scipio Afriocanus regularly consulted his copy of the Cyropaedia.

Scipio like many Classical and Western statesmen to come after him, knew well of Cyrus and his adaptive policies of governance by way of the Cyropaedia. Looking further into Cyrus’ policies upon his arrival in Babylon, as inscribed upon the Cyrus Cylinder:

My vast army marched into Babylon in peace; I did not permit anyone to frighten the people of [Sumer] /and\ Akkad. …relieved their wariness and freed them from their service. Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced over [my good] deeds.

Note that Cyrus cited Marduk, the god of Babylon, and not the supreme Zoroastrian deity Ahura-Mazda.

A Snake-Dragon image-symbol of Marduk, the patron God of Babylon (Panel of glazed earthenware bricks, Ishtar Gate, c. 604-562 BCE) (Source: Detroit Institute of Arts). Instead of plunder and destruction, like the former kings of the preceding Near Eastern empires, Cyrus paid homage to the local Babylonian god Marduk and ensured that no looting, plunder or destruction took place in that ancient city. More recently, a tribute to Marduk was found at Persepolis (see here …)

Cyrus also showed concern for the day to day living circumstances of local citizenry by ordering the restoration of Babylon-City’s Derelict quarters – as cited on the Cylinder:

“…bought relief to their dilapidated housing [in Babylon-City] putting an end to their complaints…”

In essence, this was an order for a slum clearance program. Among Cyrus’ other policies of note were:

  • Restoration of gods to their enclosures in Babylon
  • Re-institution of the New Year Festival
  • Policy of racial and religious equality & acceptance
  • Deported peoples allowed to return home
  • Destroyed Temples ordered to be restored

While several top historians have examined Cyrus the Great and his legacies, perhaps one of the most enduring observations remain that of late Professor William James (Will) Durant (1885-1981):

The first principle of his [Cyrus the Great] policy was that the various peoples of his empires would be left free in their religious worship and beliefs…Instead of sacking cities and wrecking temples he showed a courteous respect for the deities of the conquered, and contributed to maintain their shrines…Like Napoleon he accepted indifferently all religions, and-with much better grace-honored all the gods.” [Durant, 1942, page 353; Durant, Will (1942) The Story of Civilization:(Part One): Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon & Shuster]

An ingress route to the Temple of Amon in Egypt (Source: Khan Academy). Achaemenid kings such as Cambyses and Darius the Great  consistently provided funds and support for the reconstruction and repair of Egypt’s temples.

With respect to Achaemenid rule in general, Young notes:

Because of the religious, ethnic and social tolerance with which the Achaemenids chose to rule, one cannot speak of an imperial social structure. Earlier attempts at empire in ancient West Asia had been anything but tolerant. Why therefore were the Achaemenids so different?” [Young, T.C., The Achaemenids (559-330 BC), pp.160, in Cotterell, A. (Editor) (1993). Classical Civilizations. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books].

This is a question that scholars have been examining for decades. The legacy of Cyrus’ policies are corroborated by independent Greek and Biblical sources independent of each other and further documented by archaeological finds in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Egypt and Western Anatolia (in Modern Turkey).

As noted by the late Max Von Mallowan (1904-1978) in the Cambridge History of Iran:

Religious toleration was a remarkable feature of Persian rule and there is no question that Cyrus himself was a liberal-minded promoter of this humane and intelligent policy.” [Max Von Mallowan. Cyrus the Great. In Cambridge History of Iran (Volume 2: The Median and Achaemenean Periods), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp.392-419.]

Biblical sources provide a very comprehensive perspective on Cyrus’ system of rule. The Old testament describes Cyrus (cited as Koresh) as a Messiah, or more specifically as Yahweh’s anointed (Book of Ezra, Chapter 1). Viewed as a savior of Jews, Cyrus is described as follows in Isaiah:

He [Cyrus] is my Shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” (Isaiah, 44.28; 45.1; see also 35, 40-55).

The West Wall in Jerusalem. After his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild the Hebrew temple. It is believed that approximately 40,000 did permanently return to Israel. President Truman in his support for the Jews in the twentieth century, evoked the name of Cyrus.

It is believed that up to 40,000 Jewish exiles in Babylon were allowed to return to Israel. Using funds from the imperial treasury, Cyrus financially supported the Jews in rebuilding their Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra III: 7). Cyrus also ordered that sacred Hebrew utensils confiscated by Babylonian king Nebudchadnezzar (reign approx: 605–562 BC) now be restored to their rightful Jewish owners (Ezra I: 7-8).

Gustave Dore’s painting of Cyrus the Great restoring the sacred vessels of the temple to the Jews (Posted in the KingFoska Files website). When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he  ordered the sacred religious objects of the Jerusalem Temple to be restored to their rightful owners, the Jews.

Cyrus’ policies did not simply end after the passing of Cyrus. Under Darius I, the Achaemenid Empire continued these policies. Note that by Darius’ time in the 4th century BCE, the Achaemenid Empire now contained approximately 42 million citizens, or roughly 27% of the world’s populace. Darius’ rule resulted in the creation of remarkable wealth and prosperity for the citizenry, in large part due to the understanding that a policy of inclusion, tolerance and openness to peoples, creeds, languages and ideas helps to propel the rise of a powerful and robust economy.

Such policies may again explain why one of history’s most important statesmen, Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) also read the Cyropaedia. This is noteworthy as not only does this dispel the false narrative of the so-called historicity of the “Clash of Civilizations” but serves to highlight Cyrus’ legacy (through the Cyropaedia) in the system of Roman rule. Put simply, like the Achaemenids, Rome was an imperial power, however (like the Achaemenids) it was also highly cosmopolitan and tolerant of different cultures and creeds.

Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) (Source: ForWallpaper).

The Romans were well versed in the literature of the Greeks notably Plato who presented Cyrus as having attained the ideal harmony in governance. Xenophon’s aforementioned Cyropaedia presented Cyrus as a leader who extolled the ideals of balance and tolerance in government. As noted by Sheda Vasseghi in her PhD Dissertation published in 2017 entitled Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization” (University of New England, Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh):

Later rulers such as Alexander the Great, Hellenistic kingdoms, Roman and Byzantine emperors, and Muslim caliphs will adopt the idea of Persian absolute kingship, Persian imperial model such as the satrapal system and institutions, or wish to emulate Cyrus the Great’s policies (Cole & Symes, 2017; King, 2000; Noble et al., 2011). Sherman and Salisbury (2014) stated in the story of the West, “the Persian Empire marks a culmination of the first stirrings of Western civilization in the ancient Middle East” followed by the Greeks (p. 36).”

It is perhaps thus remarkable that 23 centuries after the passing of the Achaemenid Empire, the Founding Fathers of the United States knew full well of Cyrus and his legacy of governance. Note that the Founding Fathers (who laid the Foundation for the American Republic) and Cyrus (who established the monarchy of ancient Iran) had three characteristics in common:

  1. Tolerance of diverse creeds, languages, religions, etc.
  2. The rule of law (justice)
  3. Equality of all citizens

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the primary author of America’s Declaration of Independence from England, had two of his own copies of the Cyropaedia (bilingual Greek & Latin version published in Europe, 1767, currently held at the Library of Congress). Jefferson frequently read his Cyropaedia and expressed his affinity for the separation of Church and State alongside the freedom of worship (religion). Interestingly, Jefferson wrote a letter to a friend in 1787 inquiring if he had an Italian edition of the Cyropaedia. The reason for this request as stated by Jefferson was that even-though he had already read the original Cyropaeda, he was seeking further elaboration/clarification on a number of points. It is clear that Jefferson regularly studied this text and wanted to attain full knowledge of its contents and purpose.

President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) of the United States of America.

Jefferson wanted to know more of ancient Persian civilization and especially its system of rule. He is also known for having made note no. 852 in his Commonplace Book as he read Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations):

Then that ancient religion of the Magi fell, that the conqueror Darius had respected, as he never disturbed the religion of conquered peoples. The Magi regarded their religion as the most ancient and the most pure. The knowledge that they had of mathematics, astronomy and of history augmented their enmity toward the conquerors the Arabs, who were so ignorant. They [the Magi] could not abandon their religion, consecrated for so many centuries. Then most of them retreated to the extremities of Persia and India. It is there that they live today, under the name Gaurs or Guebres“ [Thomas Jefferson, The Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Gilbert Chinard,1926, p.334‐35; passage translated by R.N. Frye]

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Source: Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the Founding Fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropaedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

Just six years before his passing, in a letter penned by him in October 6, 1820, Thomas Jefferson had advised his grandson to study the Cyropaedia among other recommended classical works.

Founding Father and statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), was like Jefferson, in possession of a copy of the Cyropaedia. This is because Franklin also had a deep appreciation for the statecraft of Cyrus.

Benjamin Franklin portrayed at the age of 79 (Painting by Joseph Duplessis, housed at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC). A prodigy of his time, Franklin was as multifaceted as he was progressive – he was a scientist, inventor, author, publisher and a statesman who knew of the governance of Cyrus.

Like Franklin and Jefferson, John Adams (1735-1826) also had a copy of the Cyropaedia. Interestingly, John Adams had mentioned to Thomas Jefferson that he had read British Ambassador Sir John Malcolm’s 2-Volume textbook History of Persia. One of his main objectives for reading that text was to obtain more information on Cyrus and his legacy. John Adams persuaded his son, John Quincy Adams, to become president and requested that he read the Cyropaedia.

John Adams is also the founder of the University of Virginia. The prerequisite for students entering that university was to read (in the original Greek and/or Latin) Xenophon (author of the Cyropaedia) and other classical writers. John Adams also authored a treatise on the failings of past forms of government but interestingly he exempted ancient Persia from that treatise.

John Adams (1735-1826) one of the Founding Fathers of the United States (Source: Biography.com). Adams was cognizant of the governance of Cyrus and had a copy of the Cyropaedia.

The principle of governance penned by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution of the United States is perhaps one of the most significant developments in the history of mankind. As a defender of the Union and the Constitution, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) delivered the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), ending the institution of slavery in the United States.

A water-color painting in c. 1863 of an African-American citizen avidly reading by candlelight, a newspaper bearing the headline: “Presidential Proclamation, Slavery” (Source: Public Domain & Library Congress). This was in reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation delivered in Jan. 1863.

In a sense, Lincoln’s emancipation declaration and Cyrus’ cylinder bear parallels:

  • Lincoln proclaimed the rights of African-Americans as free citizens entitled to full rights and freedoms under the Constitution of the United States
  • Cyrus proclaimed the rights and freedoms of all diverse peoples for religion, creed, etc.

Cyrus, ancient Iran and the modern United States are linked together through the Founding Fathers, even if such links have yet to be fully acknowledged.

President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) (Source: Public Domain & Mead Art Museum).

Angelina Perri Birney and Lawrence Birney have noted the following with respect to Cyrus’ legacy in the United Nations:

In addition to the influence of the Cyropaedia on the US founding fathers, its core principles resonate with those of the United Nations. The high-minded concepts fathered by Cyrus in Persia thousands of years ago have found expression in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brought to life by John Peters Humphrey and the UN Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) consults the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Source: Angelina Perri Birney). As noted by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Disregard and contempt for Human Rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (UDHR-Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Just months after he left office of President of the US in November 1953, President Harry Truman (1884-1972) made a remarkable statement to a number of Jewish dignitaries in New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Truman’s long-time associate, Eddie Jacobson, introduced Truman to the Jewish dignitaries stating “This is the man who helped create the State of Israel” . Truman then exclaimed: “What do you mean, helped to create? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus”.

Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) who as President of the United States in 1945-1953 acknowledged the legacy of Cyrus the Great in liberating the Jews from their Babylonian captivity; For more Click here…

Finally, readers are advised to reflect on how (and why) this information is known by so few and why this is hardly ever mentioned in the media, entertainment industry, and academia. To the contrary, elements in entertainment, media and political outlets (and increasingly in academia) appear intent at rewriting (or inverting) history by ignoring the fact that ancient Iran or “Persia” was in fact a civilization partner in history and not some mysterious, hostile and distant “Other”.

The Founding Fathers of the United States are testament to the fact that ancient Iran was in fact placed on an equivalent platform with Greece, Rome and other great civilizations, each of whom which has made invaluable contributions to the evolution of law and governance.

When history supplants petty politics: Koresh or Cyrus street in Jerusalem. There is currently no street named Cyrus or Koroush in Tehran, the capital of Iran today. There is also an “Iran” street in Israel.

Sheda Vasseqhi PhD Study: Positioning of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization

Sheda Vasseghi has completed her PhD Dissertation at the University of New England entitled:

Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England (download this at Academia.edu …)

Sheda Vasseqhi

Vasseghi’s PhD academic advising team were composed of the following members: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh.

Her study explored a number of widely taught college-level history textbooks in order to examine how these positioned Iran and Iranian peoples in the origins of Western Civilization. As noted by Vasseghi in her abstract:

“Western Civilization history marginalizes, misrepresents, misappropriates, and/or omits Iran’s positioning. Further, the mainstream approach to teaching Western Civilization history includes the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman narrative.”

Vasseghi used a multi-faceted theoretical approach—decolonization, critical pedagogy, and Western Civilization History dilemma—since her study transcended historical revisionism. This collective case study involved eleven Western Civilization history textbooks that, according to the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), are most popular among American college faculty. Vasseghi reviewed and collected expert opinion on the following five themes:

(1) terminology and definition of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian languages

(2) roots and origins of Iranian peoples

(3) which Iranian peoples are noted in general

(4) which Iranian peoples in ancient Europe are specifically noted

(5) Iranians in connection with six unique Western Civilization attributes.

Vasseghi selected experts specializing in Iranian, Western Civilization, and Indo-European studies in formulating a consensus on each theme. She then compared expert opinion to content in surveyed textbooks. Vasseghi discovered that the surveyed textbooks in her study overwhelmingly omitted, ill-defined, misrepresented, or marginalized Iran and Iranians in the origins of Western Civilization.

Readers are encouraged to visit Kaveh Farrokh’s Academia.edu profile cited in the introduction of this post to download Sheda Vasseghi’s Dissertation. Here is one of the quotes from her study:

“The researcher recommends that textbook authors and publishers engage experts in the field of Iranian studies in formulating content. A caveat for engaging those in the field of Iranian studies when writing Western Civilization history textbooks involves making a distinction between a native Iran and post-Islamic invasion and colonization of Iran in early Middle Ages (7th century onwards). That is, in the Age of Antiquity, Iran was under an Iranian governance and ancestral beliefs such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.”

This is an important observation given Western Media and academic outlets using sweeping (if not simplistic) terms such as “Middle East”, “Muslims”, etc. without acknowledging the context of Iran’s unique background, ancient history and language(s). Put simply, terms such as “Middle East” are not scientific but geopolitical in origin. The term “Muslim Civilization” for example serves to dilute (or even blur) the critical role of Iranian and Indian scholars in the preservation and promotion of learning, sciences and medicine. Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) who in his Muqaddimah (translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91) has acknowledged the role of the Iranians in the promotion of scholarship:

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

[For more see: Farrokh, K. (2015). Pan-Arabism and Iran. In “The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism” (Immanuel Ness & Zak Cope, Eds.), Palgrave-Macmillan, pp.915-923.]

Sources such as Ibn Khaldun are now rarely mentioned in many modern-day “Islamic Studies” in Western history textbooks which may explain in part the numerous errors uncovered in Vasseghi’s study. She further avers:

“Critical pedagogy is important in transformational leadership in education. Educators are obligated to point out errors or problems in content and mainstream narratives. In regards to teaching history of Western Civilization, one should recall the warnings of its looming demotion by Ricketts et al. (2011) because unfortunately teaching it “had come to be seen as a form of apologetics for racism, imperialism, sexism, and colonialism” (p. 14). It appears that in perceiving that something is missing from or fragmented in Western Civilization history content, educational institutions are now marginalizing and omitting it from their curriculum in America, a Western nation. Therefore, the significance of this study is the need for authors and educators to shift the currently flawed narrative on the history of the West. Iran’s positioning is a key component in the study of Western Civilization. The researcher argues that Iran and Iranians not only influenced the making of the West; they are part of the West. By placing Iran and Iranians where they belong, historians may also address concerns about teaching the history of the West (Ricketts et al., 2011).”

In her final PhD defense session with her research committee (Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh) on Monday, March 20, 2017, Vasseghi noted that she plans to author books tailored to Western audiences to help educate with respect to the role of Iranians in the formation of European civilization. Vasseghi’s books would also be geared towards a lay (non-academic) audience.

The Mithraic Mysteries

The original draft of article below, The Mithraic Mysteries, was originally written by the late Franz Cumont (1868-1947), with the version below edited and updated by Shapour Suren-Pahlav, host of the CAIS website.

Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations and accompanying descriptions of these do not appear in the original posting of Suren-Pahlav’s article in CAIS.

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Most of the research into Mithraism, a religion with many parallels to Christianity, comes from two writers, Cumont and Ulansey with a variety of other writers input.  Some Similarities Between Mithraism and Christianity are:

  • Virgin birth
  • Twelve followers
  • Killing and resurrection
  • Miracles
  • Birthdate on December 25
  • Morality
  • Mankind’s savior
  • Known as the Light of the world

Have you ever wondered why December 25th was chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ?   If the accounts in the Bible are correct, the time of Jesus birth would have been closer to mid-summer, for this is when shepherds would have been “tending their flocks in the field” and the new lambs were born. Strange enough there is an ancient pagan religion, Mithraism, which dates back over 2,800 years that also celebrated the birth of their “savior” on that date.   Many elements in the story of Jesus’ life and birth are either coincidental or borrowings from earlier and contemporary pagan religions. The most obviously similar of these is Mithraism.  Roman Mithraism was a mystery religion with sacrifice and initiation. Like other mystery cults, there’s little recorded literary evidence.

-Mithraeum Rome San Clemente

The Mithraeum located under Rome’s Basilica of San Clemente (Source: Public Domain).

What we know comes mainly from Christian detractors and archaeological evidence from Mithraic temples, inscriptions, and artistic representations of the god and other aspects of the cult.  In an EAWC (Exploring Ancient World Cultures) essay entitled Mithraism, Alison Griffith explains Cumont’s theory of a Zoroastrian origin for the Roman Mithraist religion.  While this theory is disputed, there was a Mitra in the Hindu pantheon and a minor deity named Mithra among the Persians as well.   Cumont came to believe the religion spread westward from Eastern Roman provinces. However, as Griffith explains, there is little evidence of a Zoroastrian Mithra cult and most evidence for Mithraic worship comes from the western portion of the empire from which Cumont correctly deduced that:

Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), and the members of the more marginal social groups who were not Roman citizens: freedmen, slaves, and merchants from various provinces….”

No women were allowed.

The Dawning of the Age of Aries

Ulansey says the main problem with basing Mithraism on a Zoroastrian cult is that there is no evidence that the Zoroastrians’ Mithra practiced bull killing, the central aspect of Roman Mithraic iconography. An image of Mithras killing the bull holds pride of place in each mithraeum (cave-like temple for the worship of Mithras).  Ulansey believes the images of Mithras slaying the bull are actually astronomical star maps. In support of this he points out that all the figures represented in the iconography have a place in the constellations (Taurus, Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus, and Scorpio). He says that the other iconography and even the initiation ceremonies are consistently astronomical. Mithras’ place as bull-slayer has cosmological significance because, if Ulansey is right, Mithraists attribute to their god the ability to shift the equinox from the constellation of Taurus to Aries: His killing of the bull symbolizes his supreme power: namely, the power to move the entire universe, which he had demonstrated by shifting the cosmic sphere in such a way that the spring equinox had moved out of Taurus the Bull.

-Column with Bull Motif at Persepolis

Column from Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire, with Double-Bull motif (Source: Based on photo by Luis Argerich for Public Domain).

For more research see:

  • Professor Roger Beck: Mithraism
  • Hinnells, John R., 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.
  • Hinnells, John R., Persian Mythology, Hamlyn, 1988.
  • Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider Reviewed by Helen F. North. Twenty papers from the fourth international Mithraic congress held in Rome in 1990.
  • Mithraism:  A Historical Introduction

For over three hundred years the rulers of the Roman Empire worshipped the god Mithras. Known throughout Europe and Asia by the names Mithra, Mitra, Meitros, Mihr, Mehr, and Meher, the veneration of this god began around 3000 BCE in Persia, which was moved west and became imbedded with Babylonian doctrines. There is mention of Mithra or Mitra (et al) before 2800 BCE, but only as a minor diety and without much information. It appears to be after 2800 BCE when  Mithra is transformed and starts to play a major role among the gods.  The faith spread east through India to China, and reached west throughout the entire length of the Roman frontier; from Scotland to the Sahara Desert, and from Spain to the Black Sea. Sites of Mithraic worship have been found in Britain, Italy, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and North Africa.    In Rome, more than a hundred inscriptions dedicated to Mithra have been found, in addition to 75 sculpture fragments, and a series of Mithraic temples situated in all parts of the city. One of the largest Mithraic temples built in Italy now lies under the present site of the Church of St. Clemente, near the Colosseum in Rome.   The widespread popularity and appeal of Mithraism as the final and most refined form of pre-Christian paganism was discussed by the Greek historian Herodotus, the Greek biographer Plutarch, the neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the Gnostic heretic Origen, and St. Jerome the church Father. Mithraism was quite often noted by many historians for its many astonishing similarities to Christianity.   The faithful referred to Mithra as “the Light of the World”, symbol of truth, justice, and loyalty.  He was mediator between heaven and earth and was a member of a Holy Trinity.  According to Persian mythology, Mithras was born of a virgin given the title ‘Mother of God’.

Entrance to the Temple of Hatra in Iraq, possibly dedicated to Mithras (Source: Public Domain).

The god remained celibate throughout his life, and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality among his worshippers.  Mithras represented a system of ethics in which brotherhood was encouraged in order to unify against the forces of evil.   The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They looked forward to a final day of Judgment in which the dead would resurrect, and to a final conflict that would destroy the existing order of all things to bring about the triumph of light over darkness.

Purification through a ritualistic baptism was required of the faithful, who also took part in a ceremony in which they drank wine and ate bread to symbolize the body and blood of the god. Sundays were held sacred, and the birth of the god was celebrated annually on December the 25th. After the earthly mission of this god had been accomplished, he took part in a Last Supper with his companions before ascending to heaven, to forever protect the faithful from above.

However, it would be a vast oversimplification to suggest that Mithraism was the single forerunner of early Christianity.  Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected.   Many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that couldn’t be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world.

The Persian Origins of Mithraism

In order to fully understand the religion of Mithraism it is necessary to look to its foundation in Persia, where originally a multitude of gods were worshipped. Amongst them were Ahura-Mazda, god of the skies, and Ahriman, god of darkness. In the seventeen or eighteen century B.C.E., a vast reformation of the Persian pantheon was undertaken by Zarathustra (known in Greek as Zoroaster), a prophet from the East of Iranian World, probably Bactria.  The stature of Ahura-Mazda was elevated to that of supreme god of goodness, whereas the god Ahriman became the ultimate embodiment of evil.   In the same way that Ahkenaton, Heliogabalus, and Mohammed later initiated henotheistic cults from the worship of their respective deities, Zarathustra created a henotheistic dualism with the gods Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman.

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Kurdish man engaged in the worship of Mithras in a Pir’s (mystical leader/master) sanctuary which acts as a Mithraic temple (Source: Kasraian & Arshi, 1993, Plate 80). Note how he stands below an opening allowing for the “shining of the light”, almost exactly as seen with the statue in Ostia, Italy. These particular Kurds are said to pay homage to Mithras three times a day.

As a result of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (597 B.C.E.) and their later emancipation by Cyrus the Great of Persia (538 B.C.E.), Zoroastrian dualism was to influence the Jewish belief in the existence of Ha-Shatan, the  Adversary of the god YHVH, and later permit the evolution of the Christian Satan-Jehovah dichotomy. Persian religious dualism became the foundation of an ethical system that has lasted until this day.  The reformation of Zarathustra retained the hundreds of Persian deities, assembling them into a complex hierarchical system of ‘Immortals’ and  ‘Adored Ones’ under the rule of either Ahura- Mazda or Ahriman.   Within this vast pantheon, Mithras gained the title of ‘Judger of Souls’. He became the divine representative of Ahura-Mazda on earth, and was directed to protect the righteous from the demonic forces of Ahriman.   Mithras was called omniscient, undeceivable, infallible, eternally watchful, and never-resting. In the Avesta, the holy book of the religion of Zarathustra, Ahura-Mazda was said to have created Mithras in order to guarantee the authority of contracts and the keeping of promises. The name Mithras was, in fact, the Persian word for ‘contract’. The divine duty of Mithras was to ensure general prosperity through good contractual relations between men. It was believed that misfortune would befall the entire land if a contract was ever broken.

Magi

Zoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

Ahura-Mazda was said to have created Mithras to be as great and worthy as himself.  He would fight the spirits of evil to protect the creations of Ahura-Mazda and cause even Ahriman to tremble. Mithras was seen as the protector of just souls from demons seeking to drag them down to Hell, and the guide of these souls to Paradise.  As Lord of the Sky, he took the role of psychopomp, conducting the souls of the righteous dead to paradise.   According to Persian traditions, the god Mithras was actually incarnated into the human form of the Saviour expected by Zarathustra. Mithras was born of Anahita, an immaculate virgin mother once worshipped as a fertility goddess before the hierarchical reformation. Anahita was said to have conceived the Saviour from the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan. Mithra’s ascension to heaven was said to have occurred in 208 B.C.E., 64 years after his birth. Parthian coins and documents bear a double date with this 64 year interval.

Mithras was ‘The Great King’ highly revered by the nobility and monarchs, who looked upon him as their special protector. A great number of the nobility took theophorous (god-bearing) names compounded with Mithras. The title of the god Mithras was used in the dynasties of Pontus, Parthia, Cappadocia, Armenia and Commagene by emperors with the name Mithradates. Mithradates VI, king of Pontus (northern what is known as Turkey) in 120-63 B.C.E. became famous for being the first monarch to practice immunization by taking poisons in gradually increased doses.

Mithradates as Magus

An interesting relief at the ruins of Arsameia, the capital of the kingdom of Commagene in 1st century BC. King Mithradates I Kallinikos of Commagene (100–70 BC) dressed as the Zoroastrian Magi (left) shakes hands with the Greek god Hercules (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division; Photo originally by Mani Moradi). Note that Hercules in Commagene also represented the Persian god Artagnes. Commagene like the Pontus was a small post-Achaemenid Iranian kingdom in Anatolia situated squeezed between Parthia to its east and the expanding Roman Empire to its west. Various versions of Mithradates’ crown continue to appear among various mystical sects of Western Iran, notably Kurdistan.

The terms mithridatism and mithridate (a pharmacological elixir) were named after him.  The Parthian princes of Armenia were all priests of Mithras, and an entire district of this land was dedicated to the Virgin Mother Anahita.   Many Mithraeums, or Mithraic temples, were built in Armenia, which remained one of the laststrongholds of Mithraism.   The largest near-eastern Mithraeum was built in western Persia at Kangavar, dedicated to ‘Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras’. Other Mithraic temples were built in Khuzestan and in Central Iran near present-day Mahallat, where at the temple of Khorheh a few tall columns still stand.   Excavations in Nisa, later renamed Mithradatkirt, have uncovered Mithraic mausoleums and shrines.   Mithraic sanctuaries and mausoleums were built in the city of Hatra in upper Mesopotamia. West of Hatra at Dura Europos, Mithraeums were found with figures of Mithras on horseback.   Persian Mithraism was more a collection of traditions and rites than a body of doctrines. However, once the Babylonians took the Mithraic rituals and mythology from the Persians, they thoroughly refined its theology. The Babylonian clergy assimilated Ahura-Mazda to the god Baal, Anahita to the goddess Ishtar, and Mithras to Shamash, their god of justice, victory and protection (and the sun god from whom King Hammurabi received his code of laws in the 18th century B.C.E.) As a result of the solar and astronomical associations of the Babylonians, Mithras later was referred to by Roman worshippers as ‘Sol invictus’, or the invincible sun.

Mithras-Legacy

Mithras’ Enduring Legacy? (Left) Mithras at Taghe Bostan, Western Iran; (Middle) Deo Sol Invictus, Italy; (Right) The Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, New York.

The sun itself was considered to be “the eye of Mithras”.    The Persian crown, from which all present day crowns are derived, was designed to represent the golden sun-disc sacred to Mithras.   As a deity connected with the sun and its life-giving powers, Mithras was known as ‘The Lord of the Wide Pastures’ who was believed to cause the plants to spring forth from the ground.  In the time of Cyrus and Darius the Great, the rulers of Persia received the first fruits of the fall harvest at the festival of Mehragan.  At this time they wore their most brilliant clothing and drank wine.  In the Persian calendar, the seventh month and the sixteenth day of each month were also dedicated to Mithras.    The Babylonians also incorporated their belief in destiny into the Mithraic worship of Zurvan, the Persian god of infinite time and father of the gods Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman. They superimposed astrology, the use of the zodiac, and the deification of the four seasons onto the Persian rites of Mithraism.

Astrology, of which these postulates were the dogmas, certainly owes some share of its success to the Mithraic propaganda, and Mithraism is therefore partly responsible for the triumph in the West of this pseudo-science with its long train of errors and terrors.”  (Franz Cumont, French Mithraic researcher  Les Mystères de Mithra, p.125).

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Investiture of Ardashir II (r. 379-383) (center) by the supreme God Ahuramazda (right) with Mithra (left) standing upon a lotus (Ghirshman, 1962 & Herrmann, 1977). Trampled beneath the feet of Ahura-Mazda and Ardashir II is an unidentified defeated enemy (possibly Roman Emperor Julian). Of interest are the emanating “Sun Rays”  from the head of Mithras.  Note the object being held by Mithras, which appears to be a barsum, or perhaps some sort of diadem or even a ceremonial broadsword, as Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of “knighting” of Ardashir II as he receives the “Farr” (Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda (Picture source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

The Persians called Mithras ‘The Mediator’ since he was believed to stand between the light of  Ahura-Mazda and the darkness of Ahriman.   He was  said to have 1000 eyes, expressing the conviction that no man could conceal his wrongdoing from the god. Mithras was known as the God of Truth, and Lord of Heavenly Light, and said to have stated:

I am a star which goes with thee and shines out of the depths”.

Mithras was associated with Verethraghna, the Persian god of victory. He would fight against the forces of evil, and destroy the wicked. It was believed that offering sacrifices to Mithras would provide strength and glory in life and in battle. In the Avesta, Yasht 10, it reads that Mithras:

spies out his enemies; armed in his fullest panoply he swoops down upon them, scatters and slaughters them. He desolates and lays waste the homes of the wicked, he annihilates the tribes and the nations that are hostile to him. He assures victory unto them that fit instruction in the Good, that honour him and offer him the sacrificial libations.”

Mithras was worshipped as guardian of arms, and patron of soldiers and armies. The handshake was developed by those who worshipped him as a token of friendship and as a gesture to show that you were unarmed.   When Mithras later became the Roman god of contracts, the handshake gesture was imported throughout the Mediterranean and Europe by Roman soldiers.

Nik Spatari-Mithras

[Click to Enlarge] Nik Spatari’s drawing of the site of Eski Kale in Turkey (dated to circa 300 BCE) showing  Mithras at left in Iranian attire shaking hands with the Hellenic God Zeus at right. This may be one of the first artistic depictions of the  handshake symbolizing the “Payman” (pact).

In Armenian tradition, Mithras was believed to shut himself up in a cave from which he emerged once a year, born anew.  The Persians introduced initiates to the mysteries in natural caves, according to Porphyry, the third century neoplatonic philosopher. These cave temples were created in the image of the World Cave that Mithras had created, according to the Persian creation myth.   As ‘God of Truth and Integrity’, Mithras was invoked in solemn oaths to pledge the fulfillment of contracts and punish liars. He was believed to maintain peace, wisdom, honour, prosperity, and cause harmony to reign among all his worshippers.

Garni Temple-Armenia

[Click to Enlarge] The Temple of Garni in Armenia. An example of Classical Armenian architecture of Hellenic inspiration, this Temple was first ordered to be built in dedication to Mithras by Tiridates I in approximately 66 CE. The god Mithras in time became merged with the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) of the Roman Empire (Picture Source: Skyscraper City).

According to the Avesta, Mithras could decide when different periods of world history were completed. He would judge mortal souls at death and brandish his mace over hell three times each day so that demons would not inflict greater punishment on sinners than they deserved. Sacrificial offerings of cattle and birds were made to Mithras, along with libations of Haoma, a hallucinogenic drink used by Zoroastrian and Hindu priests, equated with the infamous hallucinogen ‘Soma’ described in the Vedic scriptures. Before daring to approach the altar to make an offering to Mithras, Persian worshippers were obliged to purge themselves by repeating purification rituals and flagellating themselves. These customs were continued in the initiation ceremonies of the Roman neophytes.

Expansion of the Faith

With the rapid expansion of the Persian Empire, the worship of Mithras spread eastward through northern India into the western provinces of China. In Chinese mythology, Mithras came to be known as ‘The Friend’.   To this day, Mithras is represented as a military General in Chinese statues, and is considered to be the friend of man in this life and his protector against evil in the next. In India, Mithras was recognized as ‘God of Heavenly Light’ and an ally of Indra, King of Heaven. Mithras was often prayed to and invoked along with Varuna, the Hindu god of moral law and true speech. Jointly known as ‘Mitra-Varuna’, it was believed that together they would uphold order in the world while travelling in a shining chariot and living in a golden mansion with a thousand pillars and a thousands doors. Mithras was also praised in the Vedic hymns. Just as in the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Hindu scriptures recognized Mithras as ‘God of Light’, ‘Protector of Truth’, and ‘Enemy of Falsehood’. The worship of Mithras also extended westward through what is now Turkey to the borders of the Aegean Sea.  A bilingual dedication to Mithras, written in Greek and Aramaic, was found engraved upon a rock in a wild pass near Farasha in the Turkish province of Cappadocia. Mithras was also the only Iranian god whose name was known in ancient Greece.   A grotto located near the Greek town of Tetapezus was dedicated to Mithras, before it was transformed into a church. However, Mithraism never made many converts in Greece or in the Hellenized countries.   That country never extended the hand of hospitality to the god of its ancient enemies.   According to the Greek historian Plutarch (46-125 C.E.) Mithras was first introduced into Italy by pirates from Cilicia (Sout-East Turkey) who initiated the Romans into the secrets of the religion. These pirates performed strange sacrifices on Mount Olympus and practiced Mithraic rituals, which according to Plutarch “exist to the present day and were first taught by them”. However, there were many foreign cults in Italy at that time, and these early Mithraists did not attract much attention.

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The Mithraeum of Seven Gates, Ostia (Source: Philip Coppens). As noted by Philip Coppens: “The Cult of Mithras, rather than Christianity, almost became the religion that dominated Western Europe. It failed, but intriguingly, we now hardly know anything about it”.

It is one of the great of ironies of history that Romans ended up worshipping the god of their chief political enemy, the Persians. The Roman historian Quintus Rufus recorded in his book History of Alexander that before going into battle against the ‘anti-Mithraean country’ of Rome, the Persian soldiers would pray to Mithras for victory. However, after the two enemy civilizations had been in contact for more than a thousand years, the worship of Mithras finally spread from the Persians through the Phrygians of Turkey to the Romans.   The Romans viewed Persia as a land of wisdom and mystery, and Persian religious teachings appealed to those Romans who found the established state religion uninspiring – just as during the Cold War era of the 1960′s many American university students rejected western religious values and sought enlightenment in the established spirituality of Communist east-Asian “enemy countries”.

Mithras in the Roman Empire

“Let us suppose that in modern Europe the faithful had deserted the Christian churches to worship Allah or Brahma,  to follow the precepts of Confucius or Buddha, or to adopt  the maxims of the Shinto;  let us imagine a great confusion of all the races of the world in which Arabian mullahs, Chinese scholars, Japanese bonzes, Tibetan lamas and Hindu pundits should all be preaching fatalism and predestination, ancestor-worship and devotion to a deified sovereign, pessimism and deliverance through annihilation – a confusion in which all those priests should erect temples of exotic architecture in our cities and celebrate their disparate rites therein.   Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize, would offer a pretty accurate picture of the religious chaos in which the ancient world was struggling before the reign of Constantine.”    Among the Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, At a time when Christianity was only one of several dozen foreign Eastern cults struggling for recognition in Rome, the religious dualism and dogmatic moral teaching of Mithraism set it apart from other sects, creating a stability previously unknown in Roman paganism.   Early Roman worshippers imagined themselves to be keepers of ancient wisdom from the far east, and invincible heroes of the faith, ceaselessly fighting the powers of corruption.   Mithraism quickly gained prominence and remained the most important pagan religion until the end of the fourth century, spreading Zoroastrian dualism throughout every province of  the empire for three hundred years.

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Map of Mithraism in the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 1st to early 4th centuries CE (Source: Hinnells, 1988, p.77).

In those days, it was imperial policy to remove troops as far as possible from their country of origin in order to prevent local uprisings. A Roman soldier who, after several years of service in his native country had been promoted to the rank of centurion, was transferred to a foreign station where he was later assigned to a new garrison. This way, the entire body of centurions of any one legion constituted a microcosm of the empire. The vast extent of the Roman colonies formed links between Persia and the Mediterranean and caused the diffusion of the Mithraic religion into the Roman world. Mithraism became a military religion under the Romans. The many  dangers to which the Roman soldiers were exposed caused them to seek the protection of the  gods of their foreign comrades in order to obtain success in battle or a happier life through death. The soldiers adopted the Mithraic faith for its emphasis on victory, strength, and security in the next world. Temples and shrines were dedicated to Mithras across the empire.

In 67 B.C., the first congregation of Mithras-worshipping soldiers existed in Rome under the command of General Pompey. From 67 to 70 C.E., the legio XV Apollinaris, or Fifteenth Apollonian Legion, took part in suppressing the uprising of the Jews in Palestine. After sacking and burning the Second Temple in Jerusalem and capturing the infamous Ark of the Covenant, this legion accompanied Emperor Titus to Alexandria, where they were joined by new recruits from Cappadocia (Turkey) to replace casualties suffered in their victorious campaigns.

Julian's failed invasion of Persia in 363 AD

An irony? Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE. Above is a recreation of  Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, and combat elephants as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the  rider in Mithraic attire bearing an unknown Sassanian 3-pronged symbol  (Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005). It is possible that numbers of the Roman troops in Julian’s army also worshiped the Iranian god, Mithras!

After their transportation to the Danube with the veteran legionnaires,  they offered sacrifices to Mithras in a semicircular  grotto that they consecrated to him on the banks of the river. Soon, this first temple was no longer adequate and a second one was built adjoining a temple of Jupiter.   As a municipality developed alongside the camp and the conversions to Mithraism continued to multiply, a third and much larger Mithraeum was erected towards the beginning of the second century.  This temple was later enlarged by Diocletian, Emperor from 284-305 C.E. Diocletian  rededicated this sanctuary to Mithras, giving him the title  “The Protector of the Empire”. Five Mithraeums were found in Great Britain, where only three Roman legions were stationed. Remains were discovered in London near St.  Paul’s Cathedral, in Segontium in  Wales, and three were found along Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England.   Mithraism also reached Northern Africa by Roman military recruits from abroad. By the second century, the worship of Mithras had spread throughout Germany due to the powerful army that defended this territory.  The greatest number of Mithraeums in the western world were discovered in Germany. An inscription has been found of a centurion’s dedication to Mithras dating back to the year 148 C.E. One of the most famous Mithraic bas-reliefs, showing twelve scenes from the life of the god,  was discovered in Neuenheim, Germany in 1838. When Commodus (Emperor from 180-192 C.E.) was initiated into the  Mithraic religion, there began an era of strong support of Mithraism that included emperors such as Aurelian, Diocletian, and Julian the Apostate, who called Mithras “the guide of the souls”. All of these emperors took the Mithraic titles of ‘Pius’, ‘Felix’, and ‘Invictus’  (devout, blessed, and invincible). From this point on, Roman authority legitimized their rule by divine right, as opposed to heredity or vote of the Senate. The Babylonian astrological influence within Mithraism established a solar henotheism as the leading religion at Rome.     In 218 C.E.  the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (placed upon the throne at age 14) attempted to elevate his god, the Baal of Emesa to the rank of supreme divinity of the empire by subordinating the entire ancient pantheon.  Heliogabalus was soon assassinated for his aspiration of a solar henotheism, but half a century later his attempt inspired emperor Aurelian to initiate the  worship of the Sol invictus. Worshipped in an elaborate temple, magnificent plays were held in honour of this deity every fourth year.   Sol invictus was also elevated to the  supreme rank in the divine hierarchy, and became the special protector of the emperors and the empire. Many Mithraic  reliefs showed scenes of Mithras and Sol sharing a banquet over a table draped with the skin of the bull. Soon after, the title of Sol invictus was transferred to Mithras. The Roman emperors formally announced their alliance with the sun and emphasized their likeness to Mithras, god of its divine light. Mithras was, also, unified with the sun-god Helios, and became known as ‘The Great God Helios-Mithras’. Emperor Nero adopted the radiating crown as the symbol of his sovereignty to exemplify the splendour of the rays of the sun, and to show that he was an incarnation of Mithras. He was initiated into the Mithraic religion by the Persian Magi brought to Rome by the King of Armenia. Emperors from that time onwards proclaimed themselves destined to the throne by virtue of having been born with the divine ruling power of the sun.

The Rites of Mithraic Initiation

Upon enlistment, the first act of a Roman soldier was to pledge obedience and devotion to the emperor. Absolute  loyalty to authority and to fellow soldiers was the cardinal  virtue, and the Mithraic religion became the ultimate vehicle  for this fraternal obedience. The Mithras worshippers  compared the practice of their religion to their military service.   All of the initiates considered themselves sons of the same father owing to one another a brother’s affection.   Mithras was a chaste god, and his worshippers were taught reverence for celibacy (a convenient trait for soldiers to maintain). The spirit of camaraderie (and celibacy) was to be continued in the Roman Empire by the Christian belief in neighborly love and universal charity.    However, the worshippers of Mithras did not lose themselves in a contemplative mysticism like the followers of other near-eastern sects.   Their morality particularly encouraged action, and during a period of war and confusion, they found stimulation, comfort and support in its tenets. In their eyes of the Roman soldiers, resistance to evil deeds and immoral actions became just as valued as victory in glorious military exploits.   They  would fight the powers of evil in accordance with the ideals of Zoroastrian dualism, in which life was conceived as a struggle against evil spirits. By supplying a new conception of the world, Mithraism gave new meaning to life by determining the worshipper’s beliefs concerning life after death. The struggle between good and evil was extended into the afterworld,  where Mithras ensured the protection of his followers from the powers of darkness. It was believed that Mithras would judge the souls of the dead and lead the righteous into the heavenly regions where Ahura-Mazda reigned in eternal light.    Mithraism brought the assurance that reverence would be rewarded with immortality.

Mithra temple-Carrawburgh

Remains of the Temple of Mithra at Carrawburgh, England (Source: Britain Express). The culture 0f Mithras continues to endure among the Iranians (within Iran and the Kurds of the Near East beyonf modern-day Iran. The Kurds speak West Iranian languages (i.e. Kurmnaji, Gowrani, etc.) that are akin to Persian and Luri.

Mithraism was an archetypal mystery cult and secret society. Like the rites of Demeter, Orpheus, and Dionysus, the Mithraic rituals admitted candidates by secret ceremonies, the meaning of which was known only to the initiated. Like all other institutionalized initiation rites of the past and present, this mystery cult allowed the initiates to be controlled and put under the command of their leaders. Preceding initiation into the Mithraic fold, the neophyte had to prove his courage and devotion by swimming across a rough river, descending a sharp cliff, or jumping through flames with his hands bound and eyes blindfolded.    The initiate was also taught the secret Mithraic password, which he was to use to identify himself to other members, and which he was to repeat to himself frequently as a personal mantra.   Mithraic worshippers believed that the human soul descended into the world at birth. The goal of their religious quest was to achieve the soul’s ascent out of the world again by gaining passage through seven heavenly gates, corresponding to seven grades of initiation. Therefore, being promoted to a higher rank in the religion was believed to correspond to a heavenly journey of the soul. Promotion was obtained through submission to religious authority (kneeling), casting off the old life (nakedness), and liberation from bondage through the mysteries.

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A reconstruction of a Mithraeum (Darb-e Mehr) depicting the stages of ascension on the floor as alluded to in the previous photo this posting (Source: Wolfgang Sauber for Public Domain). Note the placing of grapes (right side); grapes continue to signify vitality and renewal in Iran, Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

The process of Mithraic initiation required the symbolic climbing of a ceremonial ladder with seven rungs, each made of a different metal to symbolize the seven known celestial bodies. By symbolically ascending this ceremonial ladder through successive initiations, the neophyte could proceed through the seven levels of heaven. The seven grades of Mithraism, were: Corax (Raven),  Nymphus (Male Bride), Miles (Soldier),  Leo (Lion), Peres (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner), and Pater (Father);  each respective grade protected by Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun, and Saturn.    The lowest degree of initiation into the grade of Corax symbolized the death of a new member, from which he would arise reborn as a new man.    This represented the end of his life as an unbeliever, and cancelled previous allegiances to the other unacceptable beliefs. The title Corax (Raven) originated with the Zoroastrian custom of exposing the dead on funeral towers to be eaten by carrion birds, a custom continued today by the Parsis of India, the descendants of the Persian followers of Zarathustra.   Further initiation involved the clashing of cymbals, beating of drums, and the unveiling of a statue of Mithras. The initiate drank wine from the cymbal to recognize it as the source of ritual ecstasy.   Next, he ate a small morsel of bread placed on a drum, to signify his acceptance of Mithras as the source of his food. This bread had been exposed to the rays of the sun, so by eating the bread the worshipper was partaking of the divine essence of the sun itself.   The initiate would also offer a loaf of bread and cup of water to the statue of Mithras.    When a neophyte reached the degree of Miles (soldier), he was offered a crown, which he had to reject with the saying:

Only Mithras is my crown”.

The indelible mark of a cross, symbol of the sun, was then  branded on his forehead with a hot iron to symbolize his ownership by the deity, and he would renounce the social custom of wearing a wreath. From then on, the neophyte belonged to the sacred militia of ‘The Invincible God Mithras’. All family ties were severed and only fellow initiates were to be considered brothers.

Mithraism-Rome

[Click to Enlarge] The stages of Roman Mithraism: Stage 1: Cerax (Raven); – Stage 2-Nymphos (Bride); Stage 3-Miles (Soldier); Stage 4-Leo (Lion); Stage 5-Perses (Persian); Stage 6- Heliodrommus (Sun-Runner); Stage 7-Pater (Father) (Picture sources: Hinnels, 1988). Note that term “Bride” often used to denote “Nymphos” for the second stage is simplistic at best. The Latin term should actually be in the feminine “Nymphe” and not the masculine “Nymphos” or a male bride which possibly may suggest something of a mystical male-female fusion. The reasons for this are not as yet clear, but it seems consistent with Roman or Western (as opposed to the original Iranian) Mithraism which is believed to have excluded women from its rituals and membership. Note that in the final grade (Stage VII-Father) there is a distinct Persian cap symbolizing the cap of Mithras (Picture sources: Cerax, Nymphos, Miles from Hinnels, 1985; Leo, Persian, and Heliodrommus, and Pater in Public Domain).

Worshippers used caves and grottos as temples wherever possible, or at least gave temples the internal appearance of caves or of being subterranean by building steps leading down to the entrance. They took part in masquerading as animals, such as ravens and lions, and inserted passages into their ritual chants that were devoid of any literal meaning.

All of these rites that characterized Roman Mithraism  originated in ancient prehistoric ceremonies.

During the rituals, the evolution of the universe and the destiny of mankind was explained. The service consisted chiefly of contemplating the Mithraic symbolism, praying while knelt before benches, and chanting hymns to the accompaniment of flutes. Hymns were sung describing the voyage of Mithras’ horse-drawn chariot across the sky.

Invokers and worshippers of Mithras prayed:

 “Abide with  me in my soul. Leave me not [so] that I may be initiated and that the Holy Spirit may breathe within me.”

Animal sacrifices, mostly of birds, were also conducted in the Mithraeums. The Mithraic clergy’s duty was to maintain  the perpetual holy fire on the altar, invoke the planet of  the day, offer the sacrifices for the disciples, and preside at initiations. The Mithraic priests were known as Patres Sacrorum, or Fathers of the Sacred Mysteries.

They were mystically designated with the titles Leo and Hierocorax, and presided over the priestly festivals of Leontica (the festival of lions), Coracica (the festival of ravens), and Hierocoracica (the festival of sacred ravens). The great festival of the Mithraic calendar was held on December the 25th, and the 16th of every month was kept holy to Mithras. The first day of the week was dedicated to the sun, to whom prayers were recited in the morning, noon, and evening.

Reconstruction of Mithra ceremony

An interesting reconstruction of a Mithraic ceremony in at the Mithraic temple of Osterburken, Germany (Mithraeum.eu).

Services were held on Sundays, in which bells were sounded and praises were offered to Mithras. On great occasions, the ‘soldiers of Mithras’ took part in the sacrament of bread and wine as sacred bulls were sacrificed.

The Taurobolium

While Mithras was worshipped almost exclusively by men, most of the wives and daughters of the Mithraists took part in the worship of Magna Mater, Ma-Bellona, Anahita, Cybele, and Artemis. These goddess religions practiced a regeneration ritual known as the Taurobolium, or bull sacrifice, in which the blood of the slaughtered animal was allowed to fall down upon the  initiate, who would be lying, completely drenched in a pit below. As a result of their association with practitioners of this rite, Mithraists soon adopted the Taurobolium ritual as their own. This baptism of blood became a renewal of the human soul, as opposed to mere physical strength.

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

[Click to Enlarge] Another depiction of Mithras with Persian dress slaying the sacred bull at the Vatican Museum in Rome (Source: Tertullian.org). Note the dog and serpent heading towards the gushing blood pouring down from the bull’s neck as the the scorpion heads towards the dying bull’s testicles.

Mithraic baptism wiped out moral faults; the purity aimed at had become spiritual. The descent into the pit was regarded as symbolic burial, from which the initiate would emerge reborn, purified of all his crimes and regarded as the equal of a god. Those who made it through the Taurobolium were revered by their brethren, and accepted in the fold of Mithraism.

The taurobolium had become a means of obtaining a new and eternal life; the ritualistic ablutions were no longer external and material acts, but were supposed to cleanse the soul of its  impurities and to restore its original innocence; the sacred repasts imparted an intimate virtue to the soul and furnished sustenance to the spiritual life” (Franz Cumont Les Mystères de Mithra).

The bull has been exalted throughout the ancient world for its strength and vigour. Greek myths told of the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull monster who lived in the Labyrinth beneath Crete, and took an annual sacrifice of  six young men and six maidens before being slain by the hero Theseus. Minoan artwork depicted nimble acrobats leaping bravely over the backs of bulls. The altar in front of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was adorned with bull horns believed to be endowed with magical powers. The bull was also one of the four tetramorphs, the symbols later associated with the four gospels.  The mystique of this powerful animal still survives today in the ritualistic bull-fighting of Spain and Mexico, and in the rodeo bull-riding of the U.S. The bull was an obvious representation of masculinity by nature of its size, strength, and sexual power. At the same time, the bull symbolized lunar forces by virtue of its horns and earthly forces by virtue of its powerful root to the ground.

Santa_Maria_Capua_Vetere_Mithraeum_Tauroctony

[Click to Enlarge] Depiction of Mithras with Persian dress of the (Parthian and Early-Mid Sassanian era type) slaying the sacred bull at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere (Source: Dom De Felice for Public Domain). Note the dog and serpent.

The ritual sacrifice of the bull symbolized the penetration of the feminine principle by the masculine. The slaying of  the bull represented the victory of man’s spiritual nature over his animality; parallel to the symbolic images of Marduk slaying Tiamut, Gilgamesh killing Humbaba, Michael subduing Satan, St. George slaying the dragon, the Centurion piercing Christ’s side, Lewis Carroll’s “beamish boy” slaying the Jabberwocky, and Sigourney Weaver slaying the Alien.

According to the archetypal hero myth recited in Roman Mithraic rituals, the infant Mithras formed an alliance with the sun and set off to kill the bull, the first living creature ever created. While the bull was grazing in a pasture,  Mithras seized it by the horns and dragged it into a cave. The bull soon escaped, but was recaptured when Mithras  was given the command by the raven, messenger of the sun, to slay the bull. With the help of his dog, Mithras succeeded in overtaking the bull and dragging it again in the cave.    Then, seizing it by the nostrils, he plunged deep into its flank with his knife.  As the bull died, the world came into being and time was born. From the body of the slain beast sprang forth all the herbs and plants that cover the earth.

mithras-the-bringer-of-light

A Roman version of the statue of Mithras “Bringer of Light” in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnells, 1988, p.83). Note the opening on the ceiling just above Mithras, allowing the sun rays to “illuminate” the god. Mithras in Iranian mythology is the bringer of light and justice as well as a manifestation of the eternal sun.

From the spinal cord of the animal sprang wheat to produce bread, and from the blood came the vine to produce wine. The shedding of the sacrificial blood brought great blessings to the world, which Ahriman tried to prevent. The struggle between good and evil, which at that moment it first began, was to continue until the end of time.

This ingenious fable carries us back to the very beginnings of civilization. It could never have risen save among a people of shepherds and hunters with whom cattle, the source of all wealth, had become an object of religious veneration”.

Mithraic sculpture depicted the Taurobolium with invariable consistency. Mithras was often depicted in the cave kneeling on the back of the bull, dagger in hand, wearing a flowing cape and Phrygian cap (the rounded, conical hats currently en vogue amongst rap-music fans). He was shown pulling back the bull’s head by its nostrils and stabbing it with the dagger, back foot extended over the bull’s right leg. A dog and a snake were shown leaping into bull’s wound, representing the dualistic conflict of good and evil at the moment of creation. A scorpion was shown at the bull’s genitals, depicting evil seeking to destroy life at its source. Ears of corn sprung from the tail of the bull representing victory of good over evil.     During the celebration of the vernal equinox, the Phrygian priests of the Great Mother attributed the blood shed in the Taurobolium to the redemptive power of the blood of the Divine Lamb shed on the Christian Easter. It was maintained that the dramatic Taurobolium purification ritual was more effective than baptism.   The food that was taken during the mystic feasts was likened to the bread and wine of the communion; the Mother of the Gods (Magna Mater) received greater worship than the Mother of God (Mary), whose son also had risen again.  An inscription in the Mithraeum under the  Church of Santa Prisca in Rome referred to Mithras saving men by shedding the eternal blood of the bull. On the very spot on which the last Taurobolium took place at the end of the fourth century, in the Phrygianum, today stands the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica.

-Tauroctony_Heddernheim

Relief of Mithras and the Tauroctony from the “Heidenfeld” Mithraeum of Heddernheim, Germany, presently located in Wiesbaden (Source: Dierk Schaefer for Public Domain).

The Evolution

As the religious history of the empire is studied more closely, the triumph of the church will, in our opinion, appear more and more as the culmination of a long evolution of beliefs. We can understand the Christianity of the fifth century with its greatness and weaknesses, its spiritual exaltation and its puerile superstitions, if we know the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed” (Franz Cumont).

As the final pagan religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism paved a smooth path for Christianity by transferring the better elements of paganism to this new religion.  After Constantine, Emperor from 306-337 C.E., converted on the eve of a battle in 312 C.E., Christianity was made the state religion. All emperors following Constantine were openly hostile towards Mithraism.  The religion was persecuted on the grounds that it was the religion of Persians, the arch-enemies of the Romans. The absurdity with which Christianity enveloped Roman paganism was characterized by the early Church writer Tertullian (160-220 C.E.), who noticed that the pagan religion utilized baptism as well as bread and wine consecrated by priests. He wrote that Mithraism was inspired by the devil, who wished to mock the Christian sacraments in order to lead faithful Christians to hell. Nonetheless, Mithraism survived up to the fifth century in remote regions of the Alps amongst tribes such as the Anauni, and has managed to survive in the near-east until this day.

Mithras is still venerated today by the Parsis, the descendants of the Persian Zoroastrians now living mainly in India. Their temples to Mithras are now called ‘dar-i Mihr’ (The Court of Mithras). A scholar living among Parsis in Karachi, Pakistan reported that a Parsi mother, finding one of her grandchildren fighting with a younger child, told him to remember that Mithras was watching and would know the truth. Upon initiation, Parsi priests are given a ‘Gurz’, the symbolic Mace of Mithras, to represent the priestly duty to make war on evil.  The priests continue to conduct their most sacred rituals under Mithra’s protection.

In Iran, up until 1979, traditional Mithraic holidays and customs still continued to be officially practiced, however the celebrations have continued despite the current Iranian establishment’s pan-Islamic outlook .  The Iranian New Year celebration called ‘Now-Ruz’ takes place during the spring and continues for thirteen days.  During this time Mehr (Mithras) is extolled as ancient god of the sun. The ‘Mihragan’ festival in honor of Mithras, Judge of Iran, also runs for a period of 5 days with great rejoicing and in a spirit of deep devotion.

MegreganShooshtarNiknam3

Zoroastrians engage in the celebration of Mehregan or festival of Mithras in Shushtar, Iran (Picture source: Kouroush Niknam). For more see article by Massoume Price entitled “Mehregan”

Manicheans and Later Heresies

Back in early medieval Europe, a form of Mithraism had managed to survive for centuries beyond the edicts of Constantine. Even when it had been dethroned by Christianity, the Mithraic faith lived on in dignified opposition by mutating into a Christian heresy known as Manichaeism, which was to become a source of strife and bloodshed right down to the Middle Ages. The Persian dualism of Zarathustra introduced such strong principles into Europe that they continued to exert an influence long after the fall of the Roman Empire.  The Manichean faith succeeded as an heir to Mithraism, spreading within decades throughout the territories once covered by Mithraism in Asia and throughout the Mediterranean, eventually encompassing regions from China to North Africa, Spain, and Southern France.

Mani-Portrait

A portrait of the prophet Mani (216-274 or 277 CE) (Source: Great Thoughts Treasury). Mani viewed himself as the final seal of the prophets, completing the previous religious messages of Zoroaster, Christ and the Buddha. His theological views, especially with respect to evil and its relation to material existence incurred the wrath of not only the Zoroastrian Magi of his Persian homeland but also that of the later Christians and Emperors of China.

Mani was born in 216 C.E. nearly 500 years after the incarnation of Mithras, and given the title ‘The Seal of the Prophets’ (a title since given to Mohammed by Islam).   He was also called the Bagh, or the Lord to succeed Mithras. Mani preached a dualistic theological system emphasizing the purity of the spirit and the impurity of the body.   He believed that the universe was controlled by the opposing powers of good and evil which had become temporarily intertwined, but at a future time would be separated and return to their own realms. Manichaean ethics focused on freeing the soul from the body and opposing material and physical pleasures.Mani’s followers attempted to assist this separation by leading ascetic lives, preaching renunciation of the world, and discouraging marriage and procreation.

Map of Manicheaism

Map detailing the spread of Manicheaism (Source: Trans Cultural Studies).

Ironically, Manichaeism was denounced in the west by the Papacy as a dangerous heresy considered detrimental to social life and common human institutions.    It was also condemned in Persia for similar reasons. Mani was persecuted and finally put to death in 276 C.E, as were many of his followers. Regardless, Manichaeism spread  widely and was a major religion in the East until the 14th century. It died out in the West by the 6th century, but later led to the creation of several early Christian heresies, such as the those of the Cathars and the Albigenses.

Mani-Cathars

Medieval depiction of a dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division). Interestingly, the Cathars denied charges of being Manicheans, yet their belief systems were wholly consistent with Mani’s teachings.

The Albigenses were a heretical Christian sect whose influence became widespread in Southern France around the year 1200 C.E. Its theology was based entirely upon Manichean dualism.    The Dominican Order was  founded in 1205 in order to combat this heresy. Following the assassination of the papal legate in the year 1208, Pope Innocent III  declared a crusade against the Albigenses. This developed into a political conflict with civil war between the north and south of France lasting until 1229.     The Knights Templar, a religious military order founded by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1118, came into contact with Manichean heretics who despised the Cross, regarding it as the instrument of Christ’s torture.   This tenet was believed to have been adopted by the Templars, who were suppressed and charged with blasphemy in 1312 for committing homosexual acts, worshipping the demon Baphomet, and ritually spitting upon crucifixes.   To this day, the Knights Templar have been emulated by dozens of mystical sects and secret societies, including the Freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the notorious Ordo Templi Orientallis reformulated by Alistair Crowley.

Conclusion

If Christianity had been checked in its growth by some deadly disease, the world would have become Mithraic” [Joseph Renan, French religious historian and critic Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique]

The Mithraic legacy resulted in customs still carried out today, including the handshake and the wearing of the crown by the monarchy. Worshippers of Mithras were the first in the western world to preach the doctrine of divine right of kings. It was the worship of the sun, combined with the theological dualism of Zarathustra, that disseminated the ideas upon which the Sun-King Louis XIV (1638-1715) and other deified sovereigns of the West maintained their monarchial absolutism. Of all the Roman pagan religions, none was so severe as Mithraism. None attained an equal moral elevation, and none could have had so strong a hold on mind and heart as the worship of this sun god and saviour.   The major competitor with Christianity during the second and third centuries C. E., not even during the Moslem invasions had Europe come closer to adopting an Eastern religion than when Diocletian officially recognized Mithras as the protector of the Roman Empire. But in the end,  Christianity finally became the champion of the inevitable conflict with the Zoroastrian faith for the dominion of the known world.

In theory, a proper coup-d’etat by the Mithras-worshipping Roman centurions could have prevented the Emperor Constantine from establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Mithraism could quite possibly have survived through the following centuries with the theological assistance of the Manichean Heresy and its various offshoots, assuming that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth had somehow have been simultaneously quashed (possibly through an increased number of crucifixions).   With the absence of Christianity due to the continuation of Mithraism in the west, the rise of Islam may similarly have been prevented in the seventh century, and the violence of the crusades need not have occurred. Assuming that Islam had not enveloped Persia, the worship of Mithras could have continued within the pantheon of Zarathustra.

Consequently, Mithraism would have made an even stronger indentation upon the pantheons of India and China, and possibly spread beyond to other far-eastern countries. Columbus set sail during the Inquisition, another savage event representing the culmination of over a thousand years of European Christianity. Had Mithraism survived the millennium until the year 1492,  the Indigenous people of the Americas would have been exposed to Mithraic worshippers instead of Catholic missionaries. Quite possibly, the Taurobolium would have been transposed upon the buffalo hunt rituals of the Plains Indians and the sacrificial ceremonies of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec, and these great empires would not have been annihilated by the brutal European conquerors who plundered in the name of King and Christ.

Let us play quantum physics through manipulating causality and further extending this ‘What If?’ scenario (and selectively ignoring countless variables) it is possible to reconstruct our current North American society with Mithraism in place of Christianity as the predominant religion and cultural driving force. After all, best selling author Mary Stewart used the concept of the local revival of Mithraism in medieval Britain for her novel Merlin of the Crystal Cave.

The great Mithraic researcher Franz Cumont also commented extensively on the possibility that Mithraism had survived beyond Constantine:

The morals of the human race would have been but little changed, a little more virile perhaps, a little less charitable, but only a shade different.    The erudite theology taught by the mysteries would obviously have shown a laudable respect for science, but as its dogmas were based upon a false physics it would apparently have insure the persistence of an infinity of errors.     Astronomy would not be lacking, but astrology would have been unassailable, while the heavens would still be revolving around the earth to accord with its doctrines. The greatest danger,  would have been that the Caesars would have established a theocratic absolutism supported by the Oriental ideas of the divinity of kings.  The union of throne and altar would have been inseparable, and Europe would never have known the invigorating struggle between church and state. But on the other hand the discipline of Mithraism, so productive of individual energy, and the democratic organization of its societies in which senators and slaves rubbed elbows, contain a germ of liberty.  While these contrasting possibilities may be interesting,  it is hard to find a mental pastime less profitable than the attempt to remake history and to conjecture on what might have been had events proved otherwise.”

Bibliography

Beny, Roloff. Iran: Elements of Destiny. McClelland and Stewart Ltd.  London, 1978.

Cumont, Franz. Les Mystères de Mithra. Dover Publications, Inc.,New York, 1956.

Cumont, Franz. The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1956.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. The World Publishing Company. Cleveland, 1958.

Hinnells, John R. Persian Mythology. Peter Bedrick Books. New York, 1985.

Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. London, 1969.