A Refreshing view of History and the Movie 300

The below YouTube video “Why The Persians Should Be The Good Guys In ‘300’ ” was posted by Cracked on December 27, 2016 and received 70k hits in less than a day. This is a remarkable posting by young western bloggers and writers who question Eurocentrist historical revisionism and place the ancient Greco-Persian wars in a more even-handed perspective. Readers may also find the article “The 300 Movie: Separating Fact from Fiction” of interest (posted in 10 segments below):

  1. Introductory notes — see also: The Notion of Democracy and Human Rights
  2. What really led to War
  3. The Military Conflict: Separating Fact from Fiction
  4. The Error of Xerxes: The Burning of Athens
  5. The “West” battling against the “Mysticism” of “the East”
  6. The Portrayal of Iranians and Greeks
  7. A Note on the Iranian Women in Antiquity
  8. “Good” versus “Evil”
  9. Bibliography
  10. ترجمه مقاله کاوه فرخ به فارسی توسط غزال خاكسارى: فیلم 300: افسانه یا واقعیت

Consult also John Trikeriotis’ article: False depictions of Xerxes and Artemesia in “300: Rise of an Empire”; See also articles under: “کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great & the Cyrus Cylinder

 

 

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.

kurd-engaged-in-worship-of-mithras

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).

1-Taq-Bostan

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.

-mithraeum

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.

-Mithraism-Map

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.

Bible_museum_-_Mithrasheiligtum

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.

The Mysteries of the Three Kings: Who Were They and Where Did They Come From?

The article below The Mysteries of the Three Kings: Who Were They and Where Did They Come From?” was originally posted on the Ancient Origins website on September 24, 2015 by DHWTY.

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In Western Christianity, the feast of Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, is celebrated annually to commemorate the visit of the Magi from the East to the baby Jesus. The image of three wise men from the East bringing precious gifts and paying homage to the child Jesus is linked inextricably with today’s Nativity scenes. Nevertheless, the story of the Magi’s visit is not found in all four of the canonical Gospels. Apart from the Gospel according to Matthew, the other three Gospels say nothing about these magi. So, who are the Magi, or Three Kings, who visited the infant Jesus?

A Byzantine depiction of the Three Wise Men (526 CE), Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (Source: Public Domain).

The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel – How Many Magi Were There?

The account in Matthew’s Gospel regarding the visitation of the Magi is as follows:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem… When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

Note that Matthew does not mention the exact number of these wise men from the East. According to tradition, however, there were three wise men. It is likely that this number was chosen to correspond with the number of gifts presented to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Nevertheless, other numbers are provided by other traditions. In the Orient, for instance, tradition dictates that there were 12 Magi. Additionally, early Christian art provides different numbers of Magi. In a painting from the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus, two Magi are shown. A painting in the Lateran Museum, however, shows three, whilst another in the cemetery of Domitilla shows four. On a vase in the Kircher Museum, eight Magi are shown.

3rd Century Sarcophagus depicting two magi bearing gifts. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy (Source: Public Domain).

What Were the Wise Men’s Names?

Like the number of Magi, the names of these wise men are also unknown. Once again, it is due to tradition that we have their names. Additionally, the names given to these Biblical figures differ based on tradition. In Western tradition, for instance, the three Magi were Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. These men were said to have come from Persia, India and Babylonia respectively.

According to the Syrian tradition however, the names of the Magi are Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph. In the Armenian tradition, on the other hand, Kagba, Badadakharida, and Badadilma are the names of the Magi.

After the Magi had paid homage to the infant Jesus, they were prepared to return to Jerusalem, as they were requested by King Herod to bring news of the child’s whereabouts. The wise men believed Herod when he claimed that he desired to go and worship the new-born king as well. In a dream, however, the wise men were warned by God not to return to Herod, and the Magi “departed into their own country another way.”

Adoração dos Magos (1518) by Vicente Gil. Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro Coimbra, Portugal (Source: Public Domain)

The Magi and St. Helena

Thus the story of the Magi comes to an end, or so it seems. During the 4th century AD, St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, embarked on a quest to locate the sacred relics of the Christian faith.

It is said that St. Helena succeeded in finding the remains of the Magi, reportedly discovered in Persia, and then brought them back to Constantinople. During the 5th century AD, the relics of the Magi were brought to Milan.

When the city was conquered by Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1164, the relics were given to Rainald von Dassel, the Archbishop of Cologne. The remains of the Magi were then transferred to Cologne Cathedral, where they have remained, behind the high altar, ever since.

Helena of Constantinople (1495) by Cima da Conegliano (Source: Public Domain).

A large gilded sarcophagus was built to house these remains. This reliquary, known as the Shrine of the Three Kings, is the largest reliquary in the Western world, and has drawn pilgrims to Cologne Cathedral since the supposed remains of the Magi arrived in the city during the 12th century.

References

The Bible: Standard King James Version, 2014. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/

christianity.about.com, 2015. Three Kings – Wise Men from the East. [Online]
Available at: http://christianity.about.com/od/newtestamentpeople/a/Three-Kings.htm

Drum, W., 1910. Magi. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09527a.htm

Sacred Destinations, 2015. Cologne Cathedral. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/germany/cologne-cathedral

www.cologne.de, 2015. The Cologne Cathedral. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cologne.de/what-to-do/the-cologne-cathedral.html

Pseudo-Scholarship about Iran: Insulting Cyrus the Great

Article below by John Limbert appeared in the LobeLog website on November 3, 2016. Kindly note that none of the pictures and their corresponding captions appeared in the original LobeLog release.

1-john-limbert

John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran.  He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.

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What is it about Harvard that impels its people to produce pseudo-scholarly non-facts about Iran? Four years ago a presi­den­tial candidate and graduate of the Harvard Business School claimed that Iran needed its alliance with Syria to achieve “access to the sea.” Perhaps they don’t use maps at the Business School. A couple years ago, a former professor and secretary of state who received his Ph.D. from Harvard warned darkly about a newly reconstructed “Persian Empire” that was about to dominate the Middle East.

3-cyrus-the-great-tomb

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae where Alexander paid his respects. The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Source: Public Domain).

Such ahistorical nonsense and geographical mishmash never seems to die. In a recent Time article called “The Iran Paradox,” the current dean of Harvard’s (and Tuft’s) Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy continued this unfortunate precedent. About Iran he wrote that “the inheritors of that [i.e. Cyrus the Great’s] imperial tradition are today’s Shi’ite Iranians, and their present-day ambitions for the Middle East…will roil the already tense region deeply over the next few years.”

cyrus-cylinder-New

The Cyrus Cylinder housed at the British Museum (Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Of course there once were mighty Persian empires. The Book of Daniel tells of the great “empire of the Medes and Persians whose laws alter not.” In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus created a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire whose organi­zing principle was acceptance and support of local customs and beliefs. About 539-538 BCE, the ruler spelled out that policy in the famous “Cyrus cylinder” of Babylonia, which many Iranians today proudly claim was the world’s first universal declaration of human rights. One can argue about Cyrus’ motives, but no one can argue with the success of his program.

Cyrus Koresh Kourosh street in Jerusalem

When History goes beyond 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.

But all that happened over 2,500 years ago. What is the relation of Cyrus’ vast empire to the current Islamic Republic and its clumsy foreign policy? None. In the past there were great Persian empires, whose armies burned Athens and humbled mighty Rome. But the last of those empires disappeared over 1,400 years ago with the victory of the in­vading Arab Muslim armies over the Zoroastrian Sassanians. Since then, Iran has either been a province of larger empires or a country confined roughly to its present-day borders. Its history for the last 200 years has been anything but imperial. More often it has been invaded, divided, threatened, manipu­lated, and exploited by outside powers.

5a-schultz-spiegel

Journalism and Academia join to promote Eurocentricism: Matthias Schultz of Spiegel Magazine (July 15, 2008) and Harry de Quetteville of the Daily Telegraph (July 16, 2008) wrote parallel articles attacking the legacy of Cyrus the Great and his ancient legacy; both publications even criticized the people of Iran for appreciating the historical memory of Cyrus. See responses to the Spiegel article and the Daily Telegraph.

Iran today remains home to many monuments and memories of imperial glory, each a veritable Ozymandias. Iran retains only what British historian Michael Axworthy properly calls “the empire of the mind.” From time to time Iranian politicians will recall Iran’s past glories and issue bombast about reconquering territory lost centuries earlier. Such state­ments, however, ignore reality and are nothing but whistling past the graveyard in an attempt to conceal the Islamic Republic’s current weaknesses.

cyropaedia-thomas-jefferson-copy

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – 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.

What our Fletcher colleague calls “Shi’ite Iranians” are in no way the inheritors of Cyrus’ imperial tradition. Instead, the Islamic Republic today operates from a position of weakness caused by both cultural isolation and its own diplomatic ineptitude. It has managed to alienate almost all of its neighbors with the exception of chaotic Syria and tiny, land­locked Armenia. When the Islamic Republic’s rulers allowed a mob to trash Saudi diplomatic premises in January 2016, and then made only a grudging apology, they only further isolated themselves from much of the Arab world. Iran’s foreign influence today is feeble, and consists mostly of backing factions in the most dysfunctional places, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Contrast such ineptitude with the skills of Cyrus and his successors. Such a performance by his compatriots would make Cyrus the Great, if he were alive, turn over in his grave, as Yogi Berra would say.

6-Evil Immortals

Eurocentricism meets Hollywood: cartoon-like portrayal of ancient Iranians in the movie “300” – For more on this topic read here – and for more on Eurocentricism, consult here…

The persistence of such shallow pseudo-scholarship, especially among those associated with one of the world’s greatest universities, is inexplicable—unless perhaps the moon is always full over Cambridge and Somerville. Those presenting such an account of current events are certainly not learned in their subject. Instead, in order to argue for a questionable policy (for example, “a proactive approach to the Iranian challenge”) they repeat the empty phrases (“inheritors of an imperial tradition”) they have heard and that at first blush seemed profound. On closer examination, however, such ideas are only hollow catchphrases with no bases in scholarly history or geography. They also insult the memory of Cyrus the Great.

Hebrew Goddesses, Origins of Judaism & Persia

The article below by Dr. Michael David Magee entitled Hebrew Goddesses & Origin of Judaism” was originally posted in the CAIS website under the broader topic of “Persia and the creation of Judaism. The version printed below has a number of minor edits, otherwise it is the same article as posted in the CAIS website.

As in the CAIS website, Kavehfarrokh.com does not necessarily condone or endorse the views presented in Dr. Magee’s article. The objective is the provision of information, ideas and discourse for learning/educational purposes pertaining to antiquity and ancient Iran.

Readers are encouraged to forward questions and/or comments by e-mail regarding the below article to at: mike@askwhy.freeserve.co.uk

Kindly note that excepting those images cited and posted direclty from CAIS, all other images/pictures/illustrations (and accompanying descriptions for these) inserted below did not appear in the original article by Dr. Magee and the later CAIS posting of Dr. Magee’s article.

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In pre-historic and primitive societies in which men and women are segregated into their own living quarters, and children live with the women, it is not surprising that women are seen as dominant and provide the image of the supreme being. To children, women were the source of sustenance and discipline. Men were mainly out of sight, following their own vain pursuits and the concept of father did not exist. Any of the men could have been the father of a child but no one ever knew which was. All children knew their mother and a mother knew her own children, but all women had the nurturing and caring role of mother, and there were enough for all children to be treated equally. So God was a goddess for myriads of years.

When we come to Judaism and then Christianity, women have almost gone out of sight. Both religions have a masculine God and no goddess, masculine priests and no priestesses. Christianity also has a masculine son of God and what appears to be a masculine Holy Ghost. This trio constitutes the Christian “mystery” of the Trinity, but the logic of any such trinity is to have a father god, a mother god and a baby son god. Where, oh where has the mother god gone?

1-Egyptian Trinity-Louvre MuseumThe Egyptian Trinity (right to left): Goddess Isis, Osiris (Isis’ husband) and their son Horus, statuette (housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France) from the 22nd Egyptian Dynasty (943-716 BCE) (Source: Guillaume Blanchard, July 2004, Fujifilm S6900 for Public Domain).

The answer is that it was expunged by the Persian administrators who set up the Jewish religion—in the image of Zoroastrianism—in the fifth century BC. Zoroaster had abolished all gods except one—Ahura Mazda—and some angels and demons of various descriptions, around two centuries before. Now that the Persians were conquering the world, they thought it a good idea to have everyone on earth subject to one God of Heaven, whatever his local name might have been, to match the one king of earth—the king of kings of Persia. Since the only God of Heaven had manifestly approved the appointment of the Persian king, everyone would recognize it as an unchallengeable divine appointment, and peace would reign!

Family squabbles could not be admitted into this scheme, and so goddesses were written out of sacred history. Of course, no Jew or Christian will accept this because they have accepted the propaganda that there is only one, masculine god, and, if it was ever different, it was because people were ignorant! Only the Jews were not ignorant because they had been specially selected by God in the time of Abraham, about 2000 BC to carry out His plan for human religious revelation. Unfortunately for all this, the Jews, or rather their predecessors often called Hebrews, did worship goddesses as even the Jewish scriptures admit! But, they were only the backsliders who refused to accept God’s word—for thus the Persian “restorers” of Judaism painted the inhabitants of the land into which the Persians transported the “returners from exile”.

Painiting-Jews celebrating Cyrus-American painterPainting by a contemporary American artist Minerva Teichert showing the Jews celebrating the arrival of Cyrus the Great (r. 549–530 BCE) who liberates them for the return to Jerusalem. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he ordered the sacred religious objects of the Jerusalem Temple to be restored to their rightful owners, the Jews.

The truth, as scholars know but do not publicly divulge, is that the religion of the people in the Hill Country of Palestine before the Persians arrived was recognizably the same religion as that of everyone else who lived in the Levant and its hinterland. The richer parts of the eastern Mediterranean left plentiful archaeological remains in the form of clay tablets, most famously at Ugarit, that tell us a lot about ancient Canaanite religions and their practice. The people here were called Canaanites and they worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses, led by the supreme god, El, and his wife, Athirat (Asherah) and their son, Baal Hadad.

Baal with Thunderbolt-Louvre Museum

Stele dated to 5th-13th century BCE (housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France) discovered at the acropolis of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) which depicts Baal with Thunderbolt (Source: Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen for Public Domain). In the Caananite religions, Baal Hadad was the offspring of the supreme god El and his wife, Athirat (Asherah).

Canaanite Religion

The paucity of archaeological remains from the Hill Country confirm the picture underlying the bible stories—the practices of the small population that lived there were the same as their neighbors. The accessible gods were called Baal, meaning Lord, just as Yehouah is habitually called and actually translated as Lord (Yehouah Elohim, Lord God). The Persians admitted one god only and eventually Yehouah prevailed, but it seems that bodies of people for some time preferred other gods, notably El (Elohim). The Canaanite title for their son of god, Baal, was vilified by the “restorers” as the name of all false gods, whatever their real name, Hadad, Eshmun, Dagon, Milcom or whatever, and that is what we find in the bible.

Reading the bible carefully tells us that three goddesses were worshipped in the Hill Country later called Israel and Judah. The three were Asherah, Astarte and the Queen of Heaven. Possibly the latter is the title of one or both of the other two, but all three are mentioned, and the Queen of Heaven was so loved that the people refused Jeremiah’s pleas to turn from her to Yehouah!

4-Anatolian Goddess-AnkaraUnknown 8,000 year-old ancient goddess from Anatolia from the ancient site of Catal Hoyuk, modern Turkey (Source: Photo by Stanisław Nowak for Public Domain). Housed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (Ankara, Turkey), the Çatal Hüyük mother goddess of Anatolia may have been a prototype “Queen of Heaven”. It is now agreed by mainstream scholars that Goddesses were held in high esteem in the ancient Near East, Anatolia, the Indus Valley and the Mediterranean.

Hundreds of small, mainly female figurines often of terracotta are found all over Palestine, many dated to the period of the supposed divided monarchy from 900 to 600 BC. Of these figurines of goddesses, some are Astarte from the symbolism, and they can be dated from 2000 BC to the capture of Jerusalem when they cease. Some Christian and Jewish “scholars” try to make out that these figurines are not goddesses at all but are magical talismans or primitive pornography, being models of prostitutes, but it is impossible to imagine that they do not have some ritual significance and must therefore be images of a goddess.

The images that seem identifiable with Astarte come in the form of plaques that seem to show a recess within which the image is displayed and therefore suggest that they are models of an image in a shrine. The plaques are impressed in terracotta using a mold and show the goddess with upraised arms holding serpents or lilies or both, though sometimes she holds her abdomen and sometimes has her hands by her sides. Often she is standing on the back of a lion. Her hair is dressed in the flicked style, looking rather like ram’s horns, typical of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who had been popular in the south of the country—many of these plaques have been excavated at Devir near Hebron. In the Iron Age period, the preferred form of the goddess was that of an elongated bust, looking like a head and shoulders on a pillar, and therefore looking more phallic like the presumed Asherahs.

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Egyptian goddess Hathor (Source: TourEgypt).

Commentators try to claim they are not Israelite but Canaanite, the two types of people living side by side for hundreds of years. Honest scholars today are asking how these populations can be so surely distinguished. All of the cultural evidence is that there was only one population. The need for two only arises to explain how what is read in the bible differs from what happened according to the evidence. So, only the need to fulfill biblical expectations makes anyone think that there were two different peoples in Palestine at this time. And the people that lived there were Canaanites who worshipped Baal and several goddesses.

Asherah

Asherah was the Canaanite Venus, the Goddess of the Sea and the Mother of All the Gods. A lot is known about her from the Ugarit tablets that go back to the fourteenth century BC. She was the wife of the supreme god, El, whence her alternative name, Elath, the Goddess.

Asherah-National Martime Museum IsraelA terracotta figurine of Asherah housed at the National Maritime Museum of Israel in Haifa (Source: Devor Avi of the Elef Millim Project Trip for Public Domain).

Semitic deities commonly have two names, or rather a name and a title, and are known by either. The parallelism that characterizes Semitic verse might be the reason for the perpetuation of this habit, if not its origin, thus:

He cries to Asherah and her children,
To Elath and the company of her offspring.

A stele has an inscription, “Qudsu   Astarte   Anat”, suggesting that Qudsu was a name or title of Anat who is herself identified with Astarte. Asherah and Qudsu also appear in the parallelism of Semitic verse where Asherah says in one place:

I myself have not a house like the gods
A court like the sons of Qudsu,
and elsewhere:

He came to qds
Athirat of the Tyrians.

“Qudsu” (“qds”), the same as the biblical “qadesh” or “kadesh”, means “holy” or “sacred”, or the “Holy One”, or “Sacred One”. Moreover, the biblical Asherah is given as Ashtaroth in the plural, seemingly a plural of Astarte, though another plural is a masculine one, Asherim, doubtless part of the patriarchal plan to eliminate any hint of female deities. Asherim is conventionally translated as “groves”. The Sumerians had a goddess called Ashratim who was also the consort of their supreme god, Anu, and so she is likely to be an earlier and perhaps the original epiphany of Asherah.

Asherah is also mentioned in the Amarna letters from fourteenth century BC Egypt. They are records of reports and correspondence from Egyptian officials and emissaries outside the country, and so are an importance resource. They show that already Asherah was either being confused with Astarte or the two goddesses were always the same one, differently named. The names are used interchangeably in the Amarna tablets. The letters make it clear that her worshippers regarded themselves as her “slaves”. To this day Christians accept that they are “slaves” of God, although they wrongly translate the Greek for “slaves” as “servants”.

Asherah was, then, a goddess known throughout the Fertile Crescent, but not according to traditionalists for God’s plan, in Judah or Israel—at least officially. The seventeenth century translators of the King James Version of the bible hid the goddess quite from the view of the faithful by translating “Asherah” as “grove”. Judges 3:7 admits that Baal and Asherah were worshipped in Israel (and God of course punished the Israelites for it). The goddess, Asherah, is actually mentioned forty times in the scriptures.

Several passages in the scriptures describe Asherahs being built or torn down, or uprooted. It seems they were pillars, usually of wood, occasionally of stone, effectively phallic symbols but of the form of a woman, though in Micah 5:14, they are masculine and therefore surely phallic objects. In fact, each locality had its shrine to the goddess and doubtless had local peculiarities, so that we read in the Amarna letters of the “Asherah of here” and the “Asherah of there”, some of which might have been tree trunks still rooted in the earth, others of which were set up under trees and others of which were set up on the “high places”.

Judges 6:25,28 says they also stood next to the altars of Baal, suggesting that Asherah was thought of as the consort or mother of Baal, and 2 Kings 21:7 and 23:6 admit they stood in the Jerusalem temple. None of these Asherahs have survived, because they were deliberately destroyed by the priests of the Ezra school and its successors. But the terracotta dolls mentioned above seem likely to be household models of the full sized Asherahs, so we can get an idea of them.

In the scriptures, the stories about Asherah worship, the constant destruction and reintroduction of the symbols of the goddess, simply show the immense popularity she had among the Am ha Eretz (indeed the name “Am ha Eretz”, usually understood to be the men of the land, the simple folk, might well be intended to signify Mother Earth.

In Jewish myth, Asherah worship was first introduced by women, the wife of Solomon or the wife of Ahab, the latter being the infamous Jezebel. The prophet Elijah took exception to the prophets of Baal and defeated them in a gratuitous show of supernatural power on Mount Carmel, but the prophetesses of Asherah seem to have been left to continue their practices. Prophetess might have been used in the accepted sense here because a fifteenth century BC Akkadian text speaks of a “wizard of Asherah” forecasting the future, so Asherah might have had a reputation for fortune telling.

asherah-1

An ancient depiction of Asherah (Source: The Queen of Heaven).

The Asherah of Samaria, supposedly set up by Ahab for Jezebel (1 Kgs 16:33), was still standing a hundred years later. Indeed, the impression is that the devotion of the people to Asherah was constant while the devotion to the male god fluctuated between Baal and Yehouah. Since, notwithstanding the fact that Asherah was properly the Mother of the Gods, she was also the consort of Baal or Yehouah—both mere sprogs of the supreme god—Asherah remained the female deity whichever of the male sons of god took precedence.

Bearing in mind the passages about the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah, the reason why the shrines to Baal kept getting torn down might have been because Baal was the Lord (Baal) Yehouah, being pressed on to the Am ha Aretz by the priests of Yehouah, and being rejected repeatedly by the people who were devotees of the Goddess. The destruction of the sanctuaries to Baal therefore meant the destruction of the sanctuaries to Baal Yehouah. When the Yehouists eventually asserted their power at the beginning of the fourth century BC, the scriptural stories were anachronistically altered to suit the Yehouists.

Be that as it may, the scriptures record that the worshippers of this god of the Jews and Christians, Yehouah, invited all of the worshippers of Baal to a solemn assembly for their god at his sanctuary in Samaria, fitted them out in fresh vestments, then murdered them every one! The shrines to the bull god in Dan were not destroyed however and nor were the shrines to Asherah. If Yehouah was the only god allowed, one can only conclude that he was identified with the bull god and the goddess was his consort. In the story of the Exodus, the Israelites worshipped images of a bull, and a bull was a symbol of fertility.

The presence of the Asherah in Samaria for so long was made the mythical reason why the state of Israel was lost to the Assyrians, together with the ten lost tribes of Israel, but this is propaganda to justify the worshippers of Yehouah at Jerusalem—the Jews—hating the worshippers of Yehouah in Samaria—the Samaritans. In fact, the scriptures credit the king of Judah, Joshiah, with “burning” the Samaritan Asherah about forty years before Jerusalem was finally sacked by the Babylonians. This was about a hundred years after Israel had supposedly ceased to exist and its people had been deported to be lost forever. In truth, it was probably only after the Persian administrators had imposed monotheism that the goddess was harmed, and the Asherah of Samaria destroyed.

Asheran-Hecht Museum Israel

Figurine of Asherah in the Hecht Museum of Israel (Source: Pinterest).

In Judah, Ashtaroth are not mentioned at all, but king Asa finds it necessary to destroy them, so they must have been there all the time. His son, Jehoshaphat however, finds he has to destroy them all again! His son, Joash allowed them back and even placed an Asherah in the Jerusalem temple where it remained until the pious monarch, Hezekiah removed it over a hundred years later (2 Kgs 18:4). Hezekiah also destroyed a brass serpent that Moses had given the Israelites to worship! Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, restored the Asherah but not the brass snake, despite it having been a gift of the great Israelite leader.

The Book of Deuteronomy was then found, supposedly lost and forgotten since the time of Moses, but discovered “by accident” in the time of king Josiah, just 35 years before Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians. Plainly, the book was written by the returning “exiles” sent by the Persian king, who pretended that this law book had been discovered before they had even appeared on the scene. It forbade the building of Asherahs and pillars and had been just the sort of thing that would motivate a good Yehouist as Josiah was depicted as being. Yet, despite it, if Jeremiah is taken to be historical, the people still preferred the goddess and he later found himself defending Yehouah against the Queen of Heaven!

Anath

Anath was the sister of Baal Hadad and the daughter of Asherah in Canaanite mythology, and was identified with Astarte (Hebrew, Ashtoreth). She seems also to be Anahita, the later Persian goddess.

10-Ashtarte with Lotuses

An Astarte plaque showing the goddess Astarte or Anath holding lilies or lotuses (Source: CAIS).

It is curious to the modern mind why goddesses should be distinguished then evidently confused or conflated again, and it seems more than likely that the patriarchal religious leaders divided the original Great Mother Goddess into her aspects to weaken her, but the people effectively refused to see all the goddesses thus created as anything other than what they were—the Great Mother. Thus, Anath, Astarte and Asherah might have had different names but were seen as the same. We saw from the Amarna letters and the bible itself that Asherah was confused with Ashtoreth. The ancient tablets, using the Semitic parallelism mentioned above, have:

Whose fairness is like Anath’s fairness;
Whose beauty is like Ashtoreth’s beauty.

The two goddesses are equated in these lines of verse, and such parallels led foreigners, the Egyptians for example, to think that here were two separate goddesses, whose equality must have meant they were sisters. According to Albright, however, Ramesses III called Anath and Astarte, his shield (singular) suggesting that he knew they were one goddess only.

Anath (Anthat, Anaitis) was a goddess of war and love in the Ugaritic tablets, a virgin goddess yet promiscuous and vicious. Anath’s main lover was her brother, Baal Hadad, with whom she had intercourse by taking the form of a heifer. Baal is therefore a bull, just as Yehouah was at Dan and Bethel, and in the wilderness. As a war goddess she is ferocious, killing wildly and with glee until she has to wade in blood and gore, rather like the Indian goddess, Kali, also known as Annapurna. She has characteristics almost identical to those of Inannu of Sumeria and Ishtar of Akkadia who were called “Lady of Heaven” and “Mistress of the Gods”, just as Anath and Astarte were in Egypt.

Ashtoreth refers to the womb, an appropriate reference for a fertility goddess, but one which shows that it is a descriptive title of the goddess Anath—Anath of the Womb, one could call her according to Raphael Patai (PAT-THG). Anath is often also called the “maiden”, so, although a womb, she is a virgin. The Egyptians described them as the goddesses “who conceive but do not bear” because they were permanently virgins. Ashtoreth was also a goddess of war as the scriptures declare also when the Philistines offered Saul’s armour in the temple of Ashtoreth (1 Sam 31:10) presumably as a token of appreciation for her assistance in the battle.

Anath is not mentioned in the scriptures and Ashtoreth or Astarte are mentioned only nine times, but she was much more important than such a small number of citations suggests. In Judges 2:13 and 10:6, Astarte and the Ashtaroth are respectively mentioned in conjunction with Baal, as warnings to the Israelites. Solomon is similarly warned by Yehouah (1 Kgs 11:5,33) for adopting Ashtoreth and other foreign gods.

Babylon-Ishtar-1800-1750

Figure of Babylonian Goddess  Ereshkigal or her sister Ishtar dated to 1800-1750 BCE (Source: Aiwok for Public Domain). The figure was previously thought to be that of Lilith but modern scholarship suggests her to be Ishtar or Ereshkigal.

Anath does appear in the scriptures as the place names Beth Anath and Anathoth or Anatha (even today still called Anata), the birthplace of Jeremiah, amongst others. Anathoth is simply the plural of Anath, a convention among the Hebrews in naming towns. Thus Ashtaroth, the plural of Ashtoreth is also a place name. These names arose because they were the place of a shrine (a house or “beth”) for the deity, and were therefore the place where the deity’s devotees lived—the Anaths (Anathoth) or the Astartes (Ashtaroth). One of the Judges, according to the scriptures, was a “son of Anath”, taken by the fathful to be literally true, but merely disguising that he was a follower or devotee of Anath.

Queen of Heaven

Jeremiah tried to persuade the Israelite worshippers of the Queen of Heaven in Egypt to turn to Yehouah but they refused. Anath and Astarte were “Lady (Lady being the feminine of Lord, therefore meaning “ruler”) of Heaven” throughout the Near East, including Egypt. The people, in reply, think it is not through any neglect of Yehouah that they have had misfortune but because of their neglect of the goddess!

“As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee. But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.

And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour out drink offerings unto her, without our men?” Jeremiah 44:16-19

Elsewhere in Jeremiah, the author adds more detail:

“Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.” Jeremiah 7:17-18

These are small windows into the genuine religion of Palestine before the Persians altered it. The author, clearly a propagandist for the Persian “returners” from “exile”, admits to the longstanding practice of the cities of Judah, and of Jerusalem itself. Their fathers—meaning in the first passage, ancestors, not just their immediate dads—their kings and princes had burnt incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured libations for her (the equal of the wine of the Eucharist). The women add that they made cakes for her (the equal of the Eucharist wafer), and insist that they did not worship the goddess only as a female indulgence but did it with their menfolk. The earlier passage in Jeremiah shows that the whole practice was communal.

Yarmukian CultureClay figurine of an ancient Mother Goddess of the Yarmukian Culture of the Neolithic era (Source: Yaels for Public Domain). Dated to 7,500 years ago, this figurine was discovered at the Sha’ar Hagolan kibbutz, situated to the south of the sea of Galilee. 

The cakes will have been made in molds just like the molds used to cast the terracotta figures of the goddess, found everywhere, or perhaps the terracotta figurines were themselves used to make an impression on the cakes, which were then baked and eaten or burnt as an offering. That the Queen of Heaven was Ashtoreth is suggested by the use of these cakes, because an ancient Babylonian text to Ishtar refers to sacrificial cakes using a name that seems to be cognate with the Hebrew word.

The people had been happy and well fed under the care of the goddess, but latterly had suffered hardship under the Babylonians and then the Persian administrators’ efforts to bring in an exclusive new god, the Persian version of Yehouah. No one intelligent can read books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and other prophetic books without seeing them as propagandist pseudepigraphs written by the schools of Nehemiah and Ezra to persuade the native Palestinians to adopt the monotheistic religion the Persians were promoting for political reasons. These books nominally come from the two centuries before the “restoration” but were obviously anachronistically cast back in time to justify Persian novelties. The priestly schools blamed the troubles of the Am ha Eretz on to their old religious habits—and they laid it on thick—they were abominations!

In Ezekiel, the prophet is transported from Babylon to Jerusalem by God himself to see the abominations that are happening. The Persian reformers composed this to justify Ezra’s alterations to worship in the city of Jerusalem. The abominations are a phallic image (“an image of jealousy that provokes jealousy”), presumably an Asherah; the worship of a variety of images; the worship of Tammuz, the dying and rising god whose consort was Ishtar (Ashtoreth); the worship of the sun that was doubtless an aspect of El, Baal and Yehouah as sky gods. The Persians apparently were not against the vision of the sun being used as an aspect of their transcendental god, Ormuzd, because Mithras was apparently exactly that, but they would not have anything worshipped except for the God of Heaven himself. Mithras transformed himself for the Jews into the archangel Michael, guardian angel of the faithful of Yehouah, a mighty prince of the heavenly hosts but only an angel.

Ancient Fertility GoddessSmall clay figurine of an ancient fertility Goddess dated to approximately 7000-7,500 years ago (Source: Haaretz). This figurine was discovered near Gedera in south-central Israel.

An Aramaic papyrus from the Jewish military colony at Hermopolis in Egypt speaks of a temple to the Queen of Heaven in the fifth century BC, just when the priests of Nehemiah or Ezra would have been forging the Jeremiah pseudepigraph, on our surmise. We know from the Elephantine papyri that the Jews of Elephantine were still worshipping other gods and goddesses besides Yehouah, including Anath, around 400 BC!

Yehouah’s Spouse

Utterance of Ashyaw the king: Say to Yehallel and to Yaw’asah

and to… I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah

At Kuntillet Ajrud in the Negeb 30 miles from Kardesh Barnea, excavation of an eighth century sanctuary by the University of Tel Aviv in 1975-1976 revealed inscriptions, including Hebrew prayers, that have still not been published 30 years later. The text of one prayer was illustrated with two rough figures like the brutish Egyptian god, Bes, and spoke of “Yehouah and his Asherah”. This was a severe kick in the teeth for traditional Jewish and Christian monotheists of the “God’s Plan” variety. Asherah is a Ugaritic goddess, the consort of El. The people of eighth century BC Palestine had this same goddess, and she was considered the consort of Yehouah. Yehouah seemed even closer than ever to Baal or El. The Arabs before the foundation of Islam also had a goddess Asherah, and the Nabataean Arabs, judging by many inscriptions they made in Sinai in the second and third centuries AD, worshipped a god called “Ywh”. The fifth century Jewish colony at Elephantine on the Nile, similarly had Yehouah paired with a goddess Anath-Yehouah.

Anath

Bronze figurine of Anat or Anath dated to 1400–1200 BCE, discovered in Syria (Source: Camocon for Public Domain).

In the bible, Asherah is depicted as a cult object apparently a wooden pillar or tree trunk, but translated often as “grove”. Fighting fires and painting over cracks or whatever other metaphor comes to mind—they all apply—biblicists claim that God’s asherah was just a candlestick or altar, or they concede that some evil Jews did allow Yehouah to have a wife and that is why they Jews were always being punished, or anything that sounds plausible as long as it does not mean that Yehouah was not a perpetual batchelor. But as Theodore Lewis points out in the Oxford Companion to the Bible:

The asherah symbol in its origin is not easily divorced from the goddess Asherah.

The archaeological evidence is that the “pre-exilic” Israelites worshipped first and foremost, a goddess whose spouse was titled Baal and sometimes called Yehouah—the causer of being (meaning existence, life). The people saw the goddess as the accessible deity, even if notionally Yehouah or El were superior gods in the hierarchy. In the same way, Christians pray to Jesus or to Mary or even to saints instead of the omniscient god because they clearly do not believe that God is omniscient. And they obviously finish up just as satisfied praying to an old dead bishop as they do to the Almighty God of heaven Himself!

The Persians stopped goddess worship and replaced the old Baal Yehouah with a new god of heaven in the image of Ahuramazda. The constant theme of the Jewish scriptures of apostasy began here, Ezra’s priests portrayed the old religion as a perversion and an abomination of the wishes of the new god, and created an imaginary history of relapsing into religious perversion to justify the change. The prophets were pseudepigraphic propaganda supporting this scheme. Interestingly, later on, after the new god had been accepted, Jews became so protective of the new god that they refused to accept the gods of the Greeks and eventually started the Maccabaean wars. The works written to persuade the Am ha Eretz to adopt the new god were now seen as directed against the Hellenizing Jews who wanted to adopt Greek ways.

Yet, despite this manipulation, the Jews would not give up their attachment to a goddess. It simply had to find new forms, acceptable to those whose only deity was a lonely and invisible Almighty.

One way that is plain in the scriptures, is that the land and people of Yehouah, Israel itself, appeared in place of Asherah or Anath as the betrothed or the wife of God. The goddess remained in the Jewish world view but as a metaphor for the object of the love of Yehouah—his people. This fitted in so well with Persian aims that it is conceivable that they used it as a way of weaning the native Israelites off their attachment to the Goddess, just as Christians permitted Pagan gods to be seen as Christian saints. At any rate it is a strong theme through many of the Persian books of the scriptures.

Ugarit-Fertility Goddess

Depiction dated to 1200-1150 BCE of a fertility goddess (Source: The Fertility Goddess). This was discovered in Ugarit.

Those who refused to abandon the old ways in favor of the new Yehouah were portrayed as a wanton wife, a promiscuous Israel, an unworthy bride or wife. If “His people” abandoned the old ways, then Yehouah would forgive them of their sins and repent of His anger, and approach Israel to unite with her, his erstwhile unfaithful wife, in a grand marriage, to which the faithful would be invited but not the remaining apostates. We have suggested elsewhere that this marriage ceremony was celebrated as a ritual by the Essenes, at least (the wedding at Cana), but whether it is a carry over of some older ceremony in which Baal Yehouah “married” his consort is unclear, though quite likely. The older ceremonies were blatantly sexually promiscuous and the new symbolic ceremony which replaced the previous Bacchic-like revels was doubtless seen as a progression to total decorum.

The old goddess became personified as Zion, the city of Jerusalem representing those who worshiped Yehouah—the Jews or Yehudim, a word apparently related to “yahad” meaning a tightly knit community. Zion was a loving mother or a tender and affectionate daughter to Yehouah—the roles of the goddesses Asherah (mother of Baal) and Anath (daughter of El). She became even more important in the Hellenistic period when she represented the aspirations of the Jews for a kingdom of God—independence from the Greeks.

Cherubim

The reputation of Judaism as an an iconic religion—one which does not permit images—evidently was built after the Persian “restoration”. The making of “any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex 20:4)” was written in by the priests of Ezra to prevent the people of the Hill Country from reverting to their Asharoth. Yet cherubim decorated the walls of Jewish temples until the end of the temple of Herod in 70 AD. Surely these were “graven images”.

Christians, unassailable in their perpetual ignorance, think cherubim are baby angels like the putti of the medieval illustrators. Well they were indeed winged creatures but they were more like the griffins, winged bulls and winged lions of Assyria than podgy baby angels, though angelic figures were also cherubs. These fabulous creatures were popular all over the ancient Near East for thousands of years, but perhaps reached their artistic zenith under the Assyrians. They were certainly brought by the Persian priests of Ezra from Babylonia, where they decorated thrones, gates and walls. Support for this is the word itself which is not from a Hebrew root. The nearest word for it is found in Akkadian tablets where it stands for an intermediary between humans and god—an winged beast that carries human prayer to god.

Cherubs are first mentioned as having been set to guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword after the expulsion of humanity (Gen 3:24). In Exodus (25:18-22; 37:7-9), lengthy instructions are giving for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant with its Mercy Seat and decorated curtains. Cherubim were the decorative motif. In 2 Samuel 2:11, God rides on a cherub and in Ezekiel’s vision four cherubim carry the throne of God.

Elsewhere, God sits enthroned on the Ark’s cherubim (2 Sam 6:2; 1 Chron 13:7;Ps 80:1) or sits between them (Ex 25:22; Num 7:89). And in the Psalms, Yehouah “rides on the wings of the wind” (Ps 104:5) or “upon the clouds” (Ps 68:5) or “makes the clouds his chariot” (Ps 104:5). In 2 Samuel 22:11, we read:

And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: and he was seen upon the wings of the wind.
Psalms 18:10 is equally explicit and emphatic that a cherub stands for the wings of the wind:

And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.

These descriptions explain to us what the cherubim that supported god or his throne were. The Jewish scriptures are describing the common near eastern representation of God, or His Fravashi, used by the Persians and other nations like the Assyrians. The Egyptians also used a similar device—a winged disc that was often shown hovering over a dead person or a religious scene, standing for the soul of the dead or perhaps, more abstractly, for the protective power of god—holiness.

The Egyptians liked to picture Horus between the twin goddesses, Isis and her sister, Nephthys, shown as mirror images of female cherubim, with the winged disc floating above, doubtless representing god as Ra. Equivalent pictures are found in Mesopotamia with two winged gods or goddesses (cherubs) tending a sacred palm tree overlooked by the holy ideogram. This is doubtless the type of scene described as the one on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. Furthermore, it sounds like the scene repeated several times in 1 Kings as being the general motif of the chambers of the temple:

15-Cherubim-Assyria

Goddesses in the form of cherubim with stylized palm tree like the description of those decorating the temple; from Nimrud, Assyria, 900 BCE (Source: CAIS).

And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of Cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, within and without… The two doors also were of olive tree and he carved upon them carvings of Cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold, and spread gold upon the Cherubim, and upon the palm trees. So also made he for the door of the temple posts of olive tree… And he carved thereon Cherubim and palm trees and open flowers: and covered them with gold fitted upon the carved work. (1 Kings 6:29-35)

16-Cherubim-Assyria

Gods in the form of cherubim with stylized palm tree like the description of those decorating the temple; from Nimrud, Assyria, 900 BCE (Source: CAIS).

The description of the visionary temple in Ezekiel matches this (doubtless it was written first) and adds the detail that the cherubs faced alternately just as they do in the Assyrian pictures. Only the Janus-like nature of the heads differs:

And it was made with Cherubim and palm trees, so that a palm tree was between a cherub and a cherub; and every cherub had two faces; So that the face of a man was toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm tree on the other side: it was made through all the house round about. From the ground unto above the door were Cherubim and palm trees made, and on the wall of the temple… And there were made on them, on the doors of the temple, Cherubim and palm trees, like as were made upon the walls; and there were thick planks upon the face of the porch without. (Ezek 41:18-20;25)
Even the ten wash stands in the temple were set on bases which had a decorative motif of palms, bulls, lions and cherubim.

The two cherubs placed in the Holy of Holies of the temple, however, from their description in the scriptures, seem more like the ideogram of Ahura Mazda:

And in the most holy house he made two cherubim of image work, and overlaid them with gold. And the wings of the cherubim were twenty cubits long: one wing of the one cherub was five cubits, reaching to the wall of the house: and the other wing was likewise five cubits, reaching to the wing of the other cherub. And one wing of the other cherub was five cubits, reaching to the wall of the house: and the other wing was five cubits also, joining to the wing of the other cherub. The wings of these cherubims spread themselves forth twenty cubits: and they stood on their feet, and their faces were inward” (2 Chronicles 3:10-13; see also 1 Kings 6:23-28).

17-Faravahar

Is this how the cherubim in the temple Devir at Jerusalem looked? (Source: CAIS).

The cherubim were miraculous because they faced each other only when Yehouah favoured Israel but the faced away from each other when Israel had earned God’s ill will. But why were there two when there is only one god? In Rabbinic tradtion, there are two cherubim to stand for each of God’s holy names, Yehouah and Elohim, and, though this is much later than the origin of these images with the Persians, it could be true. There seem to have been two factions, each rooting for their preferred god, further proof that the religion of the Israelites before the arrival of the Persians was polytheistic.

Now Judaeo-Christian tradition has always been that the Holy of Holies of the temple was empty, once the Ark of the Covenant had disappeared from it, despite the descriptions of the cherubim in the scriptures. In fact, there must always have been fires burning in there if only for the burning of incense, but fires were holy themselves in Persian tradition and considered to be good spirits that took the prayers of the faithful up to god along with the sweet incense. Rabbi Hanina in the first century AD reports that there was a fire on the altar, and this was obviously not the altar for burnt offerings which stood outside the Holy Place, and necessarily had a fire. This altar is distinguished in Exodus 38:1 from the altar of incense of Exodus 37:25. The Holy of Holies and the Holy Place were a single room, separated only by a veil.

The Ark was meant to rest beneath the touching outstretched wings of the cherubs, but the loss of the Ark would not have stopped the temple authorities from maintaining the cherubs. Only the Ark was unique and irreplaceable. These cherubs are both shown as masculine in appearance, just as Yehouah is always taken to be masculine in every respect. A later reason for there being two images was that one of the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of the second temple was female—the goddess had not really disappeared at all!

The basis for this belief is also the Talmud, which tells us that the two cherubs in the Devir of the temple were a copulating couple! Well, the Talmud actually says they were “entwined” like a man and his wife. This explicit sculpture was displayed to the pilgrims on each of the three major festivals—Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.

18-Table setup for Passover

Table prepared for a Passover Seder (Source: DataFox for Public Domain).

Both Philo of Alexandria and Josephus must have known what was in the Devir, but both are cagey or contradictory. Philo says that the High Priest is so blinded by the incense smoke when he enters that even he cannot see what is in there, and Josephus says that nothing is there, then that what is there is quite respectable, and lastly he admits that there are some items of sacred paraphernalia in there.

Both must have known, because Josephus had served as a priest and Philo had visited Jerusalem as a pilgrim. Rabbi Quetina, according to Raphael Patai, says that the priests would role up the veil separating off the Holy Place when pilgrims arrived to show them the “cherubim that were intertwined with one another”, and declare:

Behold! Your love before God is like the love of male and female.

The pilgrims would then indulge in orgiastic behaviour, as they had done under the old religion, as the incident of the golden calves proves:

And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play. (Ex 32:6)

No prizes are offered here for the real meaning of the mis-translation “play”. The same Hebrew word is mistranslated differently when the Philistine king, who thinks Rebekah is Isaac’s sister, sees them through his window (Gen 26:8):

Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.

Yes, the word “l’zaheq” means having nooky. The Jews had been subject to the same religious influences as everyone else in the ancient Near East. Their original religion was a fertility religion based on the cycle of the seasons. If these people wanted the rains to come and the land to be fertile, what reason could they have had for not showing the gods precisely what they required? The sexual act was a sacred act of the cycle of living, and the hierophants revealed the sacred object that stimulated the act. It would have been impossible for them to have remained chaste when they wanted the land to be fertile.

Doubtless the Persian schools could not have tolerated such behavior, which suggests it only resumed after Alexander’s conquest. The priests were, of course, interested in multiplying the seed of Abraham, who were their bread and butter, and the Greek regime was sexually liberal, so that the new generation of Hellenized priests had good reason for promoting occasional orgies, even if the Jews had become otherwise prudish under Zoroastrian influence. Effectively they were re-admitting the old religion of Baal and the Queen of Heaven, but under the guise of a mystery religion in which the cult objects were revealed periodically only to the faithful. Naturally, traditional Jews—those now committed to the religion introduced by the Persians—would have seen all of this as abominable. They became the Hasidim who split into Pharisees and Essenes.

Elsewhere, the Talmud describes the discovery of the entwined cherubs by foreigners violating the temple’s sanctity:

They entered the Holy of Holies and found there the two cherubim, and they took them and put them in a cage and went around with them in the streets of Jerusalem and said: “You used to say that this nation was not serving idols. Now you see what we found and what they were worshipping”.

These violators are supposed to have been Ammonites and Moabites, but the only historical event that it could correspond to before the restoration was the capture and robbing of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, and the Persian “restorers” would have included evidence of such an abomination in the salutary works they wrote that now constitute the prophetic books of scripture. The event therefore took place in the Greek period when it became normal for Jews to refer to the Greeks by the scriptural names of their gentile enemies. The Ammonites and Moabites must therefore have been really Greeks and the desecration and parading of the sculptures in cages must have happened before the Maccabaean war. The desecration of Antiochus Epiphanes in 170 BC seems the likely occasion.

19-Vision of EzekielA traditional portrayal of Ezekiel’s vision (Biblical book of Ezekiel, chapter 1) of the cherubim and chariot (Source: Public Domain). This is actually a 1670 illustration based on Matthaeus (Matthäus) Merian’s (1593-1650) earlier version.

The old cherubim in the shape of the ideogram of Ormuzd must have been replaced by the sensuous statue of copulating cherubs after the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks. Patai suggests that the change was effected by Ptolemy Philadelphus who made several expensive gifts to the Jewish temple and began the translation of the Torah into Greek. Perhaps more likely is his son Ptolemy III Euergetes, who was a noted Judaeophile and even worshipped at the Jerusalem temple, according to Josephus. His son, Ptolemy Philopator, wanted also to worship in the temple but was prevented from doing so and planned to massacre Jews in revenge. He regarded the Jews as being devotees of Dionysos and therefore had Jewish slaves tattooed with a vine leaf.

When the Maccabees rededicated the temple in 165 BC, did they restore the statuary destroyed by Antiochus Epiphanes? It seems they did, because the cageyness of Philo and Josephus suggest it, and the fact that the Hasids fell out with the Hasmonaeans has the same implications. The excuse given by apologists is that some Hasids objected to the Maccabees taking the priesthood, reserved for the Zadokites, but the real reason will be that they had returned the institutions to those of the Greek inclined sect of the Sadducees, who claimed they were the heirs of the Zadokites, instead of back to the religion introduced by the Persians.

Nevertheless, for many Jews the attraction of the goddess remained and she had had a metaphorical existence as the bride of God, Israel. The explicit statue must have seemed to many a graphic illustration of the intimacy of Yehouah and His people, and therefore did not seem in the least improper. And a goddess equal to Yehouah had reappeared as the female cherub in the statue. It took the growing strength of the Persian parties, the Pharisees and the Essenes to pressurize the priesthood into segregating men and women and preventing them from indulging in sexual flippery when the mysteries were revealed.

Women, who had previously had a temple court of their own giving direct sight of the revealed cherubs, were relegated to second class citizens in galleries having no view of it. The goddess was to fade again into metaphor and the poetic constructions of the Shekinah, the Wisdom of God and the Holy Ghost before the Christians even masculinized even that.