The Castle-Citadel of Zahak

The Zahak Castle is located in Hashtrud, within Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province. The name Zahak or Zahhak is derived from ancient Iranian mythology (possibly from Azhi Dahak).

Zahak Castle-Multi ViewThe Zahak castle in Azarbaijan province in northwest Iran. Note pattern of brick works, archways and stairway. The origins of the site has been dated as far back as 2000 BCE, during the reign of the Parthian dynasty (c. 250 BCE-224 CE) (Photo sources: Images forwarded to by Ms. Tara Farhid-Gallo in the article –گردایه (مجموعه) باستانی آژدهاک ( ضحاک ) آذرآبادگان– and in Darvakeran Blogspot).

Experts share a general consensus that this region was inhabited from the second millennium BCE until the Timurid era (1370-1507).

Zahhak_castle_stucco_1[Click to Enlarge] Stucco from the Zahak castle housed in the antiquities museum in Azarbaijan. The above depicts a large bird of prey digging its claws onto the back of a bull. There are striking parallels between this stucco and the depictions of the sacred bull in ancient Mithraic temples. Interestingly the depiction of the bull (especially its lifted and exposed neck) is strikingly similar to the image of Mithras slaying the bull in Romano-European Mithraism (Photo sources: Images forwarded to by Ms. Tara Farhid-Gallo in the article –گردایه (مجموعه) باستانی آژدهاک ( ضحاک ) آذرآبادگان– and in Darvakeran Blogspot).

The site was first excavated by British archeologists in the 19th century. Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization has been researching the structure in a methodical six-phase study.


Zahak Castle-ExcavationsImages of excavation works at the Zahak site in Azarbaijan province (Photo sources: Images forwarded to by Ms. Tara Farhid-Gallo in the article –گردایه (مجموعه) باستانی آژدهاک ( ضحاک ) آذرآبادگان– and in Darvakeran Blogspot).

The site has also yielded a very rare visual glimpse of what the Mede infantry of the Parthian era may have appeared during the invasion of Marc Antony in 37 BCE. Marc Antony was defeated, in large part due to the actions of the local Median infantry who supported the Parthian armored cavalry and horse archers.

Parthian Stucco-Zahhak[Click to Enlarge] Another stucco discovered at the Zahak site, now housed in the Museum of Azarbaijan in Iran. The image depicts a Mede infantryman of the Parthian era. It was Mede infantry such as these who defeated the invading troops of Roman general Marc Antony in 37 BCE (Photo sources: Images forwarded to by Ms. Tara Farhid-Gallo in the article –گردایه (مجموعه) باستانی آژدهاک ( ضحاک ) آذرآبادگان– and in Darvakeran Blogspot).

There have also been interesting discoveries of stucco from the site, with some traces of coloring still visible.

Zahak Castle-Stucco[Click to Enlarge] Display of artifacts discovered at the Zahhak castle, at the Azarbaijan Museum in Tabriz. Note that the left petal-type stucco still has visible traces of red and yellow color with the right facial-flower stucco still bearing traces of yellow upon it (Picture Source: Public Domain).

 Zahak Castle-4-Sign

 Signage in Azarbaijan province in Iran at the Zahak site (Picture Source: in Darvakeran Blogspot).

Mani: Forgotten Prophet of Ancient Persia

Mani was born in 216 CE near Ctesiphon (capital of the Sassanian Empire) either in the town of Abrumya or Mardinu in the Babylonian district of Nahr Kutha.  He was of Iranian Parthian origin, with his father Patik (Babak?) hailing originally from Hamedan before moving to the Mesopotamian plains. Mani’s mother Mariam may have been of the Kamsakaran Parthian clan of Armenia (see for example the Chinese Compendium, Henning, 1943, p.52; reprinted 1977, II, p.115).

Mani-PortraitA 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’s parents are believed to have been members of the Elcesaites (Jewish-Christian) sect (at least as reported in the Cologne Mani-Codex). Mani claimed to have received revelations by a “Twin Spirit” when he was first 12 years of age and then twelve years later at the age of 24. He was then inspired to travel and spread his Messianic vision throughout the world. It is believed that he traveled for four decades.

Kaveh Farrokh (کاوه فرخ) was interviewed on Monday April 14, 2014 along with Touraj Daryaee (تورج دریایی) and Zia Sadrolashrafi (ضیا صدرالاشرافی) in the Voice of America Persian Service – The Horizon – Hosted by Siamak Dehghanpur –”Mani: The Painter Prophet or the Last prophet?”: صدای امریکا -برنامه افق-با میزبانی سیامک دهقانپور-مانی- پیامبر نگارگر، پیامبر آخر؟-  (April 14, 2014).

The spread of Manichaeism was paralleled by the rise of the influence of Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Mani did win some support among the upper class nobles of the Sassanian nobles (Wuzurgan), but ultimately failed to win over Bahram I (r. 217-274 CE) who had the prophet enchained and imprisoned. Mani is believed to have died sometime in 274 or 277 CE. Undoubtedly the “orthodox” Magi, notably Grand Magus Kartir, were displeased with the theology of Mani’s messages.

Bahram ICoin depicting Sassanian king Bahram I (r. 271-274 CE) (Source: Public Domain). Reversing his late father Shapur I’s (r. 240-270 CE) tolerance toward Mani and his religion, Bahram shackled and imprisoned the prophet after he “lost” a theological debate with the Zoroastrian Magi in the royal court. Mani is believed to have passed away in 274 or later in 277.

What was the basis of Mani’s message? More precisely, what was in his message that inspired such repression in not only Persia, but also in Rome, China and later in the Balkans and France where Manichean ideas spread?

First, Mani was in a sense, the bringer of an international religion, one that was meant not just for Persia, but for all of humanity. He believed that the original teachings of Zoroaster, Buddha and Christ were incomplete (see Coyle, J.K. (2009). Manichaeism and Its Legacy, Brill, p. 13). Mani viewed his creed as the “Religion of Light” for the entire world (Coyle, 2009, p.13). He also claimed that the original teachings of Judeo-Christian religions (esp. Jesus Christ), Zoroaster and the Buddha had been corrupted.

Mani and Bahram GurSixteenth century painting by Ali Shir-Navai of Mani the painter presenting one of his drawings to Bahram Gur (Source: Voice of America).

The second theological aspect of Mani was in his dissection of the origin of evil. Mani denied the Omnipotence of God; he viewed two equal but opposing powers locked in conflict. The notion of opposing powers is reminiscent of the “Good versus Evil” dualism of  Zoroastrianism. In this dynamic, each individual is a battleground between good and evil. But Mani’s version of evil diverges widely from Zoroastrianism, which views the good as superior to evil. Mani, also in contrast to Zoroastrianism, believed that the world had been created by a Satanic demiurge. Therefore, all material existence is seen as evil, such that salvation entails one’s complete liberation from material existence. This is not the case with Zoroastrianism where creation and material existence are not seen as “evil“. Mani, however believed that “particles of light” from the “Kingdom of Light” had been trapped in material form. Thus, in Mani’s view, even marriage and the birth of children was considered “evil“. Mani explained the birth of children as the process in which “particles of light” were bought down into “evil” material existence as the result of the union between men and women. Mani’s views of marriage and children were of course anathema to the doctrines of the Christian Church and Zoroastrianism.

Manicheans in Rome

Manichaism reached Rome by 280 CE through Mani’s Apostle Psattiq. The movement had already made inroads in Roman-ruled Egypt four decades earlier (in the 240s CE), and by the 290s CE, the Fayumm region of Egypt was heavily influenced by Manicheans. Manichean monasteries were in existence in Rome by the early 4th century CE, during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades. Emperor Diolectian (284-305 CE) had already issued an edict, stating that the Manicheans be “condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures”.

Saint_Augustine_Portrait“St. Augustine of Hippo in his Study” as portrayed in 1480 by Sandro Botticelli  (Source: Public Domain). Interestingly, St. Augustine had been a Manichean for 9 years until his conversion to Christianity in the aftermath of Emperor Diolectian’s edict (284-305 CE) condemning the Manicheans. Despite his conversion, it is believed that St. Augustine’s Manichean past influenced his later Christian writings.

Apparently, Diolectian did not succeed in stamping out the Manicheans. Over eight decades after Diolectian, Rome’s Christian community demanded that Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 CE) strip the Manichaeans of all their civil liberties. Theodosius obliged by going further: he issued a decree for the death of Manichaean monks (382 CE). Interestingly, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism shortly after Theodosius’ declaration. In the same declaration, Theodosius had made the “official” proclamation that Christianity was the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire.

DiolectianEmperor Theodosius I (379-395 CE) (Source: Annoyzview) issued a harsh edict ordering Manichean monks to be put to death. Despite such stern measures, Rome’s Christian religion failed to completely stamp out the followers of Mani who apparently gave rise to a number of “heresies”, one of these having been the later Cathars of southern France. 

Creeds influenced by Manicheaism maintained a sporadic existence in Northern Italy, Spain, France, the Balkans, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, Western China, Tibet, India and North Africa, centuries after the death of Mani in Persia.

Map of ManicheaismMap detailing the spread of Manicheaism (Source: Voice of America).

Manicheans in China

It is believed that the Manichean creed had arrived in China by the late 600s CE, however recent archaeological discoveries indicate that Mani’s followers had already arrived by the 550s CE (La Vaissière, Etienne de, “Mani en Chine au VIe siècle.” Journal Asiatique, 293–1, 2005, p. 357–378). Manichaeism adapted to Chinese Buddhism to win over converts. For example the Aramaic Karia (the “call” from world of light to world of darkness to those needing rescue) was equated to the Chinese Guan Yin and Buddhism’s Sanskrit term Avalokitesvara (watching/recognizing worldly wounds).

Mnai-ChinaA depiction of Mani in the Duhuang caves of China; note the “Buddha-like” appearance of this statue (Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006). Mani’s followers often adapted to the local beliefs and traditions of the regions they traveled to in order to win over converts to their religion.

Emperor Xuanzong (712-756) of the Tang dynasty banned local conversions to Manicheanism in 732 CE , but this apparently failed to stem the spread of the creed. Over one century later for example, the Ta-yun Kuang-ming Su region of the metropolis of Chang’An featured a Manichean church as late as the 850s CE. This would helped explain Emperor Wuzong’s (840-846 CE) harsh official edict to slay all Manichean priests (it is is believed that over half of these were killed).

Tang_XianZongTang Chinese Emperor Xuanzong (712-756) (Source: Public Domain) issued a decree banning conversions to Manicheanism, but this did little to curb the spread of the religion in China.  This resulted in much harsher measures after Xuanzong, but elements of the movements resurfaced in later Medieval times, notably the Red Turban rebellion in 1351-1368.

Manicheans in Central Asia: Soghdians and Uighur Turks

As the Manicheans spread into Central Asia, they soon adapted to the ideas of the region’s local Iranian-speakers. Manichean deities now morphed into the distinctly Zoroastrian Yazatas such as Pid e Wuzurgih. The spread of Manicheaism in Central Asia was thus also facilitated by numbers of local (Iranian-speaking) Soghdians who had adopted the faith. These most likely played a key role in spreading Manichaeism among Central Asia’s Turkic peoples.

Uighur-ManicheansA Kocho manuscript (Source: Voice of America) showing Uighur Manichean priests engaged in writing.

Manicheaism made major inroads among the Uighur Turks. The Uighur ruler, Khagan Boku Tekin (759–780 CE), commissioned a three-day discussion with Manichean preachers in 763 CE. This resulted in the Khagan’s conversion to Manicheaism. Shortly thereafter, high ranking priests were dispatched from the Babylonian headquarters to the Uighur Empire. Manichaeism remained as the Uighur state religion for nearly a century before the collapse of the empire in 840 CE.

The Cathars of Southern France

Manicheaism is believed to have had strong links to the Cathar movement of southern France. The Cathars are known from their presence in the 12-13th centuries CE, however the creed of Mani had arrived into Southern France centuries earlier. Hilary of Poitiers wrote in 354 CE (during Roman rule) that the Manichaean faith had already become a powerful force in Southern Gaul. True or not, the Christian Church would often accuse the Cathars of ”Manichean heresies”. While the Cathars denied charges of Manicheanism, their beliefs indicated otherwise.

Mani-CatharsMedieval 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.

Like Mani, the Cathars Believed that the world had been created by a Satanic demiurge. The Cathars also viewed material existence as evil therefore one must strive to liberate oneself from it to achieve salvation. They also believed in re-incarnation and were vegetarian. The Cathars also believed in the equality of men and women. However (again like Mani) the Cathars rejected the notion of producing children and thus shunned the institution of marriage and family in favor of “living together”.  Cathar Church organization also appears to have had Manichean influence. Persecutions of the Cathars began from 1184, and shortly after they were condemned as heretics by Pope Innocent III (papacy: 1198-1216). The Cathars were completely crushed by the 1260s.

The Paulicians of Armenia

Another sect believed to have had Manichean influence were the Paulicians. This began as a Christian breakaway sect in Armenia and the eastern parts of Byzantine Empire (650-844 CE). The movement was founded by an Armenian named Constantine, who hailed from Paytakaran. The movement was named after a Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata. The first official Paulician church sprung in Kibossa, Armenia in 660 CE.

Constantine’s studies of the Gospels and the Epistles, resulted in him combining dualistic and Christian beliefs. He believed that the contemporary Church misled the people. Constantine’s solution was to have the Christians return to the “original” Church of Paul. Interestingly, Constantine adopted the name “Silvanus“.

Persecution_of_PauliciansPaulicians being subjected to massacres, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes (Source: Public Domain). Armenian Paulicians were transferred in the hundreds of thousands to Eastern Europe by the Byzantines, a factor which appears to have contributed to the rise of the Bogomils in Bulgaria.

Despite persecutions by the Byzantines and breaking into sectarian rivalry, the Paulicians actually succeeded in establishing an independent state in Tephrike (modern Sivas province, Turkey) by 844 CE. Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 CE) persecuted the Paulicians and killed their leader Karbeas in 863 CE. Persistent Byzantine persecutions of the Paulicians resulted in the latter often siding with the Caliphates. Paulicians for example appear to have fought alongside the Arabs against the Byzantines in the Battle of Lalakon (863 CE). The Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (741–775) finally transferred large numbers of Paulicians to Thrace. Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867–886) abolished the Paulician state of Tephrike in 871 CE, forcing its survivors to flee to Syria and Armenia. The Byzantine transfer of Armenians into Europe continued. Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976 CE) settled 200,000 Armenian Paulicians in Philipopolis, Thrace (970 CE).

Paulicians who remained in Anatolia were to experience Ottoman persecution in the late 1600s, forcing its survivors to flee into Europe and even across the Danube. Pockets of Paulician communities survived in Eastern Europe as late as the 1870s, notably in Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania. After Russia conquered the Caucasus from Iran (finalized by the Treat of Turkmenchai 1828), Russian troops entering Armenia discovered numbers of Paulicians still practicing their faith in the region.

The Bogomils of Eastern Europe

Another movement believed to be linked to the Manicheans were the Bogomils of the Balkans. As noted previously, Byzantine Emperors Constantine V (741–775) and John I Tzimiskes (969-976 CE) had transferred large numbers of Paulicians to Thrace (recall 200,000 Armenian Paulicians settled in Philipopolis, Thrace in 970 CE). These became Bulgarian speaking, and were known by the Bulgars as the Pavlikiani. It is possible that these same Paulicians became one of the roots of the ensuing Bogomil movement.

The Bogomil movement is generally traced to the time of Peter I of Bulgaria (927-969). The Bogomils themselves are generally described as a Gnostic movement which arose as a reaction against the state-clerical repression of the Byzantine Church. Slavonic sources however claim Bogomil doctrines as Manichean.

SvsimeonThe famous fresco of Saint Simeon, same as Serbian Prince Stephan Nemanja (r. 1166-1196) at King’s Church in the Studenica monastery (Source: Public Domain).

Bogomilism was essentially (like the creed of Mani) a dualistic doctrine in which the world is seen as divided by God (Good) and Satan (Evil). God is seen as ruling the Spiritual world with Satan ruling the material world. Like Manicheaism, every material being and manifestation is seen as the work of Satan. The Bogomils were also, in a sense, “anarchists” in that they opposed established government and church, making them somewhat like modern-day anarchists.

The Bogomil movement gained momentum in Eastern Europe by the 1220s, but the creed had already been introduced into the Kievan Rus in 1004, just 25 years after Christianity had been introduced into the region. There are citations of a certain Bishop “Adrian” (1004) followed by Bishop “Dmitri” preaching about the Bogomils (1125). Both the Kiev Rus and Bulgarian churches attempted to repress the Bogomils, but pockets of these may have survived as late as the 16th Century.

PlocakulinabanaKulin Ban’s plate discovered in Biskupići, near Visoko (Source: Public Domain). Kulin Ban welcomed the Bogomils into Bosnia.

The Bogomils also spread westward from Bulgaria into Serbia, especially in 12th century, where they became known as the Babuni. Serbian prince Stephan Nemanja and the Serbian council were quick to declare declare the Babuni as heretics, and expelled them from Serbia in the 12th century.

Surva-Bulgaria-5The celebration of “Surva” in modern-day Bulgaria. Local lore traces this festival to the Iranian God Zurvan. This folklore system appears to be linked to the Bogomil movement. Interestingly, much of the Surva theology bears parallels with elements of Zurvanism and Zoroastrianism (Picture Source:

The Serbian expulsions however did little to stem the westward spread of the Bogomils. These arrived from Serbia (from where they had been recently expelled) into Bosnia and Dalmatia, where they became known as the Pataranes. The Bosnian King Kulin Ban (1180-1204) welcomed the Pataranes, incurring deep suspicions from the Catholic Church.  Pope Innocent III (papacy: 1198-1216) was especially wary of these Balkan developments from at least 1199. More “converts” into Bogomilism continued, notably the Prince of Herzegovina and the Roman Bishop of Bosnia. Altars and crosses were removed with distinctions between the clergy and Congregation becoming negligible. Alms were also set aside by the followers to support the evangelistic cause of the Bogomils. The successes of the Bogomils in the Balkans may be partly attributed to the local populations’ reaction to the excesses of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Kaveh Farrokh Interviews: Persian Heritage Magazine and Voice of America

Kaveh Farrokh has been interviewed by the Persian Heritage Magazine (published March 31, 2014) and Voice of America (published April 1, 2014) regarding the 300 sequel and Noah (starring Russell Crowe).

Persian HeritagePersian Heritage Magazine (Volume 19, Number 73, Spring 2014, pp.32-34) – download edition in pdf. Note that the text/interview is in Persian. The above picture of Farrokh is from the WAALM event in London where he received the “Best History Book of 2008″ award for “Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War (see also BBC-Persian report). The book has been translated into Persian by two separate publishing houses in Iran (Qoqonoos publishing-see Mehr News & Press TV report and Taghe Bostan Publishers of Kermanshah Azad University) and Russian (consult Russian EXMO Publishers website). Farrokh’s  book was also nominated as one of three finalists for the Benjamin Franklin Award in 2008. The book has also been reviewed in peer-reviewed academic journals such as the Iranshenasi Journal (2010) and the Quarderni Asiatici Journal of Italy (2011). In addition to teaching history at the University of British Columbia, Farrokh also serves as استاد سنتها و تاریخ فرهنگی ازدانشکده دیپلماسی فرهنگی وآلم ـ انگلستان-Chair of the Cultural Diplomacy’s Department of Traditions & Cultural History of the WAALM Academy in London, England (see also

Kaveh Farrokh was also interviewed with other participants in the Voice of American Persian program entitled [صدای امریکا -برنامه افق-با میزبانی سیامک دهقانپور-تاریخ و سینما: از ۳۰۰ تا نوح] “Voice of America – The Horizon – Hosted by Siamak Dehghanpur – Date Cinema: From 300 to Noah“:

صدای امریکا -برنامه افق-با میزبانی سیامک دهقانپور-تاریخ و سینما: از ۳۰۰ تا نوح-Voice of America – The Horizon – Hosted by Siamak Dehghanpur – Date Cinema: From 300 to Noah. Note that Farrokh had already published an extensive retort against the first “300” movie (2007) entitled: The 300 Movie: separating fact from Fiction.

The program produced a lively discussion, but unfortunately the shortage of time prevented the full exploration of a number of points, namely whether (1) the movie is political in nature and (2) Zoroastrianism and the Achaemenids. Five more topics also need to be discussed in two more follow-up postings, but for now, topics (1) and (2) are discussed below:

(1) The proposal that the new “300” movie does not serve any particular political and especially anti-Iranian agenda

It was suggested (not by Kaveh Farrokh) that the movie is entertainment cinematography and not intended to be an anti-Iranian picture. This notion is challenged by a number of prominent Western professors and journalists. Professor John Trikeriotis (himself of Greek ancestry) has begun a petition entitled: Adding a disclaimer or explanatory message to “300: Rise of an Empire”. Readers are strongly encouraged to sign the petition and support Professor Trikeriortis’ initiative.

John TrikeriotisProfessor John Trikeriotis strongly opposes the false historical messages in the movie “300 Rise of an Empire”. He has initiated a petition against the movie (click here…)

Akbar Montaser, one of the regular readers of noted the following on April 7, 2013: “I still believe there is a tendency to demean Iran. This is done “cleverly”, not intelligently. If one does not see the Truth, the same disasters will be repeated based on history“.  It is in this light that readers are introduced to the excellent article by Jehanzeb Dar in Racialicious: intersection of racism and Pop Culture:”Frank Miller’s “300′′ and the persistence of accepted Racism“. Below are some quotes from Jehanzeb Dar’s article:

I was absolutely outraged by the racist content of the film and more so at the insensitivity of movie-goers who simply argued “it’s just a movie.” Later on, I would hear these same individuals say, “The movie makes you want to slice up some Persians”…“300”…represents the ever-growing trend of accepted racism towards Middle-Easterners in mainstream media and society, but also the reinforcement of Samuel P. Huntington’s overly clichéd, yet persisting, theory of “The Clash of Civilizations” which proposes that cultural and religious differences are the primary sources for war and conflict rather than political, ideological, and/or economic differences. …“300” grossed nearly $500 million worldwide in the box office…suggest that movie-goers share the film’s racist and jingoistic views…”

The late Samuel Huntington’s Eurocentric (if not racist) formula is unhelpful as it diverts the discussion away from the real causes of contemporary military conflicts, which are for the main part based on economics and geopolitical factors.

Samuel P. Huntington - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008The late Professor Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) who proposed the idea that wars are the result of the “Clash of Civilizations”. Huntington’s thesis has helped re-invigorate Eurocentric views of “race” and how these “explain” the so-called “East vs. West” paradigm. The “300” movies represent the revival of Eurocentricism in entertainment, the media in general and increasingly in academia, even within Iranian Studies: see for example a conference in Washington DC (March 9, 2013) and the petition of Professor Yarshater against the appointment of unqualified persons in Iranian Studies programs (December, 3, 2013).

Revisiting the notion of “300” being “harmless entertainment”, let us return to Jehanzeb Dar’s article cited earlier. The movie clearly attempts a Eurocentric-style “East = backwardness and oppression” versus “West=Freedom and Democracy“. This is again overly simplistic, as Demos (People) Kratus (rule) or Democracy in Athens did not apply to the entirety of society, especially to women. This is exemplified by Greek philosophers such as Socrates (d. 399 BCE) who stated in his Book 8 that “…one sign of democracy’s moral failure is the sexual equality it promotes” (563b; consult Nickolas Pappas, 2003, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Republic, New York: Routledge). The topic of women’s rights in ancient Achaemenid Persia, and the views of women by contemporary Greek philosophers shall be addressed in ensuing postings.

cyrus-cylinder-NewThe Cyrus Cylinder (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney – see her article here…). Just as Greece was evolving with the concept of Democracy, so too had the Achaemenids  proclaimed the freedom of peoples to practice their cultures and religions, as exemplified by the cylinder proclamation of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE). The history of Cyrus’ proclamation has been challenged by what some would regard as Eurocentric views (see Human Rights Petition…

There is in fact strong coordination between Hollywood Heads and Studios and US foreign affairs departments. Consult reports below by highly reputable media outlets:

The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (established in the 1940s) was tasked to promote inter-American cooperation during the 1940s in the distribution of news, films and advertising, to counter the propaganda of World War Two fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs was later renamed as the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA) with slightly changed powers as per Executive order 9532 on March 23, 1945.

Readers are also invited to consult the article Re-Birth of a Nation“, penned by Osagie K. Obasogie and posted in Genetics and Society on September 19th, 2007 with respect to the first 300 movie. Below are some excerpts of the Obasogie article:

“…300 is arguably the most racially charged movie since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In true post-9/11 form, Zack Snyder’s film turns Brown into the new Black; Persians are depicted as bloodthirsty savages thwarted … by a small contingent of freedom fighters – with noticeably paler skin – looking to preserve democracy at all costs. This eerily resembles Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic celebrating the Ku Klux Klan’s rise … to defend Southern whites’ dignity and honor against what were then seen as recently liberated Black insurgents. Like Griffith’s film, this mixture of race, racism, sex… racialized depiction of freedom, nation, and democracy becomes central to 300’s … message. But closer inspection reveals a subtler, yet similarly troubling idea that has gone largely unnoticed: 300’s unapologetic glorification of eugenics.”

Whether one chooses to agree or not with Osagie K. Obasogie or Jehanzeb Dar, serious questions may be raised as to the picture’s true intentions. By the same token, profound political and ideological divisiveness has prevented the Iranian community (diaspora and inside Iran) from coalescing towards a concerted approach. There is for example no real “Iranian anti-defamation League” to protest against Hollywood producers and international cultural venues in general for presenting Iranians as propaganda targets.

The WAALM School of Cultural Diplomacy however, has worked towards the establishment of cultural dialogue at the international level with success, and has in fact been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 (see also original report: Nobel Peace Prize 2011: World Academy of Arts, Literature and Media (WAALM) Nominated | Persianesque: Iranian Magazine). For more on WAALM’s initiative in international diplomacy click on the image below:


(2) The Achaemenids and Zoroastrianism

Towards the end of the program one of the participants asserted that there is “no absolute proof that Achaemenids were  Zoroastrian“. Farrokh only had a few minutes to respond adequacy and in full, which is why this complex topic, which is why it needs to be re-addressed. In principle, yes, the Achaemenids were not Zoroastrian in the sense of an institutionalized religious system during the Sassanian era (like Papacy of Rome), however the notion that they (Achaemenids) were “not Zoroastrian” is highly misleading.

First, the doctrine of Zoroastrianism versus the religious institution of Zoroastrianism cannot be so simplistically equated. The Achaemenids did know of Zoroaster’s teachings, however these were yet be  institutionalized into a complex state religious system, as occurred (in its finalized form) during the Sassanian era (224-651 CE).

There is clear proof that Zoroaster and his teachings were known in the ancient world. Xanthus of Lydia for example, who was a contemporary of Herodotus (5th century BCE), is the first westerner to mention Zoroaster by name (Yamauchi, 1990, p.400). Herodotus (like Plutarch later in the 2nd century CE) does not mention Zoroaster by name, but his descriptions of the tribe of the Magi priesthood and Persian customs clearly point to Zoroastrian beliefs (in Chapter XIII of Herodotus’ The Histories, Penguin Classics, London: England, 1972). Similar classical descriptions are found in Strabo (63 BCE-19 CE) where references are made to the Magus, worship practices and the god Mithras (passage 15.3.13-14 of Strabo, Geography, translated by H. L. Jones (ed.), Perseus project, Tufts University, 2000). For more on this subject, a list of readings are provided at the conclusion of this section.

The School of Athens by Raphael 1509- Zoroaster left, with star-studded globeA detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.

If Greco-Roman sources are so clear about Zoroaster’s doctrines, then how can the Achaemenids not have known of Zoroaster, or respected his teachings?

Much like later Christianity, when the early doctrines of Christ predated the religious institution of Christinaity, so too did the doctrines of Zoroaster precede the religious institution of Sassanian Zoroastrianism.  A (broadly-speaking) similar process occurred with respect to Christ’s early teachings when Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 CE) declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The question is how were Zoroastrian doctrines practiced during the Achaemenid era as ancient Iranian theology was invariably complex (as attested to in Zoroastrian documents). Zoroaster was, in a sense, a reformer of the more ancient Iranian cults, perhaps he was at first one of the followers of the cult of Mithras, but direct evidence is certainly lacking for this suggestion. What is clear is that there is solid proof of Achaemenid respect for Zoroaster’s teachings, as seen with the Zoroastrian Fravahar symbol depicted at Persepolis:

Fravahar-PersepolisDepiction of the Zoroastrian Fravahar at Persepolis (Photo source: Mani Moradi, 2012). This indicates that the doctrines of Zoroaster were known by the Achaemenids, and they clearly respected these, as indicated by the depiction of this symbol at their regal locale of imperial power.

To further consult this topic, readers are referred to:

  • Nigosian, S.A. (1993). The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal & Kingston: Mcgill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Yamauchi, E.M. (1990). Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House; see especially chapters 12 (Zoroastrianism), 13 (The Magi) and 14 (Mithraism).
  • Boyce, M. (2001; first published in 1979). Zoroastrians: Their Religious beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge Taylor & Frances Group.
  • Kriwaczek, P. (2003). In Search of Zarathustra: The First prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Future postings will further discuss topics related to the “300” sequel movie discussed in the Voice of America interview:

  • The real reason for war: commerce and economics
  • Military falsifications of the 300 movie
  • The historical Themistocles
  • Women of ancient Iran
  • “Nordification” of ancient Greeks

The Princetonian: Petition challenges Pourdavoud Chair candidate

The article below (The Daily Princetonian: “Petition challenges Pourdavoud Chair candidate”, Chitra Marti, January 7, 2014) was sent forward to by Professor Dariush Borbor (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge and Director of the Research Institute and Library of Iranian Studies (RILIS) at Tehran). This pertains to the petition initiated by Professor Ehsan Yarshater which challenges Princeton University’s selection of “Pourdavoud Chair in pre-modern Persia”.

Inexplicably, the petition initiated by Professor Yarshater has been disabled; for further details see article below. Note especially the interview with Professor Borbor in the below article.

Dr. Mohammad Ala (Recipient of Grand Prix Film Italia Award in June 2013) made the following revelation on December 14, 2013


 A little research shows that the person behind this agenda is Professor Dimitri Gutas of Yale, who invented the term Greco-Arabian for scholars such as Farabi, Khwarazmi, Ebne Sina etc. to deny their Persianness. Van Bladel happens to have studied with him. The agenda behind this nomination is not known.- – petrodollars, lobby group(s), or self-promotion, but we must prevent not only this nomination, but the very idea of ‘Greco-Arabian’ which is not related to us (Iranians).

Kindly note that the pictures and captions below did not appear in the original Princetonian report.


A petition organized by Columbia professor Ehsan Yarshater surfaced challenging the University’s current candidate for the position of the Ibrahim Pourdavoud Professorship in Persian Studies.

The petition, which has been taken down, argued that having the name of Pourdavoud, a pioneer in the field of pre-Islamic Iranian studies, meant that the professor who occupies the Pourdavoud Chair should continue his work in the field of pre-Islamic studies. But the current candidate suggested by the search committee, according to the petition, was a Greco-Arabic scholar who has not specialized in pre-Islamic culture and who would thus not exemplify the memory of Pourdavoud.

The petition was taken down the week of Dec. 22 for unknown reasons. Yarshater did not respond to a further request for comment as to why the petition had been taken down.

Professor Ehsan YarshaterProfessor Ehsan Yarshater (Picture Source:

The petition, which was addressed to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, copied Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani ’80 and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani ’74, whose $10 million donation to the University in 2012 will help establish a Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies. The Mossavar-Rahmanis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However, the Pourdavoud Chair was not established by the Mossavar-Rahmani family. It was separately established by Dr. Anahita Naficy Lovelace ’75 and her husband Jim Lovelace. Dr. Lovelace said they were aware of the petition and declined to comment until after an appointment has been made.

According to Yarshater, the candidate being considered was Kevin van Bladel, a current history professor at Ohio State University. Van Bladel declined to comment for this article and said he had not received any formal offer from Princeton University.

“To allow a chair named after Pourdavoud, who spent all his life teaching and writing about Zoroastrianism and the pre-Islamic culture of Iran,” the petition read, “to be held by someone whose formal academic training has been in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek, and who by and large is unknown in the field, is considered a slap in the face of Iranian Studies, the community at large, and the memory of Pourdavoud.”

Van Bladel has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale University and was previously an assistant professor of classics at the University of Southern California. He specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the Near East in the first millennium CE, focusing on the translation of works between Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Latin, Sanskrit and various Iranian languages such as Middle Persian and Arabic. His teaching also focuses on the ancient Mediterranean and Near East.

“In the perspective of my research, the advent of Islam is not the beginning or end of a period; it can be understood only by reference to what came before as much as to what came after,” van Bladel’s OSU biography states.

van BladelAssociate Professor & Chair Kevin van Bladel of Ohio State University (Picture source: OSU).

Ibrahim Pourdavoud, for whom the chair is named, was a Persian scholar who studied pre-Islamic Iranian history, focusing particularly on Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian culture. He is perhaps most well known for translating the Avesta, the primary collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts, into Persian and providing explanatory commentary.

Dr. Lovelace said in an email that by naming the chair after Pourdavoud, they intended to “honor him and his life’s work on the occasion of his 125th birthday in 2011, which happened to coincide with [her] mother’s 90th birthday.”

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Yarshater acknowledged that although van Bladel has many strengths, they do not lie in the same field Pourdavoud spearheaded.

“The one scholar that Princeton University was thinking to appoint — although they haven’t appointed yet — was not an expert on any of those things that are Persian history, Persian culture or Iranian language. Even though under other standards he is a very good scholar, he would be more appropriate for chairs in Arabic or Greek,” Yarshater said.

Changing the Selection Process

Yarshater also suggested that the selection process be altered so as to better represent the intentions of a chair named for Pourdavoud.

“In order to do justice to the chair, to the donors and to the name of Pourdavoud, the selection committee should include several people of expertise in Iranian studies,” Yarshater said. “Ideally they would advertise the chair, a number of people would apply, and they will then decide who is the best choice for the chair … The committee would compose of people specialized in Iranian studies, not people in Arabic or Greek or Syriac.”

Dean of Faculty David Dobkin, who was also copied on the petition, said in an email that the selection committee for a chair position is typically made of faculty from the relevant department, or of faculty whose departments overlap with the area of the chair. Often, other faculty with broader interests are also included. Then, the search committee will begin placing ads and sending out requests for nominations to leading scholars in the field.

LIVE.NB_DobkinProfessor David Dobkin of Princeton University (Picture Source: Princeton Alumni Weekly)

Once the search committee has found a potential candidate, Dobkin said, he or she is proposed to the Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements, which solicits input from leading scholars in the field as to the candidate’s suitability for the position.

According to Dobkin, the donor and the University will come to a consensus on a description for a position, and the search committee will begin the selection process from there. Donors are not involved in the identification nor selection of candidates to occupy the chair.

Dobkin declined to comment on the search committee organized for the Pourdavoud Chair, citing the need to uphold the integrity and confidentiality of the selection process.

Greco-Arabic vs. Pre-Islamic

Dariush Borbor, Director of the Research Institute and Library of Iranian Studies in Tehran, signed the petition, citing his personal and academic belief that the current candidate does not meet the ideals of a Pourdavoud Chair.

“My personal feeling, as many other scholars, most of us agree with what Professor Yarshater has written in his letter that this endowment for the professorship at Princeton was made by two Iranians and they wanted to concentrate on Iranian studies,” Borbor said. “The chair which is named after [Pourdavoud] should be occupied by a person who specialized either in the languages of ancient Iran or the religion or generally the culture of ancient Iran.”

YSU-16-Asatrian-Farrokh-Borbor-3Professor Garnik S. Asatrian (Chair, Iranian Studies Dept., Yerevan State University; Editor, “Iran and the Caucasus”, BRILL, Leiden-Boston), Kaveh Farrokh and Professor Dariush Borbor (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge and Director of the Research Institute and Library of Iranian Studies (RILIS) at Tehran) at Yerevan State University conference “Shirvan, Arran, and Azerbaijan: A Historical-Cultural Retrospective” (November, 2013). Professor Borbor has often lectured and written about the misconceptions against Iranian Studies perpetuated by Greek scholarship.

Like Yarshater, Borbor acknowledged that van Bladel has many strengths in other fields, but that he may not be suited for this position.

“He may be a very good scholar as well, of his own right, but if he is a scholar specialized on Arabic, Syriac and Greek, I don’t think it’s a very suitable choice … Especially the Greek side, because with most of the scholars who were specialized in Greek studies and on the history or culture of Greece, their interpretation of Iranian studies was often very one-sided and sometimes quite wrong,” Borbor said. “I have, myself, written and lectured in many universities about the misconceptions that Greek scholarship has given to Iranian studies.”

Hosi Mehta, president of the Zoroastrian Association of Chicago, signed the petition as well, also citing a concern for the potential misrepresentation of Iranian history.

“Persian history is really rich, and I was surprised that they could not find somebody who would be into that than finding someone who has the Arabic background,” Mehta said. “I read his qualifications, that he was an Arabic scholar, and the concern was that sometimes things get misrepresented … the winner usually writes the history, so it could be changed in different ways. There are people who say the Holocaust never happened.”

Roger Beck: Mithraism

The article below by Roger Beck on Mithraism was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on July 20, 2002. The article below discusses the cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its probable connection with Mithra worship in Iran.

Kindly note that all of pictures displayed in the article below are from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies DivisionStanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006 and Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).


Mithraism, the cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its probable connection with Mithra worship in Iran

For most of the twentieth century the major problem addressed by scholarship on both Roman Mithraism and the Iranian god Mithra was the question of continuity. Did Mithra-worship migrate from Iran to the Roman Empire in some institutional form or was Mithraism invented in the West (with a few Iranian trappings) as a new institution altogether? At the start of the twenty first century, this issue appears to be less central to the concerns of scholarship on Western Mithraism, but it remains important nevertheless, and obviously it must be the lens through which Mithraism is examined in this article. The first task, though, is to describe the Mithras cult as it did in fact develop in the West, and in so far as we can reconstruct it objectively from its material remains. Reconstruction is not easy, since no ancient literary works about Mithraism and no substantial sacred texts from Mithraism have survived.

1-Taq-BostanInvestiture 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).

Western Mithraism described

The term “Mithraism” is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as “the mysteries of Mithras”; alternatively, as “the mysteries of the Persians.” The latter designation is significant. The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic “Persians.” Moreover, whatever moderns might think, the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who “dedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia,” an idyllic setting “abounding in flowers and springs of water” (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).

Persia (or Parthia) in those times was Rome’s great rival and frequently at war with her. Nonetheless, there is no indication that this antagonism was ever problematic for the Mithraists socially or politically. Clearly, their cultic “Persian” identity, which they made no attempt to hide, was acceptable to the authorities and their fellow citizens.

Ostia_Antica_TauroctonyA Roman version of the statue of Mithras “Bringer of Light” in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnels, 1988, pp.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 (Picture source: Public Domain).

The socio-political acceptability of the Mithraists, despite their Perserie, can be explained largely by their social profile. They were the most conformist of men — and men indeed they were in the limited gender sense of the word, a factor which itself would add to their respectability or at least not detract from it (compare the charge against Christianity that it subverted the family by proselytizing the womenfolk). Mithraism drew its initiates disproportionately from the military, from the Empire’s petty bureaucracy, and from moderately successful freedmen (i.e. ex-slaves), in fact from theretainer classes, the very people who had a stake in the current sociopolitical dispensation. (On Mithraism’s social profile see Clauss 1992, Gordon 1972, Liebeschuetz 1994; Merkelbach 1984: pp. 153-88)

We noticed above that Mithraism’s original, archetypal sacred space was thought to be a cave. This perception, reported by an external source (the third-century CE philosopher Porphyry), is corroborated by internal data and the archaeological evidence. The Mithraists did indeed call their meeting places “caves,” whether they actually were or not. Natural caves were used where available; and where not, especially in urban settings (Rome, Ostia), a room or suite of rooms within some larger structure was used and sometimes decorated so as to resemble a natural cave. Mithraea (our modern term), like natural caves and unlike most constructed temples, had no elaborate or even recognizable exteriors. (On the structure of the mithraeum see White 1990: pp. 47-59.)

That Mithraists met in “caves” which were distinctively designed and furnished has had important consequences for the archaeological record and thus for our ability to reconstruct the cult. In addition to their cave-like appearance, mithraea were designed with raised platforms on either side of a central aisle to serve as banqueting couches for the cult meal (on which see below). They were also filled with much sacred art – sculptures (mostly in relief), altars, ritual pottery vessels, frescos, etc. – often with their dedications extant in whole or in part. There is no mistaking a mithraeum when archaeology brings it to light, and the chances are good that it will also divulge something about its membership. (On the furnishings and equipment of the mithraeum see Clauss 2000: 42-59, 114-30.)

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).

The scattering of mithraea, thus identified across the Roman Empire, is perhaps more informative about the cult’s spread and social composition than are the material remains of any of its peers, early Christianity included. We have already looked at Mithraism’s social catchment. As for its spread, though represented virtually everywhere in the Roman empire, it was much stronger in the Latin speaking West than in the (predominantly) Greek-speaking East. It flourished in particular in the city of Rome and its port, Ostia, and along the Rhine-Danube frontier — exactly where one would expect from its social profile. (For maps, see Clauss 1992, province by province).

Without doubt, an intentional concomitant of the “cave” was the small size of Mithraic groups or cells. The upper limit to the number of persons who can feast intimately on side platforms in a cave or a cave-like inner room is soon reached. Mithraism, then, was a religion of small communities. These communities, moreover, were self-sufficient. There is not a shred of evidence for any co-ordinating, let alone regulating, higher authority. There were no Mithraic bishops; the contrast with contemporaneous Christianity, or for that matter with the contemporaneous state Zoroastrianism of Kerdir, could not be more extreme.

As social institutions the Mithraic communities are classed among those groups termed (by moderns) “voluntary associations.” Not all voluntary associations served religious ends. Some were analogous to trade guilds; perhaps the most common form was the burial society, clubs which could assure their members funerals in a more ample and sociable style than they could individually command. In the religious sphere, it is the voluntary nature of membership that distinguishes these associations from other religious enterprises. One chose to be initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras, whereas one belonged (normally in an entirely passive way) to the public cults of city and empire simply by virtue of belonging at one level or another, from emperor to slave, to those socio-political units: to the public cults you could no more opt in than you could opt out. It follows that ancient mystery cults, Mithraism included, were non-exclusive: as a Mithraist, you would expect, and be expected, to continue your participation in the public cults (On Mithraism as a voluntary association, see Beck 1996.)

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).

The “Mysteries of Mithras,” to return to their ancient name, were one of a number of ancient religious “mysteries.” A “mystery,” in Greek, is something into which one is initiated. Modern connotations of the “mysterious” or the “mystical” are irrelevant, and although most ancient mysteries were in fact secret, secrecy was not always a requirement. Not all mysteries were transmitted in and by voluntary associations, and not all voluntary religious associations transmitted rites of initiation as their sole or even principal business. Indeed, Mithraism appears to be the only substantial pagan cult of which it can be said that initiation into its mysteries was both the necessary and the sufficient condition of membership. (On ancient mystery cults, see Burkert 1987.)

Organizationally, the Mithraic groups functioned much as other voluntary associations, but in addition there was an esoteric hierarchy of seven grades. Scholars disagree about the extent of this hierarchy. Was it universal, or normative, or a refinement limited to the relatively few mithraea where it is directly attested? Was it a priesthood? Most scholars would agree that it was not ubiquitous in the sense of being a requirement for all mithraea; also that the initiate of the highest grade, the Father, excercised leadership in all aspects of the mithraeum’s sacred business, and that virtually all mithraea would have had at least one Father (two are attested in some mithraea), regardless of the presence or absence of other grades. (On the grades see Clauss 2000: pp. 131-40; contra: Gordon 1994: pp. 465-7; on their esoteric significance, see Gordon 1980a: pp. 19-99.)

Into what was a Mithraist initiated? What, in other words, constituted the sacred business of a mithraeum? Scholarship is in broad agreement that the principal act was the cult meal, celebrated both as an actual feast by the initiates reclining opposite each other on the platforms which served as banqueting couches and as a ritual re-enactment of the feast of Mithras and the Sun god celebrated on the hide of a bull freshly slain by Mithras. (On the cult meal, see Kane 1975.)

kurd-engaged-in-worship-of-mithrasKurdish man engaged in the worship of Mithras in a Pir’s (mystical leader/master) sanctuary which acts as a Mithraic temple (Courtesy 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.

That there was another purpose to the Mithraic mysteries and a corresponding ritual is attested in the same passage from Porphyry (On the Cave of the Nymphs 6), already cited above, which tells us that the Mithraists called their sacred places “caves” — and why. The intent of the Mithraists was to “induct the initiate into a mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again.” It was for this ritual purpose (which has been generally misconstrued as a didactic purpose) that the Mithraists made their sacred space cave-like, for the cave is “the symbol of the universe,” into which the soul enters for mortal existence and quits for immortality. Accordingly, Porphyry continues, the mithraeum is designed and furnished with “cosmic symbols appropriately arranged” so as to be an authentic microcosm. (On this ritual and the corresponding design function of the mithraeum, see Beck 2000: pp. 154-65; this article also describes and explicates the two previously unknown rituals depicted on opposite sides of the cult vessel discussed.)

For other initiatory rites we depend primarily on the fresco scenes in the mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere. These depict usually a triad of figures: the initiates, small, naked, humiliated; and two initiators, one behind and the other in front of the initiates, manipulating the instruments of initiations. (For illustrations, see Vermaseren 1971: Plates 21-8.)

Mithraism was an astral religion. The perceivable heavens and the celestial bodies (sun, moon, the other five planets, stars) all played a part in the mysteries — the sun necessarily a very large part, since Mithras himself was the Sun god (see below). Astral symbolism (e.g. representations of the zodiac) was liberally deployed on the sculpted and painted monuments and in the design of the mithraeum in order to render it a true likeness of the cosmos “for induction into the mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again” (see above). Furthermore, each of the seven grades of the hierarchy was “under the tutelage of” one of the seven planets. Finally, in the principal cult icon, the representation of Mithras as bull-killer (see below), there is a remarkable correspondence between several of the standard elements of the composition and the constellations of a particular tract of the heavens (e.g. the raven and the constellation Corvus).

The astral symbolism incorporated into the mysteries stems of course from the ancient Graeco-Roman construction of the heavens and their denizens in the astronomy/astrology of the times. On the intent of the symbolism there is no scholarly consensus. Indeed, several influential scholars have treated it as superficial decoration without any profound intent at all. That is mistaken. Granted, it is difficult to prove a negative. Nevertheless, the arguments against deep intent have so far merely re-asserted their premise as conclusion: astral symbolism is without deep intent because it is superficial. Only Franz Cumont, the founder of modern Mithraic studies, avoided this petitio principii. He did so by postulating the imposition of an astrological layer by the Chaldeans and by “Hellenized Magi” during the transmission of Iranian Mithra-worship from Iran to the West (Cumont 1903: pp. 119-30). (For arguments for deep intent in the astral symbolism, see Merkelbach 1984: pp. 75-133, 193-244; Beck 1988; Beck 1994; Beck 2000: pp. 154-65; Ulansey 1989; Jacobs 1999. As superficial imagery, (e.g.) Clauss 2000: pp. 87, 89, 97.)

Roman Mithras

Since the function of its mysteries was to relate the initiate to Mithras, the cult was of course centred entirely on the person of the god. His cult title was “Deus Sol Invictus Mithras”: thus, he was “god,” he was “the Sun,” he was “unconquered,” he was “Mithras.” To his identity as the Sun and to his invincibility must be added his Persian-ness, a “fact” known to outsiders as well as to his initiates. Iconographically, he is depicted in exotic non-Roman, specifically oriental garb: trousers and the “Persian” cap. Gods have their personal histories. The story of Mithras survives not in written form derived from an oral narrative — if such there ever was, it has disappeared without trace — but as scenes preserved on what are collectively termed “the monuments,” for the most part as relief sculpture on icons, altars, etcetera, but also as statuary and in fresco on the walls of mithraea. In the frescos and on the great complex reliefs (the latter mostly from the Rhine and Danube frontier provinces) a selection of side-scenes representing various episodes surrounds the central scene, the god’s sacrificial killing of a bull. More often this “tauroctony” is a self-contained icon, and from its privileged location at the head of the central aisle we know that it was the cult’s principal icon; consequently, that the bull-killing was the main event in the Mithras myth. (The fundamental illustrated catalogue of Mithraic monuments is Vermaseren 1956-60. Merkelback 1984 and Clauss 2000 are also exceptionally well illustrated. On the iconography of Mithras, see Vollkommer 1992. On the myth of Mithras as inferred from the iconography, see Cumont 1903: pp. 104-49; Vermaseren 1960: pp. 56-88; Clauss 2000: pp. 62-101.)

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. Note the dog and serpent.

Some of the larger reliefs could be swiveled so as to display on their reverse the scene of Sol and Mithras feasting on the hide of the bull. The gods’ banquet, then, is the outcome of the sacrifice, and since it is replicated in the cult meal of the initiates (see above), it must be supposed that the mythic sacrifice performed by Mithras is the salvafic cause of whatever benefits accrue to his mortal initiates in replicating the banquet of the two gods. The side-scenes are numerous, and they represent many different episodes in the myth, e.g. the pursuit and capture of the bull, the ascent of Mithras in the Sun’s chariot, as well as occasional episodes which, as far as one can tell, do not include or concern Mithras at all. Moreover, there is no standard order or canon of scenes: only the internal logic of the narrative orders the episodes (e.g., bull-killing precedes banquet, because the bull’s hide serves as couch cover for the banqueters). (On the composition of complex monuments, see Gordon 1980b; Beck 1984: pp. 2075-8)

In addition to the bull-killing and the banquet, the scene of Mithras’ birth is manifestly important. He is shown rising upright from a rock, not as a baby but in the prime of youth, with extended arms holding torch and sword. He has, it seems, no father. It would be wrong to say that he has no mother, for the rock itself, identified explicitly as Petra Genetrix (“the rock that gives birth”) is his mother. Since the bull-killing was so obviously the god’s principal act, and since the icon which represents it was so clearly the cult’s primary locus of meaning, the scene as regularly represented (with remarkably few variations from the norm) must be described. At the mouth of a cave, Mithras straddles the bull, plunging a dagger into its heart. A dog and a snake dart up at the blood flowing from the wound. A scorpion fastens on the bull’s genitals, and a raven perches on the god’s billowing mantle. Miraculously, the tail of the dying bull has metamorphosed into an ear of wheat. On either side of the scene the twin gods Cautes and Cautopates are posed, the former holding a raised torch, the latter a lowered torch. Above and to the left is the Sun god, above and to the right the Moon goddess. Frequently in tauroctonies from the Rhine and Danube areas, a lion and a two-handled cup are added to the scene.

Finding the “meaning” of the scene has been, perhaps to excess, the Great Game of Roman Mithraic hermeneutics. Yet a simple narrative solution, that the bull-killing is just an episode — albeit the principal episode — in the Mithras myth lacks plausibility because of the unusual and ill-assorted assemblage of beings which surround the sacrificing god. As an event, even a supernatural event, in a story it strains one’s sense of narrative realism. So while the tauroctony does indeed represent an episode in a story, it represents, it evokes, it intimates something more; and it does so by means of the elements of the composition functioning as symbols, collectively or individually. Interpretations which look eastwards to Iran will be discussed in the next section. The other important modern interpretation looks upwards to the heavens and the notable correspondence between elements of the composition and the ancient constellations (see above, on Mithraism as an astral religion). The shortcoming of interpretations of this latter type is that they have tended to treat the tauroctony rather simplistically as a star chart from which one can decipher the celestial identity of the god as this or that constellation. (For a survey of interpretations of the tauroctony, see Beck 1984: pp. 2080-3; Martin 1994. For celestial interpretations, see Insler 1978; Ulansey 1989; Beck 1994; Jakobs 1999; Weiss 1998. For an important redirection of interpretation (the tauroctony as “cult scene” and “depiction of ritual sacrifice”), see Martin 1994. On the tauroctony in the context of Roman imperial art, see Zwirn 1989. Iranizing interpretations will be referenced in the next section.)

 Julian's failed invasion of Persia in 363 ADEmperor 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).

As one would expect in a relatively elaborate Roman cult, Mithras does not lack for divine company. The Graeco-Roman Sun god Helios/Sol has already been mentioned — that Mithras both is and is not the Sun, depending on context, is one of those paradoxes which religions take in their stride — as have the planetary gods. Various of the Olympian gods also play a role, though a minor and marginal one. Finally, there are three esoteric deities, two of whom are the twins Cautes and Cautopates, already mentioned as witnesses to the bull-killing. In appearance they are clones of Mithras, and they represent through their primary attributes of the raised and lowered torches paired opposites in nature and in the heavens (e.g. rising sun and setting sun, flanking Mithras as the midday sun). Within the mystery, they symbolize and, as agents, control the entry of the soul downward into mortality (Cautopates) and its exit upwards into immortality (Cautes). (On this pair of deities, see Hinnells 1976; Beck 1984: pp. 2084-6). The third esoteric deity is the enigmatic “lion-headed god.” Since his identification is bound up with the question of Mithraism’s eastern origins, he will be discussed in the next section.

From Iranian Mithra to Roman Mithras: Continuity versus re-invention

That Roman Mithras was a Persian god in more than just the perception and self-definition of his Roman initiates is indisputable. To say that he was “the same” god, or that he “came from” Iran is equally true, though it begs as many questions as it appears to answer. Did he emigrate together with his cult? Was institutionalized Mithra-worship transmitted from East to West? Likewise the Mithra myth(s) and the concepts of the god, his powers, and his functions? Was he “the same” god in that strong sense? Or was he re-invented in the West, perhaps by those with some knowledge of the East, as a new god for new mysteries in a new type of cult association appropriate to the different social and cultural environment of the Roman Empire? Was he “the same” merely in the weaker sense that he was re-outfitted with Iranian trappings sufficient to authenticate him as “Persian” in his new context?

Two statements at least may be made with some confidence about the century-long scholarly controversy over these questions: first, that at the beginning of the third millennium there is still no consensus; secondly, that in the last three decades the balance of opinion has shifted, rightly or wrongly, in favor of re-invention over continuity.

"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. 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.

What one might call the “default” transmission scenario (at least for the first two thirds of the twentieth century) was propounded by the founder of modern Mithraic studies, Franz Cumont, in 1899 (see also Cumont 1903). For Cumont, Mithraism in the West was Romanized Mazdaism, thus still at its core a Persian religion, though one which had undergone extensive metamorphoses in its passage first through Chaldaea, where it acquired its astrological overlay and the syncretic assimilation to Mithra of the Babylonian Sun god Šamaš; and secondly through Anatolia and the culture of the Magusaeans, the Hellenized Magi of the Iranian diaspora (on whom see Bidez and Cumont 1938, Beck 1991), where it acquired a Stoic cosmology of sorts, especially in its eschatology (on which see Cumont 1931, Beck 1995).

In assessing Cumont’s and later scholars’ arguments for transmission, one must keep in mind the two types of evidence deployed: first, common traits, i.e. similarity of the features of Mithras and Mithras-worship in the West with those of Mithra and Mithra-worship in the East to the point that coincidental re-invention in the West would cease to be a credible hypothesis; secondly, evidence of actual intermediate stages in the East-West transfer. We begin here with the latter. It is the stronger of the two types of evidence, but in volume the more meager. The evidence, and some of the inferences drawn from them, are as follows. 1) Plutarch (late first century CE), in Life of Pompey 24, states that the Cilician pirates who were vanquished by Pompey in the mid 60’s BCE “celebrated certain secret rites of initiation (Greek teletas), of which those of Mithras have survived up to now” (or “as far as here,” i.e. Rome: his Greek phrase mechri deuro is ambiguous). It is possible, but not certain, that these ‘initiations’ were a prototype of the Roman mysteries of Mithras. (For contra, see Francis 1975.). 2) Mithras — moreover, a Mithras who was identified with the Greek Sun god Helios — was one of the deities of the syncretic Graeco-Iranian royal cult founded by Antiochus I (q.v.), king of the small but prosperous buffer state of Commagene (q.v.) in the mid first century BCE.

It is improbable in the extreme that this cult played no part in the transmission of Mithra-worship westwards, although nothing about it compels one to accept that it was a prototype of the Roman mysteries. So far, nothing about the recently discovered mithraeum at Doliche (see Schütte-Maischatz and Winter 2000) suggests that its cult relief is other than a product of second or third century CE Mithraism. (On the royal cult of Commagene and the role of Mithras therein, see Boyce 1991: pp. 309-51; Dörner 1975; 1978; Duchesne-Guillemin 1978a; Jacobs 2000; Merkelbach 1984: pp. 50-72; Schwertheim 1979; Wagner 1983; 2000; 2000a; Waldmann 1991. For a scenario of transmission incorporating the Commagenian royal cult and the royal family of subsequent generations, see Beck 1998.) 3) While archaeology has (as yet) unearthed no evidence in Anatolia for an intermediate form of Mithras-worship which is unambiguously the precursor of the Roman mystery cult, several atypical monuments and inscriptions from this area (as well as from Crimea to the north across the Black Sea) make it entirely plausible that such intermediate forms may well have existed, and hence that Anatolia in the larger sense, not just Commagene, played some part in Mithraism’s westward transmission. Cumont’s Magusaeans (see above), though real enough in their own right, are no longer regarded as the conduit for Mithraism. (The Cumontian scenario was first challenged by Wikander 1951; subsequently by Gordon 1975; Beck 1991: pp. 539-50.) There are however other plausible scenarios, some (e.g. Colpe 1975: pp. 390-9; Boyce 1991: pp. 468-90) involving the Iranian diaspora in Anatolia. (On Mithras-worship in Anatolia and its atypical remains, and for theories of transmission through Anatolia, see Beck 1984: pp. 2018-19, 2071-3; Boyce 1991: pp. 468-90; Colpe 1975: pp. 390-9; Cumont: 1939; Gordon 1978: pp. 159-64, 169-71; Gordon 1994: pp. 469-71; Schwertheim 1979; Will 1955: pp. 144-69; Will 1978: pp. 527-8.) 4) In Syria it is the absence of data on any intermediary form of Mithraism that is remarkable (a Chestertonian “dog which did not bark”).

With the single exception of the recently discovered Huwarti mithraeum, the few actual mithraea and the monuments lacking known provenance which have been recovered there exemplify either the norms of western Mithraism or minor variations on those norms. The Huwarti mithraeum, moreover, dates to the final decades of the fourth century CE. Accordingly, it speaks of the local redefinition of a religion in its final years, not of “a road not taken” in its formative years. Mithraism in Syria was not a transitional phase intermediate between East and West, but a back-formation from the West in the East. Even the mithraeum at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, at the easternmost margins of the Roman empire, proved no exception. Arguably, its only significant Iranian feature is the fresco of a pair of enthroned elders in local ceremonial garb with scrolls and canes. These Cumont identified as Zoroaster and Ostanes; but they could as well be the Fathers of this particular Mithraic community at the time. (On Mithraism in Syria, see Roll 1977; Downey 1978; also the proceedings of the Colloquium “Mithra en Syrie,” Lyon, November 2000, forthcoming in Topoi, which will include discussion of the Huwarti mithraeum. On the Dura mithraeum, see Cumont 1975; Beck 1984: pp. 214-17.) 5) In a description of Zoroastrian dualism which he inserted into his important essay On Isis and Isiris (46-7), Plutarch speaks of Mithras as “in the middle” (meson) between the good Horomazes and the evil Areimanius, adding “and this is why the Persians call the Mediator Mithras.”

This, it is generally agreed, does not ascribe moral neutrality to Mithras; rather he is the referee, arbiter, or judge between the two warring parties. However, even if the clause is more than Plutarch’s own gloss, it speaks not of transitional Mithraism but of Mithra in the context of a collateral form of Zoroastrianism known to that learned Greek author. (On the passage and its interpretation, see de Jong 1997: pp. 171-7; on Mithra as judge, see Shaked 1980.) 6) The final piece of evidence which speaks directly to the question of transfer is the report of the state visit of Tiridates of Armenia to Rome to be crowned by Nero. At the coronation Tiridates declared that he had come “in order to revere you [Nero] as Mithras” (Dio Cassius 63.5.2). In the same visit, according to Pliny (Natural History 30.1.6), Tiridates “initiated him [Nero] into magical feasts” (magicis cenis). Since Tiridates had brought Magi in his retinue, it is likely that the “feasts” were “Magian” rather than “magical” in the contemporary Roman sense. In the Cumontian scenario this episode cannot mark the definitive moment of transfer, for Mithraism in that scenario was already established in Rome, albeit on a scale too small to have left any trace in the historical or archaeological record. Nevertheless, it could have been a spur to Mithraism’s emergence on to the larger stage of popular appeal. Perhaps, too, it affected in some way the development of Mithraism’s central rite, the cult meal (see above). (On the episode and its implications for Mithraism, see Cumont 1933; for an alternative scenario which places the cult’s institution after this episode, Beck 2002.)

Bible_museum_-_Mithrasheiligtum[Click to Enlarge] A reconstruction of a Mithraeum (Darb-e Mehr)  depicting the stages of ascension on the floor as alluded to in an earlier figure in this posting. Note the placing of grapes (right side); grapes continue to signify vitality and renewal in Iran, Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

When we turn to the much ampler dossier of similarities between Iranian Mithra-worship and the Mithras-worship of the Roman mystery cult, we must keep in mind that arguments for continuity based on these similarities all imply that the similarities are so systematic and so detailed that a non-causal relationship is untenable. Necessarily, therefore, they entail some transfer scenario, whether or not they expound one explicitly. Arguments for Mithraism’s invention or re-invention in the West, on the contrary, imply that the similarities are too slight and too haphazard to warrant a causal explanation. Accordingly, no transfer scenario is required beyond a certain awareness of “oriental” wisdom among Mithraism’s founders.

Of the latter position there is a strong and a weak form. The strong form, having noted the undeniable similarities, then describes the cult, its origins, and its early development entirely in terms of the socio-religious culture(s) of the Roman empire. A typical proponent of this strong form is M. Clauss (2000: pp. 3-8, 21-2), who locates the cult’s origins and point of departure firmly in late first-century CE Rome. Not because it is wrong, but solely because it is not germane to the mandate of Encyclopaedia Iranica, there is no need to explore this version of Mithraic origins further.

Discontinuity’s weaker form of argument postulates re-invention among and for the denizens of the Roman empire (or certain sections thereof), but re-invention by a person or persons of some familiarity with Iranian religion in a form current on its western margins in the first century CE. Merkelbach (1984: pp. 75-7), expanding on a suggestion of M.P. Nilsson, proposes such a founder from eastern Anatolia, working in court circles in Rome. So does Beck 1998, with special focus on the dynasty of Commagene (see above). Jakobs 1999 proposes a similar scenario.

MegreganShooshtarNiknam3Zoroastrians 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”

We may now turn finally to the similarities between western Mithraism and Iranian Mithra-worship and to the scholarship which has argued, in the Cumontian tradition, for significant continuity. (The scholarship up to the time of writing is surveyed in Beck 1984: pp. 2059-75).

Predictably, the similarities mostly cluster around the person of Mithra/Mithras (remarkably, the second two of the three given here are not so much similarities as inversions): (1) Roman Mithras was identified with the Sun (see above); Iranian Mithra was a god of the dawn light. When and how the Iranian god became the Sun, as eventually he did, has been much debated (Lommel 1962; Gershevitch 1975, Gnoli 1979, Lincoln 1982; see above on the solar Mithras of Commagene; see below on M. Weiss’s theory of the non-solarity of Mithra/Mithras both East and West). (2) Iranian Mithra was a god of cattle and pastures; Roman Mithras was a “cattle-thief” (explicitly so called, e.g. Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 40), all the more outrageous an inversion because Iranian Mithra was a god of righteousness whose very name means “contract.” (3) Most importantly, Roman Mithras, as his mightiest and most beneficent deed, sacrifices a bull (see above); while Iranian Mithra was not himself a bull-killer, the act of bull-killing does figure prominently in the Zoroastrian cosmological narratives. In the first instance it was an act of evil: Ahriman slew the primal Bull of creation. However, the destructive act was turned to good, when from the bull’s sperm, purified in the moon, sprang the domestic animals. The second and future event is entirely beneficial. A savior figure, Sošyant, will sacrifice a bull from whose fat, mixed with hôm, the drink of corporal immortality will be prepared. The bull-killing of Mithras can be construed as the Roman translation of either — or indeed of both — of the Iranian cosmogonic and eschatological myths. Certain of the compositional details of the tauroctony resonate with the former: the bull’s tail metamorphosed into the wheat ear, the scorpion at the bull’s genitals, the presence of the Moon as well as the Sun.

The Pahlavi texts, notably the Bundahišn, which carry the Zoroastrian cosmological accounts are several centuries later than the Roman-era artifacts, i.e. the tauroctonies, which carry the western representation of the bull-killing. Accordingly, Iranizing interpretations of the tauroctony (for a survey of these, see Hinnells 1975a; Beck 1984: pp. 2068-9, 2080-1) imply one of two scenarios, whether or not they make the choice explicitly. Either those who constructed the western Mysteries consciously altered the Zoroastrian cosmological myths which were already current in the form later attested by the Pahlavi sources; or they took over and reproduced a collateral, non-Zoroastrian form of Iranian religion (Mazdaist or otherwise), current at the time but subsequently extinguished without trace, in which Mithra was the bull-killer. A version of the latter argues that what the western mysteries adopted was an offshoot of the Vedic tradition in which Mitra reluctantly slays the Soma (= Iranian Haoma) god (Lommel 1949). More persuasive, perhaps, than postulating a precise Iranian/Vedic genealogy for the tauroctonous Mithras is the argument that the Mithraic bull-killing, both as concept and as image, reflects a peculiarly Iranian ideology of sacrifice as a creative act undertaken by god, not man (Hinnells 1975a; Turcan 1981; Turcan 2000: pp. 102-5) — with the implication, presumably, that it is so because those who first imagined the icon in the West had at least something of that ideology in mind. (On a fascinating continuity into modern Zoroastrianism in Iran, see Boyce 1975.)

Mehregan-North Shore News-NV-2003[Click to Enlarge] The Mehregan Persian Music festival as reported in the North Shore News of North Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) on October 17, 2003.

There is a further problem that complicates all transmission scenarios: how to accommodate the twin deities Cautes and Cautopates and the lion-headed god (both mentioned above). Are they part of the theological baggage transferred from Iran? The names of the twins may well be of Iranian origin (see Schwartz 1975; contra: Schmeja 1975: p. 20), for Roman Mithraism did in fact occasionally borrow genuinely Iranian words (see Gray 1926: pp. 89-99; Schmeja 1975), notably nama (= “hail!”) and nabarzes (precise etymology disputed, see Schwartz 1975: pp. 422-3). That, however, does not extend to their functions in the theology of the western mysteries, which can be fully accounted for in solely western terms (Beck 1984: pp. 2084-6). The lion-headed god is more problematic, partly because his eventual place in the western cult’s theology is as opaque as his provenance. (On the extant exemplars and their iconography, see Hinnells 1975b; on the various interpretations and identifications, see Beck 1984: pp. 2086-9). Of the several identities proposed for the lion-headed god, two link him unambiguously with Iran. The first, propounded by Cumont (1899: p. 78; 1903: pp. 107-10), identifies him as Zurvān, the god of infinite Time and the father and arbiter between the good Ohrmazd and the evil Ahriman. This would of course make Roman Mithraism the descendant of a Zurvanite branch of Mazdaism. Around this Iranian core accumulated the personae and attributes of various Egyptian and Hellenistic Greek deities, for the most part gods of Time (Pettazzoni 1954). The second Iranian identity, first proposed by I.F. Legge (1912-15), is Ahriman — an outrageous choice were it not that the name Arimanius is attested in Mithraic epigraphy, although never in a context which makes it more than a possibility that the Mithraic lion-headed god was Ahriman (Duchesne-Guillemin 1955; idem, 1958-62; on discussions of the epigraphy and the relevant monuments, see Beck 1984: pp. 2034-5). If the Mithraic lion-headed god was indeed a descendant of the Iranian Ahriman, there is no need to assume, for that reason alone, that he retained an exclusively negative and evil nature, or that, in consequence, the Roman Mithraists were devil-worshippers on the side.

It would be impractical in a work of this scope to discuss every minute similarity which has been demonstrated or claimed between western Mithraism and Iranian Mithra-worship. (For a fuller summary, see Beck 1984: pp. 2056-89; for arguments stressing dissimilarities and discontinuities, see Colpe 1975; Drijvers 1978.) The time has come to review the principal scholarship which has argued for transmission and continuity based on the postulated similarities. The Cumontian “default” scenario has already been described. Of the post-Cumontian scenarios, three argue for continuity in the strongest terms. A.D.H. Bivar (1998, and earlier studies mentioned there) argues that western Mithraism was but one of several manifestations of Mithra-worship current in antiquity across a wide swathe of Asia and Europe. L.A. Campbell (1968) argues in the Cumontian tradition that western Mithraism replicated, through a thin disguise and with certain Graeco-Roman admixtures, a sometimes extraordinarily detailed and learned form of Zoroastrian Mazdaism. A continuity as thoroughgoing, though not quite so systematic ideologically, was proposed in several studies by G. Widengren (1965: pp. 222-32; 1966; 1980).

Nik Spatari-Mithras[Click to Enlarge] Professor 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).

Starting from the dissimilarities between Roman Mithraism and Zoroastrian Mazdaism, the most obvious of which are of course the different supreme deities in the two systems and the different agents and intents of the bull-killing (discussed above), scholarship on Iranian Mithra-worship has also looked for and found closer analogies with Mithraism in pre-Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian Iranian religion — and beyond that in Vedic religion. The strength of hypotheses based on the analogies with pre-/non-Zoroastrian systems is that they do not need to postulate a deliberate adaptation of Zoroastrianism into western Mithraism; their weakness is that they have to postulate instead the persistence in western Iran of an early collateral Indo-European form of Mithra-worship, ready for easy translation into Roman Mithraism, for which there is no direct evidence. P.G. Kreyenbroek (1994), by comparing cosmogonies (Mithraic similar to non/pre-Zoroastrian; both of these dissimilar to Zoroastrian), has advanced perhaps the most persuasive transmission scenario of this type to date. M. Weiss (1996, 1998) argues that Roman Mithras continues a very early Iranian and Vedic conception of Mithra/Mitra as the Nachthimmel, the starry heavens, an hypothesis entailing the awkward conception of a Mithras who is wholly distinct from the Sun god.

Lastly, there are certain works specifically on Iranian religion, in addition to those of Widengren (1960, 1965) already mentioned, which discuss aspects of western Mithras or Mithraism in terms which assert or imply a fair measure of continuity: Gray 1926: pp. 89-99; Gershevitch 1959: pp. 61-72; Zaehner 1961: pp. 97-144; Duchesne-Guillemin 1962: pp. 248-57.

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


Bibliographic note: The foundational study of Roman Mithraism is Cumont 1899 and Cumont 1903. Short general studies: Vermaseren 1963; Turcan 2000; Clauss 2000. Merkelbach 1984 is a fuller comprehensive study. On Mithraism as a mystery cult among other mysteries, Bianchi 1979a; Sfameni Gasparro 1979. There are four volumes of conference papers devoted both to Iranian Mithra and to Roman Mithras and Mithraism: Hinnells 1975; Duchesne-Guillemin 1978; Bianchi 1979; Hinnells 1994. Bibliographic survey: Beck 1984; Gordon in Clauss 2000: pp. 183-90.

(abbreviation, JMS = Journal of Mithraic Studies). R.L. Beck, “Mithraism since Franz Cumont,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp. 2002-115.

Idem, Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras, Leiden, 1988.

Idem, “Thus Spake Not Zarathuštra: Zoroastrian Pseudepigrapha of the Greco-Roman World,” in Boyce and Grenet 1991 (see below), pp. 491-565.

Idem “In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony,” in Hinnells 1994 (see below), pp. 29-50.

Idem, “Dio Cocceianus,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 7, 1995, p. 421.

Idem, “The Mysteries of Mithras,” in J.S. Kloppenborg and S.G. Wilson (eds), Voluntary Associations in the Ancient World, London, 1996, pp. 176-85.

Idem, “The Mysteries of Mithras: A new account of their genesis,” Journal of Roman Studies 88, 1998, pp. 115-28.

Idem, “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New evidence from a cult vessel,” JRS 90, 2000, pp. 145-80.

Idem, “History into Fiction: The metamorphoses of the Mithras myths,” Ancient Narrative 1, 2001-02, pp. 283-300.

U. Bianchi ed., Mysteria Mithrae, Leiden, 1979.

Bianchi 1979a “The Religio-Historical Question of the Mysteries of Mithra,” in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 3-60.

J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les Mages hellénisés, 2 vols, Paris, 1938 (repr. 1973).

A.D.H. Bivar, The Personalities of Mithra in Archaeology and Literature, New York, 1998.

M. Boyce, “Mihragān among the Irani Zoroastrians,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 106-18.

M. Boyce and F. Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism , Vol. 3, Leiden, 1991.

W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge MA, 1987.

L.A. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, Leiden, 1968.

M. Clauss, Cultores Mithrae: Die Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes, Stuttgart, 1992.

Idem, The Roman Cult of Mithras, trans. R.L. Gordon, Edinburgh and New York, 2000.

C. Colpe, “Mithra-Verehrung, Mithras-Kult und die Existenz iranischer Mysterien,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 378-405.

F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, Vol. 1, Brussels, 1899.

Idem, The Mysteries of Mithra, trans. T.J. McCormack, London, 1903 (repr. New York, 1956).

Idem, “La fin du monde selon les mages occidentaux,” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, 103, 1931, pp. 29-96.

Idem, “L’iniziazione di Nerone da parte di Tiridate d’Armenia,” Rivista di Filologia, NS 11, 1933, pp. 145-54.

Idem, “Mithra en Asie Mineure,” in Anatolian Studies in Honour of W.H. Buckler, Manchester, 1939, pp. 67-76.

Idem, “The Dura Mithraeum,” ed. and trans. E.D. Francis, in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 151-214.

A. de Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature, Leiden, 1997.

F.K. Dörner, Kommagene, Antike Welt Sondernummer 1975.

Idem, “Mithras in Kommagene,” in Duchesne-Guillemin, ed. 1978 (see below), pp. 123-33.

S.B. Downey, “Syrian Images of Mithras Tauroctonos,” in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 135-49.

H.J.W. Drijvers, “Mithra at Hatra?” in Duchesne-Guillemin, ed., 1978, pp. 151-86.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin, “Ahriman et le dieu suprême dans les mystères de Mithra,” Numen 2, 1955, pp. 190-5.

Idem, “Aion et le léontocéphalique, Mithra et Ahriman,” La Nouvelle Klio 10-12, 1958-62, pp. 91-8.

Idem, La religion de l’Iran ancien, Paris, 1962.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin ed., Études Mithiaques, Leiden, 1978.

Idem, 1978a “Iran and Greece in Commagene,” in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 187-99.

E.D. Francis, “Plutarch’s Mithraic Pirates,” in Cumont 1975, pp. 207-10.

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