The Writings of Revilo P Oliver 1908-1994

The Origins of Christianity

by Revilo P. Oliver

Professor of the Classics, Retired; University of Illinois, Urbana




SINCE one of the later Zoroastrian sects exerted a great influence on early Christianity, some mention of it in these pages seems called for.

A first-rate theologian always wants to rise and shine by devising some novel twist or application of doctrine, and it is safe to assume that in the time of the Persian Empire, many an ambitious Magus tried to make himself prominent. But we do not know what checks there were on heresy. We do not know how the Magi were organized, by what discipline they maintained a reasonable uniformity of dogma, or whether they could make the usual appeal to the "secular arm" in cases of contumacy. In the history of all religions, a heresy is a doctrine disapproved by theologians who are "orthodox" because they have the power to enforce their opinions, especially when their orthodoxy is guaranteed by the police and hangmen. When those indispensable guardians of the True Faith are lacking or ineffectual, the usual result is a schism and an enormous waste of ink and papyrus or paper. But it would be temerarious to guess either that religion evolved normally in the Persian Empire or that it did not.

There is some evidence that the religion’s centre of gravity shifted to Babylon at some time after the Persian conquest. In that large and opulent city the Magi would have come into contact with Semitic superstitions, especially the cult of the god Marduk, and it is only reasonable to assume that they urged or applauded the action of Xerxes when he desecrated the god’s temple and confiscated his huge effigy, reportedly of solid gold. They came into contact (assuming that there was no earlier relation) with the city’s large and wealthy colony of crafty Jews, but we do not know in what ways the Jews tried to exploit them. The Zoroastrian holy men in Babylon also found themselves in the very capital of one of the world’s oldest and most lucrative superstitions, astrology. It was, furthermore, a superstition which at that time, and indeed for many centuries thereafter, could plausibly claim to be a scientific observation of the real world.1

The premises of Zoroaster’s religion, and indeed of most religions, should exclude astrology, but it is a poor theologian who cannot make his Scriptures say whatever he deems expedient. It would be interesting to know to what extent astrology penetrated the doctrines of the presumably orthodox priests in the Persian Empire, but all that we know is that the Chaldaean astromancy was taken up by the Magi who were operating in the Greek cities along the Mediterranean and who, if we conjectured rightly above, gave their Saviour’s name the form in which it is now familiar.

The preaching of Zoroaster’s gospel to all the world was interrupted by one of the climacteric events of history, the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great and the consequent Greek colonization of Asia from the Mediterranean to the borders of China and from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges. From its status as the official religion of a mighty empire, Zoroastrianism suddenly fell to the abject position of being only the faith of conquered peoples, discredited by the crushing defeat of its pious monarchs, and abandoned by a large part of its former adherents because they had lost faith in an impotent god, or because they recognized the cultural superiority attested by the conquerors’ military superiority, or because they saw the advantages of joining the victors, or even because they had adhered to Zoroastrianism only because it was fashionable. To the Magi, it must have seemed as though the end of the world had come, and we may be certain that they then began to devise the theology that explained the catastrophe as the result of some bargain between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu whereby the latter was granted a stipulated period of dominion.2

Zoroastrianism was eclipsed, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it went underground. There was, of course, no persecution, no opposition to it, no official disapproval of it by the Greeks, who were too intelligent and civilized to be susceptible to the fanaticism and pious delirium excited by "universal" religions. What happened was that the better part of the population spontaneously recognized the superiority of Greek civilization and adopted it, including its incomparable language, its elegant culture, and the Aryan attitude toward religion. It must not be forgotten that the dominant part of the population of the Persian Empire was composed of Persians, Medes, and other Aryans, the racial kin of the victors and therefore sharing their basic racial instincts.3 I can imagine that many a cultivated Persian had only to become acquainted with Greek literature and philosophy to free himself from the hariolations of a "revealed" religion and to enjoy kicking the Salvation-peddlers from his door. As for the non-Aryan subjects of the former empire, they had new masters to conciliate and to exploit.

The Greeks built Greek cities throughout the lands Alexander had conquered, and Greek became the language of all persons who had any pretensions to culture. Aramaic, the Semitic langaage which had been the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, became largely the language of illiterates, spoken by the Semites among the ignorant peasantry of the countryside and the mongrel or alien proletariat that formed the most debased social stratum of the cities. Ahura Mazda, his name modernized to Horomasdes, lost his universal empire and became just a commoner in a supernatural world already crowded with a plethora of gods. His gospels could not be marketed in polite society: fanaticism had become uncouth. The Magi, who had been God’s terrestrial representatives and the authorized salesmen of eternal life and post mortem beatitude, were reduced to the status of the swindlers who pose as "evangelists" and "psychics" in our society. They had to adapt their sales-pitch to their customers, the ignorant and gullible, and their skill in tricks of prestidigitation, psychological impostures, and applied chemistry gave the word ‘magic’ to all modern languages.

During the period of Greek dominion, however, alien superstitions seeped upward from the multi-racial soil on which the Greek society was built in Asia, thus providing a confirmation of Günther’s hypothesis, which we mentioned above.4 The Aryan’s lack of fanaticism makes him tolerant of alien superstitions, and it is supplemented by what we may call a geographical relativism in religion, which we commonly so take for granted in the modern world that we overlook it.5 It does startle us, however, when we first encounter it in the ancient world, where it usually takes the form of a theocrasy that, at first sight, seems to us incredible. We, habituated to Christian dogma and its pretensions to know the "truth" about its triple deity, simply gasp when we first see Herodotus give to the Egyptians’ cow-headed Hathor the name of the Greeks’ gracious and beautiful Aphrodite. To us, who believe in neither, that seems a profanation; it did not to Herodotus, who identified them as aspects of a single numen in whose existence he was willing provisionally to believe. When we first read Iphigenia in Tauris, we wonder why Euripides’ fellow Athenians did not accuse him of the most outrageous blasphemy against Artemis when he portrayed that fair maiden as the barbarously sanguinary goddess of blood-thirsty barbarians. That puzzles us until we realize that a Greek was willing to regard an alien deity as the equivalent of the traditional Greek god from whom he or she least differed, and to believe that, if supernatural beings did exist, since they were by nature unknowable, the exotic gods might well represent the same religious concepts as adjusted to a radically different culture of radically different human beings in a remote part of the world.6

A striking and fresh verification of Günther’s hypothesis is provided by the current excavations at the site of a great Greek city at the confluence of the Oxus and the Kokoha in the northeastern corner of Afganistan, three thousand miles from Greece.7 The city is probably Eucratidia, one of the many cities founded by Greek colonists in the then fertile land of ancient Bactria. The Greeks, who, for several centuries, civilized that distant land, may have weakened themselves by miscegenation, although their rulers, as shown by the portraits on their coins, were handsome Aryans to the end. The Greeks of Bactria certainly weakened themselves by almost incessant wars against their fellow Greeks, the Seleucid Empire, from which they had declared independence, and the Greek kings of India, who were determined to remain independent of Bactria if they could not conquer it. The Greeks further weakened themselves by some civil wars in which, we may be sure, the lower races profited at the expense of their Greek masters. Thus the Greeks and civilization in Bactria eventually succumbed to hordes of barbarians who poured in from what is now part of China. The excavations show, however, that to the end the Greeks kept and cherished their elegant language and their incomparable literature; they maintained their distinctive institutions, such as gymnasia, so repugnant to Oriental vulgarity and prudery; they ingeniously adapted their architecture to the climate of a region in which stone suitable for building was rare; and, significantly, the only evidence of cultural miscegenation is in religion, the few divinites thus far found are all patently non-Greek, and thus far no inscriptions have been found to tell us what names they were given. The chances are that Greeks thought of them as local varieties of their own gods.

The Magi, in a world grown so evil that their incomes had dropped drastically, had to adapt their Glad Tidings to the market. They, no doubt, still had customers among the peasantry and the urban proletariats, both, alas, impoverished. Astromancy, which even good minds had to accept as possible, was, of course, a staple for which there was always a fair demand. But Zoroastrianism really survived in heresies that would have made Zoroaster speechless with horror. The Greeks would listen to no nonsense about a supreme god who had made devils out of all the amiable and companionable gods of the whole world, but they were quite willing to believe that Zeus was also Horomasdes in inner Asia. Why not? He was Amun in Egypt, and it was only reasonable that he would seem different to a different people.

One consequence of the Greek conquest of Azia was that Zoroastrianism survived in bastard cults that would have given its founder apoplexy.

A very good example is the spectacular monument, which has partly survived the depredations of two millennia, on the high mountain which the Turks call Nemrud Dag, close to the upper course of the Euphrates and about 365 miles east-southeast of Ankara.8 There, as close to heaven as men could climb, Antiochus I of the small buffer kingdom of Commagene, who claimed both Alexander and Darius as ancestors, erected, on both sides of an artificial hill added to the summit, colossal statues of his gods, who wear Oriental robes and Persian headdress above features that are portrayed in the Greek style and which, if viewed apart from their accoutrements, could pass as Greek. One of the two principal gods, who sat in majesty, looking out over the wide valley below, is a fusion of Zeus and Oromasdes (= Ahura Mazda), bizarre as that seems to us. The second, equally august, is a blend of Apollo, Helios, and Mithras (with a bit of Hermes thrown in for good measure). The three assistant gods are equally hybrid.

We need not smile at this example of religious bastardy nor amuse ourselves by imagining what execrations the great monument would have evoked from Zoroaster, who had taught that we should worship only Ahura Mazda and represent him only in aniconic form as fire, the pure element that is the essence of divinity. The shrine, despite the Greek camouflage given it by Antiochus, is late Zoroastrian and even included a massive altar on which the sacred flame could be kept burning. Antiochus, a relatively petty king who, under Roman patronage, ruled his client kingdom from 64 to 38 B.C., undoubtedly spoke a fairly pure Greek and would have stared uncomprehendingly at a text in Old Persian, Avestan, or Aramaic; what he himself believed, we have no means of knowing, but it is most unlikely that he was fooled by his own pretenses. He knew that kings should hedge themselves about with divinity, and that it was expedient to associate himself with the Zoroastrian religion, which had been revived by the Parthians after the collapse of Seleucid (i.e., Greek) power in Asia. 9

To the southeast of Nemrud Dag may still be seen, stripped of its once lavish ornaments, a remarkable shrine that was probably built and excavated by Antiochus for an annual commemoration of the miraculous birth of the Son of God, Mithras, who, like the later Jesus, was born in a cave,10 saluted by choirs of rejoicing angels, and first adored by understandably-amazed shepherds. Mithas, however, was born an adult, so that his Epiphany immediately followed his Nativity as he emerged from the maternal cave.

The shrine was a large cave in the side of a mountain. A wide terrace was built up in front of it, and the entrance made an arch in walls covered with sculptured reliefs and inscriptions, which have long since disappeared. From the floor of the cave, engineers sank a tunnel, at an angle of 45° downward, into the mountain for 520 feet and enlarged it to a room of considerable size at the bottom. In all probability, the shrine was used for,a reënactment of the Saviour’s Epiphany, doubtless at the rebirth of the sun on the twenty-fifth of December, after the Winter Solstice. In the room at the bottom, Antiochus probably performed religious rites to renew his own participation in divinity, put on suitable garments to impersonate Mithras, and manifested himself, probably at the dramatic moment of sunrise, on the terrace as the theos epiphanes, suggesting to the assembled worshippers that he was, if not a reincarnation of Mithras, at least the Saviour’s divinely-appointed representative on earth. He was doubtless adored by shepherds, who had been carefully rehearsed in their rôle, and received the plaudits of a multitude assembled from far and wide to witness the iterated miracle, which must have stirred their pious hearts.11 The choirs of angels (fravasi) had unfortunately to be omitted from the performance, but it may be that Antiochus had suitable background music provided in the ceremony by which he convinced the common people that he was indeed the Vicar of God on Earth, hoping, of course, that the True Believers were too ignorant and stupid to perceive that he, in his relatively constricted domain, was only the vicar of whatever Roman general held the proconsular imperium in Asia.

Besides doubling for Mithra in the annual celebration of the Nativity, Anitiochus had himself portrayed in the favorite pose of most Oriental kings, tête-à-tête with his god. He and Mithra, both stalwart figures in Persian dress (loose trousers and tunic) stand facing one another and joining their hands, doubtless sealing an agreement with a handshake. Antiochus is distinguished by his crown, Mithras by the rays of the sun, which appear behind his Phrygian cap. The two appear as equals: Antiochus was not a megalomaniac, just a good politician. He also had himself portrayed as shaking hands with Ahura Mazda, who remains seated on his throne, since the supreme god is entitled to that social precedence. That preëminence, however, was threatened by two developments in Zoroastrian theology that we must mention here.

Some earnest theologians were evidently puzzled by the coëxistence of a supreme god of good and a supreme god of evil. It did not seem right for the former to have created the latter, for a respectable god really should not be so stupid as to create, whether voluntarily or by inadvertence, an implacable adversary as powerful as himself. The problem, like the equivalent one in Christianity and similar religions, is insoluble, of course, but it was felt that it would be less objectionable to make the divine antagonists brothers, so a father was created for them out of the concept of time (zurvan). This primordial god, Zurvan, later Zervan, was commonly called, in Greek and Latin, Aeon or Cronos (i.e., Saturn, but the name was confused with Chronos); originally conceived as hermaphroditic and thus able to engender children by himself, he was eventually depicted as a nude male figure having wings and the head of a lion, and having a serpent coiled many times about his body. Needless to say, this theological device merely pushed the dilemma one step farther back: Who was Zervan’s daddy? And for that matter, since his sex is unmistakable in most representations of him, where did he find a mama for his boys when he was the only being in the whole universe? And why did Zervan fecklessly or maliciously engender an evil son to hate and strive to destroy his good son, to say nothing of raising hell on the earth that the good son was going to create? As in all religions, the answer, of course, is that it is damnably wicked to bother theologians with embarrassing questions. You must have Faith.

Zervan, however, created another difficulty that even oodles of Faith could not completely overcome. It was fundamental Zoroastrian teaching that after the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgement, the triumphant Ahura Mazda would put an end to time, and if Time was his father, that would be patricide. One could, of course, give the standard explanation that this was a "mystery" that the human mind must not think about, but the doctrine was so fundamental in Zoroastrianism that the paregoric did not always work. When the Christians grabbed the idea of a Resurrection and Last Judgement, they were content with the phrase, "time shall be no more," without trying to understand it. In Zoroastrian eschatology, however, the distinction between time and eternity must be understood. Time is what causes the distressing state of affairs in the world, in which it produces change, happenings, events and thus creates history. Time is thus the fatal flaw in the world that permits the powers of evil to afflict mankind. After the Last Judgement, therefore, Ahura Mazda will abolish it and restore the universe to its state of timeless perfection, and since perfection admits of no change, that will be an eternity in which nothing can ever happen again. Just how the good can enjoy this bliss and the wicked can suffer exquisite torments if they are as changeless as marble statues is not explained.

Zervan virtually replaced Ahura Mazda, who was thus reduced to a mere link between his Father and his Son, and one can see why many Magi did not hold with the innovation. The Zervanists flourished, however, until c. 531, when the "orthodox" Magi got the ear of Chosroës (Khosrau) I, the greatest of the Sassanian kings of Persia, who ruled that the Zervanists were heretics. Since there was no question about the loyalty of his army, he and God were clearly in agreement on that theological point.12

Poor God was squeezed from above and below, for his Son, having become the Saviour of mankind and the god who must be contacted for favors, reduced him to a mere figurehead in many of the Zoroastrian denominations, including the Zervanists and others. Mithra’s votaries early provided him with an indubitably immaculate conception, having him born from rock of a sacred mountain, and gave a distinctive explanation of his work as the Saviour. He slew the Cosmic Bull, and if I understand the ambiguous references aright, it was from this bull that he obtained the "eternal blood" that was shed for the Salvation of mankind.13 The blood may originally have been thought to be the hallucinatory drug haoma but the common tradition reported that Mithra and his companions drank wine at the Last Supper, when they celebrated the completion of his work of Salvation; and when his votaries assembled for the love-feasts at which they celebrated that Last Supper, wine was the soteric blood. Mithra either was the sun or the hero who delivered the sun from darkness or the hero who conquered the sun and made it attend to its business. The theologians disagreed about that rather important article of Faith, as may most readily be seen from the very large number of votive inscriptions in Latin, many of which are to "Mithra, the Invincible Sun," while as many others regard Mithra as the companion of that Sun."14 The latter conception is in agreement with the usual form of the myth that Helios was the coadjutor of Mithra in the struggle to save mankind from the powers of darkness and that he even saved Mithra by carrying him safely over the demon-infested ocean; after their victory the two celestial companions and their assistants shared the sacred repast we have mentioned, and faithful Mithraists imitated it in their holy suppers, which were a pledge of their comradeship and reciprocal affection in their common struggle against the evils of the world. The third interpretation comes from a supplemental myth to the effect that soon after he was born, Mithra was attacked by the jealous god of the sun, but overthrew him in a wrestling match, forced him to do homage, and compelled him to traverse the heavens and shed light on the world regularly. Mithra crowned his defeated rival with the radiance that the sun has had about his head ever since and gave him the right hand of friendship, thus forming an alliance that both have ever since loyally observed. This myth, obviously, was devised to prove that Mithra had subdued and annexed the Babylonian sun god, Shamesh, who is known as Shemesh to readers of the "Old Testament" in the common English version.15

We cannot enter into the intricacies of the Mithraic theology, but may note a curious detail which may show some propensity to trinitarian thinking. In most of the sculptural representations of him, Mithra is accompanied by two figures whose names, of uncertain derivation and meaning, are Cautes and Cautoptes, and who are commonly called the dadophori because they are carrying torches; one has the torch elevated, while the other holds it reversed. They look like replicas of Mithra and doubtless represent aspects of him (rising and setting sun?) that were explained to the Faithful in the prolonged instruction they were given before they were initiated into each of the several degrees of the cult, for it had become a "mystery religion," in imitation of the Eleusinian and other early Greek mysteries.

As is well known, since Mithra was born in a cave, the Mithraea, the "churches" of the cult, had to be located underground, and if no natural cave was conveniently available, an area of ground was excavated and roofed over, a fact which accounts for the partial preservation of so many of the spelaea, since the Christians, when they took over, were content to desecrate a shrine and then built one of their churches on top of it to make sure that the Devil’s magic would remain permanently buried and inaccessible. A normal Mithraeum would accommodate only thirty or thirty-five worshippers at one time,16 and there can be no doubt but that the size of a congregation was deliberately limited to ensure that its members were truly united as comrades, feeling the close fellowship and reciprocal trust and affection that were so large a part of the cult. One may think of an analogy to the "lodges" of the Masons and perhaps other basically religious "fraternal" societies of the present day.

The Mithraic worship was exclusively for men. Their wives went to the temple of the Magna Mater (a development of Cybele), which was usually located just across the street for their convenience and, being entirely above ground, was usually effaced completely by the fury of the Christians when they were at last able to take over. There was necessarily a close alliance between the cults of Mithra and the Magna Mater, of which the details escape us, and there was to some extent an interpenetration of the two theologies. As numerous inscriptions attest, women could indulge in a taurobolium and have their sins washed away by the magical blood of the bull who was slain in memory of the Cosmic Bull and whose blood was doubtless believed to be charged with religious efficacy by a kind of simple transubstantiation. They were also acquainted with the use of holy water for ritual purification, and one or two scholars have guessed that the Magna Mater might have been thought of as corresponding to the Anahita of the divine trinity recognized by Artaxerxes in the springtime of the religion.

The reader will have observed an impressive religious evolution. We begin with a religion in which Ahura Mazda, represented only in aniconic form by the sacred fire, is the only god to be worshipped, and there is no hint of a suggestion that he might have a son.17 In the Mithraic cult, the Son has, for all practical purposes ousted the Father, who survives only as a link between Zervan and Mithra, so that it would have been easy to dispense with poor old Ahura Mazda without a significant change in the cult or even its theology, and the sacred fire has been replaced by sculpture, some of it of fair quality, and such rites as Last Suppers.

The reader will also have observed that in the course of our discussion of Mithraism we moved from Persia to the Roman world. That was because it is only in the latter that we have any secure information about it.18 It almost certainly arose in or near the old Persian territory, and it could most easily be explained as a heresy of a heresy. It retained the theology of the Zervanists, and so must be an offshoot of that cult, showing an even greater devotion to the Son of God and perhaps adopting a new religious organization, limiting membership to male proselytes who were willing to form groups comparable to the lodges of modern religious clubs, such as the Masons, and to proceed through several degrees of initiation, learning and memorizing fresh "secrets" at each stage, to full membership.19

After the gradual revival of Zoroastrianism under the Parthians, the Zervanists, as we have already said, flourished in the old Persian territories as one of the Zoroastrian sects until Chosroës ruled them heretical. We have, so far as I know, no information about the Mithraic sect that we have described in the same territory, and that suggests that it was either a relatively minor sect or underwent considerable modifications for export. Given the limitation of our sources, however, that is not necessarily true. I have often thought that the Mithraic cult, in the form in which we know it, would have particularly appealed to the Parthian aristocracy, whose special devotion to Mithras is attested by their use of such common names as Mithridates. They were officially Zoroastrians and maintained Magi at their courts to keep the sacred fires alight and provide holiness when needed, but they were so negligent in their observation of the Zoroastrian proprieties that the Zoroastrians of the Sassanid period regarded them as little better than infidels. They, like the Mithraists of whom we know, had so little godliness that they never felt a yen to persecute and kill ad maiorem gloriam Dei. So marked was this lack of zeal among the Parthian aristocracy that Professor Tarn remarks that "one gathers the impression that they thought all religions useful, none material; what mattered to a man was his horse, his bow, and his own right arm." But perhaps that goes too far. Would not their chivalry have found a religious satisfaction in a kind of mystery cult that formed them into small congregations of comrades, bound together by a kind of military sacrament, for the worship of the heroic Son of God, who had subjugated even the sun, and who was ever ready to fight evil? The speculation appeals to me, but I know of no evidence to confirm or even bolster it.20

We first hear of the Mithraic cult in Cilicia early in the first century B.C. So manly a religion had an obvious attraction for military men, and it is believed no doubt correctly, that it was spread throughout the Roman world by Roman soldiers, to whom it offered a double chance of immortality: a man’s soul, which had come down from Heaven to be imprisoned in the flesh, could, if he had sufficiently kept it pure from falsehood and evil in this life, ascend directly to heaven, perhaps a sequence of seven heavens, when he died; otherwise, as in Christian doctrine, his soul would sleep until the final Resurrection, when it would rejoin his reconstituted body for the Last Judgement, after which, if found worthy, he could dwell in God’s Paradise, or if found stained with ineradicable evil, he would be annihilated, since the cult did not have the sadistic urge that made Christians hope to see unbelievers and sinners tortured with the utmost of fiendish ingenuity forever and forever.

To Zoroastrians who preserved any knowledge of the religion that had been proclaimed by Zoroaster, Mithraism must have seemed a shockingly wicked perversion, even more ungodly than the Zervanism from which it had sprung. If there were Mithraists in Persian territory in the time of Chosroës, they undoubtedly vanished with the Zervanists. The great king undertook to restore and enforce an orthodoxy based on what had survived, or was assumed to have survived, of the old Zoroastrian scriptures. To Zoroaster, mithra seems to have been only a noun meaning ‘compact, agreement,’ but Mithra as a spirit of some sort was mentioned in the Avesta and he was too firmly established to be expunged, but the orthodox Magi quickly cut him down to size. The Father returned in glory to his old supremacy.

It is a nice irony that Christianity, which was a remodelled Zoroastrianism, also borrowed many of its trappings and decorations from a Zoroastrian heresy with which it had to compete in its formative years.

1. In antiquity, the fallacies of most of the astrologers’ hocus-pocus were apparent to good minds long before Carneades and the Academics systematically demolished the hoax, but, as Cicero had to concede in the De divinatione (II.43.90), there was one argument for planetary influences on human life that could not be dismissed or refuted, so that candid and objective students, such as Diogenes of Seleucia (whom Cicero quotes ad loc.),had to concede to astrology a considerable element of probable truth. It has always been a matter of common observation that the children of one man by one woman, if not identical twins, always differ from one another, and often differ radically, not only in physical characteristics, such as features, stature, and figure, but also in temperament and mentality, although they receive the same nurture and the same education. The great differences between the offspring of one pair of parents, observed in circumstances that excluded all suspicion of adultery and even between the children of a brother and sister (as in Egypt or among the Magi) had to be explained by the operation of some variable factor, and before the genetic processes that ineluctably determine innate qualities were scientifically determined in our own time, the significant variables seemed to be the times of conception and birth, and hence astral influences, since observation would quickly exclude such factors as weather and the seasons. The alternatives were (1) unperceived causes, (2) metempsychosis, and (3) special creation of individuals by a god or gods who artistically avoided duplication in their handiwork. The first of these was simply a confession of irremediable ignorance and the third was fantastic, leaving, for all practical purposes, the second; and the hypothesis that there were invisible and impalpable souls that could accumulate in successive lives experiences they could not remember was, objectively considered, much less likely than the hypothesis that some influence from the planets, invisible as the influence of a magnet on iron is invisible, acted on the foetus in the womb from the very moment of conception. Thus the abilities and characters of men and women were to some extent, and perhaps almost entirely, determined by the planetary influences before and during birth; and character within certain limits does determine an individual’s fortunes. This opened the door for a claim by the soothsayers that the planetary influences which had determined character could throughout life exert at least some influence on the being they had formed. Before the modern science of genetics, there was a real problem, and we should not feel for all consideration of astrology in antiquity the contempt that we feel for the practice of it today, when it is simply a notorious imposture on the gullible and superstitious. It is not remarkable that the astrological racket has become so lucrative today: minds that have been so sabotaged that they can believe in the equality of races can believe in anything.

2. The most generally accepted explanation was that at the very beginning of time Ahura Mazda established a preordained chronology and a series of epochs during which Angra Mainyu was to be dominant. The first era ended when God sent Zoroaster to restore righteousness, but the schedule called for a relapse into sin until, at the end of the next period, one of Zoroaster’s belated sons would be engendered by the miraculous process we described earlier. This notion reappears,of course, in the various Christian doctrines that Yahweh had allotted to Satan a certain period of prosperity, but the Christians do not commonly suppose a bargain between the two gods. In the common version of the Gospel of Thomas, that apostle encounters the snake that seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden and compels him to restore a dead man to life by sucking out the venom with which he killed him, and the snake, infected by its own deadly poison, swells up and bursts, but not before complaining that Thomas is destroying him before the end of his allotted time; similar complaints are made by devils whom Thomas coerces by what they regard as a "tyrannical" violation of their rights, but it is never explained who did the allotting of time. It would have been embarrassing to admit that the good god was directly responsible for the successes of the evil god and also embarrassing to admit that he was powerless to prevent them. That is the inescapable dilemma of all ditheisms.

3. It is extremely odd that even so diligent a scholar as Tarn should have overlooked this obvious fact and attributed to Alexander an itch for race-mixing and a universal brotherhood of mongrels. The plain fact is that Alexander encouraged intermarriage only between his followers and high-born Persians, who were of pure or relatively pure Aryan ancestry. Not being stupid, Alexander would have perceived that fact, if he did not already know it, from their features and bodily conformation; their language, furthermore, was Old Persian, which did not differ from Attic, Ionic, and Doric Greek very much more than did some of the epichoric and contaminated dialects of Greek that may be inspected in A. Thumb’s Handbuch der griechischen Dialekte, revised by Kieckers and Scherer (Heidelberg, 1932-59). What Alexander proposed was nothing more radical than marriage between Anglo-Saxons and Irish or between Germans and northern Italians. There is no evidence at all to support the entirely gratuitous assumption that Alexander would have favored racial miscegenation. Propaganda that he had done so was concocted in the centuries that immediately followed his death, probably by Jews. One audacious forgery was a purported letter from Aristotle to Alexander advising him to interchange the populations of Asia and Europe to produce a mongrelized One World; it is now extant only in an Arabic translation. See S. M. Stern, Aristotle on the World State (Oxford, Cassirer, 1968), in which you will also find copious references to the Jews’ exploitation of the hoax.

4. Supra, p. 45.

5. We usually read Chaucer’s greatest poem when we are young:

When that Aprile with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, . . .

Then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

The pilgrims are taking a vacation to enjoy travel through the vernal countryside. But why do they go to Canterbury, "the holy blisful martir for to seke"? Isn’t Thomas à Becket up with Jesus in his paradise somewhere above the clouds? Or is he still in his tomb in the Cathedral? The pilgrims are glad of an opportunity to be out on the open road, and naturally refuse to worry about such nice points in theology. Many years ago, I visited the famous shrine at Guadalupe Hidalgo and chance permitted me to converse with a cultivated lady of Spanish ancestry who had come from Guadalajara, half-way across Mexico, to solicit a favor from the Virgin. She admitted that there were shrines of the Virgin in Guadalajara, and she agreed that the Virgin was the same Virgin everywhere, but she was nonetheless convinced that the Virgin at Guadalupe would do things that the Virgin wouldn’t do in Guadalajara. Our feeling for religious geography is stronger than the abstractions of dogma. Many men and women go to Lourdes and are healed of psychosomatic maladies by the strong emotions that are excited by their inner conviction that the Virgin will perform there miracles she is unwilling or unable to perform elsewhere, even though she must now be looking down on the earth from an abode far above it. The Virgin at Lourdes is as efficient as was the goddess Sequana at her shrine, which was uncovered by archaeologists some years ago, but the polytheist who journeyed to Sequana’s temple nineteen centuries ago did so quite logically: she was a local goddess and, though invisible, resided where she was worshipped. You couldn’t expect her to leave home and come to you, so you naturally had to go to her. Her therapeutic powers were very great, no doubt, but all her powers were limited to the small area that belonged to her.

6. This intelligent attitude was, of course, favored by the diversity of their own gods which posed the questions that Cicero noted in the last book of the De natura deorum. There are, for example, five different stories about the parentage and birthplace of Minerva: does this mean that there actually are five homonymous goddesses? If not, why not? A Christian theologian, accustomed to making Trinities, would have had no difficulty in making a Quintity out of Minerva, but he would have been laughed at. A polytheist would have reasonably asked the theologian how he knew and such impertinence always sends holy men into fits.

7. See the report in The Scientific American, CCXLVI #1 (January 1982), pp. 148-159.

8. A concise account of the monument with excellent photographs may be found in an estimable periodical published at Zürich, Antike Welt, Sondernummer 1975.

9. Antiochus I of Commagene was doubtless a cultivated man, who could not repudiate Greek culture or ignore the gods traditionally associated with it. His kingdom was a buffer between the Roman Empire on one side and on the other the aggressive Parthian Empire, whose greatest king, Mithridates VI Eupator (a votary of Mithra, as his name indicates), had waged a series of bloody wars with Romans from 88 to 66, when he was finally defeated decisively by Pompey and fled to his territories in the Crimea, where he committed suicide. The Parthian power was still formidable, as Crassus was to learn at Carrhae. It is likely that the greater part of Antiochus’s multi-racial subjects were given to some form of Zoroastrianism, so that his theocrasy was obviously a political necessity. Scholars differ in their estimates of the extent to which it may have been his own invention. In an extant inscription, he affirms that when his body is placed in the tomb he has prepared for it (and which archaeologists have not yet found), his soul will ascend to Heaven to join the other gods. The gods, however, neglected to give him advice that would have saved him from making a bad guess during the Roman civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar.

10. It is well-known, of course, that in the early form of the Christian myth, preserved in the several recensions of the Gospel of James, purportedly composed by the brother of Jesus (who should have known!), Jesus was born in a cave. This was the story known to the early Fathers of the Church, including Tertullian and Eusebius, and the latter, in the biography of Constantine that he concocted to spread the fiction of that emperor’s "conversion" by the miracle of "in hoc signo vinces," implied that Constantine had built a church in front of the sacred cave. Until recently a cave was, and perhaps it still is, exhibited as the scene of the Incarnation to gawking tourists who visit the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. All this suggests that the shift of the scene to a house in Matth. 2.11, and to a stable in Luc. 2.7, were late retouches of the tales, introduced when it was thought best to play down the story about the Magi and Zoroaster’s Prophecy. One can see why it was thought desirable to minimize similarities to the Nativity of Mithras, but one cannot imagine why the Fathers did not make the stories in the two gospels agree before incorporating them in their anthology. The only explanation seems to be sheer carelessness on their part. In the gospels of James, one of the gospels attributed to Matthew, and others, the Nativity in a cave is logically accounted for, since Mary is overtaken by labor pains when she and Joseph are in a desert, some distance from the nearest town. A very amusing example of theologians’ carelessness may conveniently be found in the two Latin Infancy Gospels edited by M. R. James (Cambridge, 1927). Both gospels are obviously the work of holy men who are fixing up the story to suit their somewhat different tastes. In both tales, Mary, her husband, and her stepson are walking to Bethlehem, and since Mary is far advanced in pregnancy, she has to walk very slowly. Joseph therefore goes ahead to the town and, since he cannot find room in an inn, picks out an empty stable and prepares it for Mary. In both versions Mary finally arrives under the care of her stepson, who explains that she had frequently to stop and rest on the way, but in one version she then dismounts from an ass! In both versions, Joseph takes her into the place he has prepared, which, by an editorial miracle, is suddenly transformed into a cave! The stable becomes a cave within the space of a printed page in both versions, thus giving us a measure of the retentiveness of evangelists’ memories.

11.The priests must have had their part in the ceremony, of course, but it is hard to guess what it was. The Magi cannot have brought gifts, for there is no precedent for that act in the Mithraic myth, according to which it is the shepherds who bring the first fruits of their flocks and fields as gifts for the new-born god, and the Magi do not appear on the scene at all, since they were first given the glad tidings of Salvation by Zoroaster, long afterwards. Mithra was the divine Mediator (Greek mes…thj the title later given to Jesus in the "New Testament") between the Creator and his creations, but the priests had, as usual, acquired a monopoly of mediation between men and the Mediator, so they cannot have been left out. Only Magi, for example, could tend the sacred fire, which keeps demons away.

12, Chosroës had already proved his infallibility as a theologian by exterminating the Mazdakites, a numerous and popular sect that had been his father’s favorites. To save his subjects from future mistakes, Chosroës authorized his orthodox Magi to compile an authoritative text of the Avesta and gave it his approval, which, naturally, carried great weight. This is the version that was the basis of the text that we now have.

Chosroës protected the Christians in his domains, even after many of them were caught in an unsuccessful conspiracy to replace him with his son. He may have been influenced by the consideration that almost all of the Christians in Persia were Nestorians, whom his principal enemy, Justinian, the pious Christian emperor in Constantinople, was eager to exterminate. One of Chosroës’s acts is greatly to his honor and should be remembered. In 529, Justinian closed the "university" in Athens to extirpate the last, degenerate vestiges of Greek philosophy; the seven Neoplatonist teachers there, deprived of a livelihood and probably attracted by the talk about "social justice" in Persia during the ascendancy of the Mazdakites, migrated thither in 531, perhaps with the illusions that made unintelligent "intellectuals" flock to Russia after 1918. Chosroës welcomed them, but they were naturally disappointed by the discovery that Persia was not an Earthly Paradise and probably by the discovery that the hangmen had just corrected the Mazdakites’ theological errors. When Justinian in 533 negotiated with Chosroës a treaty for "eternal peace" (it did last almost seven years, which is about par for such treaties), Chosroës insisted on a clause which provided that the seven Neoplatonists were to be permitted to return home and live thereafter without molestation from the pious. One of the seven was Simplicius, who later wrote the well-known commentaries on Aristotle and Epictetus that have preserved for us important fragments of Greek philosophers whose works were subsequently lost. We are therefore indebted to the Zoroastrian "tyrant" for both information and an example of concern for humane scholarship.

13. An inscription, unfortunately mutilated, in the Mithraeum beneath the church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine in Rome, is a prayer to Mithra containing the praise, "nos servasti <a>eternali sanguine fuso." Professor Schwertheim, in the issue of Antike Welt that I cite below, quotes a late and odd Mithraic text in which Mithra says: "He who does not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he partakes of me as I am [thereby] commingled with him, will never attain Salvation." I think this must be an heretical idea in Zoroastrianism, for there is, so far as I know, no other evidence that the votaries of Mithra thought of their holy suppers as theophagous,with the cannibalistic implications of the Christian imitation of them. Their Last Suppers commemorated, and hence doubtless imitated, the sacred meal at which Mithra and his assistants, celebrating their victory over the powers of evil, partook of bread and wine, the bread being made from the wheat that sprang from the spine of the slain Bull, and the wine from the grapes that sprang from the Bull’s blood. The Mithraic concept of Redemption by blood appears in the taurobolia so frequently celebrated by the religious in the waning Roman Empire: they were cleansed of their sins by the blood of a bull that was slain in obvious imitation of Mithra’s slaying of the Cosmic Bull.

14. The dedications usually give the name of the god in the dative, so we have "Soli Invicto Mithrae" as opposed to "Soli Invicto et Mithrae". I cannot say offhand which form is the more common. In sculpture representing the great Tauroctony, the side panels, if they include Helios, sometimes show him clasping the hand of Mithra in friendship and sometimes as kneeling humbly before his new master.

15. The name of the god is Samsu in theophoric names from the time of Hammurabi (including that of his son and successor), and Šamšu on the tablets from Mari,and the latter form is the more common generally. The pronunciation of the Hebrew equivalent in the second and first centuries B.C. is shown by the spelling in the Septuagint, samÚj, but the Greek alphabet at that time had no means of distinguishing between s and š. The Babylonian god was undoubtedly the hero of the legend about a praeternaturally strong man, who is called Sampson in the Jews’ adaptation of the myth. The strong man’s name admittedly means ‘of the sun, solar’ in Hebrew, as it doubtless did in the Babylonian original, i.e., ‘son of the sun.’ In the Hebrew myth, he was born and buried near the temple of the Babylonian god (Beth-Samus), and the Jewish tale of his miraculous birth with celestial annunciations and influence, as in the later tale about Jesus, is probably an expanded amplification of the Babylonian account of the birth of a hero who, like Enkidu, fell a victim to the wiles of a prostitute. Students of religion may speculate endlessly and dispute about whether or not the Mithraic tale about the Cosmic Bull was ultimately derived from the Babylonian tale of the heavenly bull that was slain by Gilgamish and Enkidu as an offering to Shamash or was a natively Aryan idea suggested by the well-known Aryan regard for cattle, which has now left a conspicuous trace in Hindu superstition.

16. A Mithraeum into which a hundred votaries might have crowded has been found in Rome, but, so far as I know, it is exceptional. Many Mithraea could have accommodated only twenty or so celebrants without intolerable crowding. Whether a given Mithraeum was used by more than one congregation of Brethren is an open question.

17. I dealt with this point in Appendix I.

18. An admirably concise and handsomely illustrated account of Mithraism in the Roman Empire by Dr. Elmar Schwertheim forms the 1979 Sondernummer of the well-known journal of general archaeology, Antike Welt. Good photographs show many of the best-preserved Mithraic sculptures and, what is not common, portraits of two Magi, in which historians of art may see an anticipation of the style of Byzantine religious paintings. Also shown is a trick arrow, one of the devices used to make simpletons gawk in pious awe; it is, of course, an anticipation of the device now commonly used on the stage and in the cinema when it is desired to show a man slain by an arrow or sword through his body. For the English reader, there is a compendious account in the translation of Franz Cumont’s The Mysteries of Mithra, which is available in a Dover reprint. A series of scholarly volumes devoted to Mithraism is in course of publication at Leiden as part of the collection of "Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romaine." The inscriptions are collected in the Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Mithriacae, edited by M. J. Vermaseren. For a basic bibliography of other works, see the notes to Dr. Schwertheim’s long article.

19. Masonic rituals and the bizarre myths about Yahweh, Solomon, Hiram, and a trio of malefactors, Jebulo, Jebula, and Jebulum, may be found in the Reverend Mr. Walton Hannah’s Christian by Degrees (London, 1964) and Darkness Visible (London, 1966). The myths are said to be understood symbolically, rather than literally, by the adepts, but Christians are exercised over the question whether the symbols are compatible with their religion.

20. To my mind, a Parthian origin is suggested by the fact that the proselyte could advance through seven degrees of which the fifth was "Persian." (The sixth was "Messenger of the Sun," i.e., Mithra, and the seventh was "Father," i.e. a consecrated priest.) This corresponds to the respect that the Parthians had for the Persians over whom they ruled.

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