Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Posts Tagged ‘culture

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

with one comment

The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]

Bibliography

Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1235 (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1181 (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1110 (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

[16] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[17] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

Advertisements

The ‘mystic psychology’ of Gnosticism

leave a comment »

This is something of a final piece for my Arts Degree. Also, a little more epic than usual. It not only concerns early Christianity and the late Roman world, but how we might go about understanding, interpreting and reconstructing religion.

Gnosticism is often called a more ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ religion by modern thinkers. Comparing Gnosticism to other religious systems, explore how this is or isn’t an appropriate designation.

Introduction

A collection of soteriological religious ideas which circulated throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries C.E. is generally known today as ‘Gnosticism’. It is often colloquially considered by modern thinkers as a more ‘mystic’ or ‘psychological’ religion in comparison to other religious and philosophical belief systems of its time. I shall in this essay explore why this might be, comparing the Gnostic religion to Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity. My contention is that most religious systems could be considered as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’, but that Gnosticism has been so characterized mainly as a result of modern misunderstandings of religious thinking.

A number of modern thinkers have linked Gnosticism with mysticism, or detected its “psychological implications.”[1] The extant texts are referred to by Needleman as “the subconscious teachings of Christianity;”[2] Leloup calls them the “unconscious gospels.”[3] Psychologists of last century with something of a mystic reputation are sometimes referred to as “modern Gnostics.”[4] Such associations might naturally centre around a religion preoccupied with knowledge of an elusive or secret kind – ‘Gnosticism’ is derived from the word for ‘knowledge’ in ancient Greek.[5] I will employ the word ‘psychological’ in this essay in a very casual sense: ‘apparently reflecting mental functions and behaviour, particularly with a therapeutic effect’. As I shall detail shortly, despite modern conceptions about religion, most religions could be considered highly ‘psychological’ as they could be said to have some therapeutic aspect, if only in that they recommend a perspective on existence and a way of living, and that they intrinsically involve highly complex interrelations of thought and feeling functions, most of which operate unconsciously or at least indistinctly. The casual conception of ‘mysticism’ reflects this ‘psychological’ underpinning of religion – the word is used to refer to a religious mindset that is contemplative or self-surrendering, with a rejection of doctrine, intellect or even moral values. While both terms could fairly apply to Gnosticism, I shall argue shortly that they could very well apply to virtually all truly religious experience.

Understanding Gnosticism

There are two principal problems we encounter in attempting to construct a meaningful understanding of the Gnostic religion: the general difficulty of properly comprehending how religion operates psychologically, and the problem of understanding the everyday culture and thinking styles of people living nearly 2000 years ago. Even just linguistically, for example, a bewildering array of modern concepts cannot have meant exactly what we mean by them today – concepts such as ‘rational knowledge’, ‘empirical evidence’, and ‘Christianity’. This stands to reason, as orthodox Christianity and western science, as we understand them today, developed mostly after the period of the Gnostics, taking centuries to thresh out their respective philosophical particulars. Similarly, the term ‘Gnosticism’ itself was never used by the ancients. It was coined in the 17th century C.E.[6] to refer to an apparent heretical movement among the early Christians and consequently has a pejorative ring to it.[7] Yet the word gnosis does play a role in the extant Gnostic texts to an extent unusual in its time.[8] Gnosis is generally translated as ‘knowledge’,[9] but in English ‘knowledge’ has many different meanings. The term ‘philosophy’ is associated with the ancient Greek word for ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘knowledge’. This suggests Gnostic gnosis is something quite different from what we now call ‘rationalistic knowledge’. Joseph Campbell associates gnosis with an ineffable knowledge “transcending that derived either empirically from the senses or rationally by way of the categories of thought”.[10] Kurt Rudolph calls it a “liberating and redeeming” knowledge.[11] All of this suggests that we will struggle to describe Gnosticism with precision because it is both ancient and, fundamentally, ineffable, like much that is emotional or religious.[12]

This last point is often overlooked by scholars, particularly when it comes to seeking ‘definitions’ for cultural-religious ideas. A perfect example of this is the scholarly muddle around ‘defining’ Gnosticism. The debate centres around how to classify a fundamentally ancient and ineffable religion using a variety of discrete, precise terminologies. Ismo Dunderberg, for example, denies that ‘Gnosticism’ is a particularly useful or meaningful designation,[13] mainly because he does not see ‘the Gnostics’ as forming a unified group. He proceeds to study the fragments of Valentinus pragmatically, as representing a particular individual’s mainly moral and philosophic teachings. But most mythologies do not form unified, clearly demarcated units[14] – these are myths, not social or political organizations with a discrete charter. I see no need for mythological ‘definitions’ at all; such would be purely casual, approximate, and impressionistic[15] in the area of cultural-religious ideas in general.[16] Such ‘definitions’ say more about viewpoints of modern scholarship than about the ancients’ beliefs.[17]

How might we understand religion?

I will, briefly, support my own mythic interpretative theory by utilizing the more appropriately impressionistic myth theories of Ernst Cassirer,[18] Clifford Geertz,[19] and others. Cassirer’s theory concerns the changes to mythic thinking over time. He proposes that the principle difference between modern and ancient thinking was not that the ancients did not have a basic understanding of what we call practical matters or rationality, for example, but that these understandings were expressed in a manner more fundamentally fused (today we would say confused) with areas of thought which we would call impractical, superstitious, or irrational.[20] For example, hunter-gatherer thinking would most likely have fused into one mindset the categories of thought we would today compartmentalize and distinguish as ethics, metaphysics, personal psychology, politics, aesthetics, opinion, superstition, philosophy, practical economics, etc.[21] Of course, the Romans would not have thought in as much of an extremely ‘fused’ manner as hunter-gatherer people; Cassirer suggests that with the development of what we call civilization (particularly early science and rationality) more of these categories of thought began to be consciously distinguished and conceptualized more discretely.

What this means is that we can and should, if only for convenience’ sake, use ‘discrete’ modern terms to refer to ancient thought, provided that we remain wary that the historical reality was more blurred, mixed, and ‘fused’, such that, for example, discrete but superficially similar thought processes can be equated and spoken of, even experienced, as one. In fact, Cassirer’s whole thesis is that this ancient, ‘fused’ way of thinking is actually the default mode of mythological thought and experience.[22] It is this less distinguished, ‘fused’ thinking which we are likely to see reflected in written records such as the Gnostic texts and which leads us to consider all religions, not just Gnosticism, as intrinsically ‘psychological’, even ‘mystic’.[23] This is one reason why religions cannot be explicated using ‘empirical’ or ‘systematic’ methods – both these thinking processes value discreteness and physicality to an extent, I argue, which the cultural-mythological subject matter does not warrant.[24]

Clifford Geertz[25] further explains the structure of myth in terms of a two-way interaction between a cultural ethos and a mythic worldview. Certain popular and meaningful cultural beliefs and ideas make up the components of a metaphysics or meta-narrative which in turn validates the component beliefs and ideas through ordering them into a meaningful structure. I argue, on the basis of Geertz’s theory, that it is the mythic worldview which crystallizes and guides the thinking process in relation to religious thought and experience. It is a kind of dynamic formula not of intellect, ethics, or theology, but of action.[26] The worldview motivates the ‘religious mission’.[27] However, we must remain aware that an individual deeply involved[28] in such a worldview is generally not consciously aware of its psychological functioning because he or she is dealing with a heavily ‘fused’ mode of thinking. The worldview and ethos are necessarily vague and approximate values, however their interrelation is of prime importance.[29] A slight alteration in ethos is unlikely to affect the worldview, but a large alteration can render the structuring device of the worldview ineffectual (i.e. less powerful, less inspiring) or even totally obsolete (in which case the religion becomes meaningless, ‘deceptive’ (i.e. uninspiring), or a curious folk story). The difficulty in terms of historical analysis of worldview and ethos is that neither of these is explicitly stated or directly represented in written texts or even verbal expression. These are only approximate values to begin with, that only appear in very impressionistic and generalised ways. Accordingly, a mythic worldview cannot be ‘defined’ but only impressionistically outlined and for the purposes of study.[30]

Finally, the numinous feeling that pervades myth[31] is, I argue, another component in the ‘fusing’ of mythic thought, not only in the sense that an emotional aspect is included along with the other indistinct mental elements, but the very process of ‘fused’ mythological thinking – particularly the sense of a mythic worldview crystallizing all the myriad parts of the cultural ethos and ordering these meaningfully – probably engenders a sense of culminating awe, of ‘transcendent-immanent horror-joy’.[32]

What is Gnosticism?

Since a mythic worldview is a complex metaphysics or meta-narrative, to explore the Gnostic worldview[33] I will turn primarily to Gnostic accounts of creation and cosmology as revealed in the texts usually titled, On the Origin of the World (OW) and The Secret Book of John (SBJ).[34] Here we read that, after the creation of the world of the highest gods by the ultimate god-principle known as ‘the One’ (OW 97-9; SBJ 2-9), an immortal known as Barbelo in SBJ, Pistis-Sophia (literally ‘Faith-Wisdom’) in OW, independently creates a being without the consent of the One from a superfluous substance referred to as shadow, chaos, darkness, envy, deficiency, abortion, and matter (OW 100; SBJ 9-10). This new being, said to be a “thing with no spirit … made into a likeness of the divine” (OW 100), is the first archon (‘ruler’), known as the Demiurge, identified with the creator god from the Torah or Old Testament. The Demiurge proceeds to shape matter into the world roughly as per Genesis chapter 1, creating lesser rulers, kings, and powers, including those of the planets of the ancient zodiac (OW 100-3; SBJ 10-3). The Demiurge then commits a great sin: he proclaims, “‘I am God, and there is no other but me’” (OM 103). In his arrogance, or ignorance, the Demiurge does not know of the One, the higher, more perfect god which came before him. Barbelo/Pistis and the One then reveal a glorious androgynous man made of light to expose the lie of the Demiurge, but this only encourages the Demiurge to create man, as it were, in the man of light’s image (OM 103, 107-8, 112-3; SBJ 14-5). The Demiurge and his powers (including the planets) are able to create bodily aspects of the first human but such is only able to come fully to life with the secret intervention of ‘the Mother’/Sophia, who essentially imprisons a spark of enlightened Insight (gnosis) within man (OM 114-5; SBJ 19-21). The end of the tale is similar to Genesis 2. The first man appears in the garden of Paradise, is divided: Adam becomes male and Eve female – Eve secretly embodies an earthly version of the goddess/Sophia – and, after eating from the tree of knowledge, they are expelled from the garden by a jealous Demiurge (OM 118-21; SBJ 21-3).

From this creation story, we discern the mythic worldview of the Gnostics. The world, including man, as in orthodox Christianity, is ‘fallen’ – evil, deluded, ignorant, imperfect – but it is not the Biblical God who is to bring about salvation. A redeemer figure – not always[35] but often Jesus Christ, son of the true, highest god, of the One – descends and re-ascends from on high to bring knowledge – insight, gnosis – of the true light, perfection, wholeness. This is the central worldview of Gnosticism.[36] The aim of the Gnostic was, through whatever means,[37] to become aware of the divine spark within, and thereby to gain some sort of spiritual freedom or release from the corrupt world of the Demiurge. To reiterate, this is not a precise, always-stated principle or ‘doctrine’ of Gnosticism, but an approximation of a common conceptualization (the worldview) which functioned as the motivator for the driving feeling and spirit of this ancient religion.

As Dunderberg observes,[38] many Gnostic texts do not even mention the Demiurge, the fallen world, even the One, but I argue that something like this basic conception of ‘salvation from corruption’ inspires the ethical teaching or abstract transcendental poetry of the Gnostic texts. Similarly, this general worldview can be expressed in texts which differ or contradict each other on the level of specific detail. My exposition of the Gnostic cosmology above has ironed out much of the differing detail in the two texts – not only regarding names used, but the order of events is different, and there are some seemingly radical differences of interpretation. For example, in OM, the serpent in the garden and the tree of knowledge itself are embodiments of or emissaries from the life-giving Pistis-Sophia; whereas, in SBJ, they represent the corrupting powers of the Demiurge – the fruit of the tree brings not gnosis but a poison which instills desire, empty pleasure, and sexuality (which is seen as perverse and corrupting). These differences have been largely disregarded for two reasons. Firstly, individual believers naturally do not express similar ideas in exactly the same way. This is especially the case in a non-doctrinal religion where there is no authoritative text to be consulted like a prescriptive law book. Hence the differences are not necessarily significant. Secondly, most importantly, the differing details do not affect the fundamental worldview. In OM, disobedience in the garden is a disobedience of the ignorant Demiurge only. In SBJ, the Demiurge urges them away from the evil tree to make it seem more attractive to them. Either way, the world creator is an evil menace, endeavouring to keep humanity away from gnosis and the light. This disparity and variety of expression suggests not imprecision (since, again, there is no real precision in ‘fused’ religious conception), but a mytho-poetic grasping for expression of an ineffable ‘psychological’ truth.

Gnosticism compared to Neoplatonism

Like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism also exhibits a propensity for diverse forms. Each philosopher in the tradition from Plotinus to Proclus knowingly articulates his ideas in differing ways.[39] However, once again, an encompassing mythic worldview suffuses all texts in the tradition, otherwise we probably would not recognize them as exemplifying ‘Neoplatonism’. In comparison to Gnosticism, the Neoplatonic religion expresses itself in what we might call transcendental philosophy rather than narrative myth-making. In this respect, its worldview is less of a meta-narrative and more of a metaphysics. The universe is pictured largely according to the Greco-Roman tradition[40] with Earth pictured at the centre of 7 or 8 rotating concentric spheres, each home to a ‘planet’[41] or the ‘fixed stars’. Neoplatonism conceives all of this originating and remaining within the perfect, uniting, infinite, self-sufficient, transcendent-yet-immanent power of the One, which is sometimes anthropomorphized but is, like the entirety of Neoplatonism, mostly conceived of in extremely abstract terms. From the One emanates the archetypes or ‘intelligible forms’ which function rather like blueprints for the shaping of inert matter into the material and living world. Naturally, all of this differs slightly in organization, degree, names and expression depending on which Neoplatonic philosopher you are reading (or, indeed, which section of the same philosopher).[42]

The principal difference between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in terms of mythic worldview – which, of course, changes everything – is that the world is not considered necessarily evil, ‘fallen’, corrupt, deluded, or ignorant. Plotinus insists that the material world, while less ‘real’ than that of the immortal Soul or the One, is truly beautiful, perfect, and necessary to existence.[43] “[W]ill there be any so dull-witted and unresponsive,” he asks, “in seeing all the varied beauty in the world of sense, … that he will not stand in awe of it?” (Plotinus Enneads II 9.xvi). Without matter, he argues, “all would lie buried in [the One], without Form” (Plotinus, Enneads IV 8.vi). Evil is not a separate principle or power but simply a result of a world which is not adequately ‘in form’; that is, not properly reflecting the perfect archetypes which herald from the One. However, the similarities between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism are great, and not only in respect to diversity of expression and structural conception of the universe. Neoplatonism holds that humans are part-matter and part-incorporeal, immortal soul. This soul is said to descend and ascend through the spheres at birth and death respectively. The similarity here to the Gnostic ‘insight’ or ‘spark’ imprisoned in the corrupt flesh of body is striking.

Diversity of form, coupled with its expression in the form of philosophy rather than mythic narrative, leaves us with a sense that Neoplatonism is also ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’. The terminology used by Plotinus refers directly to metaphysical principles which are blatantly words indicating psychological states: the powers of ‘Intellect’, ‘Desire’, ‘Soul’, ‘Goodness’, for example. This is also the case in Gnosticism of course, but such forces are generally personified: Pistis-Sophia (‘Faith-Wisdom’) is more clearly conceived as a goddess-figure, for example. Plotinus is apparently describing a metaphysics, not a psychology, yet virtually all his proofs and arguments rely on comparisons to psychological experience in some way. For example, he argues using metaphors that only make sense when psychologically conceived: the development of matter is “like the unfolding of a seed” (Enneads IV 8.vi). These metaphors seem to be all the proof required – he does not need to argue why it should be like the unfolding of a seed; the metaphorical comparison itself seems to be evidence that satisfies intuitively, that is, ‘psychologically’.[44] Furthermore, “the sight of beauty … can bear a man up to the higher reality” (Enneads II 9.xvi) surely means that such a man is not literally borne to a physically higher or otherwise displaced location, but is metaphorically borne to a ‘higher’ psychological state of mind. Unfortunately, the metaphorical conception is probably only perceived as more correct from our modern standpoint. Plotinus almost certainly equates the two, i.e. that psychological state (experienced rather than conceptualized) is the soul momentarily becoming physically displaced to a higher reality. Properly considered, Gnosticism seems less ‘psychological’ in comparison to Neoplatonic philosophy, yet modern psychologists are not considered by some thinkers as ‘modern Neoplatonists’[45] – it is the Gnostics that are represented as ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’. This still needs to be explained.

Gnosticism versus orthodox Christianity

In turning to orthodox Christianity, we must be careful to consider this in context. As far as we know there was no ‘orthodox’ Christianity before the 4th century C.E. when Theodosius I made it the Roman Empire’s sole authorized religion. I hope my earlier discussion of the typical forms of religious thought has shown that the idea of ‘authorizing’ a religion is a highly artificial almost incongruous thing to do.[46] It is worth bearing in mind that even after the declaration of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E., the establishing of one dogmatic Christian creed took centuries to achieve, and it is arguable that such an undertaking had more to do with political repression than religious expression.[47]

We might express the fundamental orthodox Christian worldview as: The world including man is ‘fallen’; it is obedience to the moral law of the Biblical God, through the forgiving Grace and sacrament of his son Jesus Christ, that will lead the individual to ‘salvation’. This worldview sounds, on the face of it, very like the Gnostic in the sense that both can be reduced to a less specific and indiscrete emotional striving after ‘salvation from corruption’. We might explore the differences between the orthodox Christian and Gnostic religions through the critical words of those contemporaries of the Gnostics who later came to be known as the Church Fathers, but, upon reflection, there is very little criticism here pertaining to mythic worldview. This is because when two religious sects essentially hold the same or very similar worldviews, criticism can only occur on the level of ethos, that is, on the level of particular expression, social practice, ethical systemization or even political affiliation. These may be component elements which make up part of the ‘fused’ mythic worldview, but on their own they are perceived by the religious believer as either inessential, extrinsic or differently inflected. The Church Fathers’ fundamental criticisms are not specific to Christianity or Gnosticism but might be applied by an outsider to any religion he or she wishes to repudiate. These criticisms differ in detail of course but include accusations of corrupt origins, of inconsistency or incoherence, and of immoral practices.[48] All religions can be considered as dubious in this way due to the ‘fused’ nature of mythic conception.

The mode of religious expression can also be used to make a superficial distinction between traditions. We have already seen how Neoplatonism appears far more philosophical due to the abstract dialectical language in which its central inspiration is expressed. We see this component factor of expression over-enlarged into an apparently fundamental religious conflict when we consider the arguments concerning orthodox Christian ‘faith’ versus Gnostic ‘knowledge’.[49] On the psychological level, what, finally, is the difference between ‘faith’, a sense of ineffable religious righteousness or feeling, and ‘gnosis’, a non-rational, ineffable kind of ‘knowledge’? Such terms are ‘fused’ in normal religious thought. Their use merely depends upon whichever seems the more appropriate word to express the ineffable in the context of the religious discourse or vernacular. The word ‘faith’ rather than ‘knowledge’ is more likely to be used when the speaker does not seek to draw upon (or wishes to bypass) philosophic conception in describing this feeling.[50] This is primarily how the orthodox Christian hermeneutic operates. Its worldview finds expression and justification in literal, material, anti-philosophic, ethical-political doctrine rather than theoretical philosophical dialectic (Neoplatonism) or mytho-poetic narrative-philosophy (Gnosticism).

The primary religious difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism (i.e. significantly affecting worldview) is in the degree of world denial. In both traditions the world is ‘fallen’, man a creature of sin. Gnosticism includes the world rulers and creators as part of this corruption, whereas orthodox Christianity does not. This is the source of the orthodox Christian claim that Gnosticism is “nihilistic”,[51] yet ‘greater world denial’ does not necessarily equate to ‘rejection of all religious principles’. Accordingly, orthodox Christianity values collective social, ethical, and earlier-religious sources of meaning more than Gnosticism.[52] The effect of this upon orthodox Christianity is that, ironically, man is actually considered more flawed in relation to the deity. God, unlike The One, becomes the representative of earthly social, ethical, and traditionally authoritive meaning; hence he is more moralistic, righteous, and transcendent.[53] The Gnostic finds salvation not in the world, not in man, but not in moral, political[54] or traditional social authorities either, only in the One, which is abstract, transcendent, ineffable, but also, significantly, immanent, within the individual. Ironically, by rejecting all other forms of meaning, Gnosticism actually makes meaning accessible to any individual anywhere at any time, provided he is in possession of gnosis, or, in more ‘psychological’ terms, is in the right ‘enlightened’ state of mind.[55] Orthodox Christianity instead seeks to locate its numinous inspiration – its gnosis, as it were – exclusively in the institution of the Church, in the holy rite (religious ‘magic’) of the Eucharist, its efficacy explained by an un-philosophical ‘magic’ designated ‘faith’.[56] It is this ‘faith’ and the associated material-historical doctrine of the orthodox Christian which seeks to invalidate all claims that his or her religion has any necessary connection to emotional expression or ‘psychology’.[57] Hence orthodox Christianity as religion remains emotional-‘psychological’ but claims it is literal, historical ‘magic’ to a startling degree.[58]

Conclusion

The source of the modern designation of Gnosticism as a more ‘psychological’ religion is to be found in my earlier exposition concerning how religion is structured and operates. Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity can all be seen as ‘psychological’ because they are religions and, as we have seen, religions are psychologically complex human thinking constructs. However, the modern conception of Gnosticism’s especially ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ nature goes beyond this in, I argue, two different directions. These concern, respectively, modern ideas of, in the first instance, religion, and, in the second, scholastic enquiry. Today, religions are popularly understood to be prescriptive ethical systems, clearly defined in a doctrine, and based on an irrational supernatural ‘belief’ concerning existence. This conception is clearly based on the Abrahamic doctrinal religions, particularly orthodox Christianity, which are, as I have argued throughout this essay, quite exceptional in that they rather incongruously and somewhat superficially express their approximate, impressionistic, ‘fused’ mythological worldviews in deceptively discrete, specific, ethical-political-ontological-historical doctrines. As a result, religion in general is popularly considered much less ‘psychological’ today than it actually is, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, Campbell, Boyer etc. Hence, when Gnosticism is considered, its non-doctrinal expression stands out in stark relief against its worldview, perceived as startlingly similar to the familiar Christian worldview, thus rending Gnosticism, superficially, as a more ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’ religion.

The scholarly conception of Gnosticism functions in a similarly superficial manner. In simulating the rigorous standards of empirical science, modern scholarship breaks down ‘evidence’ of this ancient religion into discrete, consistent units, searching for the precision of historical truth and, again, ‘doctrine’. However, this ‘evidence’ is comprised of cultural-mythological phenomena, which are actually, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, etc., intrinsically vague, approximate, impressionistic, and ‘fused’. Most scholarship thereby produces mainly hairsplitting analysis of individual differences of presentation, expression, or social-political affiliation, comprising cultural ethos, and only rarely and indistinctly the fundamental worldview. The result is categorization of religions according to their mode of expression or obvious surface characteristics. Hence, Neoplatonism is properly a kind of transcendental philosophy rather than a religion because it is expressed in philosophical texts. Similarly, orthodox Christianity is a religion since it has a church, expresses itself in doctrine and has authoritative-sounding texts. Gnosticism’s mixture of poetry and literary-style narrative text analysis seems too ‘wild’ to be sensible philosophy or a ‘serious’[59] religion. Again, its diverse, impressionistic texts defy (inappropriately) concise definition. Hence it remains, colloquially, a strange, complex curiosity, to be picked over for intellectual tidbits and branded as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’.

Considered inappropriately through the prisms of doctrinal religion or rationalistic scholarship, the ‘mystic’, ‘psychological’ aspect of any and all religion is selected as Gnosticism’s unique possession. Both approaches make essentially the same mistake in considering religion to be defined by a discrete, specific, concise thinking-process rather than an impressionistic, general, ‘fused’ non-conscious interaction between a Geertzian worldview and cultural ethos, producing an orientating ineffable numinous motivation and inspiration for life. However, such a ‘psychological’ aspect is not so much absent from as not unique to Gnosticism. In fact, we could put this slightly more positively as: Gnosticism is unique in that the ‘psychological’ aspect of general religious conception is more obvious to modern thinkers in its mode of expression than other known religions. However, modern thinkers do not generally realize this, or at least, express it this way.

Bibliography

Primary Texts
Epiphanius Panarion trans. P. R. Armidon (New York and Oxford, 1990).
Irenaeus Against the Heresies trans. D. J. Unger (New York and Mahwah, N. J., 1992).
Plotinus Enneads trans. J. Gregory (London, 1991).
On the Origin of the World trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
The Secret Book of John trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
Tertullian On the Prescription of Heretics trans. T. H. Bindley (London, 1914).

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Beck, R. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York, 2006).
Boyer, P. Religion Explained (London, 2001).
Cahana, J. “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Antitraditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” The Journal of Religion 94 (2014): 49-73.
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Cassirer, E. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. II: Mythic Thought trans. R. Manheim (New Haven and London, 1955).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Dunderberg, I. Beyond Gnosticism (New York and Chichester, West Sussex, 2008).
Filoramo, G. A History of Gnosticism trans. A. Alcock (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1990).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Gregory, J. The Neoplatonists (London, 1991).
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
King, K. L. “The Politics of Syncretism and the Problem of Defining Gnosticism,” Historical Reflections 27 (2001): 461-79.
King, K. L. What is Gnosticism? (London, 2003).
Leloup, J. The Gospel of Philip trans. J. Rowe (Rochester, Vermont, 2003).
Meyer, M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition (New York, 2007).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pennachio, John. “Gnostic Inner Illumination and Carl Jung’s Individuation,” Journal of Religion and Health 31 (1992): 237-45.
Rasimus, T. “Ophite Gnosticism, Sethianism and the Nag Hammadi Library,” Vigiliae Christianae 59 (2005): 235-63.
Rudolph, K. Gnosis: the Nature and History of an Ancient Religion trans. R. M. Wilson (Leipzig, 1977).
Wallis, R. T. and Bregman, J., eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, 1992).

Footnotes

[1] Jonas expounded in King (2003), 114.

[2] Leloup (2003), x; Needleman’s italics.

[3] Leloup (2003), 2.

[4] Wallis and Bregman (1992), 4; Filoramo (1990), xiv; King (2003), 19. Cf. Pennachio (1992).

[5] Campbell (1968), 158.

[6] Dunderberg (2008), 16; or 18th century according to Rudolph (1977), 55.

[7] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[8] Rudolph (1977), 55. Aside from use by the Gnostics themselves, the Church Fathers refer to Gnosticism as the “gnosis falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6: 20 cited in Rudolph (1977), 55).

[9] Campbell (1968), 158. Rudolph (1977) prefers ‘insight’.

[10] Campbell (1968), 158. Campbell compares Gnosticism to Buddhism, which is based on the word for ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit, and with its own variety of non-rationalistic ‘knowledge’.

[11] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[12] There is certainly no scholarship to the effect that gnosis represents ‘rationalistic’ knowledge.

[13] Dunderberg (2008), 16.

[14] Though they may appear to. See the discussion of ‘doctrine’ versus ‘worldview’ in footnote 28; more on this later.

[15] To clarify, ‘impressionistic’ in this essay suggests a subjective, emotional, unsystematic reaction or thinking style.

[16] The debate surrounding the ‘definition’ of Gnosticism seems unknowingly and bizarrely preoccupied with defining what exactly we mean by religion in general, merely approached through the example of Gnosticism. We do not generally spend most or all of an article on, say, Christianity or Judaism, trying to define the word we use for that religion before we have even began. The whole approach seems to be hairsplitting or, at least, based on certain unspoken (or unconscious) assumptions.

[17] Dunderberg (2008), 15. It can of course be useful to make such distinctions in terms of historical-political scholarship but we must remember that these are fundamentally artificial (even, merely linguistic) methodological conveniences which often have very little to do with actual religious experience. Furthermore, a particular cultural idea or trait is never a single, clearly-defined, identically structured or reproduced ethereal ‘substance’ or ‘quality’, but a mere approximate similarity in terms of a thinking process or element among a group of discrete individuals (see Boyer (2001), 40). The scholarly designation of ‘Sethian’ versus, say, ‘Orphite’ Gnosticism (see Rasimus (2005), for example) produces further muddles. Are we talking here about different religions, different sects, or different regional variation in the expression of ideas within Gnosticism? Surely Lutherans are not Muslims, but are Sufis not Muslims because they are not Sunnis? And what about the Japanese person who might be Zen Buddhist and Shinto? We must make clear exactly what we are interested in: the meaning of Gnosticism for its professors or for the outsiders or enemies of the Gnostics? The perspective here will make all the difference but it is surprising how often these different perspectives are not differentiated, declared, even blurred together in the scholarship. There often is a world of difference between the mental reality of religious thinking and the self-identification of religious categories according to believers, non-believers, and individual religious scholars. My own interest is in the mindset of those inspired by, most intimately involved in, the ‘practisers’ of, Gnosticism (we might call them Gnostic ‘believers’).

[18] Cassirer (1946).

[19] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[20] Cassirer (1955), 78.

[21] This is why today, when such relatively discrete compartments of thinking have been separated we are more likely to redefine the earlier mode not so much as ‘fused’ but as ‘confused’, even ‘irrational’, ‘silly’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘wrong’, etc.

[22] This accords with modern understandings of the plethora of simultaneous non-conscious inference systems constantly operating in the human mind as outlined in Boyer (2001), 109-12.

[23] Since ‘mysticism’ by definition assumes an overriding of intellectual thinking, all religions can be considered ‘mystic’ because ‘fused’ thought is necessarily more or other than intellectual. Similarly, we might consider all religions as ‘syncretistic’ despite dogmatic claims for exclusivity, see King (2001), 463 for discussion of the term ‘syncretistic’.

[24] What this essentially means is that you cannot ‘prove’ two individuals are not inspired by the same religion just because they consciously express different words or conceptions. There is, in religious matters, an essential disconnect between conscious expression and non-conscious thought such as Boyer can remark: “when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about” (Boyer (2001), 108).

[25] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[26] As per Ruth Millikan, mental conception functions much less like an encyclopedia, collating ‘definitions’, than as a process for acquiring practical mental skills of recognition and evaluation (Boyer (2001), 129).

[27] I might add that the mythic worldview is not just the ‘lowest common denominator’ of a particular collection of culture-values (i.e. the ethos). This is partly because religious worldviews tend toward the more not less meaningful conception (hence we could argue it is more like the ‘highest common denominator’), but there are actually a distinct number of psychological factors which make some ideas and not others good candidates for religious conception. See Boyer (2001), 19-20, 33-4.

[28] I would not say ‘indoctrinated’ here. A Geertzian worldview is totally different from a doctrine. A doctrine is specific, discrete and philosophically stated. It is usually associated with political or ethical rather than mythological thinking. It functions more like a constitution in relation to a set of laws and in this respect it says more or less precisely what it means. A religious doctrine is, as per Boyer, not a precondition of all religion, but peculiar only to some (Boyer (2001), 159). Such a doctrine often functions as a justification for equating, repressing or restructuring primary religious inspiration with or by ethical-ideological dogma (see Hayden (2003), 5-12).

[29] See King (2001), 469-71 for her explanation involving the metaphor of cookery.

[30] For application of the Geertzian ethos-worldview in more modern scholarship, see Beck (2006), particularly 67-71; also, King (2001), 469-70.

[31] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[32] Otto (1923), 5-71. See also Boyer (2001), 145: feelings are the natural outcomes of our complex non-conscious inference systems.

[33] As per Geertz (1957), the use of ‘worldview’ refers to a decidedly impressionistic, ‘fused’, general overarching conception by definition. My use of ‘worldview’ does not imply a specific, discrete, precisely proscribed concept, and certainly not a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[34] See Meyer (2007), 199-222, 103-32.

[35] Rudolph (1977), 118.

[36] Such a rendition is relatively rare in scholarship, perhaps because making such generalized statements about a religion smacks of imprecision or simplification. However, I have already shown how systematic precision is misplaced when talking about ‘fused’ mytho-religious thought. And when such a statement is made in scholarship, it ends up sounding very like a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[37]We do not actually know what these were in any detail.

[38] Dunderberg (2008), 15.

[39] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[40]Which is no doubt the source of this conception in Gnosticism also; both religions share an ethos.

[41] The sun and moon were considered planets in ancient times.

[42] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[43] Gregory (1991), 102.

[44] It is possible of course to see these as explanations rather than proofs, but, if this is the case, Plotinus does not seem to provide any proofs for his philosophy as very rarely is any other form of evidence offered.

[45] See again the designation of some modern psychologists as ‘modern Gnostics’ in my introduction section.

[46] Hayden (2003), 4-12.

[47] See Campbell (1964), 407-19.

[48] Rudolph (1977), 12, 14, 15, 19. For example, in reference to the perversion of scripture and the allegedly confused basis of Gnostic myth, Irenaeus claims “what is ambiguous [the Gnostics] cleverly and deceitfully adapt to their fabrication by an unusual explanation” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.35) and, “[s]uch is their system which neither the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down,” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 8.1). Epiphanius argues that the Gnostics “fabricate books … basing themselves on pagan superstition … thereby weaving together truth and falsehood” (Epiphanius, Panarion 26.1.3). Tertullian also rails against false origins (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 21) and inconsistency (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 51). Epiphanius stretches credibility with his long diatribe detailing the apparent perversity of the Gnostics’ sexual practices which he claims include promiscuity (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.1), masturbation (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.1), homosexuality (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.8), and obscene rituals involving sexual orgies and abortions (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.5-5.2).

[49] Rudolph (1977), 15. For example, see Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 6.2.

[50] By philosophy here I mean both evidence-based ‘empirical’ philosophy, and the more general, ‘rational thinking’ variety. Indeed, the rejection of philosophy seems explicit in statements such as the following from Tertullian: “‘Thy faith,’ Christ said, ‘hath saved thee,’ not thy argumentative skill in the Scriptures” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 14).

[51] Rudolph (1977), 16.

[52] See Cahana (2014) for a study of Gnosticism’s unusual rejection of virtually all tradition.

[53]This is what Tertullian unknowingly expresses when he argues that Gnosticism “blurs the fixed limits that separate the creature from the deity” (H. von Campenhausen qtd. in Rudolph (1977), 16).

[54] King (2001), 476-7 finds the Gnostic position more political, as in, the Gnostic opposition to celestial and earthly rulers can be seen as a political protest against Roman authority. I acknowledge this is possible although the extant Gnostic texts read as religious texts and not political tracts. I suspect the distinction ‘more political’ may again be a qualifier which heralds from measuring Gnostic implications in relation to perceived Christian orthodoxy (itself possibly more explicitly political in its day than today). My point is that most religions can be skewed into political discourses, but such do not afford a complete picture of the religious experience, which is, as King ends up acknowledging, “somewhat ambivalent” (King (2001), 477) when it comes to advocating a radical political cause.

[55]See Campbell (1964), 366; Campbell (1968), 157-8.

[56] I am not here precluding the possibility that Gnosticism may have had a ‘magic’ ritual aspect too, only that, if it did have this aspect, there was also a philosophical-emotional reading involved as well. The extant Gnostic texts tell us little about ritual practice but they certainly reveal that there was no fixed doctrinal expression or denial of a philosophical-emotional approach to gnosis.

[57] For example, Irenaeus criticizes the Gnostics for supposing “they can surpass the apostles … and trust their inner capacity to innovate and progress spiritually” (Cahana (2014), 54).

[58] Perhaps one reason it does this is to distinguish itself from Gnosticism in the first place – who can say.

[59] I.e. dogmatic.

Ancient Greek Pederasty: Love, Lust, Power & Pedagogy

with 2 comments

pederastic_sceneI wasn’t going to post this essay from my BA as it does not directly concern the arts or myth like most posts on this blog, but I reread it recently I think it is interesting for the interpretation of culture (which is related to arts and myth). I hope it is of interest to some. 😉

The ancient Greek discourse of pederasty challenges many of our modern conceptions of societal normalcy. An erotic relationship between a 12-17 year old boy and a mature man would be considered illegal not just in Australia but in most modern cultures today. As to whether this relationship was romantic, the primary sources are equivocal. It all depends on what one means by romance and what exactly would be convincing evidence of such. David Halperin and Michel Foucault have argued that the ancient Greek pederastic relationship had more to do with power than love, but I shall argue that this is by no means clear, or even particularly meaningful in itself.

That the social custom of ancient Greek pederasty existed is not at issue. We have Greek pottery painted with images depicting a young man (the eromenos or ‘beloved’)[1] being effectively courted by an older man (the erastes or ‘lover’),[2] in rare instances even going so far as to portray sex between them, in the form of intercrural intercourse.[3] We have the Symposium of Plato, exploring the nobility of ‘boy-love’. The works of the lyric poets, though fragmentary, clearly record the pederastic eroticism of ancient Greek writers. The institution seems to have arisen in the sixth century B.C.E., and was a much-lauded social custom for over a thousand years, disappearing only with the triumph of Christianity in the 5th century C.E.[4]

A difficulty with interpreting a social custom such as Greek pederasty is that a custom is not an event or a thing, but a collection of values, beliefs and experiences. These are, of course, not found expressed directly in archaeological evidence but have to be inferred from often disparate and fragmented discourse. Furthermore, a particular piece of evidence apparently concerning a social convention may only provide the opinion of an ancient individual or minority; it may not reflect the broader social conventions of the majority. We need to be highly cautious and skeptical when applying a meaning or explanation to human cultural institutions. Culture involves a large element of complex human experience that often defies explanation on the basis of logical thought or strictly practical necessity. For example, the practical purpose of clothing, and the available technologies for its construction, does not always or adequately explain a particular fashion or style. The reason why humans choose to do things of a cultural nature is not explained entirely by any one economic, social, political, personal, practical, or aesthetic reason, but by a combination of all of these, and even then, the custom, particularly if it is outside our modern experience, may still remain mysterious.

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet...

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet…

In order to investigate whether or not Greek pederasty entailed a romantic element, we need also to define what we mean by romantic. Immediately, we have a demonstration of the difficulties of interpreting human culture – it is not entirely clear what modern people mean by the social conventions surrounding romantic love. We can propose that romantic love involves the idea of a magical, individual, caring, consensual relationship between, usually, a man and a woman, necessarily involving some intimacy and sexuality, often leading to marriage. Yet this ‘definition’ itself sounds dubious for a number of reasons. For starters, these ideas are not often expressed so clearly – most of us ‘just know’ what we mean by romantic love. Furthermore, these conventions are clearly in flux especially with the relatively recent separation of marriage from strict religious principles and the rise in recognition of women’s rights; the paradigm is no longer that of the husband breadwinner, and his obedient housewife. Add to this the variation between different individual tastes and experiences of love and an account of romantic love becomes even more difficult to define.

Historically, we might also question what the ancient Greeks meant by love, aside from the issue of pederasty. C. S. Lewis and Morton Hunt, among others, have argued that romantic love, as we mean it today, is an ‘invention’ of Middle Ages Europe.[5] This idea initially sounds farfetched, but we are forgetting that romantic love is quite a specific concept, carefully ‘itemised’ in the poetry of the medieval troubadours, for instance. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[6] Indeed, we do not find conclusive proof of the unique, individual, mutual, anti-instrumental and uneconomic conception of love in any ancient source – not in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or hunter-gatherer myths, for example.

For the sake of the argument, I will nonetheless examine Greek pederasty from the point of view of modern romantic love, since this is usually what we mean by the term. Leaving aside the experiential quality of the relationship, we might first observe that the actual quantitative parameters of the relationship are distinctly different. The eromenos is always a 12-17 year old boy, who is on the cusp of puberty, “before the killjoy hairs begin to sprout” (Strato, Puerilities XXI).[7] The erastes, as far as we can tell, was always a mature man, often represented with a beard in pottery art.[8] Already, this does not coincide with our modern ideas of romantic love. Of course, a romantic homosexual relationship with partners of radically different ages is possible, but there is no ‘expiry date’ on the relationship like there is with pederasty. This is one of the characteristics that makes pederasty distinct from ancient Greek conceptions of homosexuality. (The ancient Greeks seemed to define adult homosexuals only as those who were the receptive partner in intercourse and who continued the custom beyond their youthful 17 years.)[9]

P0217In addition to age conventions, pederasty was distinct in that it was supposed to provide the eromenos with an older male mentor from which he could learn wisdom.[10] In this sense, ancient Greek pederasty resembles modern ideas of brotherly love or paternal mentorship. This idea is somehow familial, like a father-son bond, yet the erastes’ admiration of the eromenos’ physical beauty does not seem to fit the familial paradigm. Furthermore, Alcibiades, in Plato’s Symposium, exclaims, after a disappointingly chaste night with Socrates, “‘I had in no more particular sense slept a night with Socrates than if I had been with my father or my elder brother!’” (Plato, Symposium 219c). This suggests that the usual pederastic interactions did not resemble ancient familial relationships.

In terms of the distinct fundamental quality of love felt by those involved in a pederastic relationship, we must draw upon the literature, particularly the poetry, to investigate how this love was expressed. To begin with, there appears to be no extant poetry written in the eromenos’ voice – it is only the erastes speaking.[11] This itself may suggest something of the lopsided nature of the relationship. The mature man principally admires the eromenos for his physical qualities: his “girlish glance” (Anacreon, PMG 359), his “honey-coloured” skin (Strabo, Puerilities V), his “delicious bottom” (Rhianus, Puerilities XXXVIII). It seems that the eromenos was occasionally unwilling, flirtatious or downright manipulative towards his admirers, but also proud of his attractiveness and occasionally very willing: “‘That feels so good!’ you cry, ‘Do that again!’” (Asclepiades of Adramyttium, Puerilities XXXVI) – at least, according to the erastes-poet.

The erastes is also somewhat possessive and jealous of his boy – criticizing him for choosing bad or even just other lovers (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1305-16), or “slutting around” (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1271). This may be an element of shared wisdom – the eromenos learns to distinguish an honourable from a dishonourable man. Yet this seems to be a self-serving form of wisdom, if, for instance, the erastes is warding the eromenos away from other men simply to retain his own possessive bond. Plato’s Symposium is the principle repository of the higher nobility of pederastic love. Here it is conceived as a lofty, intellectual, heavenly type of love, in contradistinction to the earthly, physical, common type practiced in heterosexual relations (Plato, Symposium 180c-182a). However, one must question who exactly Plato is representing in this text as it seems to embody a variety of sometimes contradictory views on love, perhaps influenced by its setting at an aristocratic drinking party.[12]

From this, we gain the impression that a pederastic relationship was passionate, physical, probably quite superficial, but also rather one-sided. On the whole, this does not sound like romantic love, but a combination of paternal mentorship with fiery lust. (Perhaps one was ‘payment’ for the other.) The age disparity between partners has led David Halperin and Michel Foucault to propose that the relationship had probably more to do with power than love: an older mature man not exactly ‘taking advantage’, but enjoying his superiority over a younger male.[13] This theory holds some credence when one considers that it was the passive, receptive partner in intercourse that was considered disreputable in adult homosexuality.[14] We might also liken the relationship between man and boy with the relationship between man and wife, as girls were married from around 15 years in ancient Greece,[15] suggesting that the submissive role was assigned to all non-mature people, regardless of sex.

6821810_origPersonally, I find this theory highlights an important element of the relationship but does not explain what it was ‘all about’. It is clear that pederasty was quite distinct from modern ideas of homosexuality, pedophilia, marriage, mentorship, male camaraderie and romantic love. Ancient historians offer their own explanations of pederasty, claiming that the legendary lawgivers Lycurgus, in Sparta, and Solon, in Athens introduced it as a form of population control along with the seclusion of women, late marriages and nude athletics.[16] This suggests that the unique custom of exercising nude in the gymnasia was developed in order to encourage eroticism and pederasty.[17] However, while population control may be an ancient justification for the practice, revealing something about the expressed beliefs and ‘explanations’ of the time, the prospect that an ancient Greek adult male’s practical concern for population numbers was at all motivating him to notice the beauty of a 16-year-old boy’s “honeyed voice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) or “accommodating orifice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) does not sound credible. Almost as strange is the idea that he was salivating over boys in order to ‘express his power’.

When it comes to an alien tradition from an ancient time such as pederasty, the closest we can come to understanding this custom is by a kind of combined analogy. We have seen how the custom involved a homosocial interaction between an older and a younger man involving something approximating paternal wisdom and aesthetic admiration. Population control or power play can possibly explain aspects of this, but we must be wary. These practical and intellectual theories of justification either operate in an intellectual vacuum, divorced from the experienced reality of the ancient Greeks, or function as illustrations of a kind of subconscious experience of these customs. The former sheds next to no light on the social custom itself (only upon ancient or modern interpretations of it), while the latter explores the nature of human sexuality and social behaviour in general, as exemplified through ancient Greek customs rather than as an explanation of them. One might similarly interpret modern romantic love as a power play or as, say, an offshoot of the evolutionary drive to reproduce. This would not be incorrect as such but the experience of such love is hardly captured in such a view. Whatever its fundamentals, ancient Greek pederasty was certainly unique as a social custom.

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Anacreon PMG 359 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Plato Symposium trans. H. N. Fowler (1925), accessed 17 Sept 2013 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DSym.%3Asection%3D172a
Theognis Erotic Elegies 2 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Various Puerilities from The Greek Anthology 12 trans. Daryl Hine (Princeton, 2009)

Secondary Sources
Averill, J. R. and E. P. Nunley. 1992. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press.
Bing, P. and R. Cohen, trans. 1993. Games of Venus: an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. London: Routledge.
Campbell, J. Creative Mythology. 2001. Reprint. London: Souvenir Press, 1968.
Chong-Gossard, Dr. K. O. 2013. “Queering the Past: Pederasty in Ancient Greece.” Lecture. Parkville: Melbourne University, 3rd Sept.
Karras, R. M. 2000. “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities.” The American Historical Review 105: 1250-65.
Lear, A. and E. Cantarella. 2008. Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Morris, I. and B. B. Powell. 2010. The Greeks: History, Culture and Society. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Percy III, W. A. 1996. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Scanlon, T. F. 2005. “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece.” Journal of Homosexuality 49: 63-85.


[1] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[2] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[3] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[4] Percy 1996, 192.

[5] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21.

[6] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21; Campbell 2001, 175-86.

[7] Note: all references from the Puerilities (Greek Anthology 12) are listed under ‘Various’ in the Primary Works Cited due to the many ancient authors in the anthology.

[8] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 192.

[9] Percy 1996, 172, 173, 186, 188; Karras 2000, 1256.

[10] Morris and Powell 2010, 36-7.

[11] Bing and Cohen 1993, 93.

[12] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 10.

[13] Chong-Gossard 2013.

[14] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[15] Morris and Powell 2010, 28.

[16] Percy 1996, 71; Lear and Cantarella 2008, 8.

[17] Percy 1996, 84, 98; Scanlon 2005, 66, 72.

Written by tomtomrant

6 March 2014 at 5:24 pm

The Mysteries of Mithras: A Symbolist Theoretic

leave a comment »

Another essay from my seemingly endless Arts degree. This was my favourite – writing about the Mithras cult of the Roman Empire, in the process discovering a theory of cultural interpretation as per Beck and Geertz, leaving behind a misguided attempt to make cultural interpretation ‘scientific’ by simply not commenting on it at all…

The religion of the Mithras cult flourished in the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth centuries C.E., only disappearing with the triumph of Christianity. The primary source evidence for the cult, while not exactly scarce, is distinctly enigmatic, consisting of little more than iconographic images and some short, largely uninformative epigraphs. Thus the meaning of this mystery cult as a historical reality has remained, ironically, mysterious. In this essay, I will firstly review the primary source evidence, drawing upon the work of Manfred Clauss. I will then explore an interpretation put forward by Roger Beck based upon the symbolist theory of Clifford Geertz. I argue that Beck’s interpretation achieves a greater insight into the experience and meaning of the cult largely because he takes the trouble to interpret the data in an appropriately ‘religious’ fashion. As we shall see, studying the Mithras cult will not exactly ‘teach us a lesson’ but ‘open out the possibilities’ of religious experience. Since this presumably approximates the goal of the ancient cult-members, we shall see how interpretations based on strict scientific rationalism will be unilluminating and generally inappropriate.

The Primary Sources

The Mithras cult apparently emerged during the first century C.E. with the appearance of the first inscriptions and artefacts.[1] The area of spread is very large, with Mithraic sites discovered throughout the ancient empire from Egypt to England.[2] We only know about membership from short epigraphs, for example: “To the invincible god Mithras, Optimus, deputy of Vitalis, slave of Sabinius Veranus and supervisor of the customs-post, has fulfilled his vow.”[3] Early followers included soldiers, ordinary citizens, slaves and low-grade administration officials.[4] Scholars have long believed that the cult admitted no women,[5] but Griffith remarks that one textual reference is difficult to explain, from Porphyry of Tyre, the third century C.E. Neoplatonic philosopher, who wrote: “Thus initiates who take part in their rites [the Mithraic Mysteries] are called lions, and women hyenas, and servants ravens” (Porphyry, De Abstinentia ab esu animalium 4.16.3).[6]

A recreation of the interior of the Mithraeum.

A recreation of the interior of a Mithraeum.

Everything else we know about Mithraism comes from the physical artefacts and iconography usually discovered in the ruins of Mithraic temples. A mithraeum is a small, square-sided room, usually less than 10 metres along any wall.[7] A cave-like interior appears to have been important; mithraea tend to have vaulted ceilings – some were even carved out of rock.[8] The basic common structure is a central aisle, flanked by raised podia on each side, upon which cult-follows presumably sat or reclined.[9] The exact range of images, statues and small altars varies from site to site, but every mithraeum had a brightly painted cult-image of Mithras slaying the bull displayed at the end of the aisle either in bas-relief or, sometimes, as a free-standing sculpture.[10] Apparently, lighting effects were also important, with many lamps discovered in the ruins; some images had alcoves for candles, designed so that they could be made to glow in the darkness of the Mithraic ‘cave’.[11]

The iconography of Mithraism is remarkably varied in style and detail across the large geographical range of the cult, yet at the same time most of the scenes portrayed are roughly consistent. The most common images and the manner in which they are arranged can be interpreted as outlining the ‘sacred narrative’ of Mithras.[12] The sun-god is born from a rock; he is pictured emerging fully-formed as a child or youth, sometimes naked, wearing a Phrygian cap, wielding a torch and a dagger.[13] He is

A typical image of Mithras.

A typical image of Mithras.

shown firing an arrow at a rock, which magically brings forth water.[14] A series of images portray his hunting a great bull – he is shown prowling, chasing, riding, guiding, dragging and even carrying the bull on his shoulders.[15] This presumably leads to the scene that forms the central cult-image of the bull-slaying (tauroctony): Mithras is shown holding down the bull with his left knee and plunging a dagger into its neck with his right hand while fixing the viewer with an expression of “easy grace”[16] or “dolor and compassion.”[17] He is almost always accompanied in this act by a dog, a scorpion and a snake, and sometimes a lion, all of whom seem to be feeding upon the bull, whose thrashing tail or gushing blood is often represented as burgeoning grain-stalks.[18] These creatures frequently take part as observers of the earlier scenes too, appearing along with images of the sun and moon, a distinctive krater (mixing bowl), the Roman sun-god Sol, and the mythic torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates.[19]

The mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia.

The mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia.

Rarely are initiations portrayed and these are difficult to interpret.[20] Some written sources suggest the rituals were very harsh but these herald from Christian writers who obviously disapproved of the cult and almost certainly were exaggerating.[21] A lot of the theories concerning initiation have centred around the apparent 7-stage grade structure for cult-members. The lowest grade was called Raven, and progressed upward through Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-runner, and Father.[22] These grades are attested by iconography at a few mithraeum sites, such as the mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia near Rome.[23] Some scholars consider the grades to be ubiquitous to the cult, while others suggest they only applied in certain areas, or only to priests.[24]

Interpretation

Clauss represents the scholarly consensus when he affirms that the Mithraic cult images are difficult to interpret, that we may never know exactly what they signify, but that the tauroctony, for instance, generally gives the impression of a positive, life-affirmation.[25] Mithras’ central act of killing the bull is a “transfiguration and transformation”[26] or rebirth, not merely a scene of senseless slaughter and destruction.[27] In terms of understanding ancient mystery religions generally, Clauss exhibits an awareness that ancient peoples did not feel bound by fixed credos, and that they could worship multiple gods without conflict or contradiction.[28] However, he still finds the Mithras cult rather disorganised or not properly unified, exemplified by the evident inconsistency of iconographic detail and style, lack of evidence of a definite doctrine, the confusing syncretism of gods and symbols, and its ultimate weakness in the face of attacks by Christians.[29]

Another Tauroctony.

Another Tauroctony.

Undeniably, the small, dark Mithraic temples and the paucity of written description has led to assessments of the Mithras cult as deeply esoteric.[30] This has led to all kinds of theories as to the type of esoteric meaning suggested by the iconography. Many scholars have drawn on perceived links between the Mithraic imagery and astrology, in particular, proposing that Mithraic ritual was somehow supposed to lead the participant on a journey through the stars to experience the soul’s salvation.[31] Clauss is very dismissive of such interpretations,[32] but others have provided complex arguments for Mithras’ identity with the sky or the cosmos itself (Weiss), for the tauroctony as a kind of astral clock (North), or as encoding the mathematics of equinoctial precession (Ulansey).[33]

Roger Beck argues that links to astrology do seem justified but many interpretations approach the subject wrongly; there is an ad hoc nature to many interpretations which is disconcerting, inviting inconclusive readings.[34] Essentially, Beck argues that we are not missing a definitive interpretation; we lack a sensible theoretic for understanding the multiplicity of existing interpretations.

A Symbolist Theoretic

The missing theoretic, Beck argues, concerns the appropriate interpretation of mythic symbols. Clifford Geertz suggests, for instance, that applying the principles of logic – discreteness, linearity, exclusivity – is not appropriate for the interpretation of symbolic subject matter.[35] All religious systems are characterised principally by an emotional element; the intellect only provides assent to a feeling-toned worldview.[36] Geertz argues that religion comprises a worldview and an ethos which interact, forming a ‘gestalt’ which establishes a fundamental sense of numinous meaning and experienced reality, only secondarily converted into an ethics or consistent metaphysics.[37]

Beck similarly argues that Mithraism, as a feeling-toned system, cannot have a definitive meaning, like a dictionary definition.[38] Emotional experience comprises an ineffable complexity, not a specific symbol-to-meaning correspondence.[39] A particular symbol usually means many different things depending on the level of interpretative experience.[40] Thus, interpretations which involve complex intellectual workings or instrumental answers have no place in the theoretic. Hence, the Mithraic symbology is unlikely to be a complex code, which, once decoded, reveals the mathematics of astral precession. This not only draws upon incongruous modern astronomy, but such thinking exemplifies a theory of religion which suggests that only the learned can understand religious symbols, which the vulgar misinterpret.[41] This idea is often propagated by ancient intellectuals, such as Porphyry, but it is nonetheless unrealistic, or at least, peripheral to our concerns. Beck suggests we must focus upon the experience of the Mithraic majority, who were unlikely to be attending a secret astronomy class.[42]

A Tauroctony within a circle suggesting the zodiac.

A Tauroctony within a circle suggesting the zodiac.

The Mithraic symbols are not trying to hide their meanings – Beck suggests that what you see is what you get.[43] Mithras, as a sun-god, probably represents the sun on the primary level of interpretation.[44] Granting that the cult-followers wanted to keep their religion mysterious, the iconography is already ‘hidden’ inside the mithraeum – there was no need for further opacity. Scholars seem to forget this context, which is ironic considering the usual importance of provenance for archaeological explication.[45] Beck argues that the tauroctony alone has no context – the symbols could be interpreted ad infinitum. We must start with what the mithraeum means, within which the tauroctony resides.[46] Furthermore, we must also extend our context into the common, generally understood cultural-social milieu of the Roman Empire in this period, for, as per Geertz’s theory, it is ethos and worldview which will inform contemporary symbolic understanding.[47]

All scholars have long declared the Mysteries to be embedded in the Roman social structure; the cult even seems to support existing social hierarchies.[48] A new cult, to successfully capture imaginations and acquire followers, must appeal to conservative tastes, only realising them in slightly new combinations, a fact acknowledged by Gordon.[49] Beck argues we must ask what the mithraeum meant to most Romans,[50] and suggests we have the answer in this brief passage from Porphyry:

Similarly, the Persians [followers of Mithras] call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate to the mysteries, reveal to him the path by which souls descend and go back again. … This cave bore … the image of the Cosmos which Mithras had created, and the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with the symbols of the elements and climates of the Cosmos. (Porphyry, On the Cave of Nymphs 6)[51]

This passage is often dismissed by scholars as it is written by a Neoplatonist philosopher not a Mithraic cult-member, yet, as Beck argues, Porphyry’s essay is not about interpreting Mithraism – the cult merely earns an incidental mention.[52] Furthermore, as per the theoretic, the allusion does not need to be exactly correct; we are not looking for exact correspondences, only a general impression of ethos. This passage suggests not only that there was a popular understanding of the mithraeum as ‘cosmos’, but it also specifies the pertinent symbolist way of thinking.[53]

The cosmology of Aristotle

The cosmology of Aristotle

Thus, deferring again to the cultural milieu, Beck next asks how Roman society conceived of the cosmos. Clauss knows the answer as well as anyone:[54] he writes of the well-known cosmology of Aristotle, with the unmoving Earth at the centre of seven invisible spheres, one inside the other, each hosting a visible ‘planet’ – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.[55] The human soul was believed to descend through these spheres to be born.[56] The question is whether something like this cosmological worldview is symbolised in the mithraeum and its iconography. Beck responds with a resounding ‘yes’: the mithraeum is a dark cave-like room, rather like the vault of the stars, in which strange lighting effects illuminate representations of sun, moon and stars, and a seven-grade system mirrors the seven celestial spheres. To explain the animals and other iconography, we need only expand on the popular Greco-Roman symbolic associations between the planets, the gods and their mythic narratives.[57] The tauroctony does not merely picture a man slaying a bull; it portrays a man slaying a bull, accompanied by a scorpion, a dog, a snake, and sometimes a lion and a bowl – all of which were ancient and well-known representations of constellations in the zodiac.[58]

celestial_zodiac

The Zodiac.

Beck elaborates on this picture, delving further into the cosmological correspondences.[59] I do not have the space to rehearse his arguments here. His interpretations become complex, yet arguably never delve beyond the contemporary Roman astrological worldview. Importantly, Beck is not suggesting that these astrological readings offer an ‘explanation’ of the cult;[60] they are only an index of primary readings,[61] the central structuring mythology, as it were. He suggests that a whole series of simultaneous symbolic correspondences overlay and interact with this astrological symbolism, the ethos interacting with the worldview.[62] A participant could experience meaning on the level of the sacred story of Mithras, of the cosmological worldview, of the earthly ethos, and that of the destiny of human souls.[63] With this interpretative picture, we gain a better sense of the depth and character of Mithraism. So much so that Beck argues that “there is no necessity for a lost ritual to be postulated.”[64] The tauroctony, for instance, seems to involve a sacrifice of the moon-bull by the sun-god. I am reminded here of an observation made by Joseph Campbell in relation to American Indian myth:

On a very special evening there is a moment when the rising moon, having just emerged on the horizon, is directly faced across the world, from the opposite horizon, by the setting sun. …[At such a moment,] if the witness is prepared, there ensues a transfer of self-identification from the temporal reflecting body [the moon], to the sunlike, eviternal source, and one then knows oneself as consubstantial with what is of no time or place but universal and beyond death…[65]

Some similar astral revelation may have furnished the Mithraic cult-followers, through ritual of some kind, with an experience of “the path by which souls descend and go back again” (Porphyry, On the Cave of Nymphs 6).[66]

Conclusion1. The sanctuary's bottom

The Mysteries of Mithras provide us with an interpretative challenge – what to make of an ancient religion about which we have very little textual evidence. Using logical deduction and the usual archaeological methods we can make interpretive guesses, but what emerges is a vague, ad hoc set of symbolic elaborations. The symbolist theoretic of Geertz and Beck does not enhance our viewpoint by disclosing new archaeological facts or even new symbolic interpretations, but provides an insight into the religious mindset that ordered and experienced such meanings. I believe this is what the Mithras cult can teach us today – its symbolic iconography exemplifies the manner in which mythic thought can be (usually is) structured. To comprehend this, we must acknowledge the importance of not just physical but cultural provenance when interpreting ancient myth and religion. From the symbolist theoretic, we can garner a greater understanding not just of the Mithras cult but of the typical human religious worldview, a perspective often buried, confused, or considered ‘esoteric’ in the usual positivist rational analysis of the twentieth-century scientist and archaeologist.

Works Cited[67]
Beck, R. 2000. “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel.” The Journal of Roman Studies 90: 145-80.
Beck, R. 2006. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Campbell, J. 1991. Reprint. Occidental Mythology. New York: Arkana. Original edition, New York: Viking Penguin, 1964.
Campbell, J. 2002. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. Novato, California: New World Library.
Clauss, M. 2000. The Roman Cult of Mithras. Translated by Richard Gordon. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
David, J. 2000. “The Exclusion of Women in the Mithraic Mysteries: Ancient or Modern?” Numen 47: 121-41.
Geertz, C. 1957. “Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols.” The Antioch Review 17: 421-37.
Gordon, R. L. 1980. “Reality, Evocation and Boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras.” Journal of Mithraic Studies 3: 19-99.
Griffith, A. B. 2006. “Completing the Picture: Women and the Female Principle in the Mithraic Cult.” Numen 53: 48-77.


[1] Clauss 2000, 22, 28-32.

[2] Clauss 2000, 26-7.

[3] This translation from Clauss 2000, 38.

[4] Clauss 2000, 33.

[5] Clauss 2000, 33; David 2000, 129, 131, 138-9; Griffith 2006, 65.

[6] Translated by G. Clark, quoted in Griffith 2006, 51.

[7] Clauss 2000, 42-4.

[8] Clauss 2000, 42-4.

[9] Clauss 2000, 46.

[10] Clauss 2000, 52.

[11] Clauss 2000, 120, 125.

[12] Clauss 2000, 62.

[13] Clauss 2000, 64.

[14] Clauss 2000, 71-4.

[15] Clauss 2000, 74-7.

[16] Clauss 2000, 79.

[17] Campbell 1991, 258, after Cumont.

[18] Clauss 2000, 99.

[19] Clauss 2000, 95.

[20] Clauss 2000, 103-5.

[21] Clauss 2000, 102; Beck 2000, 146 n. 10.

[22] Clauss 2000, 131.

[23] Clauss 2000, 133.

[24] Clauss 2000, 131.

[25] Clauss 2000, 79.

[26] Clauss 2000, 79.

[27] Clauss 2000, 81.

[28] Clauss 2000, 9-10, 14, 148, 158.

[29] Clauss 2000, 16-17.

[30] Clauss 2000, 61.

[31] Clauss 2000, xx.

[32] Clauss 2000, xx.

[33] All these referenced in Beck 2006, 37-8.

[34] Beck 2006, 23.

[35] Geertz 1957, 436.

[36] Geertz 1957, 421.

[37] Geertz 1957, 421-22, 425.

[38] Beck 2006, 68-9.

[39] Beck 2006, 28.

[40] Beck 2006, 27.

[41] Beck 2006, 47.

[42] Beck 2006, 46.

[43] Beck 2006, 59.

[44] Beck 2006, 37.

[45] Beck 2006, 60.

[46] Beck 2006, 70.

[47] Beck 2006, 72.

[48] Beck 2006, 72; Clauss 2000, 25.

[49] Gordon 1980, 22-3; Beck 2006, 27.

[50] Beck 2006, 61.

[51] Quoted in Beck 2006, 102.

[52] Beck 2006, 85.

[53] Beck 2006, 102.

[54] Clauss 2000, 10.

[55] Clauss 2000, 10-11; Beck 2006, 77; Campbell 1991, 255.

[56] Beck 2006, 79-80; Campbell 1991, 255.

[57] Beck 2006, 31.

[58] Beck 2006, 31.

[59] Beck 2006, 102-256.

[60] Beck 2006, 41-2.

[61] Beck 2006, 31.

[62] Beck 2006, 73.

[63] Beck 2006, 11.

[64] Beck 2006, 129.

[65] Campbell 2002, 31-2.

[66] Quoted in Beck 2006, 102.

[67] Note: all primary sources were referenced from inside secondary sources so all works cited are secondary.

Written by tomtomrant

29 December 2013 at 6:40 pm