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The Myth of Romantic Love (and what to do about it)

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Forgive this rant in the true sense of the word – this could all do with much more of a polish but alas time is short. My point here is paramount – take a sword and slash through the thicket of thoughts as they occurred to me and I hope you make it out the other side…

It begins with an Auspicious First Meeting – the first day of class in a busy lecture hall, the new work colleague with the sense of humour, the eyes that meet across a crowded room, the friend-of-a-friend you strangely get along with, that electronic message that pops up all of a sudden. Then comes the hanging out, the spending time, the getting-to-know, the ‘having fun’ that passes for the modern ‘Courting’. Then the Declaration one way or anything, the confession, the question-popping, the quiet even tacit agreement – and exhilaration of Consummation. These are the hallmarks of western romantic love. Indeed, ‘hallmarks’ is not strong enough. These are the dramas, the mysteries, the adventures, the bliss of those fraught but passionate experiences that, for many of us, are the most meaningful undertakings, even the bedrock of our lives.

This idea or narrative is so pervasive and socially conditioned in westerners, more or less explicitly encouraged as the norm through popular culture, religion, art, social structure and, less obviously, law, economics and history. We forget that it is constructed. It is not only an unrealistic fantasy but an incomplete one, a passageway or path leading through a fabricated wonderland which promises transcendence and release but quickly falls apart, abruptly abandoning the gallant traveller in the lurch. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth in our culture and how can we escape it? How might we live happy lives without this inflated fantasy? Where did it all begin?

The European middle ages seems responsible for a great deal although we cannot say so with precision. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition. However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. If you equate love with marriage or family or child-rearing, obviously the concept is far older if not fundamental to human life itself. However, nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of the unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of western romantic love. 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).” Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”

tristan

Tristan and Isolde

Mythologist Joseph Campbell proffers the story of Tristan and Isolde, particularly the versions by Gottfried and Thomas of Britain as the foundation myth of romantic love. In the story, a prince and knight, Tristan, is sent from his uncle’s kingdom in Cornwall to court the princess Isolde of Ireland. Tristan woos her for the king, but Isolde and Tristan fall in love with each other on the journey home. Isolde is married to King Mark who, the tale suggests, hardly knows her personally and has no such passionate connection. The remainder of the tale involves intrigues as Tristan and Isolde make love in various ways as the king tries to and eventually does catch them at it. It becomes clear that the lovers cannot continue this way – their passion remains but the king is getting madder and madder and society has shut them out. Tristan takes a wife to try to get over Isolde. This other wife is simpler and more ordinary, but is devoted to him. She is known as Isolde of the White Hands. However, Tristan ultimately rejects her to return to his idealised beloved and eventually dies in her arms.

Campbell interprets the story as a celebration of personal and passionate individual love against the backdrop of shallow obligation-based and prudish conventions of medieval times. However, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson reads the same story as a cautionary tale against the thoughtlessness and self-destruction of modern romantic love. To find a more mature exploration, Campbell turns to another medieval High German myth, the Parzival of Wolfram von Escenbach. However, this tale achieves its playful, mutual love theme through a kind of romantic distance. The lovers in the Parzival myth uphold civil and graceful courtship conventions largely determined through medieval courtly conventions. They meet auspiciously but little is said about their personal connection. You sense the lovers are deeply mutually affectionate and respectful of each other. Their bedroom consummation is loving and mature but hardly passionate. The majority of the tale concerns Parzival’s maturity rather than romantic love. In the end, one gets the impression that the romantic values this tale advocates are merely the conventions which the Tristan tale rejected as shallow and pragmatic. However, in the world of Parzival these conventions have been renewed, relived, rejuvenated so that they can remain the same but with greater awareness of their purpose and limitations. These conventions therefore become facilitators of love and social connection rather than hollow conventions.

wolfram_von_eschenbach

Parzival

The conclusion reached by both Campbell (through Parzival) and Johnson (through critique of Tristan) is that true romantic love, in maturity, involves an acknowledgement of balance, compassion, convention as convention, of lovers as imperfect human beings. The focus of romantic love should not be upon passion or rejection of society, or upon beauty for beauty’s sake, or on perfect achievement of every wish and desire. Instead, the benefits of romantic love are the simple genuine connection between two unique individuals who know neither is perfect but love each other all the same. I can understand and believe this sentiment. However, there are huge problems with this more mature, more positive conception of romantic love as well. These problems concern the mismatch this conception of love has with the popular conception, and its extreme difficulty of achievement.

First, the mismatch – rereading this ‘mature’ formulation, the lovers that come to mind are not the passionate heroes of romance but two elderly people in rocking chairs, dressed simply, living perhaps even in poverty, living the simple life, even perhaps with 2-4 adult children, a cat and regular Sunday church attendance. In other words, this conception simply does not match the passionate lovers of the ‘Tristan’ variety. Trying again, we could say that the more youthful conception of these lovers would be the playful school lovers, innocent and rather naïve perhaps, who take the unimaginative path of holding hands in the school ground, getting conventional jobs at the bank upon graduation, marrying at 19, taking out a mortgage, working full time while popping out kids as an excuse to buy a CRV. This is not a popular conception even if it is a popular reality. That popular reality is blatantly undermined by the romantic conception, however, as we also associate these lovers with unhappiness, frustration, even underdevelopment (having skipped the period of globe-trotting and sexual experimentation celebrated as the proper modern maturation practice of the 20-something). Indeed, this sounds like Parzival without his Grail quest. Perhaps they do go on their globe-trotting – just staidly or only briefly before returning to their matrimonial domesticity. My point is that the image is not one most romantics aspire to.

Second, the difficulty of achieving mature romantic love is immense. The acknowledgement of the imperfection of the lover is the key point here. This realisation is fundamental to mature romantic love yet it is a big ask for most people. We are taught to expect our romantic partners to be at least decently goodlooking, interesting, conversant, employed, happy, healthy, respectful, considerate, social, enterprising, and great in bed. This is naturally unrealistic. All of these things are of course highly possible, but no one can be all of these things all of the time. However, if you thought being this perfect for your partner is impossible, noticing the imperfection of your partner and not being at least somewhat disappointed by it is an even more impossible task. In fact, this even slight disappointment pops the bubble of the romantic myth for most people, dispelling much of the magic of the honeymoon period in the process. This is why most western romance myths end with the point of consummation – “and they all lived happily ever after”, an unbelievably optimistic generalisation masking the complex and very unromantic truth. That love, at least in the romantic passion sense of the myth, never lasts, even if the relationship does. Few of us really aspire to the level of intimate relations between, in the best sense, parent and child, or between your immediate and your extended family. Yet this is the closest match to what a life-long imperfect human love actually is. “Darling, let’s make out – because you would make a great Uncle Jim or Aunt Clarice to have around at Christmas.” This is what we should really be thinking and expecting when engaging in mature romantic love.

There are nicer ways of conceiving of this mature romantic love of course. We’ve reviewed the “conventional loving old couple”, “the boring school-met young couple” and the “Aunty Clarice who lives with me” scenarios. Couldn’t we think of a more positive spin? How about the “open relationship couple” or the “arty alternative couple”? Or even the original conception of beautifully balanced compassionate graceful pairing between Parzival and Condwiramirs in the original myth? These are all distinct and far more positive conceptions of mature romantic love, I agree. However, they are all damn near impossible to achieve. The myth is just that, a fairyland world of magic stones, gracious rulers, and playful tournaments. It does not and never did actually exist. The “arty alternative couple” living a more creative perhaps ‘off-the-grid’ existence often are plagued by exactly the same romantic expectations as everyone else, despite their alternative facades. Another factor is that the pressures of being creative often take their toll in the form of endless anxiety or lesser abilities to function on the everyday maintenance level of existence. The best that can be hoped for is simply a more refreshing less cliché version of the elderly couple – friends or relations that essentially live together (with all the unromantic distance and slight background irritation involved). The “open relationship” variety hardly needs my critique – most people are willing to dismiss this as simply a romantic relationship in decline already or a dangerous breeding ground for jealousy and STIs. This too could work though, except that again it seems to be separating the passion, novelty and forbidden nature of the romantic love myth from the mature personal connection and the “happily ever after” ending. Indeed, the “don’t ask don’t tell” conception of this relationship divides the two versions of the romantic love myth pretty explicitly.

The real difficulty of the mature romantic love myth, I think, resides in the difficulty of being truly happy with the imperfection, not just of your partner, but with existence in general. It may be all very well to love your flawed partner in his/her idiosyncrasies and annoying habits, but another thing to put up with these same flaws when you have just been unfairly fired from a job, or priced out of the housing market, or diagnosed with something unpleasant. And this isn’t all – you also need your partner, since this is what makes a relationship a relationship of course, to feel the same way. So not only must you remain compassionate toward the imperfections of your partner, the popped bubble of romantic love, and the ‘whips and scorns of time’, but also somehow have happened to have partnered up with someone else who can and does do this as well. This, I believe, is highly highly improbable. In fact, this, I suspect, doesn’t ever happen. Instead, what occurs is a constant painful rollercoaster of tacitly, somewhat unsatisfied ‘putting up with’ imperfection interspersed with downright loathing and brief instances of passionate romantic delusions which might still pervade you at certain moments when the sun sets prettily. If you’re lucky, you might also happen to get into the zen-like world-acceptance of mature romantic love – but then your partner probably won’t do so at the same moment, or at all. Your partner may even just up and leave you in the lurch as their anxieties about not having lived up to the love myth, or about life’s imperfections, become too much for them.  I’m not sure those brief moments of transcendence are worth it frankly and it would be much easier to achieve this kind of happiness outside of the obligations and expectations of a romantic relationship.b_n-garnett-and-mandelker

So there we have it – our society is enthralled by the unrealistic and deluded Tristan-like romantic myth, while the Parzival option remains obscure, mostly uninviting and devilishly difficult to achieve. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is, if you think about it, a retelling of these myths in its two main subplots of Anna (Tristan) and Levin (Parzival), with Oblonsky as the confused and adulterous unhappy unenlightened ‘ordinary’ couple. Not surprisingly, Levin’s tale seems to us rather old-fashioned, preachy and unexciting, and is usually edited out of most adaptations of the story. Our passionate romantic expectations remain the most publicised and well-known. So what are we to do about it?

This is where I get personal as I’m sure the myth is so powerful that most of you won’t agree with much of what I’ve just written. Also, everyone will have their own ideas of what needs to be done about it. My own inclinations are to accept part of the mature romantic ideal. The passionate romantic ideal is clearly a recipe for disaster in that the message is powerful but unrealistic, as both Tristan and Tolstoy clearly show us. However, the mature romantic ideal seems to be realistic but all too disappointing. As we’ve seen, the prospect of being tethered to Aunt Clarice or Uncle Jim for eternity, however genial they may be, doesn’t sound inviting at all. However, people need people (loneliness isn’t a good), and these are some aspects of mature romance we can use. The simple appreciation of others as imperfect human beings is one. The mutual respect and bonds formed of personality is another.

It seems to me that what we need to do is to remove the obligations and expectations of romantic love from mature romantic love and keep the central good – the human connection. This is finally the connection of an intimate friend rather than of what we conceive, over-romantically, as a “lover”. We should also keep the longevity and stability of our romantic expectations without the exclusivity. It is the pressure, instigated by passionate romanticism, of “the One”, the exclusive partner, that sours many relationships. However, no one objects to having more than one intimate friend. Indeed, most of us have intimate friends already. I suggest that the reason why we are less satisfied to just leave it at intimate friends is that, in this modern world of urban anonymity, singular living, family disconnection, and transport congestion, we don’t see them often enough. I’m not suggesting we should overstay our welcome with our intimate friends but we need to reconceive of our living situations. The ideal I think is the school playground or the medieval village lifestyle. Both involved seeing your best friend every day but not for more than an hour or so at a time. It was easy to find and get to where your friends lived or hung out and you could call in or depart at leisure, as well as mix with others. We have our own space and our own lives but we have also our friends, our people, our “lovers”. This conception is rather like a sharehouse or dorm with distinctly separate and private but also communal spaces, with respectful rules and conventions for effective

90s-sitcom-quiz

The unlikely inspiration of sit-com “families”.

communication rather like Parzival’s rules of graceful courtly conduct. The setup ideally produces the familiar setup of most sit-coms and TV shows – a group of personalities, all different but much loved, who turn up every day for half an hour or so and express themselves and joke around and get into adventures then venture home again.

And what of sex you ask (as if love fundamentally is about this)? Every other question you ask about conventional married life – sex, finance, law, Ikea shopping, etc. – is answered similarly. Do it under the model of friendship. Playful, intimate, trusting, safe, and conducted under the rules of mutual agreement. Ridiculous you may say? Idealistic? Perhaps. But romantic love with its violent passion and tired marriage with its persistent disappointment is better, is it?

Written by tomtomrant

24 September 2016 at 1:05 pm

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

The Parthenon: Context and Interpretation

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How does the historical context of the Parthenon influence the way in which we ‘read’ the building and its decorative program?
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Our interpretation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is coloured by our understanding of the historical context in which it was built. The period in which Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens is characterized as a period of Athenian dominance and prosperity in which the city became practically the seat of an empire, as it led the Delian League of Greek city-states, set up to resist the encroaches of the Persian Empire. While possibly considered little more than a treasury and a home for the statue of Athena Parthenos by the ancient Greeks, we cannot help but interpret the site, probably incorrectly, as a ‘temple’. Undeniably though, it was a monument to Athenian hegemony, articulated through architecture and sculpture which drew upon a blend of mythology, history and politics in its imagery, expressing, among much else, the many successes the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had over the much more numerous and powerful Persians in various armed conflicts, such as the battles of Marathon and Salamis.

The significance of the Persians wars for Athenians lies in the very large role that Athens played in these precarious victories, at least in the version of events that has come down to us in Herodotus. The victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. was largely an Athenian victory. Athens was mostly fending for itself in this battle which marked the first time that a Greek city-state had effectively resisted the Persians. The earlier Persian threat of 492 B.C.E. was met with little resistance from Thrace and Macedon, and in 490, before arriving at Marathon, the Persians burned Naxos and Eretria. Through all of this, Sparta, for example, made promises of assistance to the Athenians, but delivered in only a perfunctory manner. When Persian forces returned in 480 B.C.E., the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis involved the forces of a consortium of allied Greek city-states lead by Athens and Sparta. A similar consortium defeated the Persians again the following year in Plataea and Mycale.

Athenians were in the thick of these wars in a number of ways. Geographically, Athens was centrally located on the Greek mainland and in relation to the islands in the Aegean Sea. Sparta was well defended to the south and inland; Athens did not enjoy such a convenient geographical position and so could not afford the same isolationist attitude as the Spartans. As a result, Athens was involved in these conflicts to a greater degree, reaping the benefits of victory, and paying the price in defeat – Athens was sacked and burned twice during the Persian wars, during which the old temples on the Acropolis were effectively destroyed, along with an earlier Parthenon. The Athenians did not rebuild immediately, not until they had taken a more proactive approach to their defenses. The Persian Wars ultimately brought the disparate city-states of Greece together against the common enemy. Athens was at the head of the Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states set up in 477 B.C.E. to defend Greece from any future Persian aggression. As the Persian threat receded, the Athenian statesman Cimon began to transform the contributions city-states paid to be part of the League into something resembling tributes paid by subject-states to a dominant empire-state. Cimon began to bully and lay siege to city-states who were not part of the League or wished to leave it. This caused frictions with Sparta, leading to the First Peloponnesian War.

By 446 B.C.E., Athens had formed peace agreements with Sparta and with the Persians yet was still quietly receiving tribute from many city-states. Under Pericles, the Athenians continued centralizing power and dominating both economically and culturally, taking on legal administration, standardizing currency, weights and measures, even making political decisions without directly consulting the city-states involved. This was a period of huge economic growth in Athens as wealth from the city-states flowed into the city. Athens became a cosmopolitan hub for the arts – sculpture, painting, theatre, and philosophy flourished. It was in this context that it was decided to begin rebuilding the monuments on the Acropolis including the new Parthenon in 449 B.C.E.

Importantly, the building we know as the Parthenon was apparently built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos. The name Parthenon simply means ‘unmarried women’s apartments’ (presumably the goddess’s) and may have only referred to part of the building originally. The building receives surprisingly few mentions in the surviving literature, ancient writers instead seeing the statue of Zeus at Olympia as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Also, ancient writers do not refer to it as a ‘temple’; there is little evidence for ritual practice in the building. This is another reason why we tend to interpret the building as having a specifically Athenian ‘nationalistic’ rather than a general religious significance. The building was used as a treasury, a storehouse of much of the wealth of Athens – it became the treasury of the Delian League when this was moved from Delos in 454 B.C.E.

The design of the building resembles temple designs of the past, but is on a monumental scale and has many unique features. One of these is the combination of Doric and Ionic stylistic features. The inner frieze, originally forming an uninterrupted band around the inner building as one continuous figured sculptural work, is a Ionic feature. Given our understanding of the context and purpose of the building, we can interpret this as recognizing a unity if not a dominance over the Ionian Greek city-states which were officially part of the League and empire. The building is also distinctive for not being strictly straight in any of its dimensions – it is subtly curved, supposedly to counter optical illusions which make straight lines appear curved on this scale. We could also interpret this as exhibiting Athenian ingenuity, even crafty duplicity, or as simply another element lending the monument an impressive effect. The profound sense of graceful balance in its measured proportions may also be interpreted as reflecting robust Athenian democracy.

Of course, much of the sculptural decoration has been weathered, defaced or destroyed in the Parthenon’s long history, but ancient and modern historical sources contribute to supply us with a general idea of the scenes depicted on its pediments, metopes, and inner frieze. The west pediment is believed to depict Athena and Poseidon in a gift-giving contest for ownership of Athens. Given the context, we would interpret this as documenting a significant Athenian event; not exactly the founding of Athens but the event that led to its gaining Athena as its goddess. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree whereas Poseidon provided a natural spring which disconcertingly issued forth salt water (since Poseidon was a sea god). Presumably, Athena won the contest because the ancient Athenians were farmers and not seafarers. Poseidon was reportedly furious and so flooded Athens. However, in light of the fifth-century context, we know that Athens had since become a great naval power; its fleet was after all its most powerful force against the Persians and the basis of its continued power in the Delian League. We therefore tend to interpret this pediment as something more like a friendly contest rather than a war between Athena and Poseidon. The Athenians probably chose this myth to include and appease not exclude Poseidon.

The east pediment portrays the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, another scene significant for the goddess’s city. The metopes around the outer building depict scenes of war: we see Greeks versus Amazons, Trojans, and centaurs, and the Olympian gods fighting the giants. We may assume that not only do these scenes symbolize the cultured self-control of the Athenians over primitive, inferior forces, but, given the context, we may note the link with the Persian wars and even the Delian League in relation to the Trojan War, a famous mythological instance of another victorious Greek alliance. The inner Ionian frieze appears to depict the Panathenaic festival in which the Athenians took part in a procession to the Parthenon in order to present the statue of Athena Parthenos with the peplos, a special robe made by the women of Athens. Some scholars have questioned whether this scene actually is a Panathenaea as depictions of non-mythological scenes in friezes is extremely rare, instead suggesting it is a depiction of the sacrifice of Athenian King Erechtheus’s daughter. Either way, this event seems to draw together all the threads of our interpretations from the historical, cultural and political context: the event celebrated the power and glory of Athens. Athenian colonies sent gifts and sacrifices for such a ceremonial procession, reinforcing the nationalism of Athens. It brought together Athenian citizens and, through ritual, linked them to their goddess Athena.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the Parthenon and its decorative program are perhaps not overly specific, the sculptures and friezes do not reference the Persian Wars or the Athenian Empire directly, but what we know of this historical context indeed forces us to posit a general nationalistic program, especially considering the size and location of the Parthenon. We may also garner further interpretive insight by also considering what the Parthenon is not. It is not a monument to a particular king or leader, at least not outwardly. There is no giant statue of Pericles, for instance, even if the sources suggest that he was the main instigator of the building work. Instead we see a respect for the gods, and the impressive artistry of the masons and sculptors of antiquity. We cannot help but interpret this as exhibiting a respect for craft, for the gods, and, in the graceful ease and balance of the monumental architecture, for democracy.

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm

The Mysteries of Mithras: A Symbolist Theoretic

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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