Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mithraism: Zoroastrian Gnosticism

By David Livingstone

The theory, originally proposed by Franz Cumont, that Mithraism evolved from Persian Zoroastrianism, is now generally dismissed. However, the theory has not been carefully examined. A primitive version of the Mithraic mysteries certainly existed among them, as can be determined from circumstantial evidence, where they contributed heavily to the Greek traditions of Orphism, which not only later emerged as prominent themes in Mithraism, but of Hellenistic mysticism in general. While based on these earlier tradition, Mithraism nevertheless, modified during these times, to conform to these same Gnostic tendencies.

The Magussaeans

On all sides, the Persians were surrounded by nations that celebrated mysteries, by Egyptians to Isis and Osiris, the Syrians to Bel and Astarte, the Phrygians to Attis and Cybele, and the Greeks to Dionysus and Persephone. As these gods were merely considered national versions of the same gods, they would have been regarded among the Persians as the equivalent to Mithras and Anahita, to whom mysteries would undoubtedly have been dedicated by the heretical Magi.

We do not know the content of these mysteries, but we can gather a fair idea of the doctrines of the “Magi” who inhabited Asia Minor from where they might have originated. Here, Zoroaster was confounded as the founder of the Chaldeans, a school of Babylonian astrologers. As Cumont and Bidez have pointed out, these “Magussaeans” practiced a heretical or Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism combined with elements of Chaldean astrology.


Though the Magi had continued the astrological traditions of the Chaldeans, they were primarily recognized as specialists in theurgy, or necromancy, that is, divination by means of summoning the spirits of the dead. It is with the practices by these “Magi” that Heraclitus, in the fifth century BC, equated with the bull-slaying rites of the Dionysiacs or Bacchants. He commented: “if it were for Dionysus that they hold processions and sing hymns to the shameful parts [phalli], it would be a most shameless act; but Hades and Dionysus are the same, in whose honor they go mad and celebrate the Bacchic rites,” and of the “Nightwalkers, Magi, Bacchoi, Lenai, and the initiated,” all these people he threatens with what happens after death: “for the secret rites practiced among humans are celebrated in an unholy manner.”

A papyrus from Derveni, near Thessalonika, belonging to the fourth century BC, contains an allegorical interpretation of a theogony by Orpheus and prescriptions for rituals. In it we read about “incantations” of the magoi that are able to “placate daimones who could bring disorder… Therefore, the magoi perform this sacrifice as if they would pay an amend,” and initiates of Dionysus, “first sacrifice to the Eumenides, like the magoi.” In Magic and the Ancient World, Fritz Graf, Professor of Classics at Princeton University, remarks:

Not only does the unknown author connect the rites of the magi with those of the mystery cults (a topic which becomes fundamental with the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri), but also he introduces the magoi as invokers of infernal powers, daimones whom he understands as the souls of the dead, the disorder that they bring manifests itself in illness and madness, which are healed by rituals of exorcism.i

Though communion with evil spirits was strictly forbidden in the orthodox version of the faith, the accounts of Greek authors accord in many respects with the doctrines of those referred to in the Avesta, and other Zoroastrian literature, as a certain people hostile to the orthodox community, called “sorcerers” or “deava worshippers”. The prime object of their worship was Ahriman, for “by the religion of the sorcerers (Ahriman) so inclines men to love him and to hate Ahura Mazda that they abandon the cult of Ahura Mazda and practice that of Ahriman.”ii

Essentially, the Magussaeans were daeva worshipping Magi who practiced mystery rites dedicated to Mithras. They preserved the dualism of Zoroastrianism, though in the heretical form of Zurvanism, which they combined with Chaldean astrology. They venerated fire as the symbol of the divine, and adopted the trinity worshipped by the Babylonians, composed of a father, mother and their offspring, a son-god, represented by the Sun, Moon, and Venus, which they identified with the Persian deities of Ahura Mazda, Anahita and Mithras. They conserved the Chaldean doctrine of pantheism, regarding the universe as a single living being, governed by a fate determined by the stars. Astrology was connected to mathematics, and the use of numerology was widespread in their literature. The Zodiac of the Chaldeans was divided according to the four elements traditionally worshipped by the Persians. The soul was seen to be subjected to numerous reincarnations, sometimes into beasts, causing them to abstain from the meat of animals. Porphyry explained that the seven grades of the Mithraics, ordinarily, were associated with signs of the Zodiac, but that they also concealed the mystery of reincarnation.


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