Subject: BMCR 2006.12.08, Roger Beck , The Religion of the
Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire:
Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2006. Pp. xv, 285. ISBN 0-19-814089-4. $95.00.
Reviewed by Peter Edwell, Macquarie University, Sydney
Word count: 2775 words
To read a print-formatted version of this review, see
Table of Contents
The study of the ancient mystery cult of Mithraism has been heavily
influenced over the last century by the pioneering work of Franz Cumont
followed by that of M. J. Vermaseren. Ever since Cumont's volumes first
appeared in the 1890s, his ideas on Mithraism have been influential,
particularly with regard to the quest for Mithraic doctrine. His
emphasis on the Iranian features of the cult is now less influential
with the Iranising influences generally played down in scholarship over
the last thirty years. While the long shadow cast by Cumont is
sometimes susceptible to exaggeration, recent research such as that of
Robert Turcan demonstrates that Cumont's influence is still
In the considerable body of work on Mithraism undertaken by Roger Beck
over the last thirty years, some significant challenges have been
directed at Cumont's aims and, as a consequence, at the scholarship on
Mithraism in general. In this, his latest book, Beck presents the
culmination of important aspects of his work on Mithraism. This is an
attempt to cement a different perspective on the mysteries, which he
has been establishing for some time. There will be questions asked of
this book and some sections of it will be met with skepticism. Beck,
however, presents an extensive amount of material in support of his
theories in a convincing style that is at times a little dense. The
book is most convincing in its consideration of the importance of the
Mithraeum and its iconography in toto, rather than what Beck sees as
the prejudicing of iconographic interpretations for the purpose of
Beck essentially rejects the concept of an overarching doctrine of
Mithraism, instead emphasising the Mithraic initiate's apprehension and
experience of astrological/astronomical symbols. Beck seeks to
establish a language of star-talk as a means of understanding how the
Mithraeum and its iconography enabled this to take place. This approach
is acknowledged by Beck as owing much to the anthropological work of
Clifford Geertz and to Richard Gordon with specific regard to
Mithraism.[] Beck makes an admirable attempt at using observations
from anthropology and other disciplines as a means of understanding
ancient Mithraism and its practice in more complex ways than before.
Perhaps less convincing are parallels drawn with modern religious
practice together with claims about the evolution of the human brain
and how this might help us understand the initiate's experience of
ancient Mithraism. Some sections of the book contain in-depth and, at
times, close to impenetrable detail on astronomical and astrological
phenomena. Each chapter contains a large number of sections and
subsections, and it is not an easy book to read in places, but it is
worth the investment.
The book is divided into two parts, the first of which comprises four
chapters designed to lay the groundwork for the second and longer
section, Transition: From Old Ways to New Ways, which comprises six
chapters. The first section critiques attempts made in older
scholarship, and in some cases more recent scholarship, to reconstruct
a doctrine of ancient Mithraism based on interpretations of Mithraic
iconography. On many occasions in this section, and indeed throughout
the book, Beck notes a general neglect in scholarship of ancient
textual references to Mithraism. In particular, he emphasises the
importance of Porphyry's De Antro as a potential "gateway text" whereby
the activities and experience of ancient Mithraists might be better
understood when combined with an experiential approach to the Mithraeum
and its iconography. On numerous occasions in the book, Beck emphasises
a failure in the scholarship to ask not merely what the iconography
means but how it means, and, in the chapters comprising the second
section of the book, he attempts to redress this imbalance.
In Chapter 1, Beck discusses concerns over older attempts to discover
Mithraic doctrine while concluding that more recent approaches to the
study of Mithraism have resulted in one group of scholars working on
reconstructing Mithraic doctrine and experience and another researching
the cult more as a social phenomenon.
Chapter 2 emphasises the importance of Porphyry's De Antro as a
potential starting point for scholarship to investigate Mithraism but
points out that this has generally not been the case in modern studies.
Beck's analysis of Cumont's aim to establish "the full theology of
Mithraism embodied in the totality of scenes and symbols" is most
detailed in this chapter. He is particularly concerned about the
presumption that a Mithraic doctrine has remained for some the ultimate
heuristic endeavour and that there is a positivist assumption that the
iconography conveys little of significance above and beyond the
mythical stories told. The consequences of this approach are that some
have concluded that the mysteries cannot have been a serious and
sophisticated cognitive enterprise. Beck points out that one of the
results of this approach is that the monumental iconography,
particularly the Tauroctony, has been privileged over other aspects of
the Mithraeum including architecture and small finds and that this
remains a significant issue in scholarship on Mithraism.
As a means of redressing the main faults of twentieth-century
approaches to Mithraism, Beck suggests that, because it emphasises the
significance of the Mithraeum itself, more consideration of Porphyry's
De Antro would address the problem of undervaluing texts and the
Mithraeum compared with the importance afforded to the figured
monuments. Here, Beck is laying the groundwork for his elevation of the
Mithraeum to importance alongside the iconography rather than in
subservience to it.
In Chapter 3 Beck introduces the concept of the Mithraeum as a symbol
in itself. In the process, he emphasises that the symbolism of both the
Mithraeum and its iconography needs to be considered in terms of
referents in the surrounding Graeco-Roman culture. This is because, in
De Antro, Porphyry interprets the Mithraeum with reference to the
cosmos. While Beck makes the approving observation that more recent
scholarship has largely shed the idea of an ongoing Iranising influence
on Mithraism, he sounds a cautionary note by claiming that the
referents should also include those in Iranian culture. The most
important referents in the surrounding culture are those of an
astrological and astronomical nature, as Mithraism was "awash" with
such symbols. Of key importance in this chapter and, indeed, throughout
the book is the general scholarly neglect of the Mithraeum as a symbol
and the preference given to interpretations of the iconography in
isolation from the culture within which Mithraism operated.
The key theme of Chapter 4 is the rejection of the pursuit of a
Mithraic doctrine in favour of the significance of Mithraic ritual.
Traditionally, the Mithraeum has been seen as the classroom with its
initiates as pupils. In much the same way that Christianity operates,
there are those who are in charge and there are those who are the
faithful. The faithful get from the iconography what those in charge
put into it. In this chapter and in other parts of the book,
Christianity is used as a point of comparison with Mithraism both from
an ancient and modern perspective.
Beck engages in issues of modern translations of Porphyry's De Antro to
further demonstrate that emphasis has been placed in scholarship on the
Mithraeum and its iconography acting as a vehicle of instruction
regarding what happened to initiates before birth and what would happen
to them after death. Beck essentially sees the Mithraeum as an
inductive vehicle whereby initiates experienced what happened before
and what would happen after death. The claims made in De Antro are key
to this interpretation, and it does seem that modern translations of
the text have been affected by the development of Mithraic doctrine in
modern scholarship. This is taken up in much more detail in chapter 7.
The heavy reliance placed on Porphyry's text is bound to draw some
criticism, and Beck appears to be aware that this is the case.
Ultimately, however, he believes that the neo-Platonists did not
misrepresent the Mithraists.
An important part of criticising the modern emphasis on Mithraic
doctrine is expressed in the concern that the mysteries have been
co-opted by modern scholars into a constructed ancient intellectual
tradition. The result is that ownership of the mysteries has passed
from "ordinary" initiates to an imagined elite that controlled Mithraic
doctrine. Beck points out that one of the results of this approach is
reflected in modern scholarship, where inquiries into doctrine are
pursued separately from those into the social profile and cult
activities of the "humble" membership. This observation is the basis
for identifying a range of scholarly positions on the ancient cult.
These range from the suggestions of Ulansey, who sees Mithraism as a
reflection of exceptionally precise astronomical knowledge among a
small, intellectual elite in the ancient world, to Swerdlow, who sees
Mithraic doctrine as so poor that the cult was little more than a crude
activity of the common Roman soldiery.[] In between are the
positions of Merkelbach, who emphasises the ongoing importance of the
Platonic tradition, and Turcan, who essentially follows a modified
version of Cumont.[]
Paraphrasing Beck's own words, the first four chapters are preparation
for the hermeneutic road ahead in chapters 5-10. The six chapters which
comprise the second section of the book, Transition: From Old Ways to
New Ways, are a detailed explanation of Beck's position on the
Mysteries of Mithras. Many of the ideas and concepts in this section
were introduced in section one, and here we have a more detailed
consideration of them. There is considerable detail in this section,
and it is not easy to follow in places.
In Chapter 5 the anthropological approach of Clifford Geertz is applied
to the Mithraic mysteries. The aim is to focus on the intent of the
whole Mithraic symbol system by placing the performance of ritual and
the construction, apprehension and utilisation of symbolic forms above
the individual significance of the icon(s) or the sacred space itself.
The greatest difficulty here is that Mithraic ritual cannot be
observed, and Beck is well aware of this problem. He proposes that it
is possible to undertake a Geertzian description of Mithraic ritual as
the Mithraeum itself and the seven grades that initiates attained can
still be entered into. It is possible to do this, he claims, by
accessing appropriate referents observable within the broader culture
of Graeco-Roman paganism. Essentially, the Mithraic model of the
universe as conceived in the Mithraeum is the Graeco-Roman model
established by Plato in the Timaeus.
An interesting, and clearly controversial, attempt is made to
understand Mithraic ritual practice by considering the ritual practices
of a modern religious group in Mexico, the Chamulas. Beck claims to be
able to identify similarities between Chamula belief and practice and
Mithraism as a further means of "observing" Mithraic ritual practice.
Some will have doubts as to the validity of such an exercise.
Chapter 6 is methodologically related to chapter 5 in that it attempts
to further reduce the divide between antiquity and the present in order
to increase our understanding of Mithraic ritual practice. This is done
using a theoretical approach recently developed in the cognitive
sciences and anthropology known as the "cognitive science of religion".
This approach is aimed at demystifying religious beings and operates on
the assumption that the ability to form mental representations of
supernatural beings is a function of the "evolved mental endowment of
Homo Sapiens", p. 89. Beck claims that there has not been enough time
for the brains of humans to evolve in just two millennia, so we should
assume that we presently form representations of supernatural beings
just as people did in antiquity. Ultimately, the claim is that we form
representations of supernatural beings not by virtue of membership in
societies but by virtue of being Homo Sapiens. Of concern here is that
much of this is controversial and appears quite speculative, yet no
references are made to any relevant studies in the area or to
scientific work done on the evolution of the human brain. Ultimately,
this approach is driven by the necessity to access the initiate's
apprehension of the symbols of Mithraism if Geertzian anthropological
theory is to be successfully applied.
Chapter 7 considers in detail the Mithraeum itself as a symbol within
the symbol system so central to Mithraism. Here the Mithraeum is
presented as a model of the Graeco-Roman universe as it was conceived
in Platonic philosophy. There is considerable description of the
Mithraeum and how specific furnishings and architectural features are
representative of particular universal and planetary features along
with the iconography itself. These descriptions and analyses tend to
assume uniformity of design of Mithraea across the empire which Beck
earlier notes is not necessarily borne out by the archaeological
As a means of reinforcing the anthropological observations made in
Chapter 6, Beck compares the church of the Chamulas with the Mithraeum.
He also reinforces the idea of Mithraism drawing heavily on broader
Graeco-Roman culture by comparing the astrological and astronomical
symbolism present in well-known Roman structures such as the Pantheon,
the Domus Aurea and the Circus Maximus.
Ultimately, to the initiate the Mithraeum was to be a conveyor of souls
that allowed the initiate to experience once again the descent of his
soul from the heavens and to experience its exit back to the heavens.
This is according to Beck, the Mithraic "cosmonaut" literally getting
to know the Mithraeum as the universe. This chapter finishes with some
very complex discussion of biogenetic structuralism and neurotheology
as a way of conceiving the initiate's experience of the Mithraeum.
Chapter 8 investigates what Beck calls "star-talk" as an
astronomical/astrological language spoken by the Mithraic monuments to
initiates in the context of the Mithraeum. Important to the
establishment of star-talk is the observation that for the ancients the
stars spoke and the gods spoke through them. Beck acknowledges that
there is debate and skepticism as to whether symbols can function as
language signs to convey definite meanings. The cultural anthropologist
who is most critical of this possibility is Dan Sperber, so Beck tries
to cross what he calls "Sperber's bar" as a way of demonstrating that
star-talk was the language of the Mithraic mysteries.[] Generally he
agrees with Sperber's skepticism but is prepared to make an exception
when it comes to Mithraism.
As a means of demonstrating that symbols within Mithraism do act as a
language, Beck uses the tauroctony and its arrangement to demonstrate
that a code underlies it on which the symbols are reliant. He claims
that these reflect language signs that all initiates would have been
able to read. To further support this claim, Beck uses examples in
Graeco-Roman culture such as the writings of Origen, Augustine and
Maximus to demonstrate that stars were thought more generally to act as
language signs. Celestial bodies are held to have operated as language
signs within the courses of their movement and powers spoke through the
stars, communicating their past, present and future achievements
together with their intended further meanings.
In Chapter 9, the concept of a language of star-talk is investigated
further with specific reference to the Tauroctony. Beck continues to
emphasise that there is not an encoded doctrine in the iconography
itself but rather that the iconography represents signs used in
star-talk. He sees little point in following what he claims is the
well-worn path of iconography reflecting mythical stories and lessons,
as this inevitably leads to Cumontian doctrinal explanation.
In this chapter there is also emphasis on the importance of the exegete
and the interpreter, where the exegete assists the initiate to hear
what the star-talk signs are saying and the interpreter helps the
initiate hear what the star-talk signs intend. The chapter then
proceeds on a long and very complicated exegesis of the star-talk signs
in the Tauroctony. This chapter demonstrates Beck's immense knowledge
in this area, but it takes considerable concentration to follow.
Finally, Chapter 10 is effectively a long appendix on a lost model of
lunar motion while the Conclusion is a brief summary of the new
approach, which Beck has by this stage quite clearly advocated.
Roger Beck establishes a distinctive position on the Mysteries of
Mithras in this book and demonstrates immense knowledge of the ancient
material. The use of theoretical models from the social sciences is
bound to cause controversy, but Beck must be applauded for attempting
an explanation of the mysteries that is indeed holistic in comparison
with traditional approaches. The problem that will always bedevil
historians of Mithraism, and of ancient religions in general, is a lack
of evidence from the perspective of the participants or initiates
themselves. Some will find this an impediment to appreciating what Beck
has done. In all, this is a rich contribution to a topic that continues
to hold our fascination.
1. Turcan, R. 2000. Mithra et le mithriacisme, 2nd edn., rev.
2. Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays,
(New York); Gordon, R.L. 1980b 'Reality, evocation and boundary in the
Mysteries of Mithras', JMS 3: 19-99.
3. Ulansey, D. 1989/1991. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries:
Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (New York); Swerdlow, N.M.
1991. 'On the cosmical mysteries of Mithras' (review article of Ulansey
1989), Classical Philology, 86: 48-63.
4. Merkelbach, R. 1984. Mithras (Ko+nigstein/Ts.).
5. Sperber, D. 1975. Rethinking Symbolism, trans. A. L. Morton