Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Mithraic Mysteries, Part 1

During my studies in History, I took a couple courses focused on Ancient Rome. In one of the courses, Ancient Religions, the class was broken into groups that had to recreate some kind of ceremony from an ancient religion. My group selected the Roman Cult of Mithras and we recreated one of their initiatic rituals. I found the research into this mystery cult to be extremely interesting and here I wish to expand on my knowledge on the subject. This article is the first in a three-part series: Part 1 is an introduction to the religion of ancient Rome, Part 2 will focus upon the Cult of Mithras, and Part 3 will compare and contrast this initiatic tradition to Freemasonry.

It is difficult to examine the religion of ancient Rome without looking at some of the histories of Rome. The legendary roots of Rome trace back to the sack of Troy during the Trojan Wars when Aeneas and other survivors fled to what is now Italy; Aeneas was said to be the son of Venus (the goddess of love). Rome is said to have been founded in 753 BC by Romulus, the great-great-grandson of Aeneas. Romulus, and his brother Remus, were by legend to be sired by Mars (the god of war). This use of divine lineage will continue with various leaders of Rome, particularly with the Roman Emperors.

Starting with Romulus, seven kings would rule Rome before the founding of the Republic in 509 BC. Romulus ruled from 753 BC to 716 BC, and one of the most important things attributed to him was the founding of the Senate. Numa Pompilius would follow after Romulus, reigning from 716 BC to 674 BC, and he is remembered for his religious contributions such as the formation of public priests known as "pontifices". The last king, known as Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was deposed following a coup d'├ętat led by Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic. Legend has it that Lucretia, related to Brutus, was raped by the son of the last king which led Brutus to rally the people of Rome against Tarquinius. The Roman Republic would last from 509 BC to 27 BC, but it was during this time that Rome became an empire before it had an emperor. Starting in the 3rd century BC, Ro
me expanded its hand outside of the Italian peninsula. The Roman Senate had real authority over Rome itself, but most of the empire was really a network of towns and provinces that were ruled by military leaders and elected magistrates. With the 1st century BC came a time of political and military upheaval which would lead to the rise of Julius Caesar as "dictator in perpetuum" (dictator in perpetuity) until his assassination in 44 BC. After his death, his son Octavian continued Julius Caesar's work by solidifying his power and taking on the title of "Augustus" fully ending the Roman Republic. With this very brief synopsis of Roman history, let's dive into the religion of ancient Rome.

Roman religion was polytheistic which is more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (like modern Christianity is). Orthopraxy is where adherents focus more on the correct performance of rituals, myths, and traditions. The Roman religion centered on the gods and goddesses who, while anthropomorphic, the interaction of the gods was considered anthropocentrism where humans are the focus of the gods. Believing that the gods controlled so much of their lives, the Roman spent a great deal of time worshiping them. Roman religion wasn't just a casual afterthought or something that was relegated to a single day, but something that permeated the daily life of the ancient Roman.

Most are familiar with the primary gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon: Jupiter, Pluto, Neptune, Juno, Mars, Minerva, Vesta, Apollo, Venus, Ceres, and Diana. However, there were numerous other deities (some call them "secondary deities") who also had altars and shrines built to them. It should be noted that the gods and goddesses were not all inherent to Rome or Italy, they were a mixture of several different religions. Many deities came from Greece, but renamed (such as Jupiter is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Zeus). Some originated from the Etruscan, Umbrian, and Latin tribes, while others came from conquered lands of the Roman Empire. The Roman religion was an inclusive religion and this played a significant role in the Roman Empires' expansion. When the Roman Empire took control of an area it did not convert the natives into the Roman religion, but rather brought their deities and ways of worship into the fold. If the natives had a god that was an equivalent in the Roman religion it would be absorbed and this would better assimilate the natives under Roman authority.

The Roman religion was a practical religion and being orthopraxic was filled with many myths where the gods all had various duties and responsibilities to perform. Each deity had a festival day and some, of greater importance, were on public holidays. These festivals and holidays gave the people the opportunity and chance to visit the temples where priests or religious leaders would provide over the required rituals.

The Roman religion was a state religion where political leaders were often the religious leaders as well. Due to the fact that the Roman religion was polytheistic and inclusive (integrating the gods of conquered nations), there was no single or centralized priestly caste over the Roman religion. There was however a great variety of priests and religious leaders to be found in the Roman Empire. It should be noted that one's religious duties were dependent upon one's social status. Priests were male, free, and Roman citizens. Slaves could not officiate in their own name, but could do so in the name of their master. Women could only officiate over rituals relevant to themselves or other women.

In private families, the rituals and faith were presided over by the "pater", the father (eldest male) of the family. Each family had "Penates" which were gods that were supposed to guard over the welfare and prosperity of the family. The family also worshiped "Lares" which were deified ancestors who also watched over the family. The Romans also believed that each individual, family/household, and the city had a guardian spirit that needed to have offerings made to it. In most of the cities and colonies within the Roman Empire, the public and religious rituals, festivals, and assemblies were presided over by the magistrate (elected official).

During the time of the Emperors, they served as the "pontifex maximus" which served as the head of the Roman religion. The Roman Emperor was also considered to be a god and was deified. This practice probably came about with the contact the Roman Republic and Empire would have with the Middle East and North Africa. This practice also gave some legitimacy to the new Roman Emperor.

At the Republic, and later Imperial, level, the Roman religion was composed of four religious colleges. The highest college was the Pontifical College which was composed of the Rex Sacrorum, Pontifices, Flamines, and Vestal Virgins. The Rex Sacrorum (king of rites) was an office created during the early Roman Republic, but during the Empire, it became an honorary office. Sixteen Pontifices (priests) oversaw the coordination and documentation of religious events. The Flamines were priests to specific individual gods who specialized in specific prayers and rituals particular to their god or goddess. There were six Vestal Virgins, young women of noble birth, whose primary duty was to guard the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta (virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family). 

The College of Augurs consisted of fifteen members. The Augurs would study the entrails of the dead animals (called haruspicy), the behavior of animals, and interpret various omens to predict the future and the will of the gods.

The "Quindecemviri Sacris Faciundis" was a college of fifteen priests who had less clearly defined religious duties. One of their duties was to guard the Sibylline Books (a collection of oracular utterances) and consult them when requested to do so, usually in times of crises. This college also oversaw the worship of foreign gods that were introduced to Rome.

The College of Epulones was composed of seven members and their duty was to oversee the organization of the religious festivals. Depending on the calendar (as there was no single religious calendar over the entire Roman Empire), there was hardly a week or a month that went by where there was not a religious festival.

It was through the policy of integration that the Roman Empire absorbed what would be referred to as "mystery cults". Roman religion focused more on the well-being while alive, worship of the gods was more contractual rather than focusing upon the salvation of one's soul. This was something new that mystery cults brought to the Roman religions. Mystery cults often involved initiation or rite of purification that was meant to change the relationship between a particular deity and the supplicant. These initiations were extremely secretive which makes it difficult to study. Most evidence of them comes from archaeological evidence, but some sources are problematic as they came much later and with severe biases (often against them). Scholars believe that these mystery cults originated with tribes and clans where the members of those tribes and clans were initiated, but when they were taken to Rome initiation was a matter of personal choice rather than due to familial ties. Mystery cults reached their peak of popularity in the first three centuries AD.

Traits common among the various mystery cults are:
Followers of the mystery cults found deep symbolic significance in the natural processes of growth, death, decay, and rebirth.
Each mystery religion also passed on a “secret” to the initiate that included information about the life of the cult’s god or goddess and how humans might achieve unity with that deity. This “knowledge” was always a secret or esoteric knowledge, unattainable by any outside the circle of the cult.
Each mystery also centered around a myth in which the deity either returned to life after death or else triumphed over his enemies. Implicit in the myth was the theme of redemption from everything earthly and temporal.
The mysteries had little or no use for doctrine and correct belief. They were primarily concerned with the emotional life of their followers.
The immediate goal of the initiates was a mystical experience that led them to feel they had achieved union with their god. Beyond this quest for mystical union were two more ultimate goals: some kind of redemption or salvation, and immortality.
Out of Greece came the Cult of Demeter (the Eleusinian mysteries) and the Cult of Dionysus (the Orphic mysteries) which had been around since the 6th century BC, but didn't start gaining hold in Rome until the 2nd century BC. The Eleusinian Mysteries were initiations held every year for the Cult of Demeter. They are one of the most famous of mystery religions that came from ancient Greece. The Cult of Demeter surrounded the myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades (Pluto) which led to the seasonal changes with winter representing the time when Persephone spends time in Hades. The Cult of Dionysus was said to have been started by Orpheus. This cult was about liberating individuals from their constraints and taking them back to their natural state through the use of intoxicants. There were said to be initiation rituals for men and women in the Cult of Dionysus. It was suppressed by the Roman Senate in 186 BC because it was said to be subversive and unruly.

From Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) came the Cults of Cybele and Attis. The Cult of Cybele is said to have dates back to the 6th century BC. Cybele was viewed as the "Great Mother" (to include all the gods) and her initiation ceremonies are described as orgiastic thereafter the male worshipers were required to castrate themselves to become priests of the cult. The initiation surrounds the myth that Cybele drove Attis, her lover, insane after he was unfaithful to her which caused him to go mad and castrate himself. Attis died, but Cybele brought him back to life.

The Cult of Isis originated out of Egypt and was established in Rome around the beginning of the 1st century BC, reaching the height of its popularity in the 2nd century AD. This cult focused on the goddess Isis and god Osiris and focused on the murder of Osiris by his brother Set and reincarnation of Osiris through the effort of Isis.

From the Levant came the Cult of Adonis. Adonis is a Hellenized version of "Adonai", a Canaanite fertility god. Little is known about this cult, but it seemed to be composed of women who would mourn the death of Adonis each year.

The Cult of Mithras originated from Persia (modern-day Iran). The Cult of Mithras was introduced into Rome around 75 AD. This cult was particularly popular among Roman soldiers. This cult was composed of seven grades of initiation and met in underground temples called "Mithraea."

In summation, the religion of ancient Rome is a difficult one to study because it has been dead for so long and there is a limited number of extant sources. Some say that because the Roman Empire had taken in so many gods that the religion became convoluted that facilitated the rise of Christianity, much simpler in contrast. The Cult of Mithras will be the focus of the next section which should come out next month.


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Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day to all of my fellow Americans!

Let Us Honor George Washington

By Silas H. Shepherd

Let us honor a Brother who squared every deed 
By the purest of motive his conscience decreed. 
His claim to our gratitude surely was earned 
By service to every great truth he had learned. 
In youth as Apprentice, he studied the needs 
Of life and of conduct. and all moral creeds.

He applied them in manhood to country and state;
To policies powerful and ideals great.
He lived for the good of a people, a race--
His memory cherished--no foe can we trace.
He conquered in war and in peace was devoid 
Of the strife of party we seldom avoid.

In age he grew wise in the ways that bring peace
And from strife and conflict the people release.
Let us honor his virtues and fortitude rare!
Let us follow the leader and with him compare!
He has laid a design both perfect and true;
It remains for all Masons to carry it through.