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The Origins of the Mithraic MysteriesCosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World$

David Ulansey

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780195067880

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195067880.001.0001

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Mithras and Perseus

Mithras and Perseus

(p.25) 3 Mithras and Perseus
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries

David Ulansey

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The previous section kept us wondering which constellation represents Mithras as this was left unanswered in the various interpretations of tauroctony. In the astronomical aspect, Perseus occupies a position in the sky similar to that occupied by Mithras in the tauroctony, which led many to search for parallelisms of Mithras being represented as Perseus in the constellation as discussed in this chapter. For one, Mithras and Perseus wore the so-called Phrygian cap, which was only worn in the olden times by either Persians or someone “oriental”, and, like Perseus, Mithras looks away from their victims. Perseus was believed to be from the underground chamber and Mithras was born from the rock, both from underground caverns. They are also comparable because of the weapons they use—harpe and dagger, both with curved blades— used by Perseus and Mithras respectively.

Keywords:   Mithras, Perseus, Phrygian cap, oriental, underground cavern, harpe, dagger

If the Mithraic tauroctony is essentially a star map, then, as we have seen, the obvious question arises as to what constellation Mithras himself represents. As we attempt to answer this question, we should keep in mind the standard attributes of Mithras as he is portrayed in the tauroctony. First, he is always shown as a young hero, dressed in a tunic and flying cape. Further, he is always depicted wearing what is his most characteristic attribute, namely, the felt hat with a forward-curving peak, called a Phrygian cap, which in ancient art signified that the person wearing it was oriental. As the bull-slayer he is always directly atop the bull with his left knee bent and his right leg extended, stabbing the bull in the neck with a short dagger held in his right hand, while with his left hand he holds up the bull's head. Finally, he is most often shown in the puzzling posture of looking away from the bull as he kills it.

Now consider the question of which constellation might be represented by Mithras. A simple glance at the tauroctony suggests one obvious direction of investigation. In the standard tauroctony, Mithras is always located directly above the bull. It therefore makes sense to ask whether there might be some connection between Mithras and the region of the sky directly above the constellation Taurus the bull.

Before we look at the area of the sky above Taurus, however, it is important to point out that on the basis of pure chance the sky above Taurus could be occupied by any one of scores of possible constellations having no resemblance to Mithras, such as an eagle, a (p.26) swan, a woman, a triangle, or a ship. It thus cannot be without a certain amount of astonishment that one looks at the region of the sky directly above Taurus the Bull—that is, the region of the sky exactly analogous to the position of Mithras in the tauroctony— and sees the constellation figure of a young hero, carrying a dagger, and wearing a Phrygian cap!

This constellation directly above Taurus, which bears such a striking resemblance to the figure of Mithras, is the constellation which since at least the fifth century B.C.E.has been seen as representing the Greek hero Perseus. Figure 3.1 shows the position of the constellation Perseus in relation to Taurus. This illustration is taken from an eighteenth-century star map. However, there is an abundance of evidence from antiquity showing that for the ancient Greeks and Romans the location of the constellation Perseus was identical to that pictured here.1 In addition, many ancient representations of Perseus show him wearing a Phrygian cap like that which is always worn by Mithras.Figure 3.2, for example, shows a Greek vase painting in which Perseus is depicted wearing a Phrygian cap. Of course, this figure does not show the constellation Perseus. However, in two of the earliest surviving pictures of the constellation Perseus— the Salzburg Plaque andCodex Vossianus Leidensis 79 —Perseus is shown wearing a Phrygian cap, demonstrating that this was a frequent attribute of Perseus the constellation as well as of Perseus the hero.2

The fact that directly above Taurus is a constellation which bears a striking resemblance to Mithras provides remarkable support for the claim that the tauroctony is actually a star map. In addition, the presence of the constellation Perseus directly above Taurus provides the beginnings of a hypothesis which I will be developing in detail in my discussion, namely, that Mithras is related to this constellation in the same way that the other tauroctony figures are related to the constellations which they resemble. Let us then examine in greater detail the figure of Perseus.

Perhaps the most impressive similarity between the figures of Mithras and Perseus appears in their respective headgear. Mithras is always portrayed wearing a Phrygian cap; likewise, Perseus almost always has some kind of unusual cap. Often—including, as we have seen, in ancient representations of the constellation Perseus—he is shown wearing a Phrygian cap like the one worn by Mithras. The cap which Perseus wears was a divine gift: it is the Cap of Hades which renders its wearer invisible and which was given to Perseus by the (p.27) Gorgon Medusa.

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.1 The constellations Perseus and Taurus.

nymphs to help him in his most famous deed, the slaying of the

In Greek and Roman iconography a Phrygian cap usually indicated that the person wearing it was Persian, Anatolian, or simply "oriental." Thus, the fact that Perseus' Cap of Hades is often represented as a Phrygian cap probably has to do with another fact which adds strength to our hypothesis of a connection between Mithras and Perseus, namely, that from at least the time of Herodotus Perseus (p.28) people:

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.2 Perseus (on left) wearing Phrygian cap and holding harpe. Note that the cap has wings attached to it. Perseus' cap was often depicted as having wings in order to emphasize its magical qualities. However, it was also frequently pictured without wings, as is the case in Figure 3.8 (Apulian vase painting, fourth century B.C.E.).

was believed to be strongly connected with Persia and the Persian

The ancients believed that Perseus had some connections with Persia, but since his own name did not mean specifically “the Persian,” they invented a son for him, “Perses,” whose name was interpreted as such. This was patently forced since the name appears in Greek literature (as Hesiod's brother, for example) before the historical rise of the Persians. But the rapid rise of this empire, within a single generation, brought speculations that involved this nation with Greek legend so that Skylax of Caryanda, Aischylos, Hellanikos and Herodotos connected Perseus with Persia.3

Thus, Herodotus said that Perseus, through his son Perses, gave his name to Persia and the Persian people.4 The name Perseus actually (p.29) has nothing to do with Persia.5 Nevertheless, the idea that Perseus was connected with Persia entered the mythological and historical tradition before the fifth centuryBC. E. and is thus the most likely explanation of Perseus' Phrygian cap.

The mythological relationship between Perseus and Persia is, of course, also important for another reason; for if, as I am arguing here, there is some connection between Mithr as— whom the Romans believed to be of Persian origin— and Perseus, the mythological connection between Perseus and Persia must have played an important role in the emergence of the syncretistic link between the two figures. I will return to this point later.

In connection with the legendary relationship between Perseus and Persia, there is another interesting piece of evidence which deserves attention. The earliest literary reference to the Mithraic mysteries consists of a line from Statius'Thebaid (c. 80 C.E.) in which he refers to “Persei sub rupibus antri indignata sequi torquentem cornua Mithram.”6 This line is usually translated as “Mithras twisting the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave.”7 However, as J. H. Mozley points out in his Loeb edition of Statius, the form Persei is not the Latin adjective for “Persian” (which is Persicus, -a, -um) but rather means “Tersean,′ from Perses, son of Perseus and Andromeda, founder of the Persian nation.”8 In fact, it may even be the case, given the evidence concerning the possible connection between Mithras and Perseus which I will be adducing, that Persei is simply the genitive of Perseus, and that Statius is referring here to “Mithras twisting the unruly horns beneath the rocks of the cave of Perseus/” Indeed, a commentary on this line attributed to the fifth-century grammarian Lactantius Placidus makes just this connection, saying of Statius that “he gives to the rocks of a Persian cave the name of [a] temple of Perseus.”9 This possibility is strengthened when we consider the fact that as we will see shortly, Perseus was believed to have been born in an underground cavern. Even if Statius were merely using the expression Persean as a poetic way of saying “Persian” by playing on the connection between Perseus and Persia, this line from the Thebaid would at least provide good evidence that the legendary link between Perseus and Persia was well known in Roman times.

In fact, speculations connecting Perseus and Persia may have become quite intricate, as is shown by the following late but nevertheless suggestive passage from the Byzantine historian Gregorius Cedrenus, in which Perseus is said to have founded a new cult among (p.30) the Persian Magi based on celestial secrets: “Perseus, they say, brought to Persia initiation and magic, which by his secrets made the fire of the sky descend; with the aid of this art, he brought the celestial fire to the earth, and he had it preserved in a temple under the name of the sacred immortal fire; he chose virtuous men as ministers of a new cult, and established the Magi as the depositors and guardians of this fire which they were charged to protect.”10

Another important link between Mithras and Perseus arises out of the fact that the tauroctonous Mithras is almost always portrayed as looking away from the bull as he kills it. There has been a strong consensus among scholars of Mithraism that the origins of the artistic type of the Mithraic tauroctony can be traced back to earlier representations of Nike, the goddess Victory, sacrificing a bull.11 Certainly, the artistic type of Nike sacrificing a bull bears such a striking resemblance to the tauroctonous Mithras that it must have played some role in the creation of the picture of the Mithraic tauroctony (see Figure 3.3). However, there is a very important difference between the type of Nike sacrificing the bull and that of the tauroctonous Mithras: Nike is almost always shown as looking directly at the bull, while Mithras is almost always shown as looking away from the bull. Fritz Saxl, in his book Mithras: Typengeschichtliche Untersuchungen, says that this “looking away from the goal” is clearly “unclassical.” For Saxl “this discrepancy between action and direction of sight … in relation to the classical form” is “very remarkable.” What is of interest for us in Saxl's discussion is that in attempting to trace the possible antecedents for this motif, he is led to none other than Perseus. Saxl notes the existence of the striking similarity “between the Mithras-type and that of Perseus, who kills the Medusa, in relation to their looking away from the deed. Perseus turns himself away from Medusa, since her glance brings death. Perhaps the Perseus-type has here had an influence on that of Mithras.”12

The parallel between Mithras and Perseus which Saxl points out here, namely, that Perseus always looks away from the Gorgon Medusa just as Mithras looks away from the bull, is clearly an important piece of evidence for the connection between these two figures. In fact, the figure of the Gorgon may have played a significant role in Mithraism, for there exists in Mithraic iconography a striking parallel to the Gorgon: namely, the so-called leontocephalic (lion-headed) god. Over the years there have been many attempts to discover the origins of the figure of the Gorgon, attempts which have looked to such diverse sources as the owl of Athena, the Babylonian (p.31)

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.3 Nike killing bull (Italian terracotta relief, first century C.E.).

god Humbaba, the face of the moon, and the image of a storm cloud.13 In spite of this great variety of interpretations, however, there is now general agreement that at first only the Gorgon head— the gorgoneion —was pictured and that this head was only later attached to a body. According to Clark Hopkins, “In the earliest period, the Mycenean age, and the geometric epoch, the head alone of the Gorgon monster was known both in story and in art. In the seventh century, therefore, when artists began to attempt the whole body, they were free to fasten the head on any type of body they preferred, and they used this freedom with eagerness. Later on the Corinthian types were recognized as the best interpretations and these were then universally adopted.”14

For the purposes of my discussion, the origins of the Gorgon are not as important as the fact that as early as the seventh century B.C.E. we find the complete figure of the Gorgon and that shortly thereafter the picture of the Gorgon found on Corinthian vases becomes the standard image.15 This standard image of the Gorgon is strangely impressive.Figure 3.4 shows an example: here we see a human form with two pairs of wings, its body entwined with snakes. (p.32)

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.4 The Gorgon (Attic vase painting, sixth century B. C. E.).

Its head is a peculiar combination of human and animal features: an animal-like face with a human expression; an open mouth with tongue, sharp teeth, and tusks protruding; and a distinctive kind of curled hair out of which snakes appear. It is not necessary to follow C. Blinkenberg, who finds the origin of the Gorgon in the image of a lion,16 to see the extraordinary resemblance between this figure of the Gorgon and that of the Mithraic leontocephalic god, whose body also has wings and is entwined with a snake. One need only compare Figure 3.4, the Gorgon, with Figure 3.5, two examples of the Mithraic deity, to see the remarkable similarity.

Blinkenberg believes that the Gorgon originates in the image of a lion, and his evidence should not be overlooked. However, we do not need to go in this direction in order to find direct evidence of a connection between the Gorgon and the leontocephalic god. The only real difficulty is that the leontocephalic god, as its name states, has a head whose appearance seems to be closest to that of a lion, whereas the Gorgon, while having an animal-like head, is not as distinctively leonine. However, this difficulty is resolved when we take into account evidence in which the figure of the Gorgon is connected with that of a lion within the Mithraic context itself. For (p.33)

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.5 Examples of lion-headed god (CIMRM 382 and 312).

example, in a mithraeum in Pannonia was found a sandstone block sculpted on two sides. On one side was a Gorgon head, and on the other was a lion.17 At a Mithraic site in Angera was found a series of six marble columns, upon whose “upper ledge alternatively lions' and Gorgon's heads are represented.”18 Perhaps the most interesting example is a Mithraic relief from Germany in which the lion-hearted god is pictured: on the chest of this figure is a small head which with its swollen jaws is, as Maarten Vermaseren says, most likely a representative of the Gorgon (see Figure 3.6).19

Given evidence like this, it is not difficult to imagine a development in which the Gorgon figure is modified slightly so as to make (p.34)

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.6 Lion-headed god with Gorgon head on chest (CIMRM 1123).

its animal-like head—already reminiscent of a lion's—specifically leonine, in which case we would have a figure identical to that of the Mithraic lion-headed god.

One point should be clarified. The Gorgon figure is usually thought of as being female, whereas the leontocephalic god seems at first glance to be male. However, as Vermaseren tells us, the leontocephalic god “is shown nude, though often his sex is disguised by a loin-cloth or by an enveloping snake, as if it was intended either to leave the deity's sex vague or to convey that both sexes were united in him, and that he was capable of self-procreation.”20 Likewise, although the Gorgon as a mythological character is clearly female, its artistic representations present an ambiguous picture with regard to its sex. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to determine the sex of the Gorgon in Figure 3.4. Often the body appears distinctly male. However, “the masculine characterization of the body on which the Gorgon's head rests signifies nothing in relation to the face. … (p.35) The head demands a special judgment of its own, as a construction which Greek mythology displays as clearly feminine but which in itself could be apprehended also as masculine or neutral.”21

I will return to the subject of the leontocephalic god and the Gorgon later in my discussion. For the present, note that the possibility that the Gorgon and the leontocephalic god are related to each other reinforces the claim made by Fritz Saxl that the image of Perseus killing the Gorgon played into the artistic type of the tauroctony by providing the source for the motif of Mithras looking away from his victim. In any event, the similarity between the Gorgon and the leontocephalic god provides further evidence for the existence of a connection between Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon, and the cult of Mithras.

Another interesting area of similarity between Mithras and Perseus concerns the fact that both figures are connected with underground caverns. The Mithraic mysteries were often conducted in sub-terranean sanctuaries, or, where this was impossible, in temples made to look like underground caves. It is thus worthy of note that Perseus was believed to have been born in just such a subterranean enclosure. According to the story as told by Apollodorus, when Acrisius, the grandfather of Perseus,

inquired of the oracle how he should get male children, the god said that his daughter would give birth to a son who would kill him. Fearing that, Acrisius built a brazen chamber under ground and there guarded Danae. However, she was seduced, as some say, by Protus, whence arose the quarrel between them; but some say that Zeus had intercourse with her in the shape of a stream of gold which poured through the roof into Danae's lap. … Acrisius afterwards learned that she had got a child Perseus.22

If we do have here a connection between Perseus and Mithras, then there may also be a connection between Perseus' birth in the underground chamber and the so-called birth from the rock of Mithras, an event often depicted in Mithraic iconography (see Figure 3.7).As Maarten Vermaseren says, the birth of Mithras “was in the nature of a miracle, the young Mithras being forced out of a rock as if by some hidden magic power. He is shown naked save for the Phrygian cap, holding dagger and torch in his uplifted hands. He is the new begettor of light (genitor luminis), born from the rock (deus genitor rupe natus), from a rock which gives bitlh (petra genetrix),”23 It is tempting to speculate that the Mithraists understood their subterra (p.36)
                   Mithras and Perseus

3.7 The rock birth of Mithras (CIMRM 2134)

nean temples as symbolizing the interior of the rock out of which Mithras was born, in which case we could conclude that Mithras, like Perseus, was believed to have been born in an underground cavern.

A final area of parallelism between Mithras and Perseus concerns the weapons which they use. Like Mithras in the tauroctony, Perseus is often shown holding a normal straight sword or dagger. This is especially the case in representations of the constellation Perseus. Thus on the so-called Farnese globe— a Roman star-globe which is one of the earliest surviving Graeco-Roman representations of the heavens— the constellation Perseus is depicted holding a dagger, and in Codex Vossianus the constellation figure is carrying a straight sword.24 However, the traditional weapon associated with Perseus is the harpe, the sword with an extra curved blade attached to it with which he slew the Gorgon. The harpe was given to Perseus (p.37)

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.8 Perseus (on right) with curved knife (South Italian vase painting, fourth century B. C. E.).

by one of the gods (some say Hermes, others Athena).Figure 3.2 shows a vase painting in which Perseus, wearing his Phrygian cap, is holding a harpe. Thus, while Mithras in the tauroctony holds the dagger which is a frequent attribute of the constellation Perseus, it is of interest to us that the harpe is also an important symbol in Mithraic iconography. Pictures of a harpe and of a similar curved knife or scythe (also associated with Perseus, as Figure 3.8 shows) appear in two of the groups of symbols which are associated with the seven grades of Mithraic initiation in the mosaics of a mithraeum in Ostia. In particular, the harpe appears as a symbol of the fifth grade, called Perses (Greek for “the Persian”), and a curved knife appears as a symbol of the seventh grade, called the Father (see Figure 3.9.

Before concluding this discussion, I would like to recall some (p.38)

                   Mithras and Perseus

3.9 Symbols for the fifth and seventh grades of initiation (CIMRM 299).

interesting remarks made by Franz Cumont two years before his death concerning the harpe and the Perses grade, in which he hints at a possible link between Mithras and Perseus:

I would like in closing to add a word on the symbolism of the grade Perses because one may draw from it some interesting conclusions for the whole history of Mithraism. The initiate to this fifth grade obtained through it an affiliation to that race which alone was worthy of receiving the highest revelations of the wisdom of the Magi. This is why he was given for an emblem the harpe —because this harpe is the weapon of Perseus, the sword fortified with a prickle with which he decapitated the Gorgon and transfixed the monster that menaced Andromeda. Now Perseus, by virtue of an etymological connection which goes back to the epoch of Herodotus and is repeated down to the time of Malalas, was regarded as the ancestor, the eponymous hero of the Persians. Even further, however, Perseus holding the harpe or the harpe by itself as an isolated figure, appears on the coins minted in Pontus at the time of Mithridates, a king whose name sufficiently indicates a devotion to Mithra; and on the same coins of all the sovereigns of the Pontic dynasty, in spite of the succession of kings and of the variety of types, there is regularly reproduced the crescent with the star, associated with the sword of Perseus.25

Later in this discussion I will return to the subject of King Mithridates of Pontus, whose connection with Mithraism is hinted at here by Cumont. What is of interest at this point is that Cumont connects the name of the fifth grade of Mithraic initiation, Perses, with Perseus on the basis of the etymological connection drawn in antiquity between Perseus and Persia and the fact that one of the symbols for the Perses grade in Mithraic iconography is the harpe, a symbol associated with Perseus. Indeed, Cumont's point can be made even (p.39) stronger when we recall that Perseus had a son named Perses. If, as I am arguing here, Mithras is in some sense Perseus, then the name Perses applied to the fifth grade may be connected not, as Cumont suggests, with Perseus himself, but rather with his son. In this case, we would have a simple explanation for the title of the highest grade—the Father—which would thus refer to the father of Perses, Perseus (= Mithras) himself.

The iconographic and mythological parallels between Mi. hras and Perseus which we have been examining are not by themselves sufficient proof that a connection between the two figures actually exists. However, when placed in conjunction with the astronomical connection between Mithras and Perseus which we presented at the beginning of this chapter, namely, that the constellation Perseus occupies a position in the sky exactly analogous to that occupied by Mithras in the tauroctony, these parallels become highly suggestive. Certainly the fact that Perseus wears a Phrygian cap and is connected with Persia, and that Mithras, like Perseus, is always shown turning his head away from his victim, is in striking harmony with the possibility, suggested by the astronomical evidence, that Mithras and Perseus are somehow connected. At a minimum, these parallels are intriguing enough to provide the motivation for further exploration into the possible relationship between the two figures. Let us, then, turn our attention to another body of evidence supporting the hypothesis of a connection between Mithras and Perseus.


(1.) For the history of the constellation, with a full discussion of the ancient evidence, seeW. Rathmann, “Perseus (Sternbild),” PW, vol. 19.1, cols. 992–96.

(2.) For the Salzburg plaque, see A. Rehm and E. Weiss, “Zur Salzburger Bronzescheibe mit Sternbildern,” Jahreshefte des Osterreichischen Archaologischen Inst huts 6 (1903), 39; for Codex Vossianus Leidensis 79, see Georg Thiele, Antike Himmelsbilder (Berlin: Weidmann, 1898), p. 111.

(3.) Thallia Phillies Howe, “The Origins and Function of the Gorgon Head,” AJ Arch. 58 (1954), 216, n. 43.

(4.) Hdt. 7.61.3.

(5.) It is probably derived from the Greek verb pertho (destroy); see Howe, “Gorgon Head,” 216.

(6.) Stat. Theb. 1.719–20.

(7.) Vermaseren, Secret God, p. 29.

(8.) Statius, Statius, trans. J. H. Mozley (London: William Heinemann, 1928), vol. 1, p. 392, note h.

(9.) A. S. Geden, Select Passages Illustrating Mithraism (New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1925), p. 39.

(10.) Cited in Charles Dupuis, Origine de tons les cultes (Paris: H. Agasse, 1795), vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 78.

(11.) See e.g., Cumont, Mysteries, p. 200.

(12.) Fritz Saxl, Mithras: Typengeschichtliche Untersuchungen (Berlin: Heinrich Keller, 1931), p. 14.

(13.) For a summary of the different views, see Howe, “Gorgon Head.”

(14.) Clark Hopkins, “Assyrian Elements in the Perseus-Gorgon Story,” AJ Arch. 38 (1934), 344.

(15.) The development of the Corinthian picture of the Gorgon is traced in detail by Humfry Payne in his Necrocorinthia (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 80ff.

(16.) C. Blinkenberg, “Gorgonne et lionne,” Rev. Arch., ser. 5, no. 19 (1924), 267ff.

(17.) CIMRM 1694 (see Abbreviations).

(18.) CIMRM 719.

(19.) CIMRM 1123.

(20.) Vermaseren, Secret God, p. 118.

(21.) Carl Kerenyi, Athene (Zurich: Spring, 1978), p. 68.

(22.) Apollodorus, The Library, trans. Sir James George Frazer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939), vol. 1, p. 155.

(23.) Vermaseren, Secret God, p. 75.

(24.) For the Farnese globe and Codex Vossianus, see Thiele, Antike Himmelsbilder, pi. 4 and p. I l l, respectively.

(p.130) (25.) Franz Cumont, “Rapport sur une mission a Rome,” in Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Comptes Rendus, 1945, p. 418.