Did the Mithraists Inhale? - A Technique for Theurgic Ascent in the Mithras Liturgy, the Chaldaean Oracles, and some Mithraic Frescoes

Painting in the Barberini Mithraeum

Article Abstract

Mithraism may have incorporated Neoplatonic ideas into its religious practices. Some scholars, such as Turcan, would question the relevance of any of the Neoplatonic testimonies to pure Mithraic cult practices, but recent analyses of Mithraic monuments have shown increasing evidence for the convergence of Neoplatonic ideas with the practices of Mithraism. The image of ascent from the world of genesis on the sun's ray provides a link between Mithraic iconography and the theurgic practices in the Chaldaean Oracles and the so-called Mithras Liturgy.

Although the correspondence between the cosmology and theology of the Mithras Liturgy and of the Chaldaean Oracles indicates some connection between the two, the theurgic techniques of ritual ascent provide the most striking parallel between the Mithras Liturgy and the Chaldaean Oracles. In both, the magician leaves the material world behind and ascends on the rays of the sun to a meeting or sustasis with the god. The parallels in the ritual techniques of ascent and even the technical terminology used to described the ascent indicate a close connection between the ritual in the Mithras Liturgy and the theurgic practices referred to in the Chaldaean Oracles.

The magician in the Mithras Liturgy raises himself to the world of the gods through the inhaling of pneuma (539-541, 629), and the sun rays are the path by which the pneuma from the divine realm comes down to the magician. Although the references to this ritual practice are brief in the Mithras Liturgy, they are clearly the primary means of ascent, since no other mode of ascent is ever mentioned. That this ascent by inhaling pneuma is also the central ritual action in the Chaldaean Oracles is made clear by some of the surviving fragments (e.g., 123, 124). The rays of the sun are the connective pathway by which the Chaldaean theurgist rises to the heights, and the theurgist must travel on the light of these rays to ascend. In the Chaldaean Oracles, the process of the ascent is thus accomplished in the same manner as in the Mithras Liturgy.

Beck's analysis of the Barberini fresco, CIMRM 390, suggests a parallel between the theurgic ascent of the Mithras Liturgy and the cult practices of Mithraism. The fresco depicts the familiar Mithraic tauroctony surrounded by the zodiac, and the sun in the left hand corner sends a ray down to Mithras, passing through both the sign of Capricorn and the torch of Cautes. Beck compares this symbolism with Porphyry's account in the Cave of the Nymphs (23-4), in which Capricorn and Cautes are linked to apogenesis, the ascent of the soul from the material world. The parallel between the idea of the ascent on the sun's ray in Porphyry and in the Barberini fresco suggests that this link between the sun's ray and apogenesis had a place in Mithraism. Beck does not link this concept with the theurgical practices of the Mithras Liturgy and the Chaldaean Oracles, but it seems that this feature of the Mithras Liturgy, the ritual technique of ascent on the rays of the sun, has some basis in the cult ideology of Mithraism.

This evidence calls for a re-evaluation of the status of the Mithras Liturgy with regard to the Mysteries of Mithras, as well as a re-evaluation of the connections between the Neoplatonists and Mithraism. Not only does the Mithras Liturgy show close parallels with the ritual practices, cosmology, and theology of the Chaldaean Oracles, but the ascent on the rays of the sun common to both has strong parallels within the evidence remaining for the practices of Mithraic cult.