Images of Mithra

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Philippa Adrych, Robert Bracey, Dominic Dalglish, Stefanie Lenk, Rachel Wood
Visual Conversations in Art & Archaeology
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A few weeks before reading the book above, I visited the reconstructed “Temple of Mithras” unearthed near the lost Walbrook River in London. This “ephemeral installation”—including holograms, artificial fog, and voice-over ritual—offers a stark reminder that most of what is known about the Roman cult of Mithras relies on interpretation of the archaeological sites where ritual related to Mithras seems to have taken place, and of a central icon found at many of those sites. 

Images of Mithra provides in-depth analysis of a range of material finds, some unprovenanced, associated with the Roman cult from southern France to Syria, alongside “Mithra” iconography from other cultures—Commagene, Kushan, and Sasanian Iran. Edited by a group of scholars working on the Leverhulme Trust “Empires of Faith” project, this volume is the first in Oxford’s Visual Conversations series, and is intended to reflect “a comparative conversation based on shared methodological concerns” (v) regarding the relatively small number of material objects from the ancient world in relation to their archaeological context and surviving texts. 

The topic makes a compelling first study for exploring questions relating to the relationship of material culture and religion, particularly the “religiousness” of iconography of “god” or “gods” (166 n.10), and the reading of an apparently uniform cult image type found in diverse locations (31, 64). The authors conceive of “gods” in terms of “groups of ideas, not bounded or absolute but far more fluid” (8, 171). One question arising from this conceit is whether identifiable “groups of ideas” concerning Mithra in Achaemenid Persia and in later Iranian iconography are part of a fluid continuum connecting with Roman Mithras, Kushan Miiro, and Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes at Mt. Nemrut. Another question is what can be learned about “ancient religion” through a study of “Mithra,” however named, in these various temporal and geographical contexts (14, 164-67). 

The authors identify a key stimulus for their comparative perspective in Franz Cumont’s work in the late 19th and early 20th century, connecting the disparate cultures of ancient Iran and imperial Rome, although Cumont’s proposed Iranian “origins” for the Roman cult was later criticized as unsustainable. The present book’s case studies, presented in separate chapters, describe each object within its immediate setting (including, in the first instance, a museum), before “reading” its meaning. These case studies have significance to each other in that an understanding of one object within its own religious and cultural context potentially leads to a deeper understanding of an object from another context (14). The process of collaborative comparison and interpretation included much re-writing and group discussion, but the six main chapters were each drafted by individual authors who are, in the book, uncredited, but identified elsewhere through contribution to a blog discussing some of the issues relating to the case studies

The online blog is not interactive (the viewer is invited to “Leave a Reply”), so the process of a sustained “comparative conversation” occurs only within the closed circle of authors. This is somewhat disappointing, since it seems that none of the contributors is a specialist on ancient Iran (one is an expert on Central Asian numismatics, and one is researching Sasanian-era iconography). Input from an Iranist would, one hopes, have introduced mention of the role of Mithra in Armenian myth, epic, and nomenclature from the Parthian period, and the depiction of Mithra at Bamiyan would have been connected with imagery on Sogdian Zoroastrian ossuaries recently found in former Sogdiana and modern northwestern China, along with the identification of the “riderless horse” as Mithra on those objects. 

A scholar of ancient Iran would also have caught the fact that there are five, not seventeen (186) Gāthās attributed to Zarathustra (preserved in seventeen sections of the liturgy); that Ādur is the Middle Persian (not Avestan; 186) form of Avestan ātar; that Farsi is translated as “Persian” in English (3, 185); and that the Kushan figure of Wesho (115) is well known in the Zoroastrian context, the name deriving from the nominative form of Vayushyazata of the wind (as also in the Sogdian Weshparkar).

The book’s focus on material evidence—that is, on visual text, rather than literary text—is explained as due in part to the paucity, bias, or unreliability, of documentation relating to the Roman cult, as well as the convoluted history of transmission of Avestan text regarding worship of Mithra. But, since all of the objects reviewed only offer fragmentary insights into their original function, inscription—where available—can contribute to the interpretation. Such is the case with the Dura Europos reliefs, the Mt. Nemrut depictions (141, 153-54), and Kushan coinage (114). The Sasanian relief at Taq-e Bostan is further contextualized using Avestan and classical texts (94, 97-100), but the analysis does not seem to entertain the notion that the “Zoroastrianism” of that period may also have consisted of groups of ideas that were fluid in terms of “doctrine” and multivalent symbols onto which, as Claudia Brittenham notes in the epilogue—“Quezalcoatl and Mithra” (with reference to “reading” the symbolism of the feathered serpent)—“many meanings could be mapped” (180). 

The authors of Images of Mithra, in exemplifying and promulgating an interdisciplinary “close reading” of material culture in context, present a powerful model for expanding existing interpretations of cult objects and practices, and for making new connections across diverse cultures and religions. It is hoped that future collaborations in this series will expand to involve specialists who can contribute additional insights to enrich the conversation, and to explore its “public resonance beyond academia” (v).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jenny Rose is Adjunct Professor of Zoroastrian Studies in the Department of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philippa Adrych read Classics as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford. She then proceeded to an MPhil in Roman History, and is now a DPhil candidate on the Empires of Faith project. She works on the historiographic problems of the study of Mithras in the Roman world from an object-based perspective.

Robert Bracey joined the British Museum in 2008 where he conducts research on the South and Central Asian coins collection. His research focuses particularly on the Kushan Empire (north India and Central Asia from the first to fourth centuries AD). He worked on the Empires of Faith research project from 2013 to 2015, and is currently working with the ERC-funded project Beyond Boundaries.

Dominic Dalglish studied for a BA in Ancient History and MA in Classics at the University of Durham before moving to Oxford to do a Masters in Classical Archaeology in 2010. He is now a DPhil candidate at Wolfson College, Oxford, working on the movement of religious ideas in the Roman Empire, particularly through material culture, as part of the British Museum's Empires of Faith project.

Stefanie Lenk is a DPhil candidate researching classical imagery in late antique baptismal spaces in the western Mediterranean at Wolfson College, Oxford, as part of the British Museum's Empires of Faith research project. She previously studied history of art, history, and curating at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, Universita degli Studi di Firenze, Courtauld Institute of Art, and Oxford University.

Rachel Wood is a postdoctoral researcher on the British Museum's Empires of Faith project and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. Her current research focuses on religious iconography in the Sasanian period, in particular on questions surrounding cultural interaction and local reinterpretations of images. Her DPhil, from Lincoln College, Oxford, explored interactions, continuity, and change in the art of the Hellenistic East (c.330-100 BC)


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