Book Review: “Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God”

A window into the mysteries at the end of Rome

Jared Barlament

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Tauroctony at the Hall of Animals, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy: CIMRM 548 (image: Carole Raddato)

Anybody with some baseline knowledge on the Roman Cult of Mithras will know that the central problem in the study of the cult today concerns the identity of Mithras himself. And yet, for several decades from the start of the 20th century, this problem was thought to have been firmly put away by the first Mithraic scholar Franz Cumont. He and his successors assumed that the Roman cult could be properly thought of as a continuation of the earlier Persian worship of Mithra, god of truth, light and treaty.

But then, in Tehran, in the year 1975, at the Second International Congress of Mithraic Studies, this theory was by academic consensus discredited. It was decided that what was a mostly Western Roman cult evidently only founded in the mid-2nd century could not be equated with the original eastern cult not referenced in Roman literature for 70 years at that point.

Thus, the decision was made to consider only the evidence from the Roman cult on its own merit. In addition, the suggestion was made, based on the huge amount of astronomical symbolism present everywhere in the Roman cult imagery, that we should view the cult’s ideology as primarily astronomical, and crucially, that we should the assume the identity of the bull who Mithras stabs in the cult’s most famous scene to be the constellation Taurus. Our author, working just five years later, took this one step further and declared we could identify the Roman Mithras with the constellation and the corresponding Greek hero of Orion.

Michael P. Speidel is a high-profile Roman military historian, whose 1980 book, Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God has become the authoritative text on what’s still one of the most popular theories in Mithraic studies today. For its renown, it was surprisingly short; 56 pages, all told, but these few pages effectively communicate a clear, if not as comprehensive as I’d hoped, theory. To Speidel, in short, the character of the Roman Cult of Mithras is unmistakably Hellenic, rather than Persian, and its astronomical symbolism signifies to us that the deepest secrets revealed to the cult’s initiates must have been based in this basic astronomical truth. In his own words: “Mithras is the…

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.