If So, How? Representing “Coming Back to Life” in the Mysteries of Mithras


  • Roger Beck University of Toronto


Porphyry (On the Cave 6) states that the Mithraists “perfect their initiate by inducting him into a mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again, calling the place a ‘cave’.” To this end, they designed their mithraeum as an “image of the universe” in which “the things inside by their proportionate arrangement” served as “symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos.” This paper argues that Porphyry is correct, at least for a number of mithraea and their communities in Ostia, Rome, and the vicinities. The test case is the Ostian “Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres” (Sette Sfere). Here, the solstices are set at the mid points of the side-benches, the summer solstice on the left as one enters and the winter solstice on the right. The equinoxes lie at the ends of the central aisle, the spring equinox at the cult-niche end and the autumn equinox at the entrance end. The aisle thus replicates the equinoctial diameter of the universe. The descent and return of souls, for the comprehension and, arguably, the ritual enactment of which the mithraeum was designed, follows a route from a gate in the sphere of the fixed stars at the summer solstice in Cancer down through the seven spheres of the planets to genesis and mortal life on earth; at death and apogenesis, the soul retraces this route back up through the seven planetary spheres and out of an opposite gate in the sphere of the fixed stars at the summer solstice in Capricorn. This soul-route is attested by Proclus and Origen as well as by Porphyry. Accordingly, the “Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres” stands as a stunning example of Porphyry’s description, even if it cannot be generalized to other mithraea which themselves do not exhibit the same rich array of cosmic symbols. 


Author Biography

Roger Beck, University of Toronto

Roger Beck is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. Mithraism has been his major research interest, as well as ancient astrology and narrative fiction. Among his many publications are Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras (Brill, 1988); Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works with New Essays (Ashgate, 2004); The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2006); and A Brief History of Ancient Astrology (Blackwell, 2007).





Section II: The Material and Conceptual Porosity of Death