Hipparchus discovered precession around 127 BC in Rhodes. The war against the pirates, in which Pompey was to feature so prominently, took place 50 years later, and it was because of this war that Roman legions first came into contact with a religion— the cult of Mithras—that was to spread quickly throughout the empire in the following two centuries, only to collapse and be swept away in the end by Christianity.
The cult of Mithras is a mystery religion—"mystery'' has here a technical meaning; a religion is referred to in this way if its rituals were kept secret from the noninitiated. Hence we know very little about what went on in the Mithraea, the underground grottos shaped like a tunnel with an apse at the end, where the followers of Mithras gathered (there are many throughout Europe; in Rome a famous one is in the St. Clement catacombs). The main iconography of the cult, however, is widely known, since numerous sculptures and paintings found in recesses in the apses of the Mithraea have survived. Mithras is always seen killing a bull with a sword in these images. The god is facing away from the animal, below which a scorpion is depicted, stinging its genitals. There are usually also a dog, a snake, a raven,
a lion, and a cup. Ears of corn often sprout from the bull's tail. Further, it is not unusual to find the signs of the zodiac and planetary symbols encircling the Mithraic iconography. Up to the 1960s, however, interpretations of the Mithraic cult (of which, I repeat, there exist no written evidence) were based on some dodgy notions cobbled together by a Belgian scholar, Franz Cumont, in 1896, who saw in the cult of Mithras the reflection of an ancient Iranian cult transplanted to the Roman Empire. Despite the fact that many aspects of the mystery cult of Mithras had very little to do with the ancient Persian cult, and there was not even the faintest hint of the killing of a bull, Cumont based his ideas on the theory that Mithraism had been molded in conjunction with subsequent variants from Iranic cults, for example, one in which the killing of a bull (the tauroctony) does actually take place, but at the hands of a completely different figure, Ahriman, a force of cosmic evil in the Persian religion, and not Mithras.
This Iranian dogma is an excellent example of how easy it is to be dazzled by a great figure (or one deemed to be great) and let oneself be deluded into concocting theories that are unproven or sometimes even downright absurd.
The first criticisms of Cumont finally began to appear in 1971, and it was soon clear that Mithraic scholars would have to reconsider their discipline from scratch. Actually, as early as 1869, the German academic Kurt Stark had pointed out that all Mithraic iconography seemed to allude to observations of a map of the heavens. Cumont, however, "debunked" Stark's hypothesis, stating that astronomical contents had only secondary importance in the doctrine and were only appropriate for the beginners, before being admitted to the full knowledge of the esoteric Iranic traditions. After 1970 scholars studying the significance of Mithraic iconography were forced to start afresh, and they immediately hit on the hypothesis of astronomy once again. Some authors suggested, for instance, that the iconography refers to the heliacal rising of the constellation Taurus (the bull), and that Mithras might represent Orion, but this idea does not fit well with the fact that Orion lies under Taurus. In fact, the complete solution was within the grasp of anyone who knew where to look and was familiar with the precession phenomenon. But, as usual, simple things are only simple when someone points them out—in this case, David Ulansey (1989).
Ulansey started by noting that the most natural constellation the god might be identified with is Perseus, a constellation documented as far back as the fifth century BC, represented by a warrior sporting a Phrygian cap (an oriental conical cap with front turned forward, similar to that sported by Mithras) who is raising his sword "to the bull.'' If then the scene represents a sky in which the bull ""dies,'' then the scorpion must stand for the Scorpio constellation. At this point, the interpretation becomes quite obvious to
anyone who is familiar with precession: the scene represents the celestial equator at the time of the precessional era of Taurus, the period between the fourth and the second millennium BC, in which the equinoctial constellations were Taurus and Scorpio. Corroboration of this interpretation comes from the fact that the celestial equator crossed the Taurus, Canis Minor, Hydra, Crater (or Cup), Corvus, and Scorpio constellations (and a fragment of Orion's "stick"), that is, precisely the constellations found in Mithraic iconography apart from Leo, whose presence is easily explained, however, since it was the constellation associated with the summer solstice in that same age. Further, the ears of corn sprouting from the bull's tail can be interpreted as linking the figure with the vernal equinox.
The most interesting part of Ulansey's theory about the origin of Mithraism is that it comes from Hipparchus's discovery, developed into a symbolic framework by the School of Stoic Philosophy at Tarsus. It was customary for Stoic philosophers to see a manifestation of the divine in natural forces. According to Ulansey, therefore, the Stoics conjectured about the existence of a new divine being who was responsible for this hitherto unknown movement of the heavens. The divinity was then identified as Perseus, already worshiped in Tarsus and associated with the corresponding constellation. In Ulansey's view, the birth of the Mithraic mysteries represented, therefore, the response of an original group of intellectuals to the staggering discovery that the universe was not as simple as had been believed up to then.
If all this occurred, it occurred in an incredibly short period of time—
about 50 years. The cult is supposed to have come into being, spread far and wide, been consolidated, and then taken up by pirates with whom Roman legions then chanced to come into contact—all in 50 years. Ulansey's arguments on this score sound a bit shaky, although he cites the fact that these pirates constituted an actual "nation'' and had contacts with intellectuals. Moreover, as navigators, they would be familiar with the stars.
I find it all a bit difficult to accept. I cannot find similar examples or analogies in the entire history of humanity: a scientific discovery that becomes a cult practiced by pirates—all in 50 years. The most difficult assertion to accept is that the predictions following this discovery were applied backward in time, thus not in the eschatological sense, as would be more natural for a religion. In other words, if a scientific discovery is to give rise to a cult, one would expect that what the discovery said about the future would be accorded religious significance—thus becoming the anticipation of some sacred event—rather than what it asserts about what happened in the past. So I would expect the iconography to be based on the imminent end of the Age of Aries (the equinoctial point gradually passed from Aries to Pisces around the centuries straddling the year 1 AD) and not on the end of the Age ofTaurus, which had occurred some two thousand years previously.
This objection (albeit not quite couched in such terms) has already been raised: Why did the iconography not refer to the arrival ofthe Age ofPisces rather than to the arrival of the previous age, which was just about to end? (By the way, it should be noted that one of the symbols of the early Christians was, coincidentally, the fish). Ulansey's reply is that Hipparchus apparently estimated the rate of precession to be one degree per century (getting it with a macroscopic error, given that it is actually one degree every 72 years), which would have led to a prediction that the Age of Aries would end in 800 years' time, and not almost immediately.
Ifthis explanation is valid, then it may have been this incorrect prediction that contributed to the waning of the Mithraic cult in the early centuries AD. But I think it is more likely that the cult did not emerge from a scientific discovery, but rather from previous traditions and cults, which had accumulated knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes over centuries or even millennia.
Another equally interesting (and surprisingly similar) clue comes from another unexpected source, the Gundestrup Cauldron. It is a large silver bowl, dug up from a Danish peat bog in 1880, and now at the National Museum in Copenhagen. It is perhaps the most famous artifact ofthe Celts, the civilization that originated among the Bronze Age peoples ofthe Danube area and spread mostly between the fifth and second centuries BC. The cauldron is exquisitely decorated with embossed scenes and figures and can
Figure 14.4: The Gundestrup cauldron, central plate, and its astronomical interpretation
Figure 14.4: The Gundestrup cauldron, central plate, and its astronomical interpretation be attributed stylistically to the Celtic art of the final centuries before Christ (Taylor 1992). And yet it also displays certain oriental influences, such as elephants. Precise dating of the cauldron is impossible, but archaeologists currently place it in the second or first century BC, which makes a big difference, as we shall see.
Numerous interpretations of the decidedly puzzling scenes depicted on the vessel have been proposed. While some figures in the central plates can be plainly identified as well-known Celtic deities, such as Cernumnos, the god with stag horns also found in rock carvings in Val Camonica, the scene depicted on the central plate has so far eluded any convincing explanation. The center is occupied by a bull in an unnatural position, possibly dead. Around the edge there are figures, less heavily embossed, and these are, going clockwise from the bottom, a bear (or she-bear), a lizard, a dog, and a warrior. There is also a tree-branch motif.
Many interpretations have been suggested to explain the scene: ritual sacrifice, a hunting scene, ritual fighting with bulls, and fighting (ritual or otherwise) between bulls and dogs. Actually, only the bullfight (corrida) is missing. But recently a French scholar, Paul Verdier (2000), had enough faith in the intelligence of the creators of the Gundestrup Cauldron to suggest
that the symbolism on the vessel has an astronomical meaning. One of the side plates contains two registers of images separated by the branch of a tree. In the upper register the four horsemen may symbolize the solstices, in the lower register the 12 soldiers symbolize the months of the year, and the tree along which the figures glide is the Milky Way. The central scene of the Cauldron immediately acquires significance if one could have seen the sky in the southwest on a night in one of the years around 2000 BC. Going in succession clockwise from the east we would have seen Canis Major and Orion. In the middle is Taurus, and the scene with the dying bull alludes to the end of the Age of Taurus.
In Verdier's original work, the identification of the lizard with the modern constellation of the same name is posited, but this, as has been observed by J. Belmonte (personal communication) cannot be true, since the Lizard is a modern constellation; the stars that constitute it have been grouped under this constellation only since the 17th century. The animal, however, may represent the constellation Draco or perhaps Tiamat, the monster similar to a dragon of Babylonian origin habitually identified, even in ancient times, with what we call today Cetus, situated under Orion. I would also suggest, in contrast to Verdier, that the figure of the warrior might, as in the Mithraic iconography, be identified with Perseus rather than Orion, and thus the scene on the Cauldron might be exactly the same as the scene represented in the Mithraea (see Magli 2004a for further details).
It is extremely difficult to glean any other information from the iconography here, since we know little about the Druids' (Celtic astronomer-priests) knowledge of astronomy. Most of the information comes from accounts written by others (including a Greek from the Stoic area, Posidonios, and the Romans). Nevertheless, some archaeological clues (such as the Coligny Calendar, a calendar of 62 lunar months engraved on a bronze plaque, with Roman numerals but in the Gallic language) show that the Druids may have inherited a long tradition of celestial observation (Gaspani and Cernuti 1997). Perhaps this tradition can be traced back to the Bronze Age, as the discovery of a disc bearing a symbolic depiction of the sky with 32 stars, a half-moon, and the sun unearthed in Nebra, Saxony, within a 16th century BC archaeological context, seems to confirm.
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