From Ritual to Romance

Chapter XII

Mithra and Attis

   The fact that there was, at a very early date, among a certain sect of Christian Gnostics, a well-developed body of doctrine, based upon the essential harmony existing between the Old Faith and the New, which claimed by means of a two-fold Initiation to impact to the inner circle of its adherents the secret of life, physical and spiritual, being, in face of the evidence given in the previous chapter, placed beyond any possible doubt, we must now ask, is there any evidence that such teaching survived for any length of time, or could have penetrated to the British Isles, where, in view of the priority of the Bleheris-Gawain form, the Grail legend, as we know it, seems to have originated? I think there is at least presumptive evidence of such preservation, and transmission. I have already alluded to the close connection existing between the Attis cult, and the worship of the popular Persian deity, Mithra, and have given quotations from Cumont illustrating this connection; it will be worth while to study the question somewhat more closely, and discover, if possible, the reason for this intimate alliance.
   On the face of it there seems to be absolutely no reason for the connection of these cults; the two deities in no way resemble each other; the stories connected with them have no possible analogy; the root connection is widely divergent.
   With the character of the deity we know as Adonis, or Attis, we are now thoroughly familiar. In the first instance it seems to be the human element in the myth which is most insisted upon. He is a mortal youth beloved by a great goddess; only after his tragic death does he appear to assume divine attributes, and alike in death and resurrection, become the accepted personification of natural energies.
   Baudissin, Adonis und Esmun, remarks that Adonis belongs to "einer Klasse von Wesen sehr unbestimmter Art der wohl über den Menschen aber unter den grossen Göttern stehen, und weniger Individualität besitzen als diese1." Such a criticism applies of course equally to Attis.
   Mithra, on the other hand, occupies an entirely different position. Cumont, in his Myst&egraveres de Mithra, thus describes him; he is "le génie de la lumière céleste. Il n'est ni le soleil, ni la lune, ni les étoiles, mais à l'aide de ces mille oreilles, et de ces deux milles yeux, il surveille le monde2."
   His beneficent activities might seem to afford a meeting ground with the Vegetation goods--"Il donne l'accroissement, il donne l'abondance, il donne les troupeaux, il donne la progéniture et la vie3."
   This summary may aptly be compared with the lament for Tammuz, quoted in Chapter 3.
   But the worship of Mithra in the form in which it spread throughout the Roman Empire, Mithra as the god of the Imperial armies, the deity beloved of the Roman legionary, was in no sense of this concrete and material type.
   This is how Cumont sums up the main features. Mithra is the Mediator, who stands between "le Dieu inaccessible, et inconnaissable, qui règne dans les sphères éthérées, et le genre humain qui s'agite ici-bas."--"Il est le Logos émané de Dieu, et participant à sa toute puissance, qui après avoir formé le monde comme démiurge continue à veiller sur lui." The initiates must practice a strict chastity--"La résistance à la sensualité était un des aspects du combat contre le principe du mal--le dualisme Mithraique servait de fondement à une morale trèes pure et trèes efficace4."
   Finally, Mithraism taught the resurrection of the body--Mithra will descend upon the earth, and will revive all men. All will issue from their graves, resume their former appearance and recognize each other. All will be united in one great assembly, and the good will be separated from the evil. Then in one supreme sacrifice Mithra will immolate the divine bull, and mixing its fat with the consecrated wine will offer to the righteous the cup of Eternal Life5.
   The final parallel with the Messianic Feast described in Chapter 9 is too striking to be overlooked. 
   The celestial nature of the deity is also well brought out in the curious text edited by Dieterich from the great Magic Papyrus of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and referred to in a previous chapter. This text purports to be a formula of initiation, and we find the aspirant ascending through the Seven Heavenly Spheres, to be finally met by Mithra who brings him to the presence of God. So in the Mithraic temples we find seven ladders, the ascent of which by the Initiate typified his passage to the seventh and supreme Heaven6.
   Bousset points out that the original idea was that of three Heavens above which was Paradise; the conception of Seven Heavens, ruled by the seven Planets, which we find in Mithraism, is due to the influence of Babylonian sidereal cults7.
   There is thus a marked difference between the two initiations; the Attis initiate dies, is possibly buried, and revives with his god; the Mithra initiate rises direct to the celestial sphere, where he is met and welcomed by his god. There is here no evidence of the death and resurrection of the deity.
   What then is the point of contact between the cults that brought them into such close and intimate relationship?
   I think it must be sought in the higher teaching, which, under widely differing external mediums, included elements common to both. In both cults the final aim was the attainment of spiritual and eternal life. Moreover, both possessed essential features which admitted, if they did not encourage, an assimilation with Christianity. Both of them, if forced to yield ground to their powerful rival, could, with a fair show of reason, claim that they had not been vanquished, but fulfilled, that their teaching had, in Christianity, attained its normal term.
   The extracts given above will show the striking analogy between the higher doctrine of Mithraism, and the fundamental teaching of its great rival, a resemblance that was fully admitted, and which became the subject of heated polemic. Greek philosophers did not hesitate to establish a parallel entirely favourable to Mithraism, while Christian apologists insisted that such resemblances were the work of the Devil, a line of argument which, as we have seen above, they had already adopted with regard to the older Mysteries. It is a matter of historical fact that at one moment the religious fate of the West hung in the balance, and it was an open question whether Mithraism or Christianity would be the dominant Creed8.
   On the other hand we have also seen that certainly one early Christian sect, the Naassenes, while equally regarding the Logos as the centre of their belief, held the equivalent deity to be Attis, and frequented the Phrygian Mysteries as the most direct source of spiritual enlightenment, while the teaching as to the Death and Resurrection of the god, and the celebration of a Mystic Feast, in which the worshippers partook of the Food and Drink of Eternal Life, offered parallels to Christian doctrine and practice to the full as striking as any to be found in the Persian faith.
   I would therefore submit that it was rather through the medium of their inner, Esoteric, teaching, that the two faiths, so different in their external practice, preserved so close and intimate a connection and that, by the medium of that same Esoteric teaching, both alike came into contact with Christianity, and in the case of the Phrygian cult, could, and actually did, claim identity with it.
   Baudissin in his work above referred to suggests that the Adonis cult owed its popularity to its higher, rather than to its lower, elements, to its suggestion of ever-renewing life, rather than to the satisfaction of physical desire to be found in it9. Later evidence seems to prove that he judged correctly.
   We may also note that the Attis Mysteries were utilized by the priests of Mithra for the initiation of women who were originally excluded from the cult of the Persian God. Cumont remarks that this, an absolute rule in the Western communities, seems to have had exceptions in the Eastern10. Is it possible that the passage quoted in the previous chapter, in which Perceval is informed that no woman may speak of the Grail, is due to contamination with the Mithra worship?
   It does not appear to be in harmony with the prominent position assigned to women in the Grail ritual, the introduction of a female Grail messenger, or the fact that (with the exception of Merlin in the Borron text) it is invariably a maiden who directs the hero on his road to the Grail castle, or reproaches him for his failure there.
   But there is little doubt that, separately, or in conjunction, both cults travelled to the furthest borders of the Roman Empire. the medium of transmission is fully discussed by Cumont in both the works referred to. The channel appears to have been three-fold. First, commercial, through the medium of Syrian merchants. As ardently religious as practically business-like, the Syrians introduced their native deities wherever they penetrated, "founding their chapels at the same time as their counting-houses11."
   Secondly, there was social penetration--by means of the Asiatic slaves, who formed a part of most Roman households, and the State employés, such as officers of customs, army paymasters, etc., largely recruited from Oriental sources.
   Thirdly, and most important, were the soldiers, the foreign legions, who, drawn mostly from the Eastern parts of the Empire, brought their native deities with them. Cumont signalizes as the most active agents of the dispersion of the cult of Mithra, Soldiers, Slaves, and Merchants12.
   As far North as Hadrian's Dyke there has been found an inscription in verse in honour of the goddess Hierapolis, the author a prefect, probably, Cumont remarks, the officer of a cohort of Hamii, stationed in this distant spot. Dedications to Melkart and Astarte have been found at Corbridge near Newcastle. The Mithraic remains are practically confined to garrison centres, London, York, Chester, Caerleon-on-Usk, and along Hadrian's Dyke13. From the highly interesting map attached to the Study, giving the sites of ascertained Mithraic remains, there seems to have been such a centre in Pembrokeshire.
   Now in view of all this evidence is it not at least possible that the higher form of the Attis cult, that in which it was known and practised by early Gnostic Christians, may have been known in Great Britain? Scholars have been struck by the curiously unorthodox tone of the Grail romances, their apparent insistence on a succession quite other than the accredited Apostolic tradition, and yet, according to the writers, directly received from Christ himself. The late M. Paulin Paris believed that the source of this peculiar feature was to be found in the struggle for independence of the early British Church; but, after all, the differences of that Church with Rome affected only minor points of discipline; the date of Easter, the fashion of tonsure of the clergy, nothing which touched vital doctrines of the Faith. Certainly the British Church never claimed the possession of a revelation à part. But if the theory based upon the evidence of the Naassene document be accepted such a presentation can be well accounted for. According to Hippolytus the doctrines of the sect were derived from James, the brother of Our Lord, and Clement of Alexandria asserts that 'The Lord imparted the Gnosis to James the Just, to John and to Peter, after His Resurrection; these delivered it to the rest of the Apostles, and they to the Seventy14." Thus the theory proposed in these pages will account not only for the undeniable parallels existing between the Vegetation cults and the Grail romances, but also for the Heterodox colouring of the latter, two elements which at first sight would appear to be wholly unconnected, and quite incapable of relation to a common source.
   Nor in view of the persistent vitality and survival, even to our own day, of the Exoteric practices can there be anything improbable in the hypothesis of a late survival of the Esoteric side of the ritual. Cumont points out that the worship of Mithra was practised in the fifth century in certain remote cantons of the Alps and the Vosges--i.e., at the date historically assigned to King Arthur. Thus it would not be in any way surprising if a tradition of the survival of these semi-Christian rites at this period also existed15. In my opinion it is the tradition of such a survival which lies at the root, and explains the confused imagery, of the text we know as the Elucidation. I have already, in my short study of the subject, set forth my views; as I have since found further reasons for maintaining the correctness of the solution proposed, I will repeat it here16.
   The text in question is found in three of our existing Grail versions; in the M.S. of Mons; in the printed edition of 1530; and in the German translation of Wisse-Colin. It is now prefixed to the poem of Chrétien de Troyes, but obviously, from the content, had originally nothing to do with that version.
   It opens with the passage quoted above (p. 130) in which Master Blihis utters his solemn warning against revealing the secret of the Grail. it goes on to tell how aforetime there were maidens dwelling in the hills17 who brought forth to the passing traveller food and drink. But King Amangons outraged one of these maidens, and took away from her her golden Cup:

"Des puceles une esforcha
Et la coupe d'or li toli--
   His knights, when they saw their lord act thus, followed his evil example, forced the fairest of the maidens, and robbed them of their cups of gold. As a result the springs dried up, the land became waste, and the court of the Rich Fisher, which had filled the land with plenty, could no longer be found.
   For 1000 years the land lies waste, till, in the days of King Arthur, his knights find maidens wandering in the woods, each with her attendant knight. they joust, and one, Blihos-Bliheris, vanquished by Gawain, comes to court and tells how these maidens are the descendants of those ravished by King Amangons and his men, and how, could the court of the Fisher King, and the Grail, once more be found, the land would again become fertile. Blihos-Bliheris is we are told, so entrancing a story-teller that none at court could ever weary of listening to his words.
   The natural result, which here does not immediately concern us, was that Arthur's knights undertook the quest, and Gawain achieved it. Now at first sight this account appears to be nothing but a fantastic fairy-tale (as such Professor Brown regarded it), and although the late Dr Sebastian Evans attempted in all seriousness to find a historical basis for the story in the events which provoked the pronouncement of the Papal Interdict upon the realm of King John, and the consequent deprivation of the Sacraments, I am not aware that anyone took the solution seriously. Yet, on the basis of the theory now set forth, is it not possible that there may be a real foundation of historical fact at the root of this wildly picturesque tale? May it not be simply a poetical version of the disappearance from the land of Britain of the open performance of an ancient Nature ritual? A ritual that lingered on in the hills and mountains of Wales as Mithra worship did in the Alps and Vosges, celebrated as that cult habitually was, in natural caverns, and mountain hollows? That it records the outrage offered by some, probably local, chieftain to a priestess of the cult, an evil example followed by his men, and their subsequent cessation of the public celebration of the rites, a cessation which in the folk-belief would certainly be held sufficient to account for any subsequent drought that might affect the land? But the ritual, in its higher, esoteric, form was still secretly observed, and the tradition, alike of its disappearance as a public cult, and of its persistence in some carefully hidden strong-hold, was handed on in the families of those who had been, perhaps still were, officiants of these rites.
   That among the handers on of the torch would be the descendants of the outraged maidens, is most probable.
   The sense of mystery, of a real danger to be faced, of an overwhelming Spiritual gain to be won, were of the essential nature of the tale. It was the very mystery of Life which lay beneath the picturesque wrappings; small wonder that the Quest for the Grail became a synonym for the highest achievement that could be set before men, and that when the romantic evolution of the Arthurian tradition reached its term, this supreme adventure was swept within the magic circle. The knowledge of the Grail was the utmost man could achieve, Arthur's knights were the very flower of manhood, it was fitting that to them the supreme test be offered. That the man who first told the story, and boldly, as befitted a born teller of tales, wedded it the Arthurian legend, was himself connected by descent with the ancient Faith, himself actually held the Secret of the Grail, and told, in purposely romantic form, that of which he knew, I am firmly convinced, nor do I think that the time is far distant when the missing links will be in our hand, and we shall be able to weld once more the golden chain which connects Ancient Ritual with Medieval Romance.


1. Op. cit. p. 71.
2. Op. cit. p. 3.
3. Op. cit. p. 4.
4. Cumont, op. cit. pp. 129--141 et seq.
5. op. cit. p. 148.
6. Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, the text is given with translation and is followed by an elaborate commentary. The whole study is most interesting and suggestive.
7. Cf. Bousset, Der Himmelfahrt der Seele, Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, Vol. IV.
8. Cumont, op. cit. pp. 199 et seq.
9. Adonis und Esmun, p. 521.
10. Cf. Mead, op. cit. p. 179, note; Cumont Mystères de Mithra, p. 183.
11. Cumont, Les Religions Orientales, pp. 160 et seq.
12. Mystères de Mithra, p. 77
13. Les Religions Orientales, pp. 166, 167; Mystères de Mithra, p. 57
14. Mead, op cit. pp. 147, 148 and note.
15 Without entering into indiscreet details I may say that students of the Mysteries are well aware of the continued survival of this ritual under circumstances which correspond exactly with the indications of two of our Grail romances.
16. The Quest of the Holy Grail, pp. 110 et seq.
17. puys. Professor A. C. L. Brown, Notes on Celtic Cauldrons of Plenty, n. p. 249, translates this 'wells,' an error into which the late Mr Alfred Nutt had already fallen. Wisse-Colin translates correctly, berg, gebirge.
18. I suspect that the robbery of the Golden Cup was originally a symbolic expression for the outrage offered.