Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'll Be Home for Mithras

I wrote about the panoply of symbolism you see in Manhattan in "Pantheopolis," but the holiday season got me thinking about Mithras, the original reason for the season. I was considering Mithras today since WorldNetDaily linked to a story on the movement among Fundamentalists against Christmas. 

But it is true, Virginia, nothing about our modern celebration of Christmas is biblical and the total commercialization of Christmas has kicked it loose from any recognizable religious origins of any variety. But I would recommend to anyone interested in the origins of this tradition to come to Manhattan sometime and see how the Solar festival roots of Christmas are still alive and kicking. 

I can't help thinking about Rockefeller Plaza, and especially that "Prometheus" statue with the Zodiac. There's no link that I can find between Prometheus and the Zodiac in mythology, but we need look no further than this image for evidence that Mithras and the Zodiac were linked quite intimately.

Modern propaganda has it that Rome was a wanton, open-air whorehouse right until its fall. There were periods in some of the early Caesars' reigns (such as Nero and Caligula) where public licentiousness was rampant, but the influence of mystery religions like Mithraism instilled a strict, rigid moralism amongst their adherents, males in the case of Mithras. At least in public.

Heirarchy, obedience and bravery were the watchwords for the Mithraic/Sol worshippers. One need look no further than Aurelian, the emperor (nicknamed manu ad ferrum or "Hand on Sword") who ended the "Crisis of the Third Century" to see the link between Sun worship and a stringent morality. Aurelian raised Sol/Mithras above all other gods in an effort to unite the Empire under a common religion. 

A canny move since Sun worship was universal in the ancient world- the Egyptians had Horus, the Greeks had Helios/Apollo, and the Germanic tribes had Balder. You had characters associated with the Sun such as Adonis and Hercules and you had a whole host of other cultures such as the Druids who based their religion on the "movements" of the Sun. Had Aurelian not been assassinated our history may have been a lot different. 

 This ancient Roman coin depicts Aurelian as the avatar of the Sun on its face...

  And- oh, look- it also depicts Aurelian in that pesky, old Herucles/Superman pose on its back...

I can't pretend to understand the scope of this whole modern mythological phenomenon (particularly the ubiquity of Solar imagery) or what it really means. But having seen it in living color on the streets of New York- the Capital City of the World- I can't deny it is still very much with us. I can't help but think about my grandfather, who worked for the MITRE Corporation* (as does Jack Ryan) after he left the Navy until his death in 1984. 

Seeing the links between Freemasonry and Mithraism, it makes me wonder (as have others) if MITRE may indeed be a nod to Mitra, the Persian spelling of Mithras. Why do I link the two? Well, during my grandfather's wake a group of Freemasons came to give him a Masonic funeral. They laid sprigs of pine in his casket (look at that top photo again) and congratulated him on a "job well done." The Masons all worked at MITRE. 

 Given that the ancients measured the year according to the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun, it's also interesting that "Mitra" and "Mithras" bear a strong etymological similarity to the term "meter", which comes from the Greek metron, meaning "to measure." 

 Somewhere in the back of my mind I always wonder if Jack Kirby was chewing over the same issues that I wrestle with. Did Kirby walk through Rockefeller Center one fine day and see that statue of "Prometheus" and think "Prometheus, my ass. Hell, that looks more like Mithras to me." Did he then start thinking about the etymology of Mithras and end up at Metron? 

This double page spread from New Gods #5, which pictures his character "Metron" confronted by one of the "Promethean Giants," really makes me wonder.
  Maybe Wertham was right- this is what happens when you've been reading comics since you were three.... 

 *Note: "mitre" is also a term from stonemasonry