on 8 May 2001
For many years, the only general account of Mithraism available in English has been the 1903 translation of Franz Cumont's The Mysteries of Mithra. This was indeed last reprinted as recently as 1995, but is now listed by Amazon as 'not available'. It is inevitable that, after a century, the progress of archaeological discovery has rendered much of Cumont's book, hopelessly out of date - to say nothing of his style and manner. The decision of the Edinburgh University Press to issue a translation of Manfred Clauss's popular German introduction to the cult, which appeared in 1990, is therefore most welcome. The main problem in writing about the Roman cult of Mithras is that virtually nothing is known about it from literary sources, and what little there is of that kind is difficult to use because of its tendentiousness. On the other hand, there is a great deal of archaeological evidence, the quantity of which has rapidly increased in the past twenty years. With the scholarly abandonment of Cumont's main thesis, that the cult was a direct development of Iranian religion, which occurred in the 1970s, the 'interpretative vacuum' has led to the proliferation of highly speculative theories, many of them based on the claim that the cult-icon, the image of Mithras killing the bull, is in reality, or preferably, to be read as a star-map. Clauss' book is a model introduction, pressing no particular interpretation but concentrating on the presentation, in a thoroughly readable way, of the archaeological remains, combining this where possible with a sensitive treatment of such literary evidence as there is. After a brief glance at different contexts (the Iranian background, the religious situation of the Roman empire), the book deals first with 'external' history - development, adherents, the temple and its furnishings, and then with the cult myth (deduced from the narratives implied by the cult-icon) and ritual, for which the author makes interesting use of pottery, lamps and other small finds. Organisation and ethical teaching follow, together with an account of the other gods of the Mithraic pantheon. The book closes with a consideration of the relation between Mithraism and Christianity. The book is attractively presented, with 124 illustrations and full indices (the cover illustration of the paperback edition has been printed in reverse, however, and there are several errors in the blurb). For the translation, the author has made many changes in the light of new evidence, and the translator has brought the information more fully up to date in the captions, which are new to this edition, and added an extensive bibliography of titles in English. The German edition was intended for the general reader. The translation is intended to cater also for students, who need references to the archaeological material, and to provide a handy guide to anyone who wants reliable, well-presented information about the cult with a minimum of speculation. After reading Clauss, one is in a good position to make a sound judgement of the work of David Ulansey, The origins of the Mithraic Mysteries.