July 28, 2021
Episode 122: Radcliffe G. Edmonds III on the ‘Mithrasliturgie’
[Thanks to the Bibiothèque nationale de France for the above image; they have kindly digitised the whole of PGM IV here].
We discuss one of the most fascinating documents to survive from antiquity with Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, whose expertise on ancient religions, philosophy, and ritual practice makes him a perfect guide. The so-called Mithras Liturgy is a complex set of ritual instructions aimed at achieving immortalisation (apathanatismos) and ascent through the kosmic region to the Gates of the Sun. The gates open, the seven fates and seven Pole-Lords descend to the visionary, and then the supreme god, Helios-Mithras, approaches from the pole, and with luck will deliver an hexameter oracle to the ascended visionary.
We discuss the practical, theoretical, and cosmological aspects of the text, and Dr Edmonds brings a wealth of comparative data from the Chaldæan Oracles, Hermetica, Zosimus of Panopolis, and elsewhere to bear on this crucial work of ritual power.
Radcliffe G. Edmonds III is a scholar of religions and Paul Shorey Professor of Greek and Chair of the Department of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr College. He has published widely on numerous fascinating ancient philosophical and religious subjects, notably Greek mythology and religions of the ancient Greek and Roman world, ‘Orphism’ and Orphica, especially the ‘Orphic’ gold tablets, magic in the Græco-Roman world, erōs in Greek culture, Greek social and intellectual history, and Plato and Platonic philosophy.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Eunapius of Sardis’ Lives of the Sophists is available online in the out-of-copyright Loeb edition of Wilmer Cave Wright. A must-read if you like your Platonist sages to levitate and perform magical healings and suchlike.
- Hierocles of Alexandria on the purification of the luminous soul-vehicle: In aurum pyth. 26.22, citing Plato, Phædo 67b.
- Marinus: Proclus invokes Hekatē: 28.17 in the edition Henri Dominique Saffrey, Alain-Philipe Segonds, and Concetta Luna, editors. Marinus: Proclus, ou sur le bonheur. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2002.
- Plutarch On Isis and Osiris: see Episode 68.
- Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs can be found in Augustus Nauck, editor. Porphyrii philosophus platonicus opuscula selecta. Teubner, Leipzig, 1963.
- Zosimus of Panopolis’ On the Letter Omega can be found in Michèle Mertens, editor. Zosime de Panopolis: mémoires authentiques. Number IV, 1 in Les Alchemistes Grecs. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 3rd edition, 2019.
- Beck on ‘star-talk’: R. L. Beck. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
- Betz 2003: see below.
- Franz Cumont: ‘La Mithrasliturgie n’est pas une liturgie et n’est pas mithraique’: in A. Harnack, ed. Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten II. Leipzig, 1924, p. 941.
- Christian H. Bull. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018.
- A. Dieterich. Eine Mithrasliturgie. Teubner, Leipzig, 1923.
- Sarah Iles Johnston. Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate’s Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA, 1990.
- Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.
- Gregory Shaw. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania
State University Press, University Park, PA, 1995.
- R. Turcan. Mithras Platonicus: Recherches sur l’hellénisation philosophique de Mithra. Number 47 in EPRO. Brill, Leiden, 1975.
- Arnold van Gennep. The Rites of Passage. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1960.
- Jaime Alvar. Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2008.
- Idem. Mithraism and Magic. In Richard L. Gordon and Francisco M. Simón, editors, Magical Practice in the Latin West: Papers from the International Conference Held at the University of Zaragoza, 30 Sept.–1 Oct. 2005, volume 168 of RGRW, pages 519–49. Brill, Leiden, 2010.
- Roger Beck. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras, volume 109 of Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain. Brill, Leiden, 1988.
- Idem. Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works with New Essays. Ashgate, Aldershot, November 2004.
- Hans Dieter Betz, editor. The “Mithras Liturgy”: Text, Translation and Commentary. Number 18 in Studien zu Antike und Christentum. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2003.
- Radcliffe G. Edmonds. Did the Mithraists Inhale? – A Technique for Theurgic Ascent in the Mithras Liturgy, the Chaldaean Oracles, and some Mithraic Frescoes. Ancient World, 32(1):10–24, 2000.
- Idem. At the Seizure of the Moon: The Absence of the Moon in the Mithras Liturgy. In Joel Walker, Scott Noegel, and Brannon Wheeler, editors, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pages 223–39. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2003.
- Idem. Faces of the Moon: Cosmology, Genesis, and the Mithras Liturgy. In Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions, pages 275–95. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
- Idem. There and Back Again: Temporary Immortality in the Mithras Liturgy. In Birgitte Bøgh and Peter Lang, editors, Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity: Shifting Identities, Creating Change, pages 185–201. 2014.
- Idem. Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019, esp. pp. 314-77 on theurgy and related topics.
- Sarah Iles Johnston. Rising to the Occasion: Theurgical Ascent in its Cultural Milieu. In P. Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, editors, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, volume 75 of Studies in the History of Religions, pages 179–80. Brill, Leiden, 1997.
- Idem. Magic and Theurgy. In David Frankfurter, editor, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, pages 694–719. Brill, Leiden, 2019.
- R. Merkelbach. Immortality Rituals in Late Antiquity. Diogenes, 42(165):85–109, 1994.
- Reinhold Merkelbach and Maria Totti. Abrasax: Ausgewählte papyri religiösen und magischen Inhalts. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, Germany, 1990.
- Marvin Meyer. The “Mithras Liturgy” as Mystery and Magic. In Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, and John D. Turner, editors, Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices, pages 447– 64. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
Alchemy, Astral Religion, Chaldæan Oracles, Cosmic Ascent, Divinisation, Egypt, Greek Magical Papyri, Hermetica, Iamblichus, Immortalisation, Interview, Julian, Magic, Mithraism, Mithras, Mithrasliturgie, The Pole, Theurgy, Zosimus
August 5, 2021
Thank you, both Earl and Professor Edmonds, for an excellent conversation on this most fascinating of texts. I want to read some irresponsible speculation on what the redactor(s) of this text thought they were doing!
An additional question, initially provoked a few episodes back in your conversation with Mateusz Stróżyński, but brought back by some of your discussion here, and the fact I was reading Dodds’s appendix to his edition of Proclus recently: your approach to charting this history by landmarks (thinker, practitioner, or text) has worked brilliantly as an approach, but I wonder where some of the concepts which develop over the span of the late Platonists deserve their own diachronic overview. I’m thinking here of the ὄχημα πνευμα, of course – and maybe that’s something we wait for Porphyry and Iamblichus for, and maybe it will happen organically… but I suspect there are others, and I’m interested in how these concepts changed over the space of a few centuries, what kind of creative rereading of forebears or new practices might have been involved. Keep up the fabulous work.
August 6, 2021
Thanks for the kind words, and the suggestion. We’ll cover the Vehicle of the Soul along with another concept-based mini-series, the upcoming Great Theurgy Debate.
January 9, 2022
Addendum: Episodes 130 and 131 begin telling the story of the ὄχημα and related subtle-body conceptions. And, since you mention creative reading of forbears, I think there is a lot of creative reading of the tradition of the Greek iatromanteis in these later ideas about the subtle body/bodies, and we have gone back and added a special episode on those guys (after Episode 23 on the Orphics), whom we shamefully neglected when we first covered the Presocratics and other important early Greek stuff.
January 9, 2022
Just a note: The immortal soul was not accepted as Christian – Catholic – dogma until the Reformation.
January 9, 2022
Hmmm, interesting. I’m not sure what to make of that: does being in Origen, St. Augustine, and a bunch of other heavy-hitting Christian fathers not make it dogma, at least de facto?
Obviously, the resurrection of the body makes an immortal soul strictly unnecessary in a certain sense, but the immortal body still needs a soul upon resurrection, which must presumably also be immortal ….