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Mithra in Anatolia


Mithra-Apollo-Helios-Hermes, Nemrut Dag. Photo Klearchos Kapoutsis.

In the old Achaemenid Empire, Mithra was the aspect of God that oversaw covenants, oaths, order and light. Ahura Mazda created these aspects of His divinity to guard the world from corruption and decay. Mithra was an archetype of good kingship, because he was an archetype of stewardship. He upheld truth and contracts, nurtured flocks and fields and was all-seeing and all-hearing.


At least, that was the official version.


When the Persians conquered territory, they brought their religion with them. There’s a really important post to be written about how “Persianisation” worked, the process by which the Achaemenid Empire produced a distinctive Persianate identity in the places it conquered. It wasn’t like Hellenisation or Romanisation, being much more uneven, ad hoc and two-way. When it came to religion it produced a dizzying continuum of godhoods.


Mithra is one of those gods who in himself is quite straightforward, but would have been a bottomless well of allusions and significance to the people who lived in 1st Century BC Anatolia. It’s not enough to know understand how we look at his image. We need to try and understand what the people who made those statues saw in him.


There’s an idea that “interpretatio graeca” – the convention by which “foreign” gods are associated with Greek models – is the key to understanding religion in the Hellenised world. Perhaps in certain times and places that was true. But it’s limited by the fact that it starts with Greek gods and looks for similarities in other traditions. Sometimes there are aspects of a god that don’t fit well with the Greek version. Sometimes there’s no equivalent at all.


And then you have the problem that in a place like ancient Pontos or Commagene you are mostly dealing with people from a Persian-Anatolian tradition who selectively adopted Greek gods, not the other way around. Starting with Greek as the default isn’t wise.


When Mithra appears in religious iconography in the Greek East he is usually referenced as “Apollo”, the Greek god of sunlight, music and occasionally truth-telling. But it’s obvious that many of Mithra’s attributes do not fit inside Apollo and vice versa. Mithra’s agricultural and judicial aspects were incredibly important to his worship in that part of the world, and that was because he represented a distinctively Persianate idea of good kingship.


In Iranian Anatolia he was one of the Zoroastrian divinities that seemed to have emerged with more of an emphasis on his Persian roots, along with Mah and Anahita. In places like Cappadocia, Pontos and Commagene this must have been aided by the ruling dynasties’ identification with him. There were plenty of kings called Mithridates (a Hellenisation of Mithradatah, “gift of Mithra”) in Eastern Anatolia and what is now Western Iran.


There are no known religious images of Mithra in the Achaemenid period. This changes dramatically in Hellenistic Anatolia. When Antiochus I Theos of Commagene came to erect his extraordinary tomb-cum-cult centre on the top of Mount Nemrud in the middle of the 1st Century BC he depicted himself shaking hands with a very human-looking Mithra. In fact, the relief looks like two kings shaking hands. Antiochus himself appears as a deity alongside Mithra-Apollo-Hermes-Helios in a colossal line up of five Commagenian gods.


Antiochus I Theos shakes hands with Mithra.

It’s important to recognise the slippage between the object and the viewer that’s expected with these images. Antiochus was claiming an affinity with Apollo and Mithra, and he was claiming some divinity. His dynasty weren’t subtle about this (his epithet is theos, for crying out loud) but the ideas that kingship was bestowed as a sign of favour from God, and that the chosen would shine like the sun figuratively and metaphysically, were mainstream in the royal dynasties of this part of the world. The Commagenian royal family just took it to the extreme.


I have a feeling these posts are going to come back over and over the concept of farnah (modern farr) and its role in Pontian kingship. It’s a complex and untranslatable word, taking in ideas about glory, divinity, radiance and prosperity. The iconography of farnah is all over the propaganda and official representations of the Pontian state, from fire altars to eagles. I dealt with King Pharnakes (Farnakah) and the royal Pontian sunburst emblem last time. The sun was a nod to Mithra, as an aspect of Ahura Mazda.


The yazatas’ relationship to the Great God is a concept the Christian West struggles with. There is no direct equivalent. Where Apollo is an autonomous god of the sun, and a Christian angel is an intermediary between God and creation, Mithra is a facet of God. Ahura Mazda was the origin of all good things and of material creation itself, and Mithra was one way in which He manifested in the world.


But it’s clear that beliefs and practices had shifted a lot in Hellenistic Anatolia. Mithra was always an abstract idea in the old Persian Empire, but in Pontos he was depicted on coins as a human figure driving his chariot through a sacred fire. In Commagene he was depicted as a king shaking hands with another king. We know that other Persian divinities made the shift from Zoroastrian concept to cultic figure in a temple sanctuary, like Anahita at Zela.


The scholarly consensus seems to be that we don’t really know what the people of Eastern Anatolia saw when they looked at a statue of Mithra. The research just hasn’t been done, the data isn’t there. So little survives in their own words, and what we have tends to be Greek epigraphy on official monuments. Not really a good record of folk beliefs. Mithradates IV, V and VI of Pontos were generous donors to major Greek religious centres, but their monuments named Parthian as well as Greek contributors. They conducted lavish Zoroastrian rites on the eve of battles. It’s impossible to say how far they personally believed all of it or any of it.


We should be very wary of saying that anyone in Hellenistic Anatolia was Zoroastrian in the modern sense of that word. Certainly in neighbouring Armenia Mithra took a significantly different turn, fusing with local indigenous traditions to produce Mihr. He appears as the son of Ormazd (Ahura Mazda) and brother of two other gods, one with Persian origins and another with local ones. Again, though, we need to be careful in saying that Armenian religion was cognate with Anatolian. The local traditions were different, and the associations between Greek and Persian gods seems to have diverged too.


Putting my ethnographer hat on, I think it’s likely that the iconography of faith, belief and kingship was deliberately slippery in Hellenistic Anatolia. The sheer number of gods statues are sometimes labelled with suggests that. Even if the Kings of Pontos weren’t believers many of their subjects must have been. If we think about identity in Hellenistic Anatolia as a triangle, with the three corners being Greek, Persian and Anatolian, everyone would have sat somewhere between those points. A wise king would represent himself in such a way as to capture the imaginations of the greatest number of those people. Nobody expected everyone to believe the same thing as the next guy, and they didn’t have to.


As the divinity associated most intensely with kingship, the Persian ruling dynasties of Anatolia needed Mithra to resonate with as many people as possible. He had to be something people could project into as well as be something to be projected onto the populace. But even if he’s dressed in Greek clothes sometimes, we shouldn’t lose sight of how he’s there to convey a very Persianate idea of God’s anointed King. That was something everyone was expected to understand and accept.


Read more:


Boyce, M., & Grenet, F. (2015). A History of Zoroastrianism Vol. 3, Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004293915


Saprykin, S. (2009) The Religion and Cults of the Pontic Kingdom: Political Aspects in Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom ed. Hojte, J. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus.

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