Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

13. From Shame To Guilt

IT was in this restless, anxious situation that a “new” religion suddenly sprang to popularity. Roman soldiers, returning from Persia about 60 B.C., brought with them a religion, long practised there, but new to the West. It was a typical mystery religion, practised in secret conventicles. Its members, who called each other brethren,believed in baptism, confirmation and the resurrection of the dead, and they celebrated a Eucharist of bread and wine in commemoration of their Mediator’s last meal. They believed in Heaven, Hell, the immortality of the soul and the Last Judgment, and thought that immortality could only be attained through asceticism and self-control in this life. But in one important respect this religion differed from most other mystery religions: its central figure was a god, not a goddess. Its hierophants were priests, not priestesses, and its chief priest was known as Pater Patrum, the father of the fathers. Moreover he was not the Supreme deity, but his deputy; his function was to watch over mankind and to intercede for it with the heavenly father. This (except perhaps for the Egyptians) was a new notion in eschatology: that there could be a divine being who was prepared to act as Mediator between man and God. In the Roman world, we may suppose, where the size and complexity of the state had made the ordinary man feel remote from the central authority and that he was unable to approach it direct, he may have felt the same sense of remoteness from the deity. Or we may consider that the more man became aware of his own individuality the remoter he would feel from God. Whatever the reason, the new religion spread rapidly over the Roman world. The common people immediately felt its superiority to existing myths; the poor, the enslaved, the soldiery, flocked to it, delighted to find a Mediator who would intervene on their behalf. Roman legions carried it to Dacia, to Africa, to Spain It seeped through the Italian Alps into the Danube basin; to be welcomed enthusiastically by the Germanic tribes. It flowed up the Rhone valley, sending rivulets out into Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and western France. Reaching Boulogne, it leaped the channel to England, where temples to the new god were erected in Chester, Caerleon and York, as they had been in Cologne, Bonn, Dommage and a hundred other places. But, strangely enough, it was never welcomed in the Grecian peninsula, nor in Africa and Spain, except in the camps of the legions.

This religion was Mithraism. (49) Like other mystery religion its ritual sought to induce a theoleptic state by the contrast of bright lights and sudden darkness, by the prolonged contemplation of sacred pictures, and by austerities. Its main interest to us, however, lies in its central myth: this is the story of how Mithra, the mediator, slays — unwillingly — a mighty bull. This myth corresponds to the central ritual, the Taurobolium, in which a bull was actually slain, and the candidates for initiation were “redeemed by its blood” — a process which was symbolized by their crouching in a pit beneath the altar so that the blood of the dying bull would drip upon them.