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Reconciling Parabolas or, What If?
 

Yet in Mithraism, the spiritual discipline of the Parthian elite, it is just possible to trace a thread leading from the occulted labyrinth of the era to our own; for gods are harder to extinguish permanently. Although the worship of the solar deity Mithra seems to have been widespread in Parthian times, it does not survive the increasingly authoritarian Zoroastrian priesthood of the later Sassanians, and is extirpated in its own heartland. Mithraism, like so many components of Parthian culture, thus disappears from the surface of Persian life after the end of Parthian rule.

But it has only slipped below the radar of history. As a popular mystery cult, especially strong in the Roman military, it re-surfaces, albeit in a variant form, all over Europe as the pagan religion of choice. Late Roman Emperors even underwent Mithraic baptismal rites supervised by members of the Parthian priesthood. Their Mithreaeums - dark subterranean sanctuaries, where the initiatic mysteries were gorily celebrated with the sacrifice of living bulls - are found as far apart as Armenia, Scotland and the borders of the Sahara desert, and abound in Rome (over the site of the last official sacrifice, St. Peter’s basilica was raised by Constantine the Great at the end of the fourth century). Their dank limestone wall-carvings depict a haunting story: that of the celebrated sacrifice of the bull by Mithra himself. Intermediary between man and the Divine, a spiritual being of threefold nature, light-bearer of the world, born of a virgin mother Anahita on December 25th, it is Mithra himself who drives his sword into the neck of the beast he has subdued. By the redemptive power of blood, his twelve companions are spiritually reborn, and share in a final feast of sacred bread and wine before their Master’s ascent to heaven.

It is a long time before the same thread becomes visible again in the East, when Mithraism and its arcane doctrines reappear in the writings of the twelfth-century Persian mystic and martyr Sohravardi. Though scarcely known in the west, his works have been enormously influential in Iran and the Islamic world, and link the ancient and mythological priest-kings of Persia to the mystical philosophers of Greece and to the early saints of Islamic sufism. In this compelling lineage, Mithra - far from having been extinguished, but, like the later Imams of shi’ite belief, merely temporarily occulted - remains a divine intermediary and spiritual guardian, as well as bearer of the goblet that contains the Heavenly and transformative wine...symbols that become central to all of Persian sufi poetry and, through universally revered poets such as Hafez, come to permeate the spiritual ethos of Islamic Persia. The same compelling metaphysical allusion to wine and its Divine Envoy in both East and West has a distant but common origin...

History, in our own time, has rendered it all but invisible. But what if Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge had never occurred, Christianity had remained an outlawed cult, and the Sassanians taken a friendlier view of their predecessor’s spiritual persuasions? Had not the stamp of state religions been so firmly impressed, the Mithraic link between East and West might have been preserved; and the besiegers and defenders of Aleppo and Acre and Antioch and Jerusalem and Istanbul might, glancing momentarily from the line of sight between trebuchet and crenellation, have recognised on one another’s shields a common and reconciling insignia.

One can only play lightly with the thought. But, for a moment, both Grail and Saqi’s goblet cast a shadow of transcendent similitude, and the fateful gulf between the turquoise parabolas of Isfahan and the encircling colonnades of the Vatican is suddenly reduced.


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