A Religion for the Future

The Mazdayasna religion appeared in Persia several centuries before Christ. Its followers, worshippers of Mithra, multiplied in Rome under the Caesars, but they failed to make Mazdeism a dominant, significant, world religion. Why is that so?

The Roman armies had strongly helped to spread the cult of Mithra throughout Europe. Mithra was worshipped in Germany in the 2nd century AD. The soldiers of the 15th Legion, the Apollinaris, celebrated its mysteries at Carnuntum on the Danube at the beginning of Vespasian’s reign.

Remains of temples dedicated to Mithra, the Mithraea, have been found in North Africa, in Rome (in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Clement of the Lateran), in Romania, in France (Angers, Nuits-Saint-Georges and other places), in England (London and along Hadrian’s wall).

But Christianity finally prevailed over Mazdeism, though only from the 4th century onwards, when it became the official religion of the Empire under Theodosius.

The origins of the Mithra cult go back to the earliest times. The epic of Gilgamesh (2500 BC) refers to the sacrifice of the Primordial Bull, which is also depicted in the cult of Mithra with the Tauroctonus Mithra. A scene in the British Museum shows that three ears of wheat come out of the bull’s slit throat, – not streams of blood. At the same time, a crayfish grabs the Taurus’ testicles.

These metaphors may now be obscure. It is the nature of sacred symbols to demand the light of initiation.

The name of the God Mithra is of Chaldeo-Iranian origin, and clearly has links with that of the God Mitra, celebrated in the Vedic religion, and who is the god of Light and Truth.

Mithraism is a very ancient religion, with distant roots, but eventually died out in Rome, at the time of the decline of the Empire, and was replaced by a more recent religion. Why?

Mithraism had reached its peak in the 3rd century AD, but the barbaric invasions in 275 caused the loss of Dacia, between the Carpathians and the Danube, and the temples of Mazdeism were destroyed.

Destruction and defeat were not good publicity for a cult celebrating the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus) that Aurelian had just added (in the year 273) to the divinities of the Mithraic rites. The Sun was still shining, but now its bright light reminded everyone that it had allowed the Barbarians to win, without taking sides with its worshippers.

When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, the ‘sun’ had such bad press that no one dared to observe it at dawn or dusk. Sailors were even reluctant to look up at the stars, it is reported.

Another explanation, according to Franz Cumont (The mysteries of Mithra, 1903), is that the priests of Mithra, the Magi, formed a very exclusive caste, very jealous of its hereditary secrets, and concerned to keep them carefully hidden, away from the eyes of the profane. The secret knowledge of the mysteries of their religion gave them a high awareness of their moral superiority. They considered themselves to be the representatives of the chosen nation, destined to ensure the final victory of the religion of the invincible God.

The complete revelation of sacred beliefs was reserved for a few privileged and hand-picked individuals. The small fry was allowed to pass through a few degrees of initiation, but never went very far in penetrating the ultimate secrets.

Of course, all this could impress simple people. The occult lives on the prestige of the mystery, but dissolves in the public light. When the mystery no longer fascinates, everything quickly falls into disinheritance.

Ideas that have fascinated people for millennia can collapse in a few years, – but there may still be gestures, symbols, truly immemorial.

In the Mazdean cult, the officiant consecrated the bread and juice of Haoma (this intoxicating drink similar to Vedic Soma), and consumed them during the sacrifice. The Mithraic cult did the same, replacing Haoma with wine. This is naturally reminiscent of the actions followed during the Jewish Sabbath ritual and Christian communion.

In fact, there are many symbolic analogies between Mithraism and the religion that was to supplant it, Christianity. Let it be judged:

The cult of Mithra is a monotheism. The initiation includes a « baptism » by immersion. The faithful are called « Brothers ». There is a « communion » with bread and wine. Sunday, the day of the Sun, is the sacred day. The « birth » of the Sun is celebrated on December 25. Moral rules advocate abstinence, asceticism, continence. There is a Heaven, populated by beatified souls, and a Hell with its demons. Good is opposed to evil. The initial source of religion comes from a primordial revelation, preserved from age to age. One remembers an ancient, major, Flood. The soul is immortal. There will be a final judgment, after the resurrection of the dead, followed by a final conflagration of the Universe.

Mithra is the « Mediator », the intermediary between the heavenly Father (the God Ahura Mazda of Avestic Persia) and men. Mithra is a Sun of Justice, just as Christ is the Light of the world.

All these striking analogies point to a promising avenue of research. The great religions that still dominate the world today are new compositions, nourished by images, ideas and symbols several thousand years old, and constantly crushed, reused and revisited. There is no pure religion. They are all mixed, crossed by reminiscences, trans-pollinated by layers of cultures and multi-directional imports.

This observation should encourage humility, distance and criticism. It invites to broaden one’s mind.

Nowadays, the fanaticism, the blindness, the tensions abound among the vociferous supporters of religions A, B, C, or D.

But one may desire to dive into the depths of ancient souls, into the abysses of time, and feel the slow pulsations of vital, rich, immemorial blood beating through human veins.

By listening to these hidden rhythms, one may then conjecture that the religion of the future will, though not without some contradictions, be humble, close, warm, distanced, critical, broad, elevated and profound.

A World Renaissance

Pythagoras and Plato attached their names to the power of numbers. Each number carries a symbolic charge. The simplest are the most meaningful. They can be associated by imagination with the higher functions of the soul.

The 1, or « unity », symbolizes intelligence because it is unified in intuition or in concept. Through intuition or concept intelligence grasps what makes the “unity” of the thing, and thereby reveals itself as « one ».

The 2, or « duality », represents science, because it starts from a principle, to reach a conclusion. It goes from one to the other, and thus generates the idea of duality.

The 3, or « trinity », is the number associated with opinion. The opinion goes from one to two (which makes three): it starts from a single principle but reaches two opposite conclusions. One seems accepted, provisionally « concluded », but the other remains « fear », always possible. The opinion, by its intrinsic doubt, introduces a ternary ambiguity.

The 4, or « quaternity », is associated with the senses. The first of the quaternities is the idea of the body, which consists of “four angles”, according to Plato.

The 1, 2, 3 and 4 altogether symbolize the fact that all things are known either by intelligence, or by science, or by opinion, or by the senses.

Unity, duality, trinity and quaternity are « engrammed » in the soul.

From this, Plato concludes that the soul is « separated ».

It is « separated » from matter and the body because it is composed of four unalterable, eternal numbers that serve as its essential principles.

How could one deny the eternity of the 1, 2, 3, 4 ?

And if the soul is composed of, or ‘engrammed with’, the ideas of the 1, the 2, the 3 and the 4, how could one deny its own eternity?

This Platonic idea is worth what it is worth. At least we cannot deny in it a certain logic, which combines reason, imagination and myth.

And this idea opens the way for Platonic « great stories » about the soul, the world and the Author, which it is difficult, even today, to throw into the dustbins of History.

But above all, it should be stressed that this idea, as well as the whole Pythagorean and Platonic philosophies that result from it, is bathed in a deep shadow, whose sources come from extremely ancient times.

Twenty centuries after Plato, Marsilio Ficino stated that the construction of the Platonic imagination would not have been possible without the immemorial contribution of seers, diviners, prophets, aruspices, auspices, astrologers, Magi, Sibyls and Pythias. He summed it up as such: « When the soul of man is completely separated from the body, it will embrace, the Egyptians believe, every country and every age. »i

In the midst of the European Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino, a humanist thinker, wanted to reconnect with the mysteries of the East and the lightning-fast, millenary intuitions of their greatest geniuses.

Happy times when Orient and Occident thinkers were seen as allies in the search for answers…

At the dawn of a chaotic third millennium, we need to build the conditions for a World Renaissance, we need to create a new civilization on a global scale.

For the world to live, we need to embrace, in the midst of each of our souls, every country and every age.

i Cf. Marsilio Ficino Platonic Theology

Ancient Iran’s influence on Judaism

Henry Corbin wrote more than fifty years ago a vibrant tribute to the spirituality and philosophy of Iranian Islam, considered in its historical depth. The Ayatollah regime was not in place at the time. Taking a certain distance from the immediate history, Corbin analyses the difference between Iranian shî’ism and sunnism which generally prevails in Arab countries, in a book dedicated to Sohravardî and the Platonicians of Persia.

« Unlike the majority Sunni Islam, for which, after the mission of the last Prophet, humanity has nothing new to expect, the shî’ism keeps the future open by professing that, even after the coming of the « Seal of the Prophets » something is still to be expected, namely the revelation of the spiritual meaning of the revelations made by the great prophets. (…) But this spiritual intelligence will only be complete at the end of our Aiôn, during the parousia of the twelfth Imâm, the Imâm now hidden and mystical pole of the world. »i

Corbin also reviews the exceptional adventure of a « brilliant young thinker » from northwestern Iran, Shihâboddîn Yahyâ Sohrawardî.

This « brilliant thinker », who died in 1191 in Aleppo, Syria, at the age of thirty-six, as a martyr of his cause, had dedicated his young life to « resurrecting the wisdom of ancient Persia » and « repatriating the Hellenized Magi to Islamic Persia, and this thanks to hermeneutics (ta’wil) whose Islamic spirituality offered him the resources. »ii

Corbin’s works shed light on the ancient pendulum movement between East and West, and their intersecting influences over the centuries.

Sohrawardî wanted to celebrate the wisdom of the Hellenized Magi in Islamic Persia. What this Chaldaic Magic refers to? Greek Philosophy?

In any case, Sohrawardî was taking a certain risk, considering the context of his time. But he was also a visionary, from the point of view of the long history.

And Sohravardî paid for his vision with his life.

More than a millennium earlier, the Jewish, Essenian, Qumran sects had recognized their spiritual debt to Iran.

Almost intact texts, the Qumran manuscripts, have been found in caves near the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956.

Drawing on the texts of Qumran, Guy G. Stroumsa, a Jerusalem-based researcher, raises the question of the influence of Iranian spirituality on Judaism in his book Barbarian Philosophy.

He reports on the words of the famous religious scholar Shaul Shaked: « It may be imagined that contacts between Jews and Iranians helped in formulating a Jewish theology which, though continuing traditional Jewish motifs, came to resemble fairly closely the Iranian view of the world.»iii

It seems to me fruitful, in our troubled, fanatical, over-informed and under-educated times, to recognize the richness of the cross-fertilization accumulated over the centuries, which has structured the spiritual geography of this immense area, ranging from the Greek West to the « near » and « middle » East, via Egypt and Israel.

iH. Corbin, En islam iranien, p. III.

ii Ibid. p.IV

iiiS. Shaked, Qumran and Iran : Further considerations (1972).