The Chap In The (Red) Cap

Another theory from Iris Einstein

Take a Trip . . .

Ladies, Gentlemen, grab your fav snack-pack and liquid refreshment, and climb aboard my immaculate transport (okay, so it’s only a bicycle but I’m not licensed to control any other). Now fasten your seatbelts – no, it’s not for the atrocious state of my ‘cycling; I’m taking you back – way back – to the days of the Roman Empire.

Oh, what’s that you say? That the Empire existed for a long smack of a time, each 50 or so years reeking a different flavour; so just when am I taking you to? I am taking you to an unspecified year twixt 100 and 350 CE. I am taking you to the Danube frontier – though I could as easily take you to the Rhine, or to Hadrian’s Wall – or to the Eternal City itself. The sights I’m to show you would be the same. Yet, there is something of the Danube . . .

Ah! See there’s the river, now in sight.

Birth of the Danube

Donaueschingen in the Black Forest (Germany)
(Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons)

When the Brigach and Breg rivers join they give birth to the Danube. That sounds like something I heard when I was in Germany, at Kassel: “When the Fulda and the Werra kiss, the Wesser is born.”

The Magical Danube

So the Danube doesn’t look anything special yet, but she’ll soon grow.

The Danube at Regensburg

The Danube at Regensburg in Bavaria
(Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Meandering her way between vine-grown hillsides, determinedly flowing twixt cow-pastured meadows, streaming her way through Tolkienesque landscapes, the Danube makes its way to the Black Sea.

Danube at the Iron Gates

The Famous Iron Gates on the Serbian-Romanian border
Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Though other continents have longer and wider rivers, those haven’t the magic of the Blue Danube.

Map of the Danube

See, even the cartographers paint her blue!

For the statistics lovers, some statistics.

  • The Danube measures 1,777 miles (2,860 km) from confluence to delta
  • It passes through, or is the border to, ten countries (Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia,  Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine)
  • It flows through 97 cities, four of which are capital cities (Vienna, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, Budapest and Belgrade; the most capitals of any river in the world)
  • It forms part of the drainage of a further nine countries (Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, and Albania)
  • It has 198 tributaries (from the Iller entering at Ulm, Germany, to the Luncaviţa entering at the small village of Luncaviţa in Romania)
  • And 30 islands
  • It is navigable by ocean ships from the Black Sea to Brăila in Romania
  • It is navigable by river ships to Kelheim in Bavaria, Germany
  • It is navigable by smaller craft as far as Ulm in Württemberg, Germany
  • 60 of its tributaries are also navigable
  • 21 National Parks lie upon its banks.

Its name, Danuvius, is possibly Scythian, possibly Gaulish. Either way, it is derived from a Proto-Indo-European word *dānu (root, *, to flow/be swift, rapid, violent, undisciplined) which forms the name of several other rivers in the eastern range of the proposed P.I.E. heartland (see also the Don, Donets, Dnieper and Dniestr). From the same root comes the Hindu primeval cosmic river goddess Danu, mother of the Danavas.

But the Danube hasn’t always borne that name – or at least, not for all of its length, by all of its habitees. The Ancient Greeks knew it as the Ister, which also means swift flowing; the Dacians and Thracians as Donaris in its upper reaches, but Istros where it flowed past their homes. The Phrygians, whose homes didn’t border upon it at all, called it Matoas, ‘the bringer of luck’.

So, picture painted, huh?

The Roman Garrison

Now we know when and where we are, next is to get more specific, though as yet I’ll give no names, only the generic ‘a Roman garrison’.

In 130 CE, the Imperial Roman army had some 139,000 men deployed along the Danube frontier – excluding officers (centurions and above). These were packaged into 131 auxiliary units that comprised 35 Alae and 95 cohorts, and 11 legions. I could go on to quote how many infantry (auxiliary and legionary), how many cavalry (ditto) but that would be surplus to needs.

For non-Roman specialists I present a map of the Roman Empire in relevant period; inset and slightly enlarged is the Danube frontier. You might care to note how the red ribbon wraps around Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Assyria and Cilicia; unfortunately Crimmie cut me short before I got around to the relevance of that.

Map of Roman Empire 117 CE

So, to return to our trip. Beyond the garrison walls, usually set beside spring or stream, are found a small set of steps leading down; most mysterious this. And look, here is a door. What is this place? A subterranean store? An early refrigerator? Did the soldiers keep their frozen yogurts in here?

Hush. Not so much noise. Has anyone thought to bring a torch? No windows, see, so even at high noon it’ll still be dark in there. Then . . . flummoxed, the door is locked. Ah-ha, but I have the key. It’s big and chunky and made of cold iron. It has an interesting handle: cast in the shape of a raven’s head. (this is I.E.’s personal input; to my knowledge no such keys have been found. Crimson.).

To me, raised in the West, the raven is the bird of death, glutting upon the battle-slain. The Valkyries were said to take raven-form, choosing which of the slain to take to Valhalla. While that might be appropriate for a Roman garrison, the auxiliary units here are mostly Eastern (see the above map) so I wouldn’t expect the raven to relate the same here.

The door creaks – it is heavy. We enter.

cimrm 1901

Found on the left bank of river Pliva (“on a damp site”)
south-west of the mediaeval town of Jajce, Central Bosnia.

The Temple of Mithras

It’s a temple. And while in Rome and its environs actual caves were used, caves don’t grow just anywhere. Thus pseudo-caves were constructed. The one at Jajce had been cut into the bedrock, its floor being some 9 ft below ground level. It was originally roofed though no evidence remains.

A better idea of the layout of these temple-caves can be had from the remains found at Altofen in Hungary (Roman Aquincum). Images from ‘Catalogue of monuments and images of Mithras’ on

CIMRM 1750

 Aquincum, Hungary (today’s Altofen)

And this floor plan makes it yet clearer (after a plan given for CIMRM 1750):

Aquincum II Mithraeum

The little blue squares look on the photo like altars;
the accompanying text calls them ‘bases’ (25” tall x 12”x 12”)

As with a Catholic church with its ‘cult of saints’, this temple abounds with statues of both local and imported deities, as well as those common throughout the Empire. But our torch doesn’t light upon them. It shines full upon the centre-piece – which is called a tauroctony.

The Tauroctony

CIMRM 1400

A relief found near Mauls, Austria (Height 47”)

Although the colour on the Mauls relief has been applied since its discovery in 1579, it does follow the colours in two well-preserved frescoes found in Italy, at Marino and Saint Maria, Capua Vetere.


S. Maria, Capua Vetere

Mithras Supplement, Marino

Fresco from Marino, Italy

The key colours are the white of the bull and red of the tunic, trousers, and Phrygian cap. The fluttering cape is also red, though often it is lined with the star-studded night sky.

Artistically, these are not the best tauroctonies to survive. Yet they do tell us all we need to know. For this is the Persian god Mithras, as adopted by the Roman army. His cult was the most secretive of the mystery cults that, like mushrooms after the rain, sprang up at the heart of the Roman Empire in the centuries preceding Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. It was that conversion that spelled the death-knell for the Mithraic cult.

There was no written liturgy. The only cult myth is that gleaned from the frescoes, reliefs and statues, and that can be too easily misinterpreted. Though a mass of inscriptions and graffiti survive, these reveal nothing of the cult, only of its members – the one thing we do know is the seven grades of initiation: Corax (Raven), Nymphus (Bride/Bridegroom), Miles (Soldier), Leo (Lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun-runner/Chariot), and Pater (Father). There are a few contemporary accounts but these were written by Christians, post 350, and read like ‘hate-mail’. Hence it isn’t surprising that everyone has a favourite theory about this widespread mystery cult, and a stacks of essays have been written in support. Recent years have also seen a rash of books.

The Mysteries of Mithras

For myself, my interest in the Mithraic cult dates to around 2000 – basically because I like a good mystery and the question-mark hanging over this god’s head is enormous. I read everything I could find on the internet. These were mostly papers in specialist publications, and on ‘Internet Sacred Text Archive’ I found the text that, in 1903, lit the interest of Western scholars: Franz Cumont’s ‘The Mysteries Of Mithra’.

Of all that I read, it was Cumont that struck me as the more thought-out, and thoroughly researched. He gave what he thought was the cult’s origin – Cumont was an Oriental Scholar, academically conversant with Zoroastrianism and the Zend Avesta, which had been made generally available with James Darmesteter’s translation in 1880. And of course, he was well-versed in the Classics, with Persian, Greek and Roman history. He suggested a means of spread for the cult, tracking its entry into the Roman Empire and its subsequent spread, which to my mind cannot be faulted. But he then made the error of reconstructing the liturgy and myth – and for this, more recent scholars has thoroughly slated him. Yet none of their theories have struck me as being in any way close to the answer. They seem to be missing something essential. But neither could I put my finger on it.

Time and again, I came back to the tauroctony. The centre-piece and focus of every mithraeum (the temple-cave), it was to Mithraism what the crucifix is to Christianity. But what does it mean? Why is Mithras always shown with his fingers shoved into the bull’s nostrils, pulling the beast’s head up and back? It’s not that he intends to slit its throat (a more usual way to slaughter a bull) for he jabs his wide blade into the beast’s shoulder. Is that the best way to find the carotid artery? On a broad-shouldered bull? He’s more likely to sever the forlorn beast’s neck artery. (See in the diagram next. Yea, I know it’s a horse but I couldn’t find same for a bull.)

cardiovascular system in quadropeds

From ‘Veterinary On Line’

Mithras, the Red Capped God

And why does Mithras always wear red, like he’s a youthful Santa Claus especially with that hood-like cap? And why does his cape flutter so, as if in the wind? Is this to show that, like the ‘Caped Crusader’, Mithras is able to fly? What, fly, without Santa’s reindeers? And why does Mithras adopt such an odd one-leggedpose?

To show what I mean, take a look at these (though I’d rate them higher, artistically, they lack the colour).


CIMRM 76: Parian marble, from Sidon, Syria

CIMRM 76: Wee pointy Phrygian cap, his cape a’flutter, his fingers rammed up the bull’s nose, his right foot upon the sad bull’s rear right leg – is this to identify, in some way, slayer with slain? And note that hound and snake, we’ll come back to them. There’s also a scorpion grasping the bull by its—(oops, let’s be polite)—by its testicle.


CIMRM 736: Relief in white marble (H 21”),
found South of Monastero near Aquileia in 1888. Vienna

CIMRM 736: Here the snake is less obvious, slithering under the scorpion which now is centre-stage. But just look at the pointy Phrygian cap, and the flutter of his short shoulder cape. And it’s not just the cape but the skirt of his tunic flutters as well. Also here for the first time we see Cautes and Cautopates, the two attendants of Mithras.  You might also note the attendants’ odd stance; cross-legged, implying they’re also one-legged.


CIMRM 164: from Palermo, Sicily

CIMRM 164: Oh, and again we have a one-legged Mithras with Phrygian cap, his cape and tunic both a’flutter; there’s the sky-facing bull – which is usually shown in this collapsed position, maybe to allow the scorpion to clutch at its testicle; and Cautes and Cautopates – by the way, they hold torches, one up-pointing, one pointing down, usually interpreted as either sun-up and sun-down, or the vernal and autumn equinoxes. The snake, here, is centre-stage; and lapping the wound is the faithful hound – it looks to me like a ratter, something like a Jack Russell. Then looking down on the scene (not shown on the previous two examples, they being freestanding tauroctonies) is the Sun and the Moon. And, though it hardly is visible, in the Sun’s face, a raven perches.


CIMRM 435: Circus Maximus Mithraeum, Rome

CIMRM 435: This is getting repetitive, yet it does emphasise these component parts as being the essentials: Mithras with Phrygian cap, his cape and tunic a’flutter, in a one-legged stance, his fingers shoved up the slain bull’s nostrils. The snake here is eager to lap at the bull’s blood. The hound, ditto. While again, the Sun and the Moon are looking down. The raven, now clearly visible, looks like it’s pecking at Mithras’s cape. And, unusually, this time the attendants stand on both feet.

What you mayn’t have noticed in these scenes is that the bull’s tail is sprouting some kind of grain, probably barley. Plus what I’ve not pointed out in all these scenes is that Mithras looks back over his shoulder. Looking up at the Sun? Or at the raven? The two, Sun and raven, are almost always placed together.

But what does it all mean?

Orion, the Constellation

Like many others, at first I thought the tauroctony was a representation of Orion, and the constellations around him.

Orion & Co

What isn’t show here is Auriga & Perseus above Orion & Taurus
and Eridanus at their feet

Auriga Constellation

Star map of Auriga from Wiki

Everyone knows the myth of Perseus – the Greek demigod who cut off Medusa’s head. The Greeks claimed the Persians were descendants of Perseus, because of similarity of name. In some texts, too, Mithras is given the name of the Medusa-slayer. Perseus.

As for Auriga, this is ‘the Charioteer’. At the end of the Mithraic Myth, as divined from the found relics in he mithraea, Mithras steps into the Sun’s 4-horsed chariot to ascend to Heaven. But Auriga didn’t become a charioteer until the Greeks get into mythologizing the stars. In Mesopotamia, Auriga was said to represent a scimitar (or pruning knife), though also a herd of goats or sheep with their shepherd. In the Zend Avesta, Mithras is also represented as a sheep herder.

Eridanus Constellation

Star map of Eridanus from Wiki

Eridanus was the Celts’ name for the River Po in northern Italy. You can see why the constellation was named for a river; it has the same serpentine path. It is supposedly the waters poured forth by Aquarius, as it is shown in some medieval star maps.

To the Babylonians, the constellation was known as the Star of Eridu – Eridu was an ancient city of the southern marshes of Mesopotamia. The city’s god, Enki-Ea, ruled the ‘cosmic domain of the Abyss’, the mythical source of fresh-water that existed beneath the Earth (there was a mirror to this: the celestial reservoir, whence rain).

There is yet another, quite different, myth attached to Eridanus. It was said to be the crazy-wild path of the Sun-chariot when Phaëton, son of Helios, took the reins (luckily, Zeus intervened and cast a thunderbolt at Phaëton before he could scorch too much of the earth.) Later still, Eridanus was said to be the path of souls – which brings it back to Orion, or Arawn, the Celtic leader of the Wild Hunt who, at his rising on All Hallows Eve, gathers up the souls of the past year’s deceased and takes them to the Summer Land, the Otherworld, Land of the Dead.

Clearly, the tauroctony represents the constellation Orion. Yet I remember the opening line to an essay I wrote when at college, about the caduceus.

A sign is a straight one-for-one replacement, as when the caduceus is used to denote ‘doctors as practitioners of the healing arts’.

A symbol, on the other hand, has multiple connotations the leads the mind into subterranean domains, as when the caduceus is used as an amulet.

It is this richness of ‘multiple connotations’ that makes the tauroctony such a clever symbol of the most secretive of mystery cults. And how the scholars do tie themselves into knots, round and round, like Ouroboros biting their tails – because they do not see what is before them. They have not the eyes.

The Symbols

It was around this time that I picked up a copy of Graham Hancock’s ‘Supernatural’. Yea, I know, his theories tend to hover around what mainstream commentators call ‘the lunatic fringe’ (‘The Sign and the Seal: A Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant’; ‘Fingerprints of the Gods: A Quest for the Beginning and the End’; Keeper of Genesis: A Quest for the Hidden Legacy of Mankind’ – with Robert Bauval; The Mars Mystery: A Tale of the End of Two Worlds’ – again with Robert Bauval and also John Grigsby; Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilisation – with Santha Faiia, his wife). And this latest offering seemed certain to fall into the same, with a subtitle of ‘Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind’. But the mainstream opinion of him is irrelevant here. Hancock, formerly the East Africa correspondent for The Economist, has well-honed research skills which he uses to support, rather than to shore up, his theories. Moreover, he provides references, he gives quotes, he allows the reader to go back and verify for themselves – which, unfortunately, many other writers in his field do not. But more even than this, he has a reputation that opens doors; he can go places where you and I cannot. Besides, he makes for a good read on a cold winter’s night.

It was the blurb on the backcover that caught my attention:

“50,000 years ago mankind had no art, no religion, no sophisticated symbolism, no innovative thinking. Then, in a dramatic and electrifying change, described by scientists as ‘the greatest riddle in human history’, all the skills and qualities that we value most highly in ourselves appeared already fully formed, as though bestowed on us by hidden powers.”

Human evolution has long been of interest to me, particularly of our super over-kill brain. I won’t say I’ve read every competing theory that tries to explain it, yet I have read most And mostly these centre on the brain’s structure; they postulate either a change in its connectivity, else a change in its chemistry. This would be fine if it had happened before the ‘Out of Africa’ diaspora. But it didn’t.

As Hancock’s blurb says, there is no evidence for its occurrence before 50,000 years ago – and that in the painted caves of southwest France. By then Australia had been settled by modern humans equipped with a brain exactly the same as those Western cave-painters. Now, I’m sure even school-kids know that genes don’t spread without some sexual contact. So explain, if you can, how the early Australians, so long since they shared the same genes, separated, too, by a great distance, displayed the same innovations of art, religion, sophisticated symbolism, invention, as those in the West. Humm?

Doors to the Otherworld

In 1988 David Lewis-Williams and co-researcher Thomas Dowson published their neuropsychological model in ‘Current Anthropology’, according to which theory it was the shamans use of hallucinogenic plants that, in stimulating a pre-existing faculty of the brain, opened the doors to the Otherworld – wide. It was their drug-induced visions that gave rise to the first myths, and formed the inspiration for their cave-art.

Lewis-Williams considers the hallucinations as ‘just silly illusions’, despite that they’ve been the seedbed of our spiritual evolution. Hancock disagrees. He believes the Otherworld visions are an equal reality. His book, Supernatural, bulges with accounts of these Otherworld visions, both those experienced himself and those reported by shamans and in scientific studies. I may not agree with his conclusions, which anyway I found to be muddled, but the bells were ringing right from the start.

Hancock describes his visit to the Pech Merle cave in southwest France. I followed the text with interest, having long been fascinated by the astounding Palaeolithic cave art found at e.g. Lascaux and Altamira.

Lascaux Cave Painting

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Now, being Hancock, with his reputation, he was shown caves forbidden to all but the academics studying them. He describes what he calls the ‘Wounded Man’ (alas, no picture to show here), said figure being stuckered by several spears that pass right through him. My first thought was Jesus on the cross with the lance in his side. Then came a flood of memories of books I’d read, of shamanic accounts from Siberia, of initiation rites from Australia, the essence of both was that the shaman or initiate must die to this world, to enter the next. The means are savage, and some are obviously impossible – even if being pierced by white-hot shafts isn’t enough to kill, nor yet being sliced open and all tendon taken, one does not survive decapitation. Hancock provides other examples, all harrowing. I’m reminded of a line from Tim Rice and Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar: “To conquer death you only have to die.”


I had wondered what form the Mithraic initiations had taken. Pictorial accounts have been found: the ‘Father’ aiming a nocked arrow at the bound candidate, and a garbled account of the new member being thrown into a pit. Two things are certain, and common to all initiations into secret societies. One, it would have included a high degree of humiliation, such as the new member would never admit to an outsider. And two, it would include some terrifying aspect as a test of the initiate’s determination. I guess being shot full of arrows, like St Edmund, would answer that, especially when it’s by the head of your own order.

These painful ordeals seem to be the brain’s way of marking the transition between ‘normality’ and the altered state of conscious. They may be culture dependant, i.e. expectation plays a notable role.

The next bell clanged when Hancock described his experiences in the Peruvian Amazon, drinking of the sacred ayahuasca, the Vine of the Dead. He had visions of therianthrops (the animal-headed humans that populate Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art). There was also a huge serpent that wrapped herself round him, communing to him of acceptance and love. I myself have had that experience in several very vivid dreams, despite being ophidiophobic. But that wasn’t why the bell rang. It was this:


CIMRM 78-79 – Lion-headed statuette, Sidon

Aion, the Therianthrop

As a sign, this lion-headed therianthrop equates to the caduceus. The man’s body represents the cosmic pole. The serpent, in writhing around him, turns the world on its axis thus creating the seasons. The lion’s head, not very clear in this photo, represents the heavenly fire that, as well as being the source of lightning, is the source of the conflagration that ends each of the World Ages. His wings, folded at the back, marks him as a divine being, unfettered by the weight of the Earth.

Cumont in his Mysteries of Mithra gives a different, but clearer picture (being a line-drawing) of this lion-headed therianthrop. This one (below) was found in a mithraeum at Ostia, the port of Rome.


Mithraic Kronos (Æon or Zervan Akarana)
representing Boundless Time

Here, the serpent entwines the body six times – which somewhat destroys the theory of the serpent’s loops representing the seasons, although the four wings at his back are decorated with seasonal symbols. The serpent’s head resting upon that of the therianthrop implies these two (serpent and therianthrop) are in fact just the one being. In his right hand the figure holds a long shafted sceptre to show his authority. He also holds a pair of keys. And what mysteries do they unlock? Engraved on his chest is a thunderbolt – a misnomer, for what is illustrated in the zig-and-zag of a lightning strike. Shown on the base of the statue are hammer and tongs (Cumont assigns them to Vulcan), a cock and a pine-cone (assigned by Cumont to Æsculapius, or Attis), and a caduceus, assigned to Mercury.

Most scholars these days will name this leontocephalous figure as Aion; the name is sometimes found in the accompanying inscriptions. M.J. Vermaseren (in his Mithras, The Secret God) names him as Saturn, and the Titan Kronos, or yet Chronos, the Greek god of Eternal Time – or the Persian god Zervan.

The Persians invented Zervan to serve as father to both Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, for, they said, how could Ahura Mazda (the Good) have created Ahriman (the Evil). It is the same dilemma as found in Isaiah, in the Old Testament when Yahweh says:

“I am the beginning, I am the end, beside me there is no other. I created light, I created dark. I created good, I created evil.”

Yet it is in the nature of light to create shadow. Think of the sun; only at noon is no shadow thrown. And the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. That the Persian Magi were aware of this most annoying conundrum is implied, if not directly said, in the Bundahishn (‘Creation’, or ‘Knowledge from the Zand’), Chapter I.

The therianthrop is a common phenomenon of the shamanic trance, whether the trance is achieved through the use of hallucinogenic plants, or through rhythmic drumming and dance, through hyperventilation, self mutilation (e.g. the Sun Dance), starvation, sensory deprivation, or several other unpleasant techniques of self-abuse. The entwining serpent, whether god or goddess of love, is another commonly experienced phenomenon. Together, they form the Cosmic Deity, hallowed by the many New Age cults, as also by the new forms of Christianity.

The Rain-Bull

The next bell rang when Hancock related the ¡Kung Bushmen tale of the shaman entrancing to fetch the rain-bull from where the demons had corralled it. To me, this was straight from Indo-European folklore, where the clouds are said to be a herd of cattle, and drought is caused by the demons stealing the rain-bull. Yet here it was in South Africa! Moreover, in Hindu myth the god of water, and of the celestial ocean (source of rain) is Varuna, whose name in the Rig Veda is so often twinned as Mitra-Varuna (Mitra, the Hindu form of Mithras) one begins to wonder if they are one and the same. There is a suggestion, from Vedic scholars, that Varuna was the precursor of the Persian Ahura Mazda. Though there’s no mention of his name in the Zend Avesta, it is given as one of attributes of Ahura Mazda. Perhaps I ought to just say that the Hindu Rig Veda and the Persian Zend Avesta are the sacred books of the Indo-Iranians, respectively; by the time of their writing they were two distinct people, yet they shared common origin –on the steppes of Eurasia where flourished the shamans who, with some help of certain plants and dance-and-drumming, climbed a 7-rung ladder to reach the highest Heaven.

Mithraic scholars continually refer to the slain bull of the tauroctony as the ‘Cosmic Bull’ of Zoroastrian myth. Yet there are two strong reasons why this cannot be. One, in Zoroastrianism it’s not a Cosmic Bull that is slain but a Cosmic Cow, or at best a ‘Cosmic Ox’, an ambiguous hermaphrodite. Its ‘maleness’ occurs only after its death when its ‘seeds’, purified by the rays of the moon, give rise the vegetation that replaced that destroyed by Ahriman and his demons. The word ‘seed’ is given also as ‘semen’. Compare this with the blatantly male attributes of the tauroctony bull. Two, the ‘Cosmic Ox’ was destroyed, slowly and painfully, by the fiendish accomplices of the evil Ahriman. To transfer the act of slaying to Mithras is tantamount to saying it was Satan who was nailed to the cross. And yet the image is strong, for the slain bull of the tauroctony, like the Cosmic Ox, has a tail that sprouts corn.

For a long time I saw the tauroctony bull as the water-bull: water-bull, slain, spilling life-giving water in the form of rain, hence the grain. In effect, I equated him with Varuna – though why Mithras should kill his own ‘twin’, his doppelganger so to speak, was beyond me. Yet, in a manner of speaking, I wasn’t far wrong.

The fourth and final bell rang when Hancock said of the ‘Liberty Cap’.

Liberty Caps 

Liberty Caps come in two types. There is the Liberty Cap that was worn as a badge by the freedom fighters of the French Revolution– itself a direct take on the Phrygian Cap which in Classical times was typically worn by newly freed slaves. And there is the Liberty Cap mushroom, Psilocybe semilanceata, also known in certain circles as the “magic mushroom”. To quote Wikipedia: “Of the world’s psilocybin mushrooms, [the Liberty Cap] is the most common in nature, and one of the most potent.” (See pixie – I mean piccie below)

Psilocybe semilanceata (Liberty Cap)

Psilocybe semilanceata
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Wikipedia has rather obligingly set a photo of a Phrygian Cap – as worn by another Eastern god, Attis, beside a photo of the Liberty Cap mushroom. But I prefer this one, of Scythian warriors.

Scythian Warriors

Scythian Warriors
( Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The mushrooms, rather like these Scythian warriors, grow in open grassy places, particularly if damp and well-fertilized by the droppings of cattle and sheep – fields, meadows – the steppes. There’s a misconception that it only grows directly on dung, but that applies to its brethren, P. cubensis and P. coprophila; instead, the Liberty Cap feeds on the decaying roots of the grass. As for where, it has a wide a distribution in temperate and subarctic Europe.

Before I go any further, I have to say, I do not advocate the use of these drugs. When taken in the sufficiently high dose to achieve a trance they truly do bring on the frightening physical torments described by Hancock. They are certainly not for recreational use. Drumming and dance can get you there too, though still at a price. There is yet another means, one that slips you into the trance without too much torment from the doorkeeper, though it takes years of persistence and practice to achieve, and that is ‘attended breathing’ meditation. Or maybe that only works for me because, as Hancock says, some 2% of the world population will, at some time in their lives, spontaneously entrance. Maybe I’m one.

So, having cleared myself of the charge of irresponsible encouragement, I now can proceed without constant checking over my shoulder in case Crimmie (CP) is about to pull the plug on me – or rather the plug on the computer.

Psilocybin, its psycho-active ingredient, is closely related, at molecular level, to dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and to the neurotransmitter, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine).

Now, a cute thing about DMT is that is ordinarily synthesised and produced in the standard issue human brain. This fact forms the central thrust of Hancock’s theory. Lo, here we are, equipped by our DNA to slip into trance without the (now) illegal partaking of hallucinogens – hence drum-and-dance, starvation and self-mutilation, really do work.

DMT is found in ibogaine, in ayahuasca, in the root bark of  Mimosa tenuiflora . . . the list is long. In western US it’s in reed canary grass and Harding grass. But, strange thing is, our digestive systems produces an enzyme that neutralises it. It has to be combined with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI, also used as an antidepressant). Without it, the body quickly metabolizes the drug and, woe, unless the dose is higher than the available MAOI (which then can be lethal) nothing much happens. This, of course, is only relevant when taken orally.

There are ways to concentrate the active ingredient. With psilocybin, to dry the mushrooms, then to steep, to pound, to strain, to do it again – Rig Veda gives the recipe for this, hidden amongst the hymns to Soma.

But, though the Liberty Cap connection is strong, it is entirely the wrong colour for the Mithraic Phrygian cap. His cap is RED – and occasionally shown with white dots. Like this:

Fly Agaric

Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric (Source: Wikipedia)

Fly Agaric, the Pixies’ Toadstool

This ‘pixies’ toadstool is said to be poisonous – which it is in a high enough quantity (15 caps). Yet reports of human deaths now are rare. The same cannot be said of some of its close relatives with which it might be confused. But in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, Fly Agaric is eaten as safely and as often as the Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis), a common crop of grassy grounds. But Fly Agaric does require cooking – which, incidentally, also removes its psychoactive ingredients, muscimol and ibotenic acid.

Ibotenic acid has a strange behaviour. Within 20 minutes to an hour after eating, it is pissed out in a more concentrated form. This enriched urine can then be drunk by another partaker. It has been reported that it can be pissed up to 7 times and still remain psychoactive. Seven, that wonderfully magical number! It is also reported that amongst the Koryaks, an indigenous people of the Russian Far East, the ‘poor’ used to drink the piss of the wealthy, because only the wealthy could afford to buy the mushrooms. In the same region (Eastern Siberia), while the shaman risked his life consuming the mushrooms, others then would drink his urine and achieve trance without the ‘nasties’ and the potential death. Another aspect of Fly Agaric is that in drying the mushroom the ibotenic acid is converted to the more potent muscimol.

Though the Red Capped Toadstool will turn the key to altered states of consciousness, it is not through the magical DMT molecule, and its effects are different. Ibotenic acid and muscimol are akin to the neurotransmitters, glutamic acid and GABA. To quote Wiki again:

“The effects of intoxication can be variously described as depressant, sedative-hypnotic, dissociative and deliriant; paradoxical effects may occur.”

These ‘paradoxical effects’ include macropsia and micropsia – in other words, like Alice, you enter a Wonderland where one moment you’re small and the next you’re a giant, and the pixies are everywhere.

Despite its less than desirable side effects, Amanita muscaria’s red spotted cap marks it as the entheogen of the Mithraic cult, rather than the Liberty Cap.

The Birth of an Entheogen

It was at this point that I discovered Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras, the combined efforts of Carl A.P. Ruck, Mark A. Hoffman and Jose Alfredo González Celdran (2011); incidentally published the same year as Hancock’s Supernatural.

According to the inside back-page blurb, Carl A.P. Ruck, professor of classical studies at Boston University, has previously worked with Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann and ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson to demonstrate the use of ergot (from which LSD is synthesized) as a sacrament in the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries (see Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion); Mark A. Hoffman, is editor of Entheos: The Journal of Psychedelic Spirituality; and Jose Alfredo González Celdrán, based in Murcia, Spain, is a professor of ancient Greek; he also has written a book on the role of psychoactive mushrooms in myth and religion. These three authors also collaborated on The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales. 

I wish I had discovered this trio earlier. Ah, but then I wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of arriving at the same place as them. However, it was under the direction of their book that I then found the remaining clues.

When we take a closer look at the imagery of the Mithraic cult we find the evidence for Fly Agaric thickly, though subtly, spread. It’s not restricted to Mithras’s red Phrygian cap, or his fluttering cape which speaks of ‘flying’ (as in a spaced-out trip). And flying, too, is a reference to the Fly Agaric. But that fluting cape also represents the toadstool’s ‘gills’.

Fly Agaric with gills

The cape and tunic of Mithras
(Source: Wikipedia)

It helps if we first understand the life cycle of Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric.

A fungus, Fly Agaric appears, ‘born’ of the earth without benefit of parents (yes, we know of the spores but the origin of mushrooms and toadstools was for long a mystery.) Even Pliny thought them “derived from the gum that exudes from the pine-trees.” (Historia naturalis, 32.96) One of the many folk-names is ‘tree-mushroom’; they are also mistaken as the fruit of the tree, i.e. another type of cone. They are the magic apples of folk-tales and myth. These fiery-capped mushrooms magically appear in the aftermath of a thunderstorm – which might explain the torch that the ‘new-born’ Mithras so often holds (lightning being the fire of heaven). Unfortunately the torch is lost from the statue below. (CIMRM 344)


CIMRM 344: ‘Rock Born’ Mithras from San Clemente, Rome
But the rock more resembles a pine cone
(I’m reminded of the pine cone on the drawing of Aion which Cumont wanted to assign to Attis. An understandable mistake since Mithras and Attis share many attributes.)

Fly Agaric has a symbiotic relationship with trees, primarily those found growing in rocky terrain – which means pine, spruce, fir, cedar and birch. These are the same species that ‘innocently’ decorate the friezes found on the tauroctony reliefs where the Mithraic Myth is usually shown. In the relief, CIMRM 1o83, Mithras is shown born of a fir/pine tree. And in the detail from CIMRM 247 (below) we find the pine tree sprouting the heads of Mithras and his two attendants.

CIMRM 1083

CIMRM 1083 showing (2nd register from top) Mithras born from a fir tree
Tauroctony with modern recolouring, from Neuenheim, Germany,

CIMRM 247 Detail

CIMRM 247: Tauroctony from Dieberg, Germany, with Mithraic Myth frieze.
Detail showing Mithras, Cautes and Cautopates born of a fir tree

When Fly Agaric first emerges from the ground it has yet to burst out of its sheath. It’s in this stage that it might, lethally, be mistaken for the puff-ball, a fungus that is fully edible.

Fly Agaric 'egg'

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In several views of Mithras ‘rock-born’, he is holding a spherical object, interpreted by scholars as the globe, symbolising his rule over the world. I question it.

Rock-born Mithras

Is it a globe – or the globe of Fly Agaric before full eruption
CIMRM Supplement: from Heidelberg, Germany

Mithras, the ‘One-Footed’, is also shown born of an egg.


CIMRM 860: Mithras and the egg, from Housesteads, Hadrian’s Wall

In the Zoroastrian hymns, Mithra is said to have one thousand eyes. Hancock, too, mentions eyes as a common feature of an altered states trance. He recounts of a snake, each of its scales becoming an eye, like the iridescent eyes of a peacock’s tail. The ‘eyes’ that speckle Fly Agaric’s cap are the remains of its ‘egg-birth’.

Fly Agaric One-footed, Egg-born

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The potency of Fly Agaric’s psychoactive ingredients are greatly increased by drying. They must then be steeped in water, pounded, strained and soaked again. A pot might be useful for this.

CIMRM Supplement, Israel Museum

CIMRM Supplement, from Israel Museum
Note at left base corner, spherical Fly Agaric being prepared for the ‘pot’; beside them, in addition to the tauroctony, is the rock-born Mithras, beneath what looks like a branch of a tree but the text says is a grape-vine; above the bull is a Phrygian capped figure holding an open-capped mushroom – although that’s not what the text says: 

“To the right of Mithras . . . Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap, stands in front of kneeling Helios, holding the latter’s jaw in his right hand, and places his left hand on Helios’ head. The weathering of the relief has dulled the details [strange it should only affect this particular part], but this seems to be a unique variant on the common ‘investiture’ scene.”

The god Mithras, with his red speckled Phrygian cap, his fluttering cape and tunic, his egg-birth, rock-birth, tree-birth, his one-legged stance that joins him to the white bull (the mushroom’s sturdy white stipe) is without doubt the hallucinogenic fungus, Fly Agaric. What the tauroctony shows us is Mithras as the door and the guide to the Spiritual Otherworld, sacrificing himself so that his followers might partake of his blood (the intoxicant liquid) and thus ascend to heaven with him. But there is more.

The bull’s tail sprouts some kind of grain, barley or wheat. Some of the reliefs are hung about with garlands of grain. And grain, of course, is the basis of bread. We now begin to see why the Christians didn’t much like this mystery cult. For if the sacrificed bull provided both blood and flesh for a sacramental meal . . . the Mithraics were skating close to the Christian Eucharist.


CIMRM 435: Tauroctony from Circus Maximus mithraeum, Rome
Note the ear of grain sprouting from the bull’s tail; see also how the raven pecks at Mithras’s fluted cape

Raven’s Bread

The Mithraic bread wasn’t grain-made bread, not ‘wheat or barley’ bread. It was Raven’s Bread. Raven’s Bread is yet another folk-name for Fly Agaric found today in parts of Siberia, Afghanistan and Egypt – for the raven is famous for its love of Fly Agaric!

The Raven initiate, the lowest level whose symbols were the cup (chalice or krater) and caduceus, acted as cupbearer at the sacramental feast – a feature of all the mystery cults, not only of Christianity. No need to ask what was in the cup. Bull’s blood.

Bull’s blood has a close association with wine; dried it was used (until banned) to clarify wine. The bull, too, is Dionysus, god of intoxication. But there is more to this than merely blood – be it wine or otherwise. In fact, bull’s blood here can be taken as both urine and semen. For ‘to drink from the bull’s pizzle’ is a euphemism for fellatio. As part of the initiation rites, that ought to have been sufficient to silence forever the new member. Homoeroticism might have been acceptable, one might say even the norm, for the Greeks, but the Romans weren’t having any (they went more for S&M). Moreover, ‘wine-sack’ was a common metaphor for the genitals, and ‘mushroom’ was a metaphor for the penis.

Fly Agaric Phallic

Point made, I would say
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Amongst the constellation myths is one for the Raven.

The Raven had dallied at his task of fetching water to eat of some figs. But he lied to Apollo, saying he’d been prevented in his task by the Water Serpent. As punishment the Raven was condemned forever to thirst. So it makes sense for the Raven to be the first level – he must redeem himself first, before he can slake his thirst (and we are not talking here of H2O). Anyway, Apollo flung the Raven (Corvus), the cup (Crater), and the Water-Snake (Hydra) into the sky to be constellations.

Corvus Crater and Hydra

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Raven is variously shown in the tauroctony reliefs:

  • Flying (with a message) from the Sun
  • Pecking at the red Mithraic cape
  • Pecking at the slain bull
  • Perched on the ears of grain that form the tip of the bull’s tail.
  • Pointing at the red Phrygian cap

The bread of the Mithraic sacramental feast wasn’t barley or wheat bread, leavened or not. It was the Fly Agaric entheogen.

The Water Miracle

There is another ‘scene’ in the Mithraic Myth that can now be accounted: ‘the water miracle’. This is usually shown soon after his birth with Mithras either shooting an arrow at, or stabbing with his dagger, what looks like the ‘rock’ of his birth – i.e. the erupting Fly Agaric – from which gushes forth the sacred spring – which we now know is the sacramental drink, aka the bull’s blood, squeezed from the Fly Agaric.

Again, we can see why the Christians so abhorred this cult. Exodus 17, 6: The Lord said: “Strike the rock; water will pour out of it, and the people shall drink.”

However, alas, this is a post on Crimmie’s blog, not a thesis to be published. And so, while there is still so much I can say, I’m aware of the need to draw this short. But there are still three features common to all the tauroctonies: the Scorpion, the Hound and the Serpent.

I don’t agree with Ruck, Hoffmann and Celdrán on this; they launch into astronomy and the precession of the equinoxes. That seems at variance with the other elements in the tauroctony. No, somehow these triad must ne related to the Fly Agaric and the sacramental character of Mithras.

The Scorpion

The scorpion testing the testicle draws our attention to the bull’s ‘wine-sack’, euphemistically speaking (see above). But the scorpion is a dangerous creature, its sting can be lethal. I wonder if that’s the purpose of its inclusion: that while the bull’s blood can transport the imbiber to the Spiritual Otherworld, there is the danger you mayn’t return. And on first sight the snake could be for the same. But no.

The Serpent

The serpent is present at Mithras’s birth (see CIMRM 860 above and CIMRM 1359 Detail below). He also accompanies Mithras when he goes hunting the bull.

CIMRM 1289

CIMRM 1289: Mithras as hunter, from Neuenheim, Germany
Note the ball carried in his hand = the erupting Fly Agaric of his birth;
and, yes, those are fir-trees behind him

CIMRM 1359 Detail

CIMRM 1359 Detail (redrawn):
Line drawing of tauroctony. Königshofen, Strasbourg, France

The lion is said to represent fire, in particular that heavenly variety, shards of which descend to Earth as lightning. And there’s no denying that the serpent represents water, a vital ingredient at the birth of the Fly Agaric-Mithras. But I’d say further that it’s the lethal strike of the ‘fiery snake’ – the lightning and the rain of a thunderstorm. The hunting scene in CIMRM 1289 makes that clear.

And finally, the hound.

The hound has an long and ancient association with death. Finds of dog skeletons in the graves of children in Greece; evidence of a winter solstice ritual of slaying hounds, in the Urals; myths and folklore and legends abounding with hounds that guard the gates of the Underworld. In the Zend Avesta (Fargards XIII and XIV) we find a slightly different take on the dog and death association which I’ll recount because I rather like:

A body upon dying is at once seized upon and inhabited by the Corpse Drug (an evil fiend that feeds upon death). But this can be quite easily expelled by means of the Sag-dîd, ‘the look of the dog’. Ah, but traditionally not any old dog will do. It has to have four-eyes. Since four-eyed dogs do not exist, this probably refers to Yama’s two dogs that watch at the head of the Chinvat bridge to lead the souls of the holy dead. Yama is the Indo-Iranian Lord of the Dead. In practice the Sag-dîd may be performed by a substitute dog, (a shepherd’s dog, a house dog, a four months old dog – even, because birds of prey are ‘fiend-smiters’ too, if no dog is at hand then a hawk or eagle will do).

But I feel there is something specifically Mithraic with the tauroctony hound. But what?

If the tauroctony is taken as a straight representation of the constellation of Orion and the stars around him, then the hound is Sirius, the Dog Star, also called Orion’s Hound. The ancient Greeks took the rising of Sirius as the herald of the hot, dry summer – characterised by unquenchable thirst.

“Wet your lungs with wine: the dog star, Sirios, is coming round, the season is harsh, everything is thirsty under the heat, the cicada sings sweetly from the leaves . . . the artichoke is in flower; now are women most pestilential, but men are feeble, since Sirios parches their heads and knees.”
Alcaeus, Fragment 347 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I, C7th-6th BCE)

Now, if that ‘unquenchable thirst’ is, rather, a yearning for spiritual union . . . we understand why the dog laps at the bull’s blood.

And now I have Crimmie looking over my shoulder, saying, “Have you seen the wordcount? Don’t you think you’ve written enough?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But, no, I haven’t. There is still so much more to be said. Okay, okay. I will leave it at this. And as a postscript . . .

Fly Agaric Stamp

I just love this image (from Wiki Commons), with the dancing tunic.
Have you noticed the fox?

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Chap In The (Red) Cap

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    This is way outside of my expertise, Iris. I’m certainly fascinated with making a link between the iconography of Mithras and its mysteries and initiation rites as support for your theses.

    And if Crimmie lets you read over your shoulder, you should find chapters 18 and 20 of my serial amusing, if you aren’t motivated to beat me with a switch for bastardizing so much.


    • crimsonprose says:

      Iris usually reads over much, as I read over hers. She will certainly be looking in when you post chapters 18 & 20.
      I have to say, if she continues like this, I might let her post onto Crimson’s History. If only she’d learn to cite her sources. Yes, I know she did fairly well on this one, but there still were small items which she expected the reader to take on trust – folklore, mostly. Her problem stems from being an avid and extensive reader and, whereas I have my shelves straining under the weight, her shelves are empty because mostly she’s read from the library. Fine if she’d then make a note, but she gets her head so into it that she gives not a thought. See, she’s reading for the sheer pleasure. And after she’s finished a book, the cogs start turning, and maybe she haps on something other, and the connections are made and her thesis begins to form – but her references have all been lost. Still, mostly her theories aren’t worth the airing – and she’d be the first to say that. Like the one she’s storing about the Ancient Celts and their Sacred Warriors Journey. Now, if she ever gathered together the supporting material . . . .


      • Brian Bixby says:

        Yes, the “I read it somewhere” problem, compounded by the fact that the “somewhere” is often far removed from the topic in question.


      • crimsonprose says:

        Yep, got it in one. It’s different when I’ve set out to research x, y or z topic. But in ‘reading for pleasure’ one doesn’t always think to jot things down. I am, at the moment, chasing up notes taken from some papers aired at the 2002 From Steppes to the Sown symposium. The papers were published in 2006 at £210. Beyond my everyday means. I did think to take notes, but not to take the full gubbins. But I have them now. Eventually, all being well, you will see a post titled, I Knew An Old Woman, but as yet I’m not sure whether I’ll take this, of if it’ll another for Iris.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.